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Doctoral Dilemma

Is chemistry facing a glut of Ph.D.s?

by Bethany Halford
January 31, 2011 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 89, Issue 5

Credit: Shutterstock
Credit: Shutterstock

By the time you read this, thousands of students will have already made up their minds. To Ph.D. or not to Ph.D. is no longer a question for them. They’ve taken the GREs, sent in their applications, and are now waiting to find out where they’ll be spending the next five years or so toiling away to earn the title of “doctor.”

But as unemployment among chemists reaches record levels, some are wondering whether institutions are training more Ph.D.s than there are jobs for in this country. Will the students who today are so eager to embark upon their journey toward a doctoral degree find five years from now that there are no positions for them?

It’s not an easy question to answer. In the end, the answer to the question—Are we training too many Ph.D.s?—comes down to supply and demand. How many Ph.D.s is the U.S. graduating and how many does it need?

Both the National Science Foundation and the American Chemical Society’s Committee on Professional Training (CPT) track the number of chemistry doctorates awarded each year. Although the numbers vary slightly, both data sets show that the number of chemistry doctorates has generally been on the rise since 2006. From 1999 to 2005, approximately 2,050 chemists earned Ph.D.s annually, according to CPT and NSF. From 2006 to 2009, both NSF and CPT place the average annual number of chemistry Ph.D.s earned at about 2,400.

Even as the ranks of Ph.D.s swell, there have been cries of scientist shortages in recent years. In 2008, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates testified before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Science & Technology that “U.S. companies face a severe shortfall of scientists and engineers with expertise to develop the next generation of breakthroughs.” And oft repeated is the notion that when the baby boomer generation retires, there won’t be enough scientists to fill their jobs.

Richard B. Freeman, director of the National Bureau of Economic Research’s Science & Engineering Workforce Project and a Harvard University economist who studies bioscientists, says the notion of a scientist shortage is bogus. Although he’s done no specific study of chemists, Freeman has examined the competition for careers in the biosciences. Any shortfall among bioscientists in the U.S., he says, could easily be filled with scientists from other countries.

“If all the baby boomers retired, we could easily bring in scientists from China, Europe, India, and Latin America to fill jobs. There’s been a mass increase in the number of people getting Ph.D.s outside the U.S., and a large number of the Ph.D.s granted in the U.S. are to foreign-born people,” he says.

And like the number of chemistry Ph.D.s granted, the number of overall Ph.D.s being earned by foreigners is on the rise. In 1989, temporary visa holders accounted for 31% of doctoral recipients in the physical sciences, according to NSF’s Survey of Earned Doctorates. In 2009, they accounted for 44% of Ph.D.s earned in the physical sciences.

The numbers seem to bear this argument out for chemistry as well. Data from NSF’s governing body, the National Science Board, contained in “Science & Engineering Indicators 2010” (which lists data up to 2006 only), show that the number of temporary residents enrolled in chemistry graduate programs has grown at a somewhat faster clip than the number of U.S. citizens and permanent residents enrolled in such programs. Similarly, foreigners account for more than half of the chemistry postdocs in the U.S.

Also fueling a possible glut of chemists, some argue, is the large number of chemistry-Ph.D.-granting departments. CPT estimates that 196 programs currently grant doctoral degrees in chemistry. There’s been much discussion recently that this number is too high. In a recent commentary in Nature (DOI: 10.1038/469021a), Harvard University chemistry professor George M. Whitesides and Massachusetts Institute of Technology chemistry professor John M. Deutch write that academic chemistry is overpopulated.

“The proliferation of Ph.D. programs resulted in a demand for research funds that exceeded the (much-expanded) supply, and the imbalance of supply and demand contributed to a peer-review system that protects established fields at the expense of new ideas,” Whitesides and Deutch argue. “These Ph.D. programs produced too few new ideas and too many average scientists, and neither provided novel solutions to problems (or jobs), nor caught the attention of the public.”

The Economist, Scientific American, and Miller-McCune have also run stories in the past year arguing that there is an oversupply of Ph.D.s in science. These articles all contend that Ph.D. candidates are stuck at the bottom of a giant pyramid scheme, where there simply aren’t enough academic positions at the top for all the doctors that academia is churning out.

