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10 years after the Great Recession, chemists reflect on the ‘lost generation’

The big economic downturn derailed careers and drove many out of chemistry altogether

by Linda Wang
November 13, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 45

A photo of Brenda Case and Richard Vonder Embse.
Credit: Courtesy of Brenda Case
Case (left) and her husband, Richard Vonder Embse, have adjusted to their new lives.

A decade has passed since the Great Recession hit, but many chemists remember the day they were laid off as if it were yesterday. The volatile period from December 2007 to June 2009 was the largest economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s, and it took away any inkling of job security those in the chemistry community might have felt.

Even though time has healed most professional wounds, careers and salaries have yet to fully recover, some chemists say. Many say the lack of jobs in chemistry led them to seek employment in other fields. Some go so far as to describe their cohort of affected chemists as a “lost generation.”

“There are a lot of people who are really good scientists who are no longer in the field, and that’s a huge loss,” says Ph.D. chemist Brenda Case, who was laid off from Pfizer in 2010 and is now a special projects manager at the consulting firm Leadership Alliance. “You wonder how things would be if there weren’t those mass layoffs.”

Questions aside, chemists have come to terms with this new normal. “People have accepted that this is the way it’s going to be, and they’ve just moved on,” says Shankaran Kothandaraman, a Ph.D. chemist who was laid off from Merck & Co. in 2008 and eventually found employment as a research scientist at Ohio State University.

C&EN reached out to chemists through social media to get a snapshot of how the Great Recession has affected the chemistry community. Chemists like Case and Kothandaraman responded and spoke of the twists and turns that led them to careers they could not have imagined 10 years ago. Even those who are no longer in chemistry say they have satisfying jobs again and, importantly, that they are better prepared to weather the next downturn.

Adapting to change

During the Great Recession, the U.S. unemployment rate rose from 5.0% in December 2007 to 9.5% in June 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Data from the American Chemical Society’s 2009 Comprehensive Salary & Employment Survey showed that, among ACS members who completed the survey, unemployment increased from 2.3% in 2008 to 3.8% in 2009, the highest level it had been in at least 20 years.

You don’t want to move in with your parents when you’re 30 years old.
Courtney Richman, staff chemist, Mattel

As unemployment increased, salaries fell. For bachelor’s degree chemists, the median salary fell from $73,000 in 2008 to $66,700 in 2009. The median salary for Ph.D. chemists fell from $101,000 in 2008 to $100,000 in 2009.

On the ground, chemists from all parts of the chemical enterprise felt the impact, with industrial chemists hit perhaps the hardest. Mass layoffs in the chemical industry and at large pharmaceutical companies became the norm. This generation of chemists was left scrambling to find another position in chemistry or consider other fields.

At Pfizer, Case could sense that her layoff was imminent, so she started looking into alternative careers like science writing and patent law. “Before, I thought I’d be a chemist forever,” she says.

Case lost her job in St. Louis in January 2010, not long after her husband, also a Ph.D. chemist, was laid off from Pfizer. A desire to be closer to family eventually led the couple to Minnesota. After applying for numerous science-related jobs, Case came across a posting for a proofreader. She had always enjoyed reviewing papers for others, so she applied for the position at Leadership Alliance and was hired.

Today, Case is a special projects manager at Leadership Alliance, where her role has expanded to include data analysis. Although her salary is “nowhere close” to what she had been making at Pfizer, she says she no longer lives with the fear of being laid off.

A photo of Shankaran Kothandaraman.
Credit: Courtesy of Shankaran Kothandaraman
Kothandaraman moved to academia after his layoff from Merck in 2008.

Her new work is not related to chemistry, but Case still considers herself a chemist. “I do miss it, but since I still have a lot of friends in chemistry, I can get my fix through them,” she says.

Kothandaraman was laid off from a position as a senior research fellow at Merck in Rahway, N.J., where he had been for 18 years. He spent three or four months applying for jobs at small companies, but nothing materialized. “There is a desperation,” he says of how he felt in the months after losing his job.

In March 2009, he was offered and accepted a contractor role back at Merck. Later that year, a connection of his told him about a job at Ohio State, which he applied for and got. His salary was 25% less than what he had been making at Merck, but the cost of living in Ohio was lower than what it was in New Jersey. Today, Kothandaraman is a research scientist in the university’s department of radiology.

Although he is no longer doing the type of chemistry he was doing at Merck, Kothandaraman says the career shift has given him an opportunity to learn about other areas of science.

