Barely Hanging On | November 5, 2012 Issue - Vol. 90 Issue 45 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 90 Issue 45 | pp. 50-53
Issue Date: November 5, 2012

Cover Stories: For Hire

Barely Hanging On

Unemployed chemists at the middle to late stages of their career are beginning to question their faith in chemistry
Department: Career & Employment
Keywords: unemployed, career change, chemists
Job loss can feel like a lonely journey.
Credit: Shutterstock/C&EN
Job loss can feel like a lonely journey.
Credit: Shutterstock/C&EN

Five years after the economic collapse began in the U.S., unemployed chemists are still struggling to find jobs. The unemployment situation is especially dire for mid- to late-career chemists who, instead of anticipating a comfortable retirement, now face the possibility of bankruptcy and financial ruin.

As their life savings evaporate, and their hope turns to desperation, these chemists are beginning to question whether they can continue supporting a field that can no longer support them.

In agreeing to share their stories with C&EN, chemists in these dire circumstances requested anonymity to protect their job search prospects; their names have been changed and some details about their situations have been generalized. This article focuses on chemists who were laid off from the pharmaceutical industry, because that’s one of the sectors where the fallout from the Great Recession has been severe.

The impact of this recession has been unlike that of previous recessions. “The fact is that the number of jobs has declined,” says Bassam Z. Shakhashiri, president of the American Chemical Society. And the usual methods for obtaining a new job aren’t working. “If the jobs aren’t there,” Shakhashiri says, “no matter how much you network, you’re not going to find them.”

“The situation today is a tragedy of national proportions,” says Madeleine Jacobs, ACS executive director and chief executive officer. “It’s devastating to individual lives, and it’s devastating to this country.”

According to the 2012 Comprehensive Salary & Employment Survey of ACS members, 4.2% of members in the U.S. are unemployed. Although this percentage may seem small compared with the national unemployment rate of 7.8%, there’s more to this statistic than meets the eye.

“I’m listed as employed,” says “Eric,” 46, who was laid off in 2007 from his position as a senior chemist at Johnson & Johnson and is now an adjunct professor at three different colleges and universities. “I got reemployed, but is this what employment should be like for someone at my level?”

“The data that ACS has is for the most part self-reported, and that’s always going to underreport the truth,” says Lee H. Latimer, a consultant and longtime ACS volunteer, who was laid off from Elan in 2011. “Many may have a job, which keeps them from collecting unemployment, but they’re not working either in their field or in a position that comes anywhere close to matching their previous income”—meaning, he says, that they’re effectively underemployed.

“Jeff,” 59, a Ph.D. chemist in New Jersey, is in that boat. He was laid off in 2008 from his position as an associate director for a major pharmaceutical company, where he had worked for 22 years. He thought it would only be a matter of months before he found a new job. “Normally you figure three months, and with the economy going bad, I figured six months,” he says. “I did not expect it would take this long.”

Although he’s had several adjunct teaching positions and temporary contract jobs, Jeff has not had a permanent, full-time position since 2008. “It’s frustrating at this point in a career when you’re at your highest earning potential to suddenly not be earning or have greatly reduced earnings,” he says. “You’ve put all this time and effort into an advanced degree, a good career, and worked hard for your company, and to suddenly be tossed out, it’s disheartening.”

Read about chemists who found new careers, and member benefits for the unemployed.

Since Jeff is the sole provider for his wife and their 12-year-old daughter who is being homeschooled, he has had to tap into his savings and 401(k) to make ends meet.

His family has had to cut back dramatically on expenses. They’ve canceled their cable and lawn service, they’ve scaled back on their cell phone plan, and they don’t eat out or take vacations. “At one point, we had a boat. We’ve had to get rid of that,” Jeff says. “And there are repairs on the house that really should be done that have been put off.

“I don’t think there’s a whole lot else that we can really do. You need the phone, you need electricity, and you need health insurance,” he says. “We’ve got to have the trash picked up, and we have to pay taxes.”

Jeff has considered selling his home, but in his neighborhood, “houses simply aren’t selling, or if they do sell, prices are quite depressed,” he says.

“Alice,” 52, a Ph.D. organic chemist, had to make that trade-off when she and her family downsized their home. Alice was laid off from Pharmacopeia in 2008 and then from Merck & Co. in 2010. Her husband also lost his job at Merck.

With their savings disappearing, the couple, who have a 12-year-old daughter, sold their home in an affluent suburb in New Jersey at a loss and bought a home half the size in another community. “We had to take money out of our 401(k)s to buy a smaller home,” she says.