This argument doesn’t quite work for chemistry, because although some chemistry Ph.D.s are on a path toward professorship, many more plan on spending their careers in industry. But the industrial landscape is changing and so, therefore, is the demand side of chemistry’s supply-and-demand equation.

Assessing the demand for chemistry Ph.D.s is trickier than pegging supply. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) follows employment trends for chemists—a field it defines somewhat narrowly—but it doesn’t break them out by degree. Even so, BLS’s employment outlook for chemists suggests that demand for all chemical professionals will be sluggish in the decade to come, forecasting just 2% job growth for chemists between 2008 and 2018. Late last year, chemist was listed as one of the top 10 “high-paying careers with no future” alongside travel agent and fashion designer in a CBS article.

Chemical industry employment peaked in 1981, according to American Chemistry Council economist T. Kevin Swift, but that has been offset to a large degree by chemists finding jobs in sectors not traditionally viewed as part of the chemical industry. For example, Swift points out, computer chip makers such as IBM and Intel are employing increasing numbers of chemists.

To get a sense of demand, Swift suggests looking at chemists’ wages over a decade or so to see whether they’ve kept pace with inflation. Such an examination, however, gives mixed results. From 1998 to 2009, the inflation-adjusted salaries for industry- and government-employed Ph.D. chemists went up 12% and 19%, respectively. On the other hand, salaries of academic chemists dipped about 1% over the same period.

Doing the same exercise for starting salaries of Ph.D. chemists “may be more sensitive to changes in demand for chemists as well as supply,” Swift notes. Those data indicate that inflation-adjusted starting salaries for Ph.D.s are down by about 1%, data that Swift says “are suggestive of oversupply in some sectors.”

Of course, demand for chemists can’t be discussed without noting the major changes that have taken place in the pharmaceutical industry over the past few years. What was once the great sucking sound of big pharmaceutical firms taking up all the chemists has now turned to silence.

According to Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago-based outplacement consulting firm, the pharmaceutical industry lost 61,109 jobs in 2009 and 53,636 jobs in 2010. Although not all of those jobs were held by chemists, the numbers indicate that chemists won’t have an easy time finding a job in big pharma these days.

According to ACS’s 2009 comprehensive salary and employment status survey of members—the most current data available—although overall unemployment among chemists was at 3.9%, among chemists who identified their field as medicinal/pharmaceutical unemployment was 5.5%. Ten years ago, according to ACS’s 2001 salary and employment status survey, the overall unemployment rate was only 1.5%.

David Harwell, assistant director of ACS’s Department of Career Management & Development, says he thinks the 2009 numbers are on the low side. “The problem is that there is a significant lag between when the data is collected and when we are able to report it,” he says. “In the end, I think that there is really only one employment data point that matters—yours. If you are employed it is 100%. If you are not, it is 0%.”

Harwell says his department, which used to work primarily with new graduates, has been receiving more requests for help from mid- and late-career chemists. Until recently, the unemployment rate for chemists has been very low, he notes. But that’s no longer the case.

“We’ve seen a lot of layoffs,” Harwell explains. “That trend was already in motion before the economic crisis hit. Then we have all the mergers and acquisitions that happened. That’s a three-year scar. You get a lot of displaced people, redundancy reductions, closing down of plants, and reprioritizations.” And a lot of those chemists are not finding new jobs, Harwell adds.

Indeed, the view from the trenches looks fairly dire. Mark Darey, a Ph.D. chemist with approximately 20 years of experience in the pharmaceutical industry, was laid off from his last permanent position in March 2009. Since then, he’s worked where he can. He’s found temporary employment in both chemistry and nonchemistry positions, and he’s tried to keep his lab skills fresh by doing some unpaid research at a local university.

Darey has kept a running tab of the number of résumés he’s sent out. “I have made 330 applications, had 18 telephone interviews, and eight on-site interviews, but so far no permanent position has been forthcoming,” he says.

The story is similar for new graduates. “I started looking for a full-time position in 2009, after I had completed my first year of postdoc research,” says one recent Ph.D. in organic chemistry, who prefers to remain anonymous. “Fast-forward to September 2010: I had applied to more than 180 jobs, received about 15 phone interviews at a wide variety of companies. Eventually, I visited six companies, and the final result? One lab position offered—I took it!” he says. “When I was an undergrad at my first internship in 2000, I never thought I’d have to do all that for one offer!”

