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The employment outlook for chemists

by Bibiana Campos-Seijo
September 27, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 37


This week, Chemjobber tackles employment during these pandemic times in his monthly Bench & Cubicle column for C&EN (see page 29 ). He tells us that while the hiring for assistant professors for fall 2021 positions in the US is already underway, the number of jobs that have been posted so far is just above a quarter of what it usually is at this stage.

This is disappointing but unsurprising, given the well-documented impact that the coronavirus pandemic is having on the global economy. Indeed, according to the American Chemical Society’s recently published member survey (see page 26), ACS members around the world are concerned about the status of the economy, with members in Brazil and Spain the most worried about the economy in their countries, and Italy and the UK not far behind. ACS members in the US are not optimistic about its future either: 65% of those respondents reported that they believe conditions are getting worse.

Interestingly, despite the tough economic times, many US respondents to ACS’s survey report that they have not seen their employment situations change as a consequence of the pandemic, with 18% reporting a loss of income, 13% reporting a reduction in work hours, 3% reporting being temporarily laid off, and 2% reporting being permanently let go. Although ACS members’ employment situations may not have changed, their conditions of employment have. In a smaller survey of about 350 members and nonmembers that C&EN carried out earlier this year to gauge the health of the recruitment market, 39% of respondents in academia confirmed that their institutions had frozen salaries or delayed promotions because of the pandemic. Only 29% of respondents in this sector reported that their institutions had implemented no such measures. And 47% of respondents in academic institutions confirmed that their organizations had gone as far as implementing staff furloughs. The majority of affected staff were in administrative or part-time positions; in some cases, the furloughs were the result of voluntary eliminations. Further, 45% of respondents confirmed that hiring new faculty during the 2020–21 academic year was not at all likely. By comparison, 48% of respondents from the commercial sector reported all or some positions going into a hiring freeze, with many citing “2021” or “6 months to 1 year” as the earliest they expected this freeze lifting.

Student internships and summer research experiences were also affected, according to C&EN’s survey. Seventy-four percent of respondents in academic institutions reported seeing such programs partly or fully halted at their institutions; 41% of respondents suffered the same fate with programs in industry. Importantly, 10% of academic respondents and 36% of respondents in industry explained that their organizations do not host these kinds of programs.

For those organizations still hiring and doing so internationally, 34% of academic respondents to the C&EN survey reported difficulties attracting international talent because of the pandemic, though the group that answered “not sure” was considerably large (44%), signaling significant uncertainty in that area. By contrast, 12% of respondents in industry reported difficulties, with the “not sure” group being even larger at 47%.

Despite the uncertainty, Chemjobber encourages those in the academic job market—although this is probably applicable to everybody—to persevere and take the time to learn about and familiarize themselves with the recruitment process. It’s not ideal, but frustratingly, there’s not much we can do. We can only hope that we regain some sense of normality soon. The pandemic has taught us many things, and perhaps the most important are resilience, flexibility, and endurance. It looks like we are going to need as much as we can muster.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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