Because she had to pay a hefty fine for tapping into her retirement account, her savings have taken a big hit. “I used to have a lot of money in my 401(k), and now I practically have nothing,” she says. “I went from $220,000 down to $30,000 in my 401(k).”

Eric has also had to make tough choices. He teaches as an adjunct professor on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, splitting his time among three colleges and universities that are 50 to 70 miles apart. He leaves around 10 AM and doesn’t get home until after 11 PM, leaving little time to spend with his twin daughters, who are nine years old.

Because of the length of his commute and the high cost of gas, Eric sold his car and bought a used Suzuki with better gas mileage. “The previous car was costing me about $1,000 a month in gas, and that was not sustainable,” he says.

He has roughly $400 left in his 401(k). “Four hundred bucks is no 401(k); it won’t buy you a plane ticket anywhere,” he says. But he’s not one to dwell on his difficulties. “It’s tight financially, but the fact is we’re still surviving. It’s just a little harder, that’s all.”

Alice says that what’s more painful than losing her retirement savings is having no money to send her daughter to college. Alice, who came to the U.S. from Southeast Asia, says that getting an education was her ticket to a better life. “I feel very sad. I went for a Ph.D. because I thought that with a Ph.D., I should be able to have a good life and be able to give my daughter a good life,” she says. “I never thought this would happen.”

Jeff is in a similar predicament. “There’s no way we can afford to put my daughter through college now,” he says. “It’s discouraging, it’s disheartening, it’s frustrating. You start to feel like a failure.”

For unemployed and underemployed chemists, life can be an emotional roller coaster. “Some days you’re on top of the world. You’ve got interviews, and something looks promising,” says Jeff. “The next day, the interview fails and the world looks darker than the inside of a cave.”

“Michael,” a Ph.D. organic chemist in his 50s, living in California, knows just how unsettling this roller-coaster ride can be. Since he was laid off from a biotech company in 2008, he has applied for more than 10,000 jobs, some 7,000 related to the chemical sciences and 3,000 outside of science.

He has had 10 interviews and was offered three jobs. The first offer came less than a year after he was laid off. The position was with a small start-up company in California. But after he received the offer, the company was bought out, and the offer fell through. “The person who was going to hire me lost his own job the next day,” he says.

The second offer was in 2009 for a contract position at a large pharmaceutical company in California, but the company notified him four days before his starting date that it had instituted a hiring freeze, “so they stopped everything,” he says. “According to them, they had a computer for me, a phone number, and everything was ready.”

The third offer came in 2010, and it was with a government agency near Washington, D.C. “I was supposed to start working with them on Sept. 27, 2010, but because of the budget issue going on in Congress, they froze everything,” he says.

Michael sold his condo in preparation for the move. “I put everything that I had in storage, and I was in the process of moving, and I had a couple days before I moved, so I said, ‘I’ll go stay with my friend in L.A.’ ”

It’s been two years, and Michael is still living with his friend, and his belongings are still in storage. He can’t afford to pay for health insurance, so he’s uninsured.

“I’m nearing retirement, and that’s very scary because as time goes by, it’s difficult for me to get a job. And at the same time, I’m not earning anything, so I’m not contributing to retirement,” he says.

Meanwhile, Michael has earned certifications in clinical trial design and management, regulatory affairs, quality assurance and control, and project management. But “by the time that I finished, not only did the number of these jobs decrease, employers weren’t going to take anybody who doesn’t have experience. The training is not enough for them,” he says. “I went and retrained myself, but I still cannot get a job.


“I have applied to work for free just to be working, and I can’t do it,” Michael says, noting liability issues in industry can prevent employers from using workers not on the payroll. Even in academia, he’s approached professors to work as a postdoc to get some experience in a new area. “But they can’t do that because they hire postdocs and graduate students, and I wouldn’t technically be considered a postdoc because I have more than 15 years of experience,” he says.

He’s even been turned down for jobs at local grocery stores, for positions that pay less than $10 an hour. “When I was an undergraduate, I worked in a supermarket, so I have some experience,” he says. “But I can’t even get a job in a supermarket. They say, ‘You don’t have the right skills.’ Or they think, ‘Tomorrow he’s going to get a job, and he’s going to leave.’ ”

The ups and downs of job searching can bring life to a screeching halt, as “Tom,” who was laid off from Sanofi in 2011, has discovered. “I’m 50 years old, and I can’t make any long-term plans,” he says. “I can’t look at a new car, I can’t get the latest big-screen TV, I can’t get the latest iPhone. I can’t look at that stuff because I just don’t know where my next paycheck is coming from. I’m not starving, but I’m not advancing either.”

