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Employment & Salary Survey

Census of ACS members showed that wages and full-time employment in the chemical profession fell again in 2010

by David J. Hanson
December 12, 2011 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 89, Issue 50


Chemists who were male, held Ph.D.s, and worked in industry outearned their colleagues.NOTE: Median annual base salaries for chemists employed full-time as of March 1, 2010.SOURCE: ACS ChemCensus 2010
Flowchart shows that the highest median base salaries went to men who hold Ph.D.s and work in industry.
Chemists who were male, held Ph.D.s, and worked in industry outearned their colleagues.NOTE: Median annual base salaries for chemists employed full-time as of March 1, 2010.SOURCE: ACS ChemCensus 2010

The Great Recession officially ended in June 2009 in the U.S., but its negative impact on the salaries and employment of chemists has continued. In 2010, salaries for most chemists slipped further, and although the percentage of unemployed chemists held steady, more in the profession were working part-time or as postdocs.

Chemists working in New England received the highest salaries.NOTE: Median annual base salaries for chemists employed full-time as of March 1, 2010, in thousands of dollars. SOURCE: ACS ChemCensus 2010
Map shows chemists working in New England received the highest salaries.
Chemists working in New England received the highest salaries.NOTE: Median annual base salaries for chemists employed full-time as of March 1, 2010, in thousands of dollars. SOURCE: ACS ChemCensus 2010

These results are from the American Chemical Society’s ChemCensus 2010, a survey sent to most ACS members likely to be in the domestic workforce. The data show that median salaries for all chemists in 2010 decreased 1.1% to $89,000 from a median of $90,000 in 2009. The survey found that 3.8% of chemists were unemployed and seeking employment, compared with 3.9% for 2009. A record low percentage of chemists, 88.1%, reported that they had full-time jobs last year.

Other results from the ACS survey indicated that the percentage of ACS members with a bachelor’s degree alone is falling fairly rapidly, and the percentage with a Ph.D. is increasing. The percentage of members working in industry is falling as the percentage employed by colleges and universities is rising. The median age of ACS members is rising as well.

ACS is also becoming a more diverse organization demographically. The number of women is rising, as is the number of minority chemists; 19% of ACS members surveyed in 2010 belonged to minority groups. Fewer members are native-born U.S. citizens, and the number of members who are naturalized citizens or hold permanent resident visas is up, the survey shows.

The 2010 survey is considered a census in that it is sent to ACS members who are in the workforce and have U.S. addresses. According to the ACS Department of Research & Member Insights, ACS sent questionnaires to 85,652 members who were under 70 years of age and were not retired, emeritus, or in a student member category. For the survey, ACS defines a chemist as one who works in any one of 15 chemical disciplines or has a chemistry degree and indicated business administration, law, computer science, or “other nonchemistry activities” as their work specialty. Those in the chemical workforce are chemists who hold full- or part-time jobs, are on postdocs or fellowships, or are unemployed but actively seeking employment.

From the 2010 survey, ACS received 40,480 responses. The 47% response rate is higher than the 41% response rate for the previous ChemCensus, in 2005, but lower than the peak of 53% in 1995. It is also higher than the response rate for the last annual salary survey, in 2009, when ACS mailed 20,000 surveys and the response rate was 36%.

Of the respondents to the 2010 survey, 31,951 identified themselves as chemists and 654 indicated they were unemployed and were not seeking employment. This left a sample of 31,297 chemists who were active in the U.S. workforce as of March 2010. In addition, 2,327 respondents identified themselves as chemical engineers, and 4,043 indicated that they were working in nonchemist disciplines, such as business administration or law.

The survey was conducted and analyzed by Gareth S. Edwards of the Department of Research & Member Insights, under the guidance of the ACS Committee on Economic & Professional Affairs.

The 2010 census marks a change for the society in terms of the number of chemists eligible for the census. The number was about 1% lower than that for the 2005 ChemCensus, when 86,600 questionnaires were sent, and a 9% drop in the number of surveys from 2000. As indicated in the previous census, one reason for this change may be that some jobs in the chemistry profession are no longer available in the U.S. The long recession and numerous cutbacks in industrial employment, especially in the pharmaceutical industry, have taken a toll. Also, ACS members are getting older and a larger percentage may no longer be in the workforce.

Another dramatic change is the demographic shift from an almost totally white male profession 20 years ago to one that’s more diverse.

