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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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« Deep Breaths | Main | The Doctorate and Its Discontents »

April 15, 2007

Doctorate or Not?

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Posted by Derek

There's been a lively discussion in the comments thread to this post about the differences between hiring PhD and associate-level chemists. Anyone who's interested in the topic should have a look, because there are a number of issues in play: chemical knowledge, ability to manage direct reports, adaptability, and more.

There's little doubt that non-Phds have an easier time getting hired. There's almost always a ceiling over their heads, rarely one as transparent as glass, but finding a place under it isn't as hard as finding one off to its side. One question that's come up is whether chemists with doctorates could (or should) apply for associate-level positions.

This has been done - but it usually involves deception. If you have a PhD on your CV, most places just aren't going to consider you for an associate job - thinking (probably correctly) that you're going to be more trouble than you're worth. The feeling is also, even in down job markets, that you're selling yourself short by going for these jobs, and that there must be some good reason why you're doing so. . .

I have personally seen a case that bears on this. Karl (as I'll call him) was a pretty good associate. Not (I'd say) the absolute best we had at the time, but definitely above average. A vacancy appeared in the PhD ranks in the group, and Karl stunned the group leader involved by marching in to his office and revealing that he actually had his doctorate, and that he was interested in applying for the position.

What happened to him? Well, he was fired. He was fired reluctantly, and people in the organization found him a position with a small company in the area, but he was fired. He'd lied on his job application materials, and the company's legal department had only to hear that before they ruled that there was no other choice. How could we deal with people who lied about other things on their applications if we kept him on?

The problem was that as things stood, Karl would have moved from being one of the best associates to being one of the lesser PhDs. His strengths and weaknesses at the time fit better for an associate position than as a lab head. And that brings up another question from the comment thread: are too many people going on to get doctorates? I have no idea myself, but I have to say, it's not an unreasonable thought. . .

Comments (120) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Graduate School | Life in the Drug Labs


1. ToBeRead on April 15, 2007 9:07 PM writes...

As an MS-level chemist, one of the most frustrating issues is the assumption that I'm a wanna-be PhD. I didn't get my PhD for various reasons (some personal, some scientific) but after 10 years in industry, I've realized that I like my work and I'm good at it. I know myself, and I would have been a mediocre PhD, at best. But whenever I go on a job interview, I'm constantly badgered about "why didn't I get my PhD". It's as if the interviewers don't believe me when I say that I'm happy with the work I'm doing, and that I'd rather improve and become a better MS chemist than try to be something that I'm not.

I'm heading back out into the job market, and hoping I can find a good response to those inevitable questions, "if you're so good at your job, why aren't you a PhD?"

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2. Another Kevin on April 15, 2007 10:59 PM writes...

Hmm, it's not clear that falsifying a *lack* of credentials is perpetrating a fraud. For someone to assert a PhD that doesn't exist is clearly fraudulent, but to fail to mention having one? Can one lie by keeping silent?

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3. Derek Lowe on April 15, 2007 11:06 PM writes...

The legal department's answer to that was "yes, indeed". I believe that things were worded as "highest degree attained" at some point, so there was really no way out of it. I think the same thing would happen almost anywhere else.

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4. Betsy on April 16, 2007 1:24 AM writes...

I sometimes wonder if it was worth it to get my PhD. I spent 6 years in grad school, 6 years as a postdoc, and am now doing much of the same work as the RAs at our company. Was it worth it to not be making a decent salary all those years? I assume it will pay off in the long run, but for now I'm not so sure.

I agree with you that Non-PhD.s absolutely have an easier time finding jobs. It took me nearly 2 years to get a job in industry, and I'm already worried about having to find the next one.

Are too many people getting doctorates? Maybe. Perhaps the bigger issue is that most grad schools only train students to become academic researchers (I'm speaking for the biological sciences here; I don't think chemistry is quite as academia-focused). There has definitely been a push in recent years to expose students to "alternative careers", though there isn't any real effort to train students, nor is there much support for students to diversify their training in order to prepare for such alternatives.

There needs to be a significant change in the way we train PhDs for it to be worth it to keep producing so many of them.

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5. Analytical Chemist on April 16, 2007 8:04 AM writes...

We had a case like Karl's at my company, but the guy wasn't fired (why I do not know--I would have fired him). Instead, they automatically promoted him to a PhD position and he spent the next 6 years doing a remarkably mediocre job. When the layoffs came, he was the first to go. In contrast, a number of non-PhD scientists in the same group have begun to break through the glass ceiling by merit. Sure, they have to be the best to do so, but when they do, they can indeed compete at that level.