Michael, who is single, has an even more pressing issue. “I can’t even ask a woman out, because I’m unemployed and I don’t have a place,” he says. “You can’t do very simple fundamental things in life. Your life is completely on hold.”

Even everyday interactions can be awkward. At the exposition at an ACS meeting, for instance, “when you walk around all those booths, people say hi to you and ask you where you work. I say, ‘I’m unemployed,’ and the person doesn’t know what to do with me,” says Michael.

The constant uphill battle can take a mental toll. “I think it’s cut me down a couple of notches,” Jeff says. “The group I was part of for so many years was considered one of the top in the industry, so certainly it impacts your pride.”

Tom, who has a master’s degree in chemistry, says he has come to terms with his new reality. “There’s no room for pride here,” he says. “If I have to stack lumber at Home Depot, then that’s what I’m going to do.”

In this unstable job market, even the elation of starting a new job can be short-lived. Two-and-a-half years after being laid off from his previous position, Jeff was offered a temporary contract position at Roche, in Nutley, N.J., that had potential to become permanent. Although the position pays less than half of his previous salary, and he does not get any vacation days, sick time, or health benefits, Jeff says that was a godsend for him and his family. But 11 months after he started, the company announced that the entire facility would be shut down; he will be out of a job again in December.

“I’m working at Roche, and there are people who mop the floors, and as I walk by, I always say hello to them,” Jeff says. “But I’m thinking in the back of my mind, ‘In a few months, I may have to be doing this too.’ ”

This extreme hardship is causing chemists to question their faith in chemistry. “My passion for chemistry is gone,” Tom says. “I used to read C&EN for the newest trends and discoveries. I’ve lost interest in all that because I don’t see a future in it.”

“I’m a chemist, I love chemistry, and I want to tell other people to go ahead and study chemistry,” adds Michael. “But then I think about it—and what kind of a future will they have?”

Alice says she worries about the next generation of students, who are losing their interest in science. “I can see it in my daughter,” she says. “She used to love chemistry, and she went to all the ACS meetings with me. Now, I tell her to put her poster in the science fair, and it’s like pulling teeth.”

Jeff, who volunteers as an ACS career consultant, says he’s conflicted as to what to tell job seekers: “I’m looking at other chemists’ résumés, with many people wanting to go into the pharmaceutical industry—which is going through a major downsizing—and I’m wondering, ‘Is it fair to encourage people to go into chemistry, and what do I tell people who are looking for jobs?’

“I’d love to be able to wholeheartedly encourage people to go into science, to go into chemistry. It’s fascinating, it’s interesting, it used to be a great career,” Jeff continues. “But now, I can’t promise that there will be a reward for their hard work.”

Despite the lack of jobs, ACS’s Jacobs maintains that chemists and chemistry are critical to the U.S.’s advancement. “I don’t want to discourage the best and brightest students from entering the chemical sciences, because there is no way to solve these great global challenges—providing clean water, providing sustainable energy, providing enough food, curing disease, protecting the homeland, and protecting the environment—without chemists and chemical engineers.”

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © American Chemical Society
Paul E. Eckler  (November 5, 2012 1:19 PM)
The boom bust cycle of industrial employment is well known. If you are out of work when companies are hiring, another job may not be difficult, but in a recession when every employer seems to be cutting back it can be far more difficult.

Companies deny that they practice age discrimination, but the reality is that senior chemists tend to be in higher salary ranges. Those jobs are more difficult to find as many companies prefer to promote from within. Still downsizing means fewer positions with backups and trainees. Vacancies from retirements, etc., can require hiring experienced professionals.

The age problem is especially difficult for those who delay starting a family and find themselves unemployed with children still to be educated and a mortgage to pay. Getting these extra expenses behind you before age 50 is important for those working in industry. Retirement planning/savings can provide a buffer. Savings allow more choices such as starting your own company.

I am delighted to see ACS offering courses on business and entrepreneurship. More chemists who believe they contribute to company profitability should start their own companies (and hire experienced chemists to help them). Provide a service or make and sell a product. Venture capital is available for those with a good idea.

