Credit: Davide Bonazzi
Luis Martínez remembers 2008 like it was yesterday. He was searching for a job, and the economy was in a deep recession brought on by the financial crisis. Hiring freezes gripped employers of all types, and there were few chemistry jobs to be had. In fact, many companies were in the midst of mass layoffs. It took Martínez several years of cobbling together short-term stints before landing a tenure-track position in academia.
Coronavirus dims chemistry job market prospects
Twelve years later, that “brutal” job market still haunts Martínez. Now the director of the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Trinity University, he worries about what new graduates and job seekers will be up against in the economic downturn triggered by the novel coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19. “I think the entire community needs to be prepared for a year worse than 2008,” he says.
The economic downturn triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic does not bode well for the chemistry job market. Universities have frozen hiring and reduced pay, and the chemical industry faces a steep drop in demand and anticipates job losses. The pharmaceutical industry might be the only sector to withstand the crisis. Some industry observers predict a job market even more challenging than that brought on by the 2008 financial downturn.
The economic fallout of the pandemic is growing. Across the US, for example, universities have announced hiring freezes and pay reductions, with additional cost-cutting measures expected to come in the fall. Worldwide, the chemical industry reports reduced chemical demand and predicts job losses. Although the pharmaceutical and biotech industries are seeing increased demand for their products, even they likely won’t emerge from this recession unscathed.
“Things are just awful,” says economist Paul Hodges, who studies trends in the chemical industry. “This is the worst economic environment since the Great Depression” of the 1930s. By the end of April, more than 30 million people in the US had filed for unemployment this year.
“There are good times to come out of college, and there are bad times. This is a bad time,” Hodges says. “There’s no point in trying to sugarcoat that pill.”
Nevertheless, survivors of past recessions, like Martínez, say that by keeping an open mind, broadening their networks, and developing an entrepreneurial mindset, recent graduates and other job seekers can still carve out a productive and satisfying career.
Stephanie Santos-Díaz was looking forward to graduating in June from Purdue University with her PhD in chemical education. She had decided to pursue a career in policy, and she saw several jobs that sounded promising. She even started applying for a few last fall.
But most of those prospects dried up when pandemic shutdowns hit. “It feels really stressful,” Santos-Díaz says. She spoke with C&EN from her apartment, where she was following a state stay-at-home order. An incessantly beeping fire alarm—it was too high for her to reach—seemed to highlight the urgency of her situation. “There is a lot of uncertainty in my near future,” she says.
Santos-Díaz is far from alone in feeling that uncertainty, judging from the academic chemists who spoke to C&EN about their experiences during the pandemic. Hundreds of schools have frozen hiring, and some have furloughed staff.
At Brown University, “it’s a freeze, but it’s not one style fits all,” says Lai-Sheng Wang, chair of the Chemistry Department. Brown froze hiring in March but still honored offers in any search in which finalists had been identified. The Chemistry Department had a search almost completed, but its pick turned down the job. Now the department has to wait and see whether it will be allowed to continue the search next year.
Wang says it’s a good trade-off to freeze hiring and salaries for now rather than furlough people. “We want to still emerge to be a strong institution,” he says. “You can’t just fire people, then get them back.”
At Indiana University Bloomington, Chemistry Department chair Caroline Chick Jarrold says her faculty roster is robust enough to make it through the university’s hiring freeze. For now, she is more concerned about several administrative positions that are opening up because of retirements, including a financial analyst, a purchasing manager, and a capital equipment manager. If possible, “we want to make sure we replace the staff we have,” she says. In the long term, the problem is “mostly just the uncertainty about how things will play out” and the resulting inability to plan, Jarrold says.
The gravity of the larger pandemic hit home for the department when a longtime faculty member died of COVID-19, Jarrold says. “Whatever we are going through is nothing compared to what family members are going through.”
Hiring freezes, furloughs, and other cost-cutting measures being taken in academia reflect the huge unknowns that US universities face in the pandemic, says Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU).
For many, the first financial blow was having to refund fees for residence halls and food when they shut down in the spring. But the real danger will be if universities are unable to bring students back on campuses in the fall. “It would be a fundamental threat to the institutions,” McPherson says.
Compounding the problem is the quick hit of the pandemic, which didn’t leave time to plan. In addition, many public universities had barely recovered from the 2008–9 recession because states were slow to restore funding cuts.
Some states have already reduced funding again for colleges and universities, and education institutions anticipate even more cuts, McPherson says. The APLU has asked Congress for support for public schools, including low-interest loans and an extension of tax breaks that were afforded to companies. “We are going to face real difficulties,” McPherson says. “We already are.”
Graduate students and postdocs are among the most vulnerable in the midst of these uncertainties. Rameez Ali, a postdoc at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, was planning to finish up his term at the end of this year. Now he’s not sure what will happen. Postdocs he knows “are really concerned about the job market because it takes a long time to recover,” he says.
