Issue Date: March 14, 2011
Too Many Ph.D. Chemists?
Is there an excess of Ph.D. chemists (C&EN, Jan. 31, page 46)? Given the present economic situation, we are creating too many carpenters, steel workers, janitors, production workers, and the like. Unemployment is over 9%. U6, the comprehensive unemployment rate that measures total unemployment, is over 16%, and the total of unemployment and underemployment is estimated to be 19%.
The problem is not overproduction of skills; it is the economic situation that has dried up venture capital. Venture capitalists expect about a 30% success rate. That means successes have to pay back more than a factor of four to make the risk worthwhile. Current tax and regulatory policies make this return unlikely. However, it’s not just the current regulations and taxes, but rather the continuing changes and additions to these taxes and regulations.
I am part-owner of a start-up with two other chemists. We doubled sales from last year and believe we will exceed the break- even point this year. We could grow faster with additional capital, but it is not available. We have potential projects for additional technical talent, but the company does not have the capital to pursue them.
I am also the principal owner of two other companies that I am keeping alive until the business climate changes. I will not attempt to grow these companies only to see my retirement jeopardized. My potential venture funds are reserved for my retirement and are mostly invested outside the U.S., in countries such as Australia, Canada, and Thailand. At one time, a Ph.D. with a good idea and a businessperson could get funding for a start-up, hire technicians and patent attorneys, buy lab equipment, and follow their dream. Today, very little of this type of capital exists.
Robert H. Black
I read “Doctoral Dilemma” with great interest. The present critical situation facing Ph.D. chemists highlighted in this article and in the editor’s page of the same issue (page 5) is not unique to the U.S. In some countries, such as France, it is a persistent state.
Having been a postdoc in the U.S. and Canada for more than six years, I have been back in my home country for almost one-and-a-half years, still on temporary assignments. I am disappointed that the recruitment of Ph.D.s is worse than before I left France in 2002. Of course, this is partly due to the economic crisis, but mostly it is also because nearly nothing has been done since then to counteract a situation that was already in place.
Indeed, at that time, chemistry Ph.D.s already were having trouble finding positions other than in academia and industrial R&D. In the case of the latter, they always have faced strong competition with engineers, who in France graduate from the specific higher education structures known as the Grandes Écoles. Since the early 2000s, French universities have made some efforts in training graduate students to work in industry or to seek other job opportunities, but these initiatives are scarce and too late for the generation of Ph.D.s who graduated during the past decade.
Personally, I think that France has been awarding many more Ph.D. degrees than necessary for more than a decade now. This has two consequences. First, cohorts of Ph.D.s are locked in the loop of temporary assignments or have quit the domain for which they have been educated. Second, beyond this sacrifice of human beings and talent, because the French educational system is strongly subsidized at all levels, an incredible amount of French citizens’ taxes are wasted or benefit—for a few lucky Ph.D.s—other countries.
To the credit of the U.S., it seems that there are many chemists who are concerned by this problem and are willing to find solutions to it. Thus, asking the question of whether a country is awarding too many Ph.D. degrees in chemistry and/or if the training given to them is adequate or not is an important societal inquiry.
After reading this article, I could only think about my own Ph.D. training. After graduation in 1969 in physical chemistry, I pursued a postdoc. After a one-year postdoc and approximately 200 applications for university and industrial positions, I went into two-year community college teaching for 40 years! It appears that not much has changed in the interim.
Byron K. Leles
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