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Barely Hanging On

Unemployed chemists at the middle to late stages of their career are beginning to question their faith in chemistry

by Linda Wang
November 5, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 45


Credit: Shutterstock/C&EN
Job loss can feel like a lonely journey.
This is a photo of an unemployed chemist in a clean, white corridor.
Credit: Shutterstock/C&EN
Job loss can feel like a lonely journey.

Five years after the economic collapse began in the U.S., unemployed chemists are still struggling to find jobs. The unemployment situation is especially dire for mid- to late-career chemists who, instead of anticipating a comfortable retirement, now face the possibility of bankruptcy and financial ruin.

As their life savings evaporate, and their hope turns to desperation, these chemists are beginning to question whether they can continue supporting a field that can no longer support them.

In agreeing to share their stories with C&EN, chemists in these dire circumstances requested anonymity to protect their job search prospects; their names have been changed and some details about their situations have been generalized. This article focuses on chemists who were laid off from the pharmaceutical industry, because that’s one of the sectors where the fallout from the Great Recession has been severe.

The impact of this recession has been unlike that of previous recessions. “The fact is that the number of jobs has declined,” says Bassam Z. Shakhashiri, president of the American Chemical Society. And the usual methods for obtaining a new job aren’t working. “If the jobs aren’t there,” Shakhashiri says, “no matter how much you network, you’re not going to find them.”

“The situation today is a tragedy of national proportions,” says Madeleine Jacobs, ACS executive director and chief executive officer. “It’s devastating to individual lives, and it’s devastating to this country.”

According to the 2012 Comprehensive Salary & Employment Survey of ACS members, 4.2% of members in the U.S. are unemployed. Although this percentage may seem small compared with the national unemployment rate of 7.8%, there’s more to this statistic than meets the eye.

“I’m listed as employed,” says “Eric,” 46, who was laid off in 2007 from his position as a senior chemist at Johnson & Johnson and is now an adjunct professor at three different colleges and universities. “I got reemployed, but is this what employment should be like for someone at my level?”

“The data that ACS has is for the most part self-reported, and that’s always going to underreport the truth,” says Lee H. Latimer, a consultant and longtime ACS volunteer, who was laid off from Elan in 2011. “Many may have a job, which keeps them from collecting unemployment, but they’re not working either in their field or in a position that comes anywhere close to matching their previous income”—meaning, he says, that they’re effectively underemployed.

“Jeff,” 59, a Ph.D. chemist in New Jersey, is in that boat. He was laid off in 2008 from his position as an associate director for a major pharmaceutical company, where he had worked for 22 years. He thought it would only be a matter of months before he found a new job. “Normally you figure three months, and with the economy going bad, I figured six months,” he says. “I did not expect it would take this long.”

Although he’s had several adjunct teaching positions and temporary contract jobs, Jeff has not had a permanent, full-time position since 2008. “It’s frustrating at this point in a career when you’re at your highest earning potential to suddenly not be earning or have greatly reduced earnings,” he says. “You’ve put all this time and effort into an advanced degree, a good career, and worked hard for your company, and to suddenly be tossed out, it’s disheartening.”

Read about chemists who found new careers, and member benefits for the unemployed.

Since Jeff is the sole provider for his wife and their 12-year-old daughter who is being homeschooled, he has had to tap into his savings and 401(k) to make ends meet.

His family has had to cut back dramatically on expenses. They’ve canceled their cable and lawn service, they’ve scaled back on their cell phone plan, and they don’t eat out or take vacations. “At one point, we had a boat. We’ve had to get rid of that,” Jeff says. “And there are repairs on the house that really should be done that have been put off.

“I don’t think there’s a whole lot else that we can really do. You need the phone, you need electricity, and you need health insurance,” he says. “We’ve got to have the trash picked up, and we have to pay taxes.”

Jeff has considered selling his home, but in his neighborhood, “houses simply aren’t selling, or if they do sell, prices are quite depressed,” he says.