Just a few months ago, Ali thought he might work full-time on a start-up company he is planning with his adviser. But venture capital funding looks less promising now, so they are applying for a small business grant from the government instead, he says.
The situation has him leaning more toward looking for a job in the pharmaceutical industry. He’s worried what time away from the lab under his state’s shelter-in-place order might do to his prospects. “Postdocs are supposed to be productive and really fast moving,” he says.
Ali says he will just have to wait and see. He and his fellow postdocs “are not depressed and crying,” he says. “We are optimistic and at the same time concerned.”
From what Jarrold has seen, pharmaceutical companies are still hiring, so the problem might be primarily for students who are looking for academic jobs. Her department might be able to keep students on by hiring temporarily to teach online courses, she says. Several faculty plan to keep postdocs on longer to make sure they have jobs.
When he first started graduate school at Brown, Stephen Kocheril was set on a career in academia. Now, the third-year graduate student isn’t sure whether that is realistic. “It will be a lot about what is available when I am at that point,” he says.
If the pandemic causes just one bad year, he might be in a good position to get an academic job the following year. But if it goes on longer, he will consider other options.
“It’s hard not to feel a little bit of worry,” he says. “The world is a scary place right now.”
Back at Purdue, Santos-Díaz still hopes one of the jobs she applied for will come through. If one doesn’t, she’s made a contingency plan to live with a friend nearby for a few months, which because of the proximity seems to her a better option than moving back to Puerto Rico, where she’s from.
Even if she gets one of the jobs she applied for, she knows a starting date could be delayed for months. “My funding runs out in July,” Santos-Díaz says. “I wouldn’t know what I would do in that transition. I still need to use money to survive.”
The chemical industry is also bracing for a tough economic climate. “Somebody hit a giant pause button,” says Ron McElhaney Jr., owner of Management Recruiters of Savannah, which recruits for the specialty chemical job market. “Over the last 3 months, my business has cratered. Nobody is hiring anybody.”
But McElhaney is optimistic that when the pandemic gets under control, hiring will come “roaring back.”
Others are not so sure. “It’s going to be several years before we come out the other side,” economist Hodges says. “And when we come out, we’ll be coming out in a completely different place from where we went in. There’s no business as usual here.” To survive, he says, businesses will need to focus on potential new opportunities that will develop.
Hodges predicts the petrochemical sector will be hit hard by the economic recession. “If you’re looking at ethylene and polyethylene, they are just a disaster area, and they’re not going to get any better,” Hodges says, noting that it’s just a matter of time before layoffs and hiring freezes hit these areas. “Inevitably, some companies are going to go bankrupt because the market is not there anymore,” he says.
Recent data on chemical industry output are sobering. According to the American Chemistry Council, a trade group, US chemical output is estimated to fall by around 3.3% in 2020 if shutdowns are lifted before the end of June, and output could drop by 6.5% if shutdowns last through the fourth quarter. Job losses could total 28,000, or 5.1% of the workforce, in 2020. Some chemical companies have announced hiring freezes. Huntsman, for example, announced in its first-quarter earnings call on May 1 that it is implementing a company-wide hiring freeze and suspending 2020 salary increases.
One area of employment that is likely to remain strong is in the pharmaceutical industry. In fact, many pharma companies C&EN spoke with said they are continuing to recruit. Jeffrey Sperry, associate director of process chemistry at Vertex Pharmaceuticals, says Vertex has 300 open positions. “We’re hiring new PhDs, we’re hiring new bachelor’s and new master’s candidates, we’re hiring across the entire spectrum,” Sperry says. The company is conducting interviews virtually.
Hiring at Merck & Co. is also continuing without missing a beat, says Ed Sherer, director of chemistry. “We continue to interview. A fair amount of my time right now is working on recruiting, sitting on interview panels.”
Recruiters in the biotech sector are equally busy. “We just went live on seven new chemistry-related searches last month alone, most of them at the senior director or the senior vice president level,” says Marc Miller, a partner at Klein Hersh, an executive recruiting firm for the life sciences. Some companies are willing to have someone start remotely, at least in the short term, he says.
Kerry Boehner, an executive recruiter at KOB Solutions, says that her clients are continuing to make job offers, although many are pushing start dates back a few months. “Ninety percent of my clients are still pressing forward,” she says. “There are certain fields that are just incredibly hot that are not going away, like CRISPR and tumor immunology.”
Venture capital firms in the biotech sector are also optimistic. “The past few years have seen strong hiring trends in the biotech space. I think in the near term we will see an acute pinch on hiring as a number of companies are doing hiring freezes, but I think it will resume its long-term strength into the end of the year,” says Bruce Booth, a partner at Atlas Venture, a venture capital firm focused on the early-stage biotech sector.
