I’ve been working in industrial chemistry since 2009, and I haven’t been laid off yet. But like bad yields and tricky emulsions, layoffs have always been with us, and layoffs are never far from my mind.
I remember as a child waiting for a bus on a busy city street with my father, an engineer, as he glumly mentioned to me that his workplace was undergoing a “reorganization.” He didn’t bother to explain that euphemism to his kindergarten-age son. Years later, he revealed to me that his company had decided on a particularly cruel way to implement its plans: it told everyone in the department that they had been laid off and then asked them to reapply for their positions. I suspect there were magically fewer positions available after the announcement. Sadly, it was not the only time the ax was swung at his company.
The subject of layoffs came crashing into my life again when I was in graduate school. At the time, my favorite chemistry blogger, Derek Lowe, wrote that his work site was going to be closed and that his position would be eliminated. My close friend, who was the best man at my wedding, was also at that site, and he told me via text that he had been let go as well. I learned then what many others knew: the pharmaceutical industry wasn’t immune to layoffs.
Then came the Great Recession from December 2007 to June 2009. During that time, and for many years afterward, it seemed like there was an announcement every other month about a new group of scientists that were going to need to find new places to work.
When I became a postdoctoral fellow at a pharmaceutical company in 2007, I arrived in the wake of a large reorganization. My least favorite memory from that time is a newly laid-off colleague making a wry joke about the CEO, which started in chuckles and ended in tears.
Layoffs may be on the rise again. In October, the consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas noted that layoffs were up 4% in the pharmaceutical industry and up 16% in the chemical industry this year compared with 2018. And just last month, we learned of the closure of Amgen’s neuroscience site in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with the loss of 180 positions.
How do chemists keep sane during uncertain economic times? When I listen to experienced scientists who have been through layoffs, what I hear in their voices are weary determination and similar advice: try to keep a clear head, be aware of the vagaries of the stock market and quarterly results, and control the things that you can control—namely, the science that you’re doing.
I have to ask myself, though—How is that even possible? How is it possible to not think about a disruption in your career, a career that gives so many people meaning and purpose? Chemistry gives chemists fascinating, intricate problems to solve, a chance to try to do good in the world, and an opportunity to create something useful and interesting. Often (but not often enough), these positions are well paid, have generous benefits, and help chemists support themselves and their loved ones. How can you control the fear of losing so much of your life?
Having never experienced a layoff, I can’t offer firsthand advice. But I think it’s important to try to spend some time cultivating our identities other than “chemist.” You may also be a friend, a spouse, and a community member. While those aren’t the identities that define how you make a living, it’s important to be a whole person so that on the maybe-inevitable day when “chemist” is taken from you, you don’t completely lose your identity.
Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.