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Unemployment Among Chemists

May 17, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 20

I 've been unemployed since March 11, 2009, when I lost my job at Genelabs Technologies near San Francisco. Despite my underlying optimism, unemployment has been punctuated by negative feelings. Working on the computer at home all day gets lonely. Hope gives way to fear and anger. Financial concerns add stress. There are currently many unemployed chemists; here is my experience:

I was a medicinal chemist, which was my "safe" career plan from early college. The position included good pay, great coworkers, and noble goals for human health. Sixteen months after I started at Genelabs, GlaxoSmithKline bought the company. GSK closed the site, and 65 employees (out of about 75) were laid off. Since the layoffs, the chemists have had limited success in finding similar employment. Some went back to school or to other careers.

There is frustration in unemployment, but who deserves blame? I deserve some blame, having realized that medicinal chemistry is an uncertain path even before pharma's mass layoffs. As I pursued doctoral studies from 2002–07, declining demand for medicinal chemists during the annual on-campus interview season was apparent. In contrast to the signs I saw, journals reported that pharma was experiencing a labor deficit, and the U.S. wasn't training enough scientists. Articles and reports indicated a continuing shortage of scientists and safe employment for those who obtained advanced degrees. These predictions were simply wrong.

Unemployment forces one to evaluate what is important. Often, this is a new path. Personally, my new path will be biocatalyst engineering—an interest that has grown throughout my career and one that I will not give up on now. If I'm going to have to fight for any employment in chemistry, then I'm going to take that fight to exactly the field in which my interests lie. After an initial three months of feeling impotent, I began to write proposals and meet people in biocatalyst engineering to pursue a postdoc position. A step back? Maybe, but definitely a step in the right direction.

I am thankful for ACS services for unemployed members, though one service is lacking—journal access. For scientists, getting cut off from journals and search engines is a real loss. Because keeping up with scientific literature is vital to a successful career, lack of access is actually a loss of job skills. I'm asking ACS to provide temporary free journal access to the unemployed.

Ryan Lauchli
Westlake Village, Calif.

I read with some sadness about the large number of layoffs among chemists in the biotech industry (C&EN, March 15, page 12). Many of the jobs appear to be moving to China and elsewhere overseas. The media have been telling us for years that biotech is one of this nation's strengths, but that promise appears to be shaky. Indeed, what does it say about the much vaunted advantages of an educated workforce if large numbers of Ph.D. chemists cannot find work?

Should ACS be advocating policies that increase opportunities and minimize job losses rather than waiting for government leadership? What these policies would/could be is a matter for discussion. Are we simply to be victims of so-called market forces? Does ACS represent the interests of multinational corporations or does it represent its members? The two do not entirely coincide. After the events of the past year or so, does anyone still believe in the divine right of markets?

Does ACS have information to allow the calculation of a "half-life" for Ph.D. chemists (the number years before half of us are no longer working in our chosen field)? My guess is that the half-life is quite short and getting shorter. Can we, in good conscience, recommend that young people spend the effort, time, and money necessary to become proficient in our discipline? It could be wasteful both personally and socially.

My interest is not personal. I am long retired. But I am very curious. When these situations arise, the discussion is always about polishing résumés and interview techniques and finally even pursuing nontraditional career paths. It is useful to rethink career goals periodically, although I am not sure that the stress of a layoff is the ideal time to do so. Perhaps such activity helps people to be more hopeful. But in the absence of an appreciable number of opportunities, these efforts can only be marginally effective and tend to lay the blame on the unemployed for their predicament. Shouldn't ACS take a position on these issues? There must be enough knowledge and experience among us to develop some good ideas.

Allen Davis
Cambridge, Mass.



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