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Europe Beckons

Despite the financial crisis, some European countries continue to attract U.S. talent

by Linda Wang
January 23, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 4

Credit: Courtesy of Jordan Kopping
Kopping lives in Heidelberg, one of the most picturesque cities in Germany.
Jordan Kopping
Credit: Courtesy of Jordan Kopping
Kopping lives in Heidelberg, one of the most picturesque cities in Germany.

Europe’s economic problems are far from over. The debt crisis is still unfolding, and high unemployment in many countries continues to frustrate job seekers.

In Spain, the unemployment rate has nearly tripled since 2007, when the global recession began, from 8.3% to 22.8% in October 2011, according to the latest international figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Other countries such as Greece, Italy, and the U.K. are also experiencing high unemployment rates.

However, U.S. chemists seeking positions in Europe shouldn’t be discouraged because some bright spots remain for expatriates in Europe’s otherwise gloomy employment climate.

Countries such as Germany and Switzerland—which have for decades recruited top U.S. talent—have remained strong in the chemical sciences and continue to attract Ph.D. chemists from abroad. And expats currently working in these countries say they enjoy job security and benefits that are becoming distant memories in the U.S.

With its strong economy and stable chemical industry, Germany can be attractive for job seekers from the U.S. “While there has been an impact of the economic crisis, it has not hit Germany as hard as it has other European countries,” says Wolfram Koch, executive director of the Gesellschaft Deutscher Chemiker (the German Chemical Society, GDCh). “One of the reasons is that the chemical industry has always been one of the major pillars of the German economy.”

As unemployment grew across the rest of Europe, Germany’s unemployment rate fell from 8.7% in 2007 to 6.4% in November 2011, according to BLS data. In comparison, the U.S. unemployment rate rose from 4.6% to 8.6% during the same period.

Rather than cutting workers, chemical companies in Germany have turned to less aggressive cost cutting methods, Koch says. BASF in Ludwigshafen, for example, avoided layoffs by cutting back on overtime and transferring personnel to other locations, says Sarah Ulmschneider-Renner, head of talent resourcing at BASF.

The company has begun expanding its workforce again, she says, with a focus on attracting applicants from around the world. “We are increasing our efforts in [human resources] marketing and worldwide job-posting strategies,” she says. “As a result, we are already seeing a significant increase in applications for our R&D positions from abroad, including the U.S.”

Polymer chemist Jordan Kopping is among those who moved from the U.S. to Germany to work for BASF. He began working as a research scientist in Ludwigshafen a year ago.

Before crossing the Atlantic, Kopping earned a Ph.D. in polymer and organic chemistry from the University of California, Davis, in 2006 and completed a postdoc at UCLA in 2007. In 2010, after teaching at a community college and working at a biopharmaceutical company, both in California, he started applying for positions in Germany. “I had nothing at the time tying me to the U.S., and I’ve always had the idea to try something international,” Kopping says. He chose Germany because of its strong economy and because of his interest in the language and culture.

While job searching, Kopping enrolled in an intensive eight-month course to learn German. “One of the things I highlighted on my résumé was that I was committed to learning the language,” he says. That dedication demonstrated, he says, that he “would fit well into the culture and also into the way of life.”

Kopping says he received offers from several companies in Germany, but he chose BASF because of its focus on diversity and inclusion. Now, as Kopping helps review potential candidates from abroad, he is looking for that same determination. “When we have interviewees come in, it’s very apparent which ones really have done their homework and have a genuine interest in living in the country and would commit themselves to becoming assimilated properly into the working culture and also the social culture,” he says.

Credit: Courtesy of Victoria Campbell
Campbell’s postdoc in Paris prepared her for her current position in France.
Victoria Campbell
Credit: Courtesy of Victoria Campbell
Campbell’s postdoc in Paris prepared her for her current position in France.

Language skills are not everything, of course. BASF is looking for Ph.D. scientists who have done research in state-of-the-art chemistry, says Ulmschneider-Renner. In addition, she says, chemists should include extracurricular activities in their curriculum vitae. “This information is often neglected, but we consider it extremely useful in forming an initial impression.”

Koch invites American Chemical Society members who are looking for positions in Germany to get in touch with GDCh’s career services office. “We will try to help,” he says. But he also warns that applicants should be top-notch in their field. “If you’re not good enough to find a job in the U.S., you won’t find one here in Germany, either.”

Switzerland shines as another bright spot for job seekers from the U.S. Beat Moser, director general of Scienceindustries, the Swiss business association for the chemical, pharmaceutical, and biotech industries, says that the Swiss chemical industry’s focus on specialty products has helped the country weather the recession. “We are not producing high volumes of products, but small volumes with high value,” Moser says. “Innovation is the only way for the Swiss industry to survive.”

Switzerland has not been completely immune to the effects of the recession, however. For example, Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche has reduced its workforce, and Swiss drugmaker Novartis recently announced layoffs.