In my book, there are too many people getting poor quality PhDs that are then not able to compete effectively in the job market. I have seen people quit excellent MS jobs in big pharma to go back to get a PhD at a lower tier school, and I wonder if their investment is really a good one after all. I really think not on a number of levels. I could easily imagine them earning less money when they get their first PhD job (if the get one). The advice I give people who are thinking about going back to get their PhD is "do it right or not at all." I just had lunch with two such recipients of this advice, both successful current grad students at MIT. Them I'm not worried about, but there are some others...

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6. M.S. chemist on April 16, 2007 8:36 AM writes...

As someone who left a top 5 Ph.D. program with an Masters, I don’t regret my decision one bit. I have received job offers from every interview I’ve ever been on and when my company got sold last year, it was much much MUCH easier for the associate-level people (like myself) to get new jobs than the Ph.D.s. Companies like us because we have essentially the same knowledge base as a Ph.D. but they don’t have to pay us as much. Yes, I could have (unhappily) stayed in school to finish my Ph.D., but I’m not sure it would have made me 1. a better chemist and 2. more marketable.

Interestingly, it also seems like those students who intended originally to get a Ph.D. but then stopped with an M.S. are more desireable than those whose intentions were an M.S. from the beginning. Does that have to do with one’s perceived ambitions? Or is research tailored differently to an M.S. candidate vs a Ph.D. candidate?

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7. Tom on April 16, 2007 8:52 AM writes...

I am about to finish up as an undergrad and I am thinking pretty hard about what I should do. I have a decent amount of research experience: I did a summer at a biotech doing peptide/small molecule synthesis, a year at my school in which I designed and synthed a 12 step route to an analouge of an already existing drug, and I have spent a summer working on new reaction methodology involving cyclopropanes.

The MS route seems attractive, or should I just apply for a BS position and see what I get in industry? I am pretty confident that I could get into a pretty good grad school, but I am no prof. and I don't want to waste my time.

What would you do if you were in my shoes?

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8. eugene on April 16, 2007 9:38 AM writes...

Tom: If I were you, I'd get a Masters. Only two more years and just as marketable as a Bachelors, but you start at a much higher salary (from what I've heard on this site if no one else is going to answer you).

Analytical Chemist: So you suggest that anyone at a school that's not ranked top 10 is wasting their time on a PhD? That's a little elitist, but realistic. But please don't suggest that chemists coming out of schools that are not top 10 are all automatically worse than the others. We know it's not true.

Well, there is one good reason to get a PhD and why I'm looking forward to finishing it. If you do it right, you can get a post-doc in a good group anywhere. And I don't mean the metropolis of Urbana-Champaign. I mean France, Spain, or Germany (I'm not sure I can find good groups in my field in Italy though...). It would be hard to hold a good temporary job there otherwise. I'm definitely looking forward to it.

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9. LNT on April 16, 2007 9:39 AM writes...

Tom, my advice would be to attempt to get a good associate position right out of your BS. It's hard, but very possible given your experience with synthesis. I interviewed and ultimately hired a BS chemist right out of school -- she's done a fantastic job and she's a great fit. Doing a 2-3 year MS degree would have made finding a job easier for her, but I'm not sure it would have made any difference in her pay level (because she will have 2-3 years experience by the time she would have just been applying for her first job had she gotten an MS)

Apply for jobs -- if you can't find a good one within 2-3 months, then go back and get an MS.

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10. Justin on April 16, 2007 10:08 AM writes...


LNT has good advice. If you don't think grad school is for you, don't do it.

Personally, I would suggest you try to get in at the best company possible. It may make it easier to find another job if you have Pfizer or Merck on your resume, and the pay is probably better (though they are usually located in expensive areas to live in). I can't comment though on what BS chemists do there, but hopefully someone here can.

If you want to try your hand at a very small biotech, along the lines of what you did during your summer work at a biotech, but with probably more responsibility, e-mail me at: jbrower(at)argolyn(dot)com

We may have an opening for a good BS/MS with peptide experience around the time you graduate.

Sorry for the shameless plug Derek.

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11. Tom on April 16, 2007 10:27 AM writes...

Justin: Hah.. Thanks. I have 2 semesters left here(seems like I am wasting my time though because I think I am ready to move on.. who needs gen req. to succeed anyway.)

I think I will probably apply to several companies out of college and see what I can do. Perhaps after I spend some time working in a lab I can figure out later if I really want to go back to school.

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12. Wavefunction on April 16, 2007 11:03 AM writes...