Several mentioned teaching as adjunct professors at local colleges. We continue to hear of shortages of qualified STEM teachers in high school. How are job opportunities these days for experienced PhD chemists as high school teachers?
Maureen  (November 5, 2012 7:07 PM)
Chemists who wish to transition into STEM teaching, ACS offers the ACS-Hach Second Career Teacher Scholarship:
Fenton  (September 12, 2014 11:55 AM)
If a mid-career PhD chemist wishes to become a high school teacher, it is my understanding that you get no credit for having a PhD. Also, your previous experience is nil. In other words, you start out at the bottom of the salary scale. I have heard this from high school teachers.
Charles M. Carlson  (November 5, 2012 4:16 PM)
Sounds like me after the 1970 recession. Got laid off from Boeing Scientific Research Laboratories (BSRL). But then I deserved it since I wasn't doing much research related to their product. And I did get a position with them as a software engineer and retired in this capacity in 1993. But I still have issues related to my research at Boeing and will continue to try to resolve these in my own mind. My suggestion is that laid off chemists or even those not yet terminated always keep in mind other careers where their expertise can be used.
J Borrayo  (September 22, 2015 10:15 AM)
Many of our most talented scientists who have worked in industry would be well suited to becoming high school teachers. They bring a wealth of knowledge and professionalism that will never be matched be a certified teacher without real world experience.

You are part of a barely tapped talent pool that are sorely needed by our young students.
Afraid ToLeaveIt  (November 5, 2012 7:12 PM)
Wow. Seems like a nightmare. I am an ex-ChE who had 15 years in the Chemical Industry, mainly Polyethylene. It was always tough for me to find a new job in the chemical industry, partly due to required large size of the companies. I switched to software. This article emphasises the macroeconomic issues impeding the chemistry field, eg. lenghly quotes from Ben Bernanke, while ignoring the microeconomic issues... high energy raw material prices, high and expanding levels of regulation, increased barriers and costs to employ people. The microeconomic problems should have been addressed by the administration and mitigated. Instead they have been exacerbated. Time to vote.
dzrlib  (November 6, 2012 3:19 PM)
There was a similar situation in the 1960s, which was one of the reasons why I didn't go on for a PhD and became a chemistry librarian. It seems doubly troubling today, since we have companies sending their research overseas. For those inclined, 'Teach for America' might be an alternative and lead to a satisfying second career.
gippgig  (November 6, 2012 6:57 PM)
Michael's story brings up another matter - the difficulty of getting access to a fully-equipped lab unless you have an academic or industrial affiliation. There ought to be another way for skilled chemists to practice their craft. (Perhaps chemistry museums (Are there any? There should be.) could include a working lab as an exhibit and make it available to qualified chemists.)
» Reply
TTT  (November 7, 2012 6:58 PM)
Finally an article that is true to a current situation in chemistry.
I am hoping that some excutives, somewhere, someday, will look again at the R&D off-shoring model and ask tehmselves: was it really worth it?
For people out of jobs: please, please start training for careers that require state licensure!
tom warner  (November 9, 2012 10:11 AM)
Thanks to C&E News for finally trying to explain what is happening with scientists in this country. I only wish that it had come out much before the election. Our current administration seems to be stuck in neutral when it comes to stimulating high tech jobs for scientists.

It is not just chemists it is all kinds of scientists that are out of a job. I am willing to do the work of a RA, I actually like to do such things and work at the bench just to have some money coming in to pay the mortgage. But in almost 12 months of looking, I have had only 2 phone interviews.

It is trajic that we keep sending jobs overseas, and now we have 'on-shoring' with importation of H1B scientists by the thousands. Our government is now our biggest enemy.

Thanks to you at C and E News for this article. Please keep pounding on the door of our politicos. Try to make them understand what they have created.

Diana Meekly  (November 10, 2012 3:19 AM)
Part of the problem is that universities continue to dump Chemistry Ph.D's into a job market that cannot employ many, if not most of them. Unlike other disciplines, teaching Chemistry is very labor intensive, and largely for safety reasons a professor or qualified teaching assistant (read: graduate student) must be on hand during lab classes at all times. Thus, unless the professors want to do the "grunt" work, they must continually recruit and retain grad students as TA's. Furthermore, with Chemistry being the 'central science', student in nearly all other technical disciplines (inc. M.D.'s, veternarians, dentists, nurses, etc.) must all take Chemistry courses as part of their training; the demand for undergraduate Chemistry courses is high, the demand for low-cost TA's is high, but ultimately...the grad students graduate, and there are far more of them than either private industry or academia can absorb. This is the dirty little secret that graduate departments don't like to talk about. This has been a problem for many years. But...they're addicted to cheap skilled labor (i.e., TA's). Until that screwed up system changes, chemists will be...dime a dozen.
Piperidineandthiols  (October 21, 2013 9:22 PM)
This is an excellent point that I've pondered in the far back of my mind during my days at graduate school. Specifically, I attended a school that was ranked at roughly 100 in the school rankings for chemistry and I saw that all of the tenure track professors at this school received their degrees from top ten universities. By simple extrapolation, that would suggest that when I finally received my degree, I'd be qualified for an academic position at a community college.
E. Sherman  (January 21, 2013 10:17 AM)
It is not just those in the mid to late stages of their careers that are suffering. I graduated with my BS in 2004. Due to my high intelligence (~genius IQ) and work ethic, I was fortunate enough to be hand picked from my PI's undergrad class to work in her research lab for about 2 years, at which point my PI lost 3 of 5 grants thanks to George W. removing science funding. I have had nothing but a year or two duration jobs since after coming to Florida for a supposedly permanent job (do not come here, this state has massive problems!!!!!!!). I have gone back to school hoping for better job security with my Ph. D. and having always imagined I'd get it, only to see all of the professors hired since 2008 lose their jobs due to unrealistic expectations from this university, which gives them no support. And the economy shows no signs of improving; it was supposed to be better when I graduated.