“Jobs are being outsourced,” says Jay S. Siegel, a chemistry professor at the University of Zurich and chair of the Division of Organic Chemistry of the European Association for Chemical & Molecular Sciences (EuCheMs). But “unemployment here is not up dramatically,” he adds. “For really good people there are still job offers going out.”

U.S. chemists often worry that if they go abroad, they won’t be able to find a job when they return to the U.S. “That’s not true,” says Jeffrey W. Bode, who moved to the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich (ETH), in 1998 to complete his graduate studies, then returned to the U.S. in 2003 as an assistant professor. In 2010, Bode went back to ETH, where he is now a chemistry professor.

Bode says that in Switzerland, he doesn’t need to worry about research funding. “In the U.S., you’re always thinking about grants,” he says. But in Switzerland, “you don’t have the same kind of pressure that every grant has to get funded. The pressure I feel is really to do innovative basic research. I feel like I can take more risks here.”

Switzerland, says Siegel, who moved in 2003 to the University of Zurich from UC San Diego, is “an attractive place to live. The standard of living, the scientific infrastructure, and the opportunities for innovation are excellent.”

Another country where U.S. chemists feel protected in their jobs is the Netherlands. “I feel very secure in my position,” says Steven Schultz, a materials researcher at Dutch tire manufacturer Apollo Vredestein, who moved to the Netherlands in 2008. “The labor laws here are really good, and it would be pretty difficult for my company to lay me off.”

The only downside, he says, is that even though his salary is above the Dutch average, it is “far below what my colleagues in America are making.”

The recession hit the Netherlands’ pharmaceutical industry harder than it did other industries, says Richard M. Kellogg, who served as scientific director of Dutch contract research company Syncom for many years and is now a consultant for the company. “Two major pharmaceutical companies in Holland—Organon and Solvay—have been eliminated by the American companies that own them.

“On the other hand, the sites have now been made into science parks,” Kellogg notes. “There is life after death.” Oil refining and bulk chemistry remain strong sectors of the Dutch chemical industry, he adds.

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Schultz warns that despite the promise of jobs in the Netherlands, foreigners can find it difficult to get a position there. He moved to Europe in 2001 to be closer to his then-girlfriend, now wife, a Dutch woman. Schultz, who had been working on a Ph.D. at the University of Washington, Seattle, completed the degree at the University of Münster, in Germany. He then worked for adhesives maker Gerlinger GmbH & Co. in Germany for two-and-a-half years.

While in Germany, Schultz searched for positions in the Netherlands. “I was getting zero responses,” he says. It wasn’t until he received a Dutch resident’s visa after marrying that he began receiving job offers.

Schultz advises potential applicants to research which companies hire foreigners. Before applying, he says, “you have to find a company that’s willing to go through with the paperwork for you.”

Some companies do welcome foreign applicants. “At Syncom, we’ve made a point of hiring internationally,” says Kellogg, who moved from the U.S. to the Netherlands as a postdoc in 1965 and subsequently settled there. “We much prefer to have international groups instead of only Dutch. We think that works in a very stimulating fashion.”

But U.S. chemists working in countries including the U.K. are feeling the pinch of the recession, says Jonathan Nitschke, a reader (associate professor) in the chemistry department at the University of Cambridge, who moved to France in 2001 for a postdoc and has remained in Europe ever since. “I would not say that we’ve been having a good crisis in the same way that Switzerland has,” he says. “There have been some fairly major layoffs in recent years, in particular the closure of a big Pfizer research site in Kent. It was a big blow to the synthetic chemistry community around here.”

In academia, Nitschke says, research funding has undergone cuts, especially in the physical sciences and engineering. “That has made it harder to get grants,” he says. And the situation is not any better in industry. “There have been layoffs here,” Nitschke says. The laid-off scientists, he adds, “are still to some degree saturating the job market.”

Nitschke predicts that the lost jobs may be slow to return. “My sense is that the real opportunities for economic growth are probably less in the mature economies of Europe and the U.S. and much more so in places like China, India, and Brazil,” he says.

Nevertheless, Europe continues to attract U.S. chemists, especially because of the trans-Atlantic similarities in the cultures. Many U.S. expats come to Europe by way of a Ph.D. program or a postdoc—one of the best ways, they say, to get a foot in the door.

Victoria Campbell moved to England in 2006 to complete her Ph.D. in Nitschke’s lab at Cambridge. Now a researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Paris, Campbell says that completing her Ph.D. in the U.K. and her postdoc in Paris was critical to getting a full-time position in France.

She says that living in France for two years during her postdoc gave her the opportunity to learn the language and the culture.

Nitschke agrees that doing a Ph.D. or postdoc in Europe helps in getting a position there, but he adds that it’s not a requirement. If a job seeker doesn’t have experience abroad, he says, an alternative is to “demonstrate some clear evidence that you can adapt to new situations and new ways of thinking and bend with the cultural currents as opposed to snapping in them.”

U.S. chemists working in Europe say the experience of going abroad is worth the effort it takes to land a job there. “It’s a totally eye-opening and mind-opening experience,” says Siegel. “Once you leave the U.S. and you work in a foreign country, your whole world opens up.”


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