The 1990 survey found that about 82% of working chemists were males. That percentage has fallen with every successive survey. By 2010, men made up just 72% of the workforce, and on the basis of recent graduation figures, the decline is likely to continue.

In terms of minorities, the 2010 survey reveals that Asians make up the largest group of nonwhite chemists. The sector grew from 6.3% of the total in 1990 to 12.8% in 2010. The percentage of Hispanic chemists in the workforce doubled as well, from 1.4% in 1990 to 3.3% in 2010. Also increasing is the percentage of black chemists working, from just 1.3% in 1990 to 2.2% of the total in 2010. Although this figure is far from the percentage of blacks in the overall population, the steady increase, even as jobs are becoming harder to find, is encouraging.

The 2010 survey also reflected demographic shifts in the nationality of working chemists. The percentages of those with permanent-residency visas and those who are naturalized U.S. citizens have risen greatly over the past 20 years. In 1990, only 3.9% of chemists held residency visas, but that number rose to 8.0% in 2010. Other types of visas are held by 3.0% of the chemical workforce. Naturalized citizens were just 7.1% of the chemical workforce in 1990 but by 2010 had become 13.1% of the total. As a result, the total percentage of U.S. native-born chemists working in the U.S. has fallen to an all-time low of 76.0%.

Another shift in the chemical workforce over the years relates to age. ACS members in all categories of the survey are getting older. The median age in 2010 was 49 years, up from 47 in 2005 and 45 in 2000. Men tended to be older, with a median age of 51 in 2010, compared with 45 for women.

Industry and academia employed the youngest chemists, at a median age of 48 years; the government chemist median age was 51. In fact, chemists employed by academia was the only major category showing a drop in median age over the past five years, from 49 years to 48. This change is another indication of the recent shift in chemistry employment from industry to academia.

In a new category, ACS asked whether chemists in the workforce were married or with a partner. Most of them were, and many were married to other scientists. Nearly 82% of survey respondents indicated they were married or partnered as of 2010. Some 15.3% of all respondents were married to another chemist, and 18.9% were married to a scientist of a different discipline.

Married chemists were paid more, too. The median salary for a married chemist was $90,000, compared with $70,000 for a chemist who was single in 2010. Age did not seem to be a big factor here. The median age of a single chemist was 46 years, compared with 50 for married chemists in the workforce. The four-year age difference is unlikely to be the sole reason for a $20,000 disparity in median income.

The median salary for married chemists was just slightly higher than the median salary for all employed chemists participating in the survey, which was $89,000 for 2010. This represented a 1.1% drop from 2009, when the median salary for all employed chemists was $90,000. The decrease was the third annual drop in median pay and is another indicator of the difficult job market.

The survey showed similar drops in salary in many categories, with a few notable exceptions. The survey indicated that the median pay of chemists with bachelor’s degrees rose slightly in 2010 compared with 2009, from $66,700 to $69,800, a 4.6% rise. Hispanic chemists’ salaries increased from $75,000 to $80,000, a 6.7% jump. Salaries in 2010 also rose slightly for chemists working in industry and in government, but those for academics declined.

Younger chemists logged the greatest decrease in pay, with the median salary dropping from $52,700 to $47,000, or 10.8%, for chemists in the 20–29 age group.

Median salaries for men fell in 2010, as they did in 2009. A 1.0% drop last year resulted in a median salary of $95,000, down from a peak of $98,000 in 2008.

For women, however, the median salary rose from $71,000 in 2009 to $73,000 in 2010, a 2.8% hike. Yet the median salary for women is still only about three-quarters of the median salary for men, where it’s been for several years.

Salaries for women in the early stages of their careers, however, were closer to those of their male counterparts. Up to four years after receiving a bachelor’s degree, women had median salaries that were equal to men’s, ACS found. After that, women’s salaries begin to lag behind those of men. Between four and 19 years after receiving a bachelor’s degree, women consistently earn about 90% of what men earn. After 20 years, the gap widens, hitting 77% at about 35 years of experience after a bachelor’s degree.

Women chemists in colleges and universities had greater salary parity with men than did women in industry. At universities that grant Ph.D. degrees, female assistant professors with nine- to 10-month contracts earned 98% of what male assistant professors earned, and female full professors earned 96% of what male full professors earned. At universities that do not grant Ph.D.s, the median salaries of men and women were virtually the same, with women in some categories getting higher compensation than their male counterparts. For example, at universities offering master’s degrees as their highest degree, female assistant professors earned a median salary of $54,000 in 2010 and male assistant professors received $52,300.

