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Career, interrupted

Those looking for academic positions in chemistry in the US and Canada in 2020–21 found fewer opportunities in an already-tight market

by Bethany Halford
September 12, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 33
A woman stands on a road leading to an academic building. In front of her, a loading sign blocks her path, and the rest of the path beyond that is blurred.

Credit: Luisa Jung


Lorenzo Mosca has dreamed of becoming a chemistry professor for more than a decade, ever since he was a graduate student in Italy. As someone who enjoys teaching and research equally, he thought academia would be a perfect fit for him. He could mentor students and continue to make advances in his field of organic materials. Without question, he said, an academic career has always been plan A.

In brief

Finding an academic job in chemistry is always challenging, with far more job seekers than available faculty positions. The COVID-19 pandemic made the process of getting one of those coveted professor positions even more difficult: fewer academic jobs were available than in years past, candidates had to interview remotely, and the entire hiring process took months longer than usual. Read on for stories of academic job seekers and employers in the US and Canada during the 2020–21 hiring season.

When C&EN first spoke with Mosca in March, he had applied for more than 40 jobs but had been through only screening interviews. “Right now, I’m in a tough place,” he said. The uncertainty had led him to mull over plan B—applying for visiting professor positions—and plan C—looking for a job in industry. “I have a plan D, which is opening a pottery studio,” he joked at the time. “But that’s far away in the future.”

The quip belied Mosca’s predicament. Several years into his second postdoctoral fellowship, he knew he was at a make-or-break moment for his career. If he didn’t land a tenure-track job this year, the odds were that he would never get one. Unfortunately, Mosca’s job search coincided with one of the toughest academic job markets in recent memory.

Landing a job as a chemistry professor is never easy—there are always far more applicants than positions. But the 2020–21 academic hiring season was particularly tough. Many job seekers had to rethink the types of academic positions they would consider. Others weighed postponing their search in hopes of an improved market the following year. In some cases, scientists abandoned their dreams of becoming professors entirely.

So how bad was the job market for chemistry professors? Since 2016, C&EN columnist Chemjobber and industrial chemist Andrew Spaeth have maintained a list of open tenure-track and teaching positions in chemistry in the US and Canada. They say the numbers tell a clear story: chemists looking to start their careers as professors were competing for far fewer opportunities in the 2020–21 hiring season than in years past.

The pandemic and the uncertainty kind of gave me a kick in the pants to know that I needed to be brave and look beyond what I had originally envisioned for myself.
Annelise Gorensek-Benitez, lecturer, Colorado College

The academic hiring season in the US starts in earnest in September and wraps up the following June. Throughout that time, schools post positions that will be open for the following academic year. Chemjobber and Spaeth’s final tallies each June from 2017 to 2020 indicate that more than 550 academic chemistry jobs were posted each year. By June 2021, only 339 job openings had been posted—a roughly 40% decrease from years past.

Job seekers who spoke with C&EN found that the 2020–21 hiring cycle was unusually drawn out, with offers delayed by months. Restrictions on travel and campus visitors meant that candidates had to interview using Zoom and had to rely on video tours to get a sense of their potential lab space. Job seekers, who were deciding where to spend those critical early years of their independent careers, had a tough time. And they weren’t alone. Employers, who were making significant investments in new hires, also say the process was difficult.

A woman holding a pen looks at the Classifieds section of a newspaper, which is blurred and covered by a loading sign.
Credit: Luisa Jung

Missing jobs

Aaron Teator first applied for academic jobs in 2019, during his second year as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He didn’t get any offers his first time applying, which is common. He planned to try again during the 2020–21 academic hiring season.

But Teator noticed early on that there were fewer jobs. He estimates that he applied for about 50 jobs during the 2019–20 hiring season. The next year, he applied to only 20 positions. And more than half those openings were posted after October—traditionally the peak of academic job postings in the US. “In the beginning, I thought, ‘This is terrible. This is not good at all,’ ” Teator recalls.

Fewer opportunities
There was a dramatic drop in the total number of open tenure-track and teaching positions in chemistry in the US and Canada during the 2020–21 academic hiring season compared with previous years.
Graph showing the number of open academic jobs was far less in the 2020-21 hiriing season than in the previous 4 years.
Sources: Andrew Spaeth, Chemjobber.

That late start to the academic season seemed to snowball. Usually, US schools have made their job offers and started announcing their new faculty hires by March. C&EN spoke with 19 academic hopefuls about their experiences on the job market in the US and Canada during the 2020–21 season. By March, only 9 had firm job offers, but many would receive offers in the months to come—with some coming as late as May. Those 2 months may seem trivial, but having so little time can create challenges, such as relocation difficulties and problems recruiting students to labs.

