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Chemistry Employment

February 8, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 6

Nov. 2, 2015, page 40: The Science & Technology story about the role of chemistry in neutrino detection incorrectly described how Cherenkov radiation is produced. The story said neutrinos traveling faster than light in water produce the radiation. In fact, it is charged particles released by the collision of a neutrino with a water molecule that travel faster than light to produce the radiation.

ACS President Donna J. Nelson recently spoke of employment as the greatest issue facing chemists today (C&EN, Oct. 26, 2015, page 28), and she requested input from every segment of our community. A recent survey, also reported in C&EN (C&EN, June 29, 2015, page 27), revealed starting salaries for B.S. graduates in chemical engineering to be nearly twice that of new B.S. graduates in chemistry. Earlier surveys revealed similarly notable differences in salary for new graduates at the M.S. and Ph.D. levels as well. Such notable differences largely continue throughout one’s career.

That is a revealing story! Here is a suggestion that will aid chemistry majors. Find time to take a couple of courses in chemical engineering and a course in economics. I recommend a course on material and energy balances, usually at the sophomore level, and a course on thermodynamics, usually at the junior level. Prerequisites are not a problem, for chemistry majors will already have sufficient background from courses in their B.S. curriculum. This bit of broadening would also benefit down-career folks.

Fair warning, most students find both of these courses to be hard. This small glimpse into chemical engineering will not qualify as a double major. But it would make a chemistry major more broadly educated and then more interactive across our community and more attractive to potential employers from the private sector and from the government sector, where such interaction has always been commonplace.

Henry McGee
Williamsburg, Va.

Nelson is seeking to better understand the demand side of chemical employment, with fewer inquiries into the supply side. From my 37-year career view, most of it on the managerial side, I would suggest that the larger issue is actually on the supply side: the employability of chemists, which stems from their versatility, flexibility, and adaptability. These attributes are derived from both personal characteristics and educational experiences. And the education part is strongly influenced by those same personal characteristics.

I found early on that chemists were about the most employable specialists in our economy. They weren’t the highest paid, but they had the widest range of possible employment situations, shared with few others. To me, the rate-limiting step in employability comes from the attributes previously mentioned. Anything that enhances those attributes in the selection and training of chemists will transcend any specifics regarding how the job landscape is changing.

I don’t think that spending a lot of time and effort on the other factors described in Nelson’s article will be anywhere near as productive as the issues mentioned previously. Instead, I suggest that she and her study group focus on the unique qualities that are presented by individuals trained in chemical science and engineering and how that contributes to their employability in a continuously changing marketplace. In short, it’s how readily employees can adapt to changing conditions around them that determines their long-term value to their employers, particularly in an environment with a continuously increasing change rate.

To begin, one might refer to the academic studies conducted at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management under professor Edward Roberts (I’m most familiar with his group’s work), plus similar work at Northwestern University and others. They collectively published quite a bit about the versatility, flexibility, and adaptability issues, which led chemists to be employable well beyond conventional chemical research, development, and production positions. That describes the capability of a group of people, which allows them to adapt to whatever specifics that may appear in the future.

Editor’s note: Nelson’s response appears below.

Lou Floyd
Independence, Ohio

I very much appreciate the comments of these ACS members, who spent their time communicating their ideas to us. Their thoughts have already been sent to my Task Force on Employment. I encourage all other members to give us their ideas and comments as well, via writing a letter to C&EN or by e-mailing me ( or Attila Pavlath (

In addition, during the ACS national meetings in San Diego and Philadelphia, we have organized presidential panel discussions and poster sessions devoted to employment in the chemical sciences, which will be held on Sunday. There will be additional presidential panel discussions on Monday about diversity and about chemical education. All of these sessions were created at the request of ACS members. Please attend and participate in the discussions, which are designed to respond to ACS member concerns and to collect ACS member thoughts.

Donna J. Nelson
2016 ACS President
Norman, Okla



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