Too Many Ph.D.s? | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 89 Issue 15 | p. 3 | Letters
Issue Date: April 11, 2011

Too Many Ph.D.s?

Department: Letters

Rudy Baum’s editorial and Bethany 
Halford’s article both cover the subject 
of whether we are producing too many Ph.D. chemists (C&EN, Jan. 31, pages 
5 and 46).

Historically, the Ph.D. degree was an academic degree for those pursuing a career in research. In my view, there are too many Ph.D.s produced who are never involved in research, whatever the discipline. In addition, in chemistry an M.S. degree has been denigrated to the level of a consolation prize. Yet the M.S. degree, if correctly pursued, is equivalent to an apprenticeship where one learns how to practically apply the knowledge presumably accumulated during four years of undergraduate instruction.

Skilled M.S. graduates can be the cornerstone of a successful research program. Are we training too many chemists? My answer is that there can never be too many chemists. Are we training too many research Ph.D. chemists? Perhaps. Are we training too many M.S. chemists? No; not enough, in fact, and we are not appreciating sufficiently the value of an M.S. degree.

As a 60-year member of ACS with A.B., M.S., and Ph.D. degrees, and as a teacher, researcher, and technical editor in chemical science, these have been my positions and still are.

John W. Hylin
Incline Village, Nev.

I found “Doctoral Dilemma” somewhat disturbing because both the tone of the article and the opinions of many of the senior scientists consulted seemed to consider the main purpose of the Ph.D. to be job training, much like an undergraduate engineering degree. Although this is undoubtedly true for some individuals in some labs, I would argue that we should make it clear to graduate students that they may be unwise to aim solely at turning themselves into clones of their research supervisors.

Indeed, while one might well carry out research in chemistry because one enjoys it, no one should limit his or her horizons to what a supervisor does or, worse, to what a supervisor deems fashionable. What one really accomplishes in a quality graduate program is developing the abilities to reason, to solve problems, and to work effectively. With this broader purpose in mind, doctoral candidates should be mentored to understand that there can be interesting jobs, often involving research that is extraordinarily challenging, outside of their current, necessarily very narrow areas of expertise and interest.

Michael C. Baird
Kingston, Ontario

I read with some disappointment the article on the state of employment affairs for Ph.D. chemists. One of the article’s sources got the situation exactly right: The U.S. is undergoing a fundamental restructuring away from larger corporations and the stability they once offered. Chemists as a profession are tightly correlated to the fortunes of big companies, from the oil and chemical industries to big pharma to the auto/suppliers industry. It should be noted that the balance of power in the drug industry for at least a decade has been leaning toward the biotechnology sector. It should be apparent to graduate students interested in pharma that one would have a better chance of getting a job with Genentech than with Pfizer. Or perhaps a better chance exists with the hundreds of small biotech companies.

Which leads me to my greater point: Nowhere in the article did I see a mention of young Ph.D.s striking out on their own and commercializing their own ideas. It’s called entrepreneurship. It’s been happening for years with biologists, many of whom founded those biotech companies. Ditto for those midcareer chemists who find themselves in a downsizing crisis. Entrepreneurship is now part of the culture in the U.S. Scientists have been doing this for 200 years, going back to E. I. du Pont de Nemours.

There should be plenty of jobs for chemists, especially in materials science, a specialty that is on the vanguard of a revolution. And materials science spans many different chemistry specialties: polymers, inorganics (batteries), and more. But these jobs will likely be at smaller companies. Some of those chemists should be encouraged to nurture their own ideas and commercialize them. It is a hard way to make a living, but very satisfying and with the potential for profound success. Professors should be telling their students starting in the undergrad years to be open to striking out on their own and forming their own enterprises with the ideas only chemists can conjure.

As the economy continues to restructure, innovation in general will increasingly be associated with smaller, younger firms with new ideas trying to displace the older, larger companies. Chemists should help to lead this trend. There is no reason why they should not.

Stephen Greer
Lansing, Mich.

Although one must admire John M. Deutch and George M. Whitesides, their collective perspective on the state of our art represents that of but one town (albeit quite a town) in an ever more multifaceted technical world.

The chemistry profession is not responsible for the financial boondoggles that are stripping government research funding bare. At General Electric (my employer, once home to a fellow named Langmuir), 39 new U.S. openings for scientists have been posted in the past 28 days (www.ge.com/careers). Not so bad.

My advice to college students: If I were an aspiring young chemist (I am old), I would again major in chemistry or chemical engineering. But because of the changing times, I would now minor in geology and attend with glee any ACS symposia on the early- and late-transition metals and the lanthanides. Who else but surface scientists (that is, chemists) are going to bring the concentration of atmospheric CO2 in for a landing?

William Larsen
Southington, Conn.

Both Halford’s article “Doctoral Dilemma” and Baum’s editorial comments on “Too Many Ph.D.s?” are thought provoking and timely. I wonder, however, whether the real question isn’t really “too many chemistry students?”

I may be somewhat out of touch, 
but these days, when a high school student asks me what field to select for a 
career, I can no longer recommend in good conscience the choice of chemistry. This is in direct contrast with what I used to be able to do just a few years ago when 
I unhesitatingly promoted careers in chemistry. The problem with Ph.D.s is 
just a subset of the huge problem facing chemists and chemical engineers in 
the U.S.

Peter R. Lantos
Erdenheim, Pa.

 
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