When C&EN first talked with Teator in mid-March, he didn’t have an offer and still hadn’t heard from several schools. “The constant waiting is the stress-inducing part of this,” he said at the time.

Teator applied for faculty jobs at large research institutions in the US, which typically host prospective graduate students—the lifeblood of any early-career scientist’s lab—in February and March. Teator worried that even if he did get a position, he might have a tough time recruiting for his group.

In March, Teator wasn’t certain if he was prepared to go through it all again. “It’s just such a long process,” he said. Although an academic career was what he wanted and where he thought he’d excel, he said if he didn’t get a faculty position this time around, “I think it would be time to look at other avenues.”

Fortunately for Teator, a job offer arrived in April. He accepted an assistant professor position at the University of Kansas.

Teator wasn’t the only one who noticed the dearth of postings. “I was very concerned about the number of jobs,” says Annelise Gorensek-Benitez, who was in a visiting teaching position at Davidson College when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. “The pandemic added a sense of urgency and scariness to the job search,” she says.

Gorensek-Benitez’s dream was to find a teaching-focused position at a small liberal arts school. But the pandemic made such opportunities seem more perilous. A lot of small schools have been at risk of closing, she says, and she wondered if it would be safer to find a teaching position at a state school.

In the past, Gorensek-Benitez had limited her job search to schools in the southern US. But with fewer opportunities in that region during the 2020–21 hiring season, she expanded her search. She says the pandemic also made this expansion possible: her husband had been working at home for months, proving that he could do his actuarial job remotely.

“The pandemic and the uncertainty kind of gave me a kick in the pants to know that I needed to be brave and look beyond what I had originally envisioned for myself,” Gorensek-Benitez says. “And when I did, I found an amazing job.” In late August, she started her job teaching the laboratory courses for general chemistry and biochemistry at Colorado College.

Tough decisions

The pandemic forced some academic hopefuls to face decisions they might have otherwise avoided. Alana Ogata had intended for the 2020–21 academic hiring season to be a practice round. She was only a year and a half into her postdoc at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and she reasoned that she would apply to academic positions to build her confidence and identify how to make her application stronger for the next academic hiring season.

Then in January, the University of Toronto Mississauga offered Ogata a position as an assistant professor in analytical chemistry. But with the US-Canada border closed, she wouldn’t get to see the university. “I had to accept the position without ever visiting Canada,” she says. She had to decide if she would wait and gamble on the job market being better next year.

Ultimately, Ogata says, the offer was too good to turn down. To get a feel for Toronto, she spoke with colleagues and graduate students at the university and watched videos about Toronto. She moved to Canada in July.

Caleb Tatebe also thought he might have to make a tough decision about his career path. After 2 years of postdoctoral studies at Youngstown State University, Tatebe was looking for faculty positions at primarily undergraduate institutions, where he could focus on his passion for teaching and mentoring. By March, Tatebe was still waiting to hear from a few of the more than a dozen schools he’d applied to.

Some people make it look very easy to get an academic position, but it hasn’t been easy.
Alan Enciso, job seeker

The uncertainty made life challenging. “I like to plan things out as far as I can. And so knowing that part of it is out of your hands definitely is a point of frustration,” Tatebe says. “But it is part of the process.”

Although his postdoctoral mentor said he could stay on for another year, Tatebe wondered if his curriculum vitae would be more attractive to schools if he had more teaching experience. As his job search dragged on, he started to apply for yearlong visiting faculty positions. That decision, Tatebe says, weighed heavily on him. A visiting role would likely mean uprooting his two young children and then moving them again a year later.

But in May, Tatebe’s situation brightened. He was offered and subsequently took a tenure-track position at Presbyterian College in South Carolina. “The academic job cycle is always a whirlwind,” he says. “I’m excited to see what happens.”

Alternatives to academia

Some chemists reconsidered looking at academic jobs altogether because of the tight job market. Gongfang Hu, a postdoc studying organic materials for catalysis at Yale University, also applied for academic jobs during the 2020–21 season. He had a few preliminary phone interviews and two longer, in-depth interviews in December 2020, but he didn’t receive any offers. The process made him wonder if the problem is the tight job market or something in his qualifications. He did a lot of self-reflection.

Hu plans to apply for both academic and nonacademic jobs during the 2021–22 season. “I expect the competition of the academic job hunt will be severe this year,” he says. “So I am exploring some nonacademic pathways,” including industrial and editorial positions.