“Alice,” 52, a Ph.D. organic chemist, had to make that trade-off when she and her family downsized their home. Alice was laid off from Pharmacopeia in 2008 and then from Merck & Co. in 2010. Her husband also lost his job at Merck.

With their savings disappearing, the couple, who have a 12-year-old daughter, sold their home in an affluent suburb in New Jersey at a loss and bought a home half the size in another community. “We had to take money out of our 401(k)s to buy a smaller home,” she says.

Because she had to pay a hefty fine for tapping into her retirement account, her savings have taken a big hit. “I used to have a lot of money in my 401(k), and now I practically have nothing,” she says. “I went from $220,000 down to $30,000 in my 401(k).”

Eric has also had to make tough choices. He teaches as an adjunct professor on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, splitting his time among three colleges and universities that are 50 to 70 miles apart. He leaves around 10 AM and doesn’t get home until after 11 PM, leaving little time to spend with his twin daughters, who are nine years old.

Because of the length of his commute and the high cost of gas, Eric sold his car and bought a used Suzuki with better gas mileage. “The previous car was costing me about $1,000 a month in gas, and that was not sustainable,” he says.

He has roughly $400 left in his 401(k). “Four hundred bucks is no 401(k); it won’t buy you a plane ticket anywhere,” he says. But he’s not one to dwell on his difficulties. “It’s tight financially, but the fact is we’re still surviving. It’s just a little harder, that’s all.”

Alice says that what’s more painful than losing her retirement savings is having no money to send her daughter to college. Alice, who came to the U.S. from Southeast Asia, says that getting an education was her ticket to a better life. “I feel very sad. I went for a Ph.D. because I thought that with a Ph.D., I should be able to have a good life and be able to give my daughter a good life,” she says. “I never thought this would happen.”

Jeff is in a similar predicament. “There’s no way we can afford to put my daughter through college now,” he says. “It’s discouraging, it’s disheartening, it’s frustrating. You start to feel like a failure.”

For unemployed and underemployed chemists, life can be an emotional roller coaster. “Some days you’re on top of the world. You’ve got interviews, and something looks promising,” says Jeff. “The next day, the interview fails and the world looks darker than the inside of a cave.”

“Michael,” a Ph.D. organic chemist in his 50s, living in California, knows just how unsettling this roller-coaster ride can be. Since he was laid off from a biotech company in 2008, he has applied for more than 10,000 jobs, some 7,000 related to the chemical sciences and 3,000 outside of science.

He has had 10 interviews and was offered three jobs. The first offer came less than a year after he was laid off. The position was with a small start-up company in California. But after he received the offer, the company was bought out, and the offer fell through. “The person who was going to hire me lost his own job the next day,” he says.

The second offer was in 2009 for a contract position at a large pharmaceutical company in California, but the company notified him four days before his starting date that it had instituted a hiring freeze, “so they stopped everything,” he says. “According to them, they had a computer for me, a phone number, and everything was ready.”

The third offer came in 2010, and it was with a government agency near Washington, D.C. “I was supposed to start working with them on Sept. 27, 2010, but because of the budget issue going on in Congress, they froze everything,” he says.

Michael sold his condo in preparation for the move. “I put everything that I had in storage, and I was in the process of moving, and I had a couple days before I moved, so I said, ‘I’ll go stay with my friend in L.A.’ ”

It’s been two years, and Michael is still living with his friend, and his belongings are still in storage. He can’t afford to pay for health insurance, so he’s uninsured.

“I’m nearing retirement, and that’s very scary because as time goes by, it’s difficult for me to get a job. And at the same time, I’m not earning anything, so I’m not contributing to retirement,” he says.

Meanwhile, Michael has earned certifications in clinical trial design and management, regulatory affairs, quality assurance and control, and project management. But “by the time that I finished, not only did the number of these jobs decrease, employers weren’t going to take anybody who doesn’t have experience. The training is not enough for them,” he says. “I went and retrained myself, but I still cannot get a job.