Another anonymous graduate student who recently completed a Ph.D. in physical chemistry, specializing in nanotechnology, tells C&EN: “I’ve sent out a total of about 60 applications to various companies that either listed nanotech-related Ph.D.-level positions or where my skill set could be applicable in other ways. I have yet to hear back about a single application.”

The student believes that the hype around nanotech isn’t matched by jobs. “I got stuck holding the bag with a Ph.D. that qualifies me for academic research and not much else,” he says. “Basically, my options at the moment seem to be to postdoc forever or to quit science, neither of which is very appealing.”

Fenton R. Heirtzler says he’s been on that type of “postdoc odyssey.” A U.S. native, Heirtzler held a faculty position at the University of Kent at Canterbury, in England, until the school stopped enrolling new students in its chemistry degree program. He returned to North America in 2003 and has since done postgraduate work in California, Nevada, and Canada.

Heirtzler currently holds a temporary position as a guest scientist at Brookhaven National Laboratory. Otherwise, he tries to make ends meet by tutoring students in chemistry, offering interpreting services, and taking adjunct lecturer positions. “But more frequently than not,” he confesses, “I have to take money out of my pension to pay the rent.”

Heirtzler continues his independent research program as a volunteer at Rutgers University’s Camden campus in southern New Jersey. When students approach him for career advice, he tells them “if they wish to stay in chemical research, then they will need to have a doctorate from a prestigious university with a high-profile research director—or that should at least be the case when they do a postdoc.”

For students who don’t get into such elite programs, Heirtzler now advises them to treat getting a Ph.D. in chemistry as they would a graduate degree in art history or French literature. “In other words, there will be very limited opportunities to work in the field afterward.”


“Maybe right now we are producing too many Ph.D.s,” ACS’s Harwell concedes, but he doesn’t think that’s the case in the long term. “If we look at the future, people want stuff. And stuff is made from chemicals,” he says. “Right now, people aren’t buying a lot of stuff, but they will in the future.”

Saying we have too many chemists becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, Harwell argues. “If we don’t produce chemists now, then we won’t have them in the future, which means we won’t have the innovations, and we won’t be competitive,” he says. “But right now, we have a lot of people out of work, and it would be nice if we could say, ‘Okay, hold up on production of new chemists until we get our displaced workers back to work.’ ”

Of course, that’s not going to happen. But that doesn’t mean academia shouldn’t be thinking about its role in creating new Ph.D.s in light of the sea change that’s taking place in the pharmaceutical industry, says John Schwab, a bioorganic chemist and program director at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences.

“Can—or should—departments continue to produce Ph.D.s at the same rate as in the past? If the graduation rate stays constant, then will a depressed job market lead to extended postdoctoral stints for chemists?” Schwab wonders. “If there have been major changes in manpower flux, then shouldn’t the community be rethinking current models for education of graduate students? Does graduate education anticipate the skill set that students will need five, 10, or 20 years from now? Or is it more in tune with what companies—including entire sectors that are now cutting scientific staffing in the U.S.—were looking for in 1980 or 1990?” he asks.

“I certainly don’t have the answers to these questions, but they are so important that the community should be dealing with them,” Schwab continues. “Interestingly, a number of academic chemists have told me informally that everyone’s aware of the issues, but few feel comfortable discussing them. According to one professor, ‘It’s the elephant in the room.’ ”

One chemist who is talking about the problem is University of Maryland chemistry professor Michael P. Doyle. When asked to give talks on the state of chemistry in general, Doyle used to discuss the importance of undergraduate research in attracting students to graduate school in chemistry. Two years ago, Doyle made a drastic change to the theme of his talk. He now focuses on the difficult future these students will face.

“I think we’re in a serious time of restructuring in the U.S. The people who have been trained in graduate departments in the U.S. have to expect that their employment will not be in the areas that they thought they would be in,” he notes. Doyle says students are having a harder time finding jobs and postdoc positions and, consequently, are taking a longer time to complete their studies.