When Alan Enciso came to the US from Mexico to do his PhD, he had dreams of becoming a chemistry professor. He had a passion for research, so he sought a position at a large university with a strong research program. He applied for about 60 academic jobs during the 2019–20 hiring season without success. In 2020–21, he found only 10 jobs that seemed like a good fit.

“Some people make it look very easy to get an academic position, but it hasn’t been easy,” Enciso says. “Every day, it seems more impossible.”

The pandemic prompted Enciso to leave a postdoc at Northwestern University for an entrepreneurial research fellowship in industry sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the American Society for Engineering Education. He wanted to be closer to his wife, he says, who was living and working in Pittsburgh. And he needed more money to support his mother and sister in Mexico, who had lost their jobs because of the pandemic.

Enciso didn’t get any academic job offers this year, and he has decided to look for jobs in industry and government.

Searching for a colleague

At the other end of those academic jobs are the chemistry departments, and they were also feeling challenged by hiring amid a pandemic. C&EN spoke with several chemistry department heads that were trying to recruit new faculty in 2021. They say the pandemic made hiring much more difficult.

In years past, candidates for faculty jobs were invited to campus to present their research proposals and meet members of the department. This event is typically a 2-day affair with some wining and dining and lots of time for job seekers and existing faculty to interact and determine whether the candidate is a good fit for the school and the department. Like most events during the COVID-19 pandemic, interviews were moved to Zoom. “Discussions are just not as organic and flexible when meeting on Zoom as they are in person,” says Alison Keimowitz, head of the Chemistry Department at Vassar College. Vassar’s chemistry department was looking to fill two positions during the past academic hiring season—a biochemistry professor and a lab coordinator.

Some of my colleagues thought we were crazy to be running a search.
Craig MacKinnon, Chemistry Department head, Lakehead University

Keimowitz says it was sometimes difficult to get a good sense of candidates virtually, and likewise, it was difficult for candidates to get a sense of the school. “I think the biggest disadvantage was not being able to show the candidates our physical space, particularly the lab space,” she says. “We have a beautiful new building, and it’s a real selling point. And to be like, ‘Here’s a video of our beautiful new building’ is definitely not the same thing.”


“Some of my colleagues thought we were crazy to be running a search,” says Craig MacKinnon, head of the Chemistry Department at Lakehead University, which was looking to fill a faculty position in biofuel research during the 2020-21 hiring season. Lakehead is a relatively small university, MacKinnon says, and faculty must collaborate and share equipment. “All of that means there has to be collegiality,” he says. The best way to get a feel for how a candidate will work as a colleague, he says, is to share a meal or to just chat with them face to face.

Also, with all the candidates’ interviews done over Zoom, MacKinnon says, he wondered how much he and his colleagues were focusing on candidates’ ability to use the platform. If a person gave a great presentation, was it because they were a great researcher or just great at using Zoom?

The chemistry department heads who spoke with C&EN said that Zoom wasn’t all bad. Most said the video platform simplified the preliminary screening of faculty candidates.

Justin Lytle, chair of the Chemistry Department at Pacific Lutheran University during the 2020-21 academic year, says that in years past, the entire department would sit in during a phone call with each semifinalist in a faculty search. During the 2020-21 hiring season, when the school was looking to fill a position in analytical chemistry, semifinalist interviews were done using Zoom and recorded with the candidates’ permission. That meant that only a few people from the department needed to be present for the interview, and others could watch the recording later. “We’ve not had the luxury of that in the past,” Lytle says, and it’s likely the department will continue the practice in the future.

Lytle says he and his colleagues wondered if doing a faculty search during the pandemic was the right decision. Lytle says he and his colleagues weren’t certain how the pandemic would affect the university’s finances. They decided to move forward with the search, he says, “because we thought we may not get another chance.”

It’s too soon to tell if academic job opportunities will pick up during the 2021–22 hiring season. But Lakehead’s MacKinnon is optimistic. “I think that the job market is going to rebound,” he says. “I think there is going to be pent-up demand.”

David Blank, Chemistry Department head at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, agrees. His department completed an academic search this year even though the school was under a hiring freeze. “We all have to maintain a certain number of faculty,” he says.

One person who won’t have to wait to see if the academic job market recovers this year is Lorenzo Mosca, who was facing a make-or-break career moment and considering pottery as an alternative to academia back in March. In April he interviewed for a tenure-track position at the University of Rhode Island. By the end of the month, he’d accepted the job, and he officially started in August. “It clicked at the right time,” he says.


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