“I have applied to work for free just to be working, and I can’t do it,” Michael says, noting liability issues in industry can prevent employers from using workers not on the payroll. Even in academia, he’s approached professors to work as a postdoc to get some experience in a new area. “But they can’t do that because they hire postdocs and graduate students, and I wouldn’t technically be considered a postdoc because I have more than 15 years of experience,” he says.

He’s even been turned down for jobs at local grocery stores, for positions that pay less than $10 an hour. “When I was an undergraduate, I worked in a supermarket, so I have some experience,” he says. “But I can’t even get a job in a supermarket. They say, ‘You don’t have the right skills.’ Or they think, ‘Tomorrow he’s going to get a job, and he’s going to leave.’ ”

The ups and downs of job searching can bring life to a screeching halt, as “Tom,” who was laid off from Sanofi in 2011, has discovered. “I’m 50 years old, and I can’t make any long-term plans,” he says. “I can’t look at a new car, I can’t get the latest big-screen TV, I can’t get the latest iPhone. I can’t look at that stuff because I just don’t know where my next paycheck is coming from. I’m not starving, but I’m not advancing either.”

Michael, who is single, has an even more pressing issue. “I can’t even ask a woman out, because I’m unemployed and I don’t have a place,” he says. “You can’t do very simple fundamental things in life. Your life is completely on hold.”

Even everyday interactions can be awkward. At the exposition at an ACS meeting, for instance, “when you walk around all those booths, people say hi to you and ask you where you work. I say, ‘I’m unemployed,’ and the person doesn’t know what to do with me,” says Michael.

The constant uphill battle can take a mental toll. “I think it’s cut me down a couple of notches,” Jeff says. “The group I was part of for so many years was considered one of the top in the industry, so certainly it impacts your pride.”

Tom, who has a master’s degree in chemistry, says he has come to terms with his new reality. “There’s no room for pride here,” he says. “If I have to stack lumber at Home Depot, then that’s what I’m going to do.”

In this unstable job market, even the elation of starting a new job can be short-lived. Two-and-a-half years after being laid off from his previous position, Jeff was offered a temporary contract position at Roche, in Nutley, N.J., that had potential to become permanent. Although the position pays less than half of his previous salary, and he does not get any vacation days, sick time, or health benefits, Jeff says that was a godsend for him and his family. But 11 months after he started, the company announced that the entire facility would be shut down; he will be out of a job again in December.

“I’m working at Roche, and there are people who mop the floors, and as I walk by, I always say hello to them,” Jeff says. “But I’m thinking in the back of my mind, ‘In a few months, I may have to be doing this too.’ ”

This extreme hardship is causing chemists to question their faith in chemistry. “My passion for chemistry is gone,” Tom says. “I used to read C&EN for the newest trends and discoveries. I’ve lost interest in all that because I don’t see a future in it.”

“I’m a chemist, I love chemistry, and I want to tell other people to go ahead and study chemistry,” adds Michael. “But then I think about it—and what kind of a future will they have?”


Alice says she worries about the next generation of students, who are losing their interest in science. “I can see it in my daughter,” she says. “She used to love chemistry, and she went to all the ACS meetings with me. Now, I tell her to put her poster in the science fair, and it’s like pulling teeth.”

Jeff, who volunteers as an ACS career consultant, says he’s conflicted as to what to tell job seekers: “I’m looking at other chemists’ résumés, with many people wanting to go into the pharmaceutical industry—which is going through a major downsizing—and I’m wondering, ‘Is it fair to encourage people to go into chemistry, and what do I tell people who are looking for jobs?’

“I’d love to be able to wholeheartedly encourage people to go into science, to go into chemistry. It’s fascinating, it’s interesting, it used to be a great career,” Jeff continues. “But now, I can’t promise that there will be a reward for their hard work.”

Despite the lack of jobs, ACS’s Jacobs maintains that chemists and chemistry are critical to the U.S.’s advancement. “I don’t want to discourage the best and brightest students from entering the chemical sciences, because there is no way to solve these great global challenges—providing clean water, providing sustainable energy, providing enough food, curing disease, protecting the homeland, and protecting the environment—without chemists and chemical engineers.”


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