So, does Doyle think we are training more Ph.D.s than there are jobs for? “For the U.S. economy, the answer in a number of areas is ‘Yes,’ ” he replies. “Synthetic organic chemistry, process development chemistry, and medicinal chemistry have been severely affected by the downturn in the economy and the lack of jobs in the pharmaceutical industry.”

Amir H. Hoveyda, a chemistry professor at Boston College, agrees that chemistry educators need to reevaluate the number of students they’re training to enter the pharmaceutical industry. “Some people in organic chemistry have been very strongly gearing what they do in their programs toward what pharma needs,” he says.

In the current climate, Ho­veyda adds, neither he nor any of his colleagues can guarantee that every talented first-year graduate student that enters his group these days will find a job in the pharmaceutical industry five years from now. “Even top labs in the country are having trouble placing students. There just aren’t that many positions,” he says.

“The question becomes: Should students who get their Ph.D.s in America expand their horizons in the same way that people like me—I was born in Iran, and I came here to go to school—and the rest of the world have been doing for years?” Hoveyda wonders. “For the rest of the world, except for Americans, it is not a problem to go elsewhere to work or to go to school.”

Hoveyda does caution against devaluing a graduate education in chemistry, however. “Just because the number of places that want to hire Ph.D.s has decreased in this country, that doesn’t mean that the science and the field is any less significant than it used to be,” he says. “There are some very important problems that chemistry still has to answer, but I think the management and the infrastructure of our groups may have to change.”

Perhaps chemistry is starting to see the same trends that have dogged the biomedical sciences for more than a decade. Rudolph L. Juliano, a pharmacology professor at the University of North Carolina’s School of Medicine, in Chapel Hill, recently wrote a letter to the editor of Science challenging the oft repeated notion that there’s a shortage of Ph.D.s (DOI: 10.1126/science.301.5634.763b).

“I have supervised Ph.D. training programs in the biomedical sciences for over 20 years. In my experience, most new Ph.D.s have extreme difficulty in finding jobs that actually utilize the research skills that are central to Ph.D. training,” Juliano wrote. “If there were truly a dire shortage of new Ph.D.s (as apparently some would have us believe), then in our free market system, young scientists should be seeing rapidly rising compensation and abundant attractive job opportunities. This is certainly not the case in the biomedical arena.”

Juliano tells C&EN that he believes both faculty and students might not have the purest intentions when it comes to training and earning doctorates. “Clearly, there are many faculty members who are sincerely dedicated to graduate education and many students who have a sincere interest in careers in research,” he says. “However, there’s another dynamic that goes on—that many principal investigators need hands in their labs, and basically, graduate students are an inexpensive source of labor.”

Furthermore, Juliano notes, “the current economic climate is such that young people have relatively limited employment options, so more of them tend to gravitate toward graduate school and possibly graduate school in the sciences even if they don’t have a very strong motivation toward science.”

The trend toward nontraditional careers in the biomedical sciences also points toward a glut of Ph.D.s, Juliano argues. “Twenty or so years ago, a good fraction of Ph.D. graduates would go into research jobs in academia or industry. These days, an increasingly large fraction are going into jobs that require some scientific knowledge but aren’t research jobs,” he says. “They handle clinical trial management or product development or regulatory affairs. They’re good jobs, but you really don’t need a Ph.D.; you don’t need extensive research training to do those jobs.”

Of course, others argue the opposite side of the same coin: The skills one acquires with a Ph.D.—problem solving, troubleshooting, efficiency—can be applicable outside of chemical research.

“We really aren’t training too many Ph.D.s for the jobs available. I think people just need to look outside the realm of chemistry research and start thinking about things that still involve chemistry and use the tools that you learned in graduate school but that aren’t necessarily bench-type jobs,” says Kim Albizati, chief scientific officer of Strategic Enzyme Applications and a lecturer at the University of California, San Diego.

So, should those eager students waiting to hear from chemistry graduate programs start working on plan B? “For 30 years, I’ve been telling young people that the only reason they should go to graduate school in chemistry or any field of science is because they have a calling to learn that field of science—the way someone has a calling for art, music, or the priesthood,” says Matthew S. Platz, director of NSF’s Division of Chemistry and a chemistry professor at Ohio State University. “You should only do it for that sense of love and personal fulfillment. It’s very hard to predict a job market five years hence.”


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