Despite the positive outlook, Hodges says the pharma industry will need to adapt to the pandemic environment as well. “What we’re seeing is that the global supply chains have proved very fragile, and those global supply chains have to be replaced with local supply chains. The pharma industry in 5–10 years’ time in the [United] States is not going to be the same as it is today.”
“I think you’re going to see a lot more companies maybe look to do manufacturing in the US, so they may look to have more of their research here in the States versus outsourcing everything overseas,” Miller says. “I think you’re going to see companies spread their contract research organization resources around, and some of that by nature could come back to the US and create new jobs here as well.”
Pharmaceuticals aside, COVID-19 does provide one bright spot for the broader chemical industry. “Anything that’s related to cleaning chemicals, no question about it, companies are hiring,” says Patrick B. Ropella, CEO of the Ropella Group, an executive search firm specializing in the chemical industry and allied fields. But those aren’t necessarily jobs for chemists. “They’re adding shift personnel to keep up with manufacturing,” Ropella says.
Ropella sees hopeful trends on the horizon for higher-level, higher-skill jobs. A lot of baby boomers who put off retirement because of the 2008 recession might pull the trigger on their plans now that they are furloughed or working from home. Their spouses are asking, “Why go back to an economy in chaos? Now that you’re home, why don’t we just finally retire and enjoy life?” Ropella says. These retirements would open up senior positions. He says he’s seen “huge” numbers of retirement announcements on LinkedIn since stay-at-home orders took effect.
In addition, though many companies have frozen hiring for the moment, Ropella says the executives he’s talking to express a “pent-up demand to fill open positions” as soon as the economy returns to something like normal.
Whatever happens with the chemistry job market, Martínez and other chemists who navigated the Great Recession say that the key to surviving is to be flexible, broaden your skill set, grow your network, and accept that your career path may end up looking very different from what you envisioned.
Martínez says his most important advice for new graduates at all levels is to think about what skills they have that make them good candidates for positions in chemistry as well as in adjacent areas.
Kate Kadash-Edmondson seconds that advice. She had just completed a postdoc in 2008 and was searching for a faculty position without success. A side job doing scientific writing turned into a full-time business helping write grant proposals and editing scientific papers. Today, Kadash-Edmondson is a senior scientific writer for the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and she has no regrets about how her career path unfolded. “I came of age at a time when the economy sucked. The traditional route wasn’t really open to me, so I had to look at these nontraditional routes. And it worked out for me,” she says. “My recommendation to people would be to look at what you’re good at and try everything.”
Darryl Boyd, a research chemist at the US Naval Research Laboratory, also recommends not ruling anything out. He says that if it weren’t for the tough job market in 2008, he never would have considered a job with the federal government. “In fact, I had not even heard of the Naval Research Lab at the time that my adviser mentioned it to me,” he says. “But it’s turned into a pretty good landing spot.”
Some new graduates may extend their education as a way to weather the recession. Joseph Meany was supposed to graduate with his bachelor’s degree from Keene State College in 2008, but because of the recession, he took additional classes and graduated the following year. “I ended up coming 1,500-odd mi [2,414 km] down to Alabama, and I started a PhD program in January of 2010. It was not my first choice to go to graduate school, but in retrospect I’m glad that I did.” In 2016, Meany graduated from the University of Alabama with his PhD. He is now a postdoc at Savannah River National Laboratory.
Contract positions through temp agencies like Aerotek or Kelly Services can also be a good way for people to get their foot in the door. Chemical and pharmaceutical companies, like a lot of employers, use temporary hires to respond quickly to sharp increases in demand and other shifts in the marketplace.
“There are times where we need somebody to come in and fill a role for, say, 6–18 months, and if that person is really energetic and really hits the ground running and does a great job, we’re going to try really hard to keep that person,” Vertex’s Sperry says. “If you have a contract worker come in and spend months training to do that job, the last thing you want is to lose that person.”
But most importantly, job seekers shouldn’t give up. Andrés Cisneros says he sent out 60 or 70 job applications in 2008, “and I got nothing. Absolutely no interviews.” Things began turning the corner for him in 2009. After applying to another 70 positions, he got three interviews—one in academia, one in industry, and one in government. “Out of literally 100-and-something applications over 2 years, I only had one job offer,” he says. He ended up getting a tenure-track position at Wayne State University.
Now a tenured faculty member at the University of North Texas, Cisneros encourages his students to stay positive and to use this time at home to broaden their skills. “Try to be as proactive as possible in training on all the different skills you’re going to need, not only the research and teaching skills,” he says, adding that communication skills will always be valuable. Cisneros also reminds his students that they are not alone and that everyone will have gaps in their training and productivity. “We’re all going through challenges,” he says. But “we’re in this together.”
With additional reporting by Craig Bettenhausen