I also second some of Ms. Meekly's comments about recruiting cheap labour in high quantity as TAs; I am paid a mere $14k/year in a 3x overenrolled school. Fast food would pay more, with less abusive, insanely long work hours. I had hoped to make up for this with a higher paying, stable job when I graduated. I do not see that happening. Perhaps spring 2014 when my boss loses his job and I graduate, things will be better....
USANorthEast  (January 29, 2013 10:26 AM)
Thanks a lot for this article. I learned a lot from the comments.

A lot of studies have shown that graduates from Chemistry and ChemEng programs can face very difficult situations on the job market, depending on where they live, and on their age and family situations.

Degree inflation (lots of job ads requiring PhDs) sometimes mean that there are too many applicants for only a small number of jobs.

I would absolutely not recommend going to Chem or ChemEng grad school where I live (midsized city in the NorthEast US).
Shawn M.  (March 10, 2013 11:07 AM)
I also find it very interesting that as part of immigration reform we want to grant greencards or visas for illegal immigrants that get an advanced degree. Along with this, I hear politicians all of the time say that we need to change the immigration laws so that we can keep foreign (Chinese and Indian) graduate students here as part of the H1B visa program so that they can help us in STEM. Do these politicians realize that we have plenty of Americans with advanced degrees that are unemployed or underemployed?
I actually teach at a primarily undergraduate institution, and I am really conflicted about recruiting more people to get chemistry degrees. I search for jobs in chemistry in my area, and there aren't any. So we are graduating these students and there are no jobs for them. Biology is no better though, they have five times the number of majors that chemistry does and what job prospects do they have?
CM  (March 24, 2013 2:07 PM)
I just waded through forty CVs to hire a post-doc in a metallurgy (materials science) project, and none of the applicants had the background we want. Almost all of the American candidates were analytical or polymer chemists, and not trained or experienced to do mechanical properties of metals work. All the foreigners and many of the Americans seemed to be career post-docs with four or five previous temp positions. It's bad all around: I'll be surprised to still have my job in two years, so God knows that when my new post-doc (whomever I hire) finishes his/her tenure, we won't be able to hire them as permanent staff.
Piperidineandthiols  (October 21, 2013 9:47 PM)
The nature of the field (chemistry and sciences in general) is not economically very sustainable. People choose a career in science because of a passion (I hate that word by the way) for science rather that for economic considerations so the supply of scientists grows independently of job prospects. Also research is inherently unprofitable as most of it does not lead to a marketable product, which is why it is dependent largely on government grants and academic institutions. The fraction of research that could potentially be monetized is then bought by companies who lately do little in the way of basic research. The simple fact that recent PhDs need to work as a postdoc (low-paying temporary position) in order to receive enough training to (at least in theory) get a real job is a symptom of the poor economics of the chemical industry and its been this way since long before the 2008 recession. On the other hand, in other fields (like accounting) the required "entry level training" comes from a permanent position, which with hard work and dedication then leads to advancement. If there were a real demand for chemists and scientists in general I would suspect that the norm would be that new PhDs would be hired into permanent entry level positions and their careers would then potentially advance from there, rather the current norm of multiple postdocs. Just my rambling two cents.
ChemG  (February 19, 2014 2:44 PM)
Guys, for every company you applied for a job, google how many H1B they hired with the company name, that would tell where the jobs go. I had almost 100% hit in job titles: 100% endup with H1B. At one time there were 4 'chemist' H1B in a company I applied with, 35-45k/yr.
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