“Do I miss it? Yeah, but my present line of work has different challenges,” he says. “The biology is even more interesting here.” Kothandaraman says he also enjoys a better work-life balance than he did while in industry. “It worked out great,” he says.

Credit: Courtesy of Philip Skinner
Philip Skinner has found happiness again in his career.
A photo of Philip Skinner.
Credit: Courtesy of Philip Skinner
Philip Skinner has found happiness again in his career.

Philip Skinner took a circuitous route to a satisfying new career after being laid off from his role as a senior scientist at Arena Pharmaceuticals in 2009. Like Case, he had been exploring alternative career options before he lost his job. “I started talking to people about other career tracks I could get into, like project management, but there was just nothing,” he recalls.

Eight months after he was laid off, Skinner was offered a sales position at CambridgeSoft, a scientific software firm. “I think I took an initial 30% drop in salary,” he says. “It took me the last eight years to get back to where I was, and that’s not counting for inflation.”

From sales, Skinner became a field applications scientist, doing demonstrations, providing support, and running pilots. In 2011, CambridgeSoft was acquired by PerkinElmer. Skinner was recently promoted to software product manager at PerkinElmer, allowing him to get back into the chemistry side of the business. One of his accomplishments was helping develop the latest version of the molecular drawing software ChemDraw.

Skinner says he has no regrets about the path that took him to where he is today. “I realized pretty early on that the likelihood of making it back into chemistry was pretty minimal, so I focused on how I could reinvent myself,” he says. “Feeling valuable in what I do, I’m finally there again.”

Graduating into a recession

During the recession, the job market was equally challenging for new grads to navigate. Courtney Richman remembers the anxiety she felt after earning her Ph.D. in chemistry.

“I had several interviews in early 2008, and then nothing,” she recalls. “I ended up going back home and staying with my mom. You don’t want to move in with your parents when you’re 30 years old.” She was able to get a postdoc at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she met her future husband, also a chemist. After UCLA, Richman took a second postdoc at the University of Alberta.

Meanwhile, her husband, Erik Richman, was experiencing a similar dearth of jobs after earning his Ph.D. from UCLA in 2008. “I sent out dozens and dozens of applications, and I got two nibbles and no bites,” he says. He eventually took a postdoc at the University of Oregon.

After her postdoc in Canada, Courtney took a job at PPG Industries in Pittsburgh, and Erik joined her there after completing his postdoc. In 2015, the couple moved to Los Angeles, where Erik had been offered a position in an analytical chemistry lab. Courtney later found a position in agricultural chemistry.

Earlier this year, Courtney got a job as a staff chemist at Mattel, the toy company. “I went from paints and coatings to agriculture, and now I’m in toys. It’s been a very strange path,” she says. “But I finally feel like I’ve gotten somewhere where I’m very happy.”

Meanwhile, Erik hopes to get back to doing the type of chemistry that inspired him to pursue a Ph.D. “Now, I’m not really a chemist; that’s what it boils down to,” he says. He remains optimistic that he will eventually find his way back. “The front door is locked, so now you find back doors or side doors, or move on.”

A woman who graduated with an M.S. in chemistry from a western university around the time of the recession recalls the difficulty of finding work as a new graduate. The woman, who did not want to be identified by name so that her job prospects would not be affected, was unemployed for two-and-a-half years, she says, and heartbroken at being unable to find work in a field she was passionate about.

But she had to pay the bills, including student loans, so she worked at a hotel chain before deciding to return to school for a nursing degree. Now that the woman has graduated and obtained her nursing license in two states, she has the luxury of choosing among four job offers.

Some chemists question whether they should encourage young people to go into the sciences when their journeys have been so difficult. “It’s kind of hard to encourage kids I know who want to go into science, which is terrible because it’s a great field, and we need scientists,” Case says. “But when they ask for my experience, I have to be honest.” Many chemists like Case were forced to leave the bench.

Nevertheless, many still consider themselves to be chemists. The nursing graduate, for example, says she hopes that after starting work as a nurse she will be able to teach chemistry part-time at a community college.

Economies are cyclical, and recessions are unavoidable, so it’s important to be prepared, says Ohio State’s Kothandaraman. “Anticipating that these things can take place is extremely critical to positioning yourself for making the next move,” he says,

Kothandaraman recommends that chemists continue to develop skills and maintain their networks. And who knows—the path they end up taking might just be the one they like best.

“The scars are still there from the layoff, but I’m really enjoying this,” says Skinner of his job at PerkinElmer. “I didn’t make it back; I made it to a new place.”


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