Advice To Chemists | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 90 Issue 35 | pp. 3-5 | Letters
Issue Date: August 27, 2012

Advice To Chemists

Department: Letters

I felt both disappointed and outraged when I read Madeleine Jacobs’ editorial about the impact of the economic crisis on the employment of chemists and especially how it affects the behavior of some chemist parents with their children (C&EN, July 23, page 3). As one who fell in love with chemistry 25 years ago while attending my first chemistry class in middle school, I can only condemn such attitudes.

Despite the economic situation and the upcoming difficulties, everyone should be allowed to follow the path he or she has really chosen and should not be strongly influenced in this process by others, especially parents. This is true not only for chemistry or science but also for any other profession. As French born, I decided to enroll in the high school chemistry course instead of taking the general science path, against my professors’ advice. Eventually I earned a Ph.D. degree in chemistry, though not straightforwardly.

Now, 11 years later, I am stranded in a loop of temporary assignments at research institutions throughout France, the U.S., and Canada. Despite the highs and lows I have consequently experienced, both professionally and personally, I am grateful that I still can do something I love to do. My professional future is set for only one more year, beyond which waits the unknown.

Despite these uncertainties, I hope that in the future I will be able to continue to work in the amazing and lovely world of chemistry. I have no regret at all about my past career path. As a concluding message to the younger generations, I would say to find a vocation you love and do everything you can to live it passionately.

By Marc Reinholdt
Poitiers, France

In response to Jacobs’ important and thoughtful editorial, allow me to add a cautionary message using a real, but certainly not isolated, example.

In the 1990s, a major chemical company sold off its large, moneymaking pharmaceutical division that it had purchased just a few years earlier. After relocating all of its employees from upstate New York to Pennsylvania, hundreds of lives were disrupted and careers put on hold. The scientists joined the diaspora, seeking new jobs in all corners of the U.S. That bitter moment of truth to hit the research chemists, biologists, and technical science support is encapsulated with these words: All our work, creativity, results, and inspirations were, from that day on, no longer needed, valued, or required. The many years of research work that had been approved and praised were over. Go back to your desk and find a new job! Harsh reality for any scientist.

No one was spared, including the chief executive officer and all the science executives. The message that came down from upon high was financially and M.B.A.-driven. This is the issue: Science decisions in today’s world are not necessarily driven by scientists. So in choosing your career, follow your heart by all means, but beware who is in charge of the “yellow brick road.” Be ever-flexible and ready to realign your training and expertise to disciplines you hadn’t thought about when you embark on a science career.

By Ray Cooper
St. Peters, Mo.

Jacobs writes that parental advice to children to avoid science is misguided. What I find more misguided is Jacobs’ editorial, a starry-eyed vision of how things used to be that does not acknowledge modern reality.

Take her statement, “In the 1960s, in the aftermath of Sputnik, being a scientist was a noble calling.” True, but there were also far fewer roadblocks, both pre- and postgraduation. Those of us who entered school then (at least compared with today) found manageable tuition, relatively abundant scholarships, paid work-study opportunities, friendly student loan arrangements, and a generally welcoming job market.

Fast-forward to today’s students, who face soaring tuition costs, shriveling jobs and scholarships, stagnant salaries if they even get a job, and the not-infrequent expectation they pursue a significant zero-pay internship. These changes, combined with today’s student loan policies, create a risky gamble I didn’t face. The student who decides to study anything, including science, that later becomes “no longer aligned with our corporate vision” may be placing an albatross around his or her neck that cannot be relieved short of death.

As for the quote from biology major Daniel Jordan, who says that anyone who would discourage a child from studying science might not be a scientist for the right reasons—that is just plain insulting. Mr. Jordan, come back when you have some inkling of the difficulties involved in raising a family, when your once-mighty company is belly-up, you don’t know how you’ll pay the rent or feed your kids, and 4,000 other downsized scientists are competing for the same positions you are. Perhaps then you might excuse those of us who hope our grandchildren do not grow up in a van in some parking lot and who—God forbid—might actually say something to that effect.

Jacobs closes with, “If we, as a nation, have the courage to support science and technology, [our children] will create a brighter future for all of us.” Yes, if—but unfortunately, in many ways we as a nation no longer support science as we did once. To not acknowledge that fact and not make our children aware of it would itself be misguided and, for them and their children, potentially disastrous.

By Robert Opitz
Hilton, N.Y.

I sense what may be the problem with respect to employment for chemists. Nowhere in Jacobs’ list of objectives does she mention advancing the business interests of employers. She refers to unemployed chemists “no longer solving critical challenges and creating jobs to ensure sufficient energy, clean water, and food while protecting the environment and curing diseases.” These are all worthy goals.

But missing from that list are other worthy goals, such as helping employers strengthen their business or helping turn a profit to reward investors. It seems the scientists being described lack a connection to those who would pay their salaries.

Dependence on government spending in public research universities is problematic when governments are steeped in unhealthy debt. It would be better to be dependent on thriving business enterprises.

By J Roger Hite

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Bob Buntrock (September 4, 2012 3:28 PM)
In response to all three letters, “Advice to Chemists” (C&EN 8/27/12, p. 3-5), I’ll add my comments.

In any case, it’s not wise to counsel young people to not pursue careers because of current decrease in relevant jobs. Past and current job markets should be taken into consideration but aptitudes and natural “passions’ should prevail.
Ray Cooper, I can empathize. This chemist-for-life last three jobs in his career but is still professionally active. The road was rough indeed and I did survive a couple of downsizings in a technical company, as well as threats to move across the country. Ironically, even the managers who were technically trained often behaved like uninformed MBAs. Even though “business” may be far from one’s first love, it’s wise to acquire enough business moxie to be well aware of who calls the shots. Your advice to also be aware of “alternative” careers achievable with a chemistry education is well founded. I often mentor students about these extensive possibilities.

Robert Opitz, although I was never out on the street in losing my three jobs (after the last, “early retirement”, I formed a counsultancy), I sympathize with the dire straits you and others find themselves in. However, I don’t think that Madeline Jacobs was being insulting.

Roger Hite, I disagree. The worthy goals that were pursued by unemployed scientists were just that and at least by management definition at the time of hiring, were also the corporate goals of strengthening the business and rewarding investors. If that was not apparent to management and the investors, that was their problem (ironically, management probably was well rewarded for their disregard of the companies true mission).

Bob Buntrock
Orono, ME

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