Women working in the chemical industry tend to make slightly higher salaries than women with roughly the same amount of experience in academia, but the parity with men’s salaries suffers, except at the Ph.D. level. Men with a bachelor’s degree earned 22% more than comparable women and 18% more if they had a master’s degree. Women with Ph.D.s in industry earned a median salary of $106,000, or 10% less than the comparable men’s median salary of $117,000.

Among the best-paid industrial chemists are those working in general management occupations or those managing R&D programs, the ACS survey found. In 2010, the median salary for Ph.D. chemists in R&D management was $148,200; for a chemist with a bachelor’s degree, it was $108,000. The median salaries for chemists doing basic research were the lowest: $58,000 for a chemist with a bachelor’s degree, and $90,000 for a Ph.D. chemist.

The size of the employer also affects median salaries. The smallest companies, with 10 or fewer employees, paid the least, with median salaries in 2010 of $49,200 for Ph.D. chemists, and $40,000 for bachelor’s degree chemists. Median salaries in 2010 at the largest firms, with more than 25,000 employees, were more than double: $120,000 for Ph.D. chemists, and $82,900 for bachelor’s degree chemists.

In addition to the base salary, many chemists receive bonuses. In the 2010 census, 91.8% of chemists in industry indicated they got bonus payments during the prior year, with a median value of $10,000. About 89.1% of government-employed chemists received median bonuses of $2,000, and 75.3% of academic chemists got bonuses with a median value of $2,000.

Most chemists were employed in some industrial capacity, but that is changing. The survey found that 52.7% of chemists were in industry, 32.1% worked in academia, and 7.3% worked for the government. An additional 7.9% listed themselves as self-employed. In the 2005 census, 62.0% of respondents worked in industry, 7.4% for government, and 28.8% in academe. Chemists in industry were also the most likely to be working full-time, with 96.6% saying they were employed full-time and another 2.3% as part-time. Among government chemists, 91.6% had full-time employment and 1.6% were working part-time. Chemists in academia had the lowest full-time employment rate at just 85.6%, but 5.3% worked part-time and 9.2% indicated they were employed as postdocs.

The ACS survey asked for a breakdown of educational and work disciplines for employed chemists in 2010. These data show that the single largest field in which chemists had their highest degree was organic chemistry, claimed by 23.5% of respondents. However, the largest share of chemists considered themselves to be working in analytical chemistry, with 16.1% of the total in that field. Other major work disciplines included organic chemistry at 12.6%, medicinal or pharmaceutical chemistry at 7.4%, polymer chemistry at 5.2%, and biochemistry at 5.0%.

Chemical engineering was the work field for just 4.2% of respondents, although 5.9% indicated that they had their highest degree in chemical engineering. Of working chemical engineers, 13.8% were women, a statistic that wasn’t collected during the census five years ago.

Working outside the chemical sciences, 3.0% of respondents indicated that they were employed in education, 1.7% of chemists were in business administration careers, and 1.0% were employed in the legal field. A fairly large 7.2% of respondents said that they were working in other, unspecified nonchemistry occupations.

Short-term trends from ChemCensus 2010 confirm that the chemical profession has been deeply affected by the recession. Overall unemployment seemed to have leveled off at a fairly high percentage for chemists, and salaries in many of the survey’s categories continued to drop. Both of these trends likely result at least partly from the employment shifts toward lower-paying postdoc and part-time positions.

In the long term, the decline in the number of employed chemists responding to the ACS survey and their increasing age may indicate some significant changes in the society’s makeup. For example, the number of bachelor’s degree chemists graduating each year has risen dramatically over the most recent five years for which data are available, from about 10,200 for the 2003–04 academic year to nearly 14,600 for 2008–09 (C&EN, Aug. 23, 2010, page 44), but the percentage of bachelor’s chemists working and completing the ACS survey dropped in 2010 to 17.7% of the total from 19.9% five years previously.

Also, the significant shift in employment from the chemical industry to academia indicates a drop in employment opportunities for chemists that will be difficult to replace. As the federal research budget gets squeezed by the financial crisis, universities will not be able to continue to hire as many professors and postdocs as they have in the past few years. Also, employment is a lagging economic indicator. Even when the U.S. economy improves, hiring will recover more slowly, for chemists as well as everyone else.


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