Freeman Dyson says that the PhD. system is an abomination on higher education. It sure is...for supremely gifted people like Dyson.

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13. Camel on April 16, 2007 11:49 AM writes...

I've seen many having the same thoughts in the past.
It was a different choice and personal preference for me.
If you get education for the job, priority is getting the job quicker and easier. In my case, I never doubted my decision in my life getting Ph.D. There are different niches for MS and PhD even if they seem to work similarly. To me, personal satisfaction was the first priority and the job was the second. Ph.D. may not get a good paycheck relative to their time and effort spent for study and postdoc, etc.
I am still happy with what I am doing without a big paycheck. If I go back to the past, I would do the same but more efficiently.
Remember, during Ph.D. you learn philosophy not just techniques.

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14. Ryan on April 16, 2007 12:10 PM writes...

I can attest that getting a job after getting my PhD is a lot harder than I initially expected. I definitely have to work harder and make my own way now.

I still think it was a good idea, I am attempting to work for myself and pursue my own ideas, however I don't have the luxury of taking any job and relieving the stress.

In any case, who wants to work for someone else and let them reap the benefits when you can work for yourself.

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15. Benjamin on April 16, 2007 12:11 PM writes...

One question comes to mind - why do people go for a doctorate? For me, pursuit of knowledge and subsequent problem solving skills (independent of industry) were the main drivers.
Given a choice, I would rather work with people who excel in their job, like what they do and stimulate/challenge you, independent of their degree. You have an influence the people you work with - at every level.

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16. Ethel on April 16, 2007 12:31 PM writes...

It takes a tremendous amount of drive, passion and plain old determination to get through a PhD. Is salary really the motivator for most of us PhDs? I would assert not. For me, it definitely was not a consideration until much later. In fact, someone once asked me "if you never realized financial gain from your PhD, would you still do it?" The answer was "yes" and I stick by it, even though I make a lot less money than college friends who went into business, or those in chemistry/biochem who stopped at master's and went on to careers in industry.

I have always been fascinated by biochemistry, for me the pathways that everyone hates were illuminating and I couldn't get enough of feedback loops! Getting reactions to work that nobody believed could be done was like a druggie high! I loved developing assays, learning new techniques & technologies, figuring things out on my own terms and putting together pieces from disparate disciplines for my own use. One of my professors insisted that I'd be much more employable with a master's degree, and I do agree with this - we all see from the above thread of comments that this appears to be the case, but that wasn't my prime motivator and I don't regret spending the time doing a PhD even though it made me "less employable" and put me back financially.

Like everyone else, though, I "grew up" and the financial worth of my PhD started to concern me. By the time I finished my graduate work in 2000, I knew I should get training in a practical technology (ie: commercially viable and in high demand) so I went on to do a post doc in mass spectrometry in a nationally prominent lab. I quickly learned that I only cared about mass spec as a tool, that you couldn't turn this biochemist into an analytical chemist, so I went back to the life sciences side, but the mass spec experience was very useful to me in my future projects. I have since learned and truly believe that it is incredibly useful to learn other disciplines and try to meld concepts and methodologies from other fields into your own. It has turned me into a very rare breed of scientist cross-trained in multiple domains (I crossed the IT divide, then the business divide; am now running an emerging biomedical informatics company that is beginning to win recognition while the software is gaining rapid adoption in the research community). THESE people are in high demand in the sciences today and that is what I look for when I hire people, BS, MS or PhD! I have started advising grad students and postdocs to look at careers and experiences that sit at the intersection of different disciplines and find a niche that speaks to their interests and abilities in which to get further training.

I think you should do your PhD if it drives you. For me, the financial worth would NOT have been enough of a motivator to get through the troughs (and there were a lot of them!) of graduate school. I give the same advice to my own children: find your passion and let that drive you. You need to keep in mind the financial plan, but I don't think that should be your prime motivator. Unless your crystal ball is working better than mine, no one can predict how long it will take you to find a job, or how your degree(s) will or will not translate financially. I have always bucked the trend and did things anyone (who didn't know me better) would have tried to discourage me from doing (marrying young, having children in grad school, spearheading risky projects), but you have to be the trailblazer personality to carry this through. You have to ask yourself whether you will ever regret having attained knowledge and the experience of independent research, even if it turns out to be not as lucrative as stopping at a master's degree, or makes you less employable. If the answer is YES, then the PhD is not for you.

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17. Soapchemist on April 16, 2007 12:41 PM writes...

Why would anyone want to get a PhD, you ask?

I guess it truly depends on your career aspirations. I am an MS chemist, have not had any trouble during the last time of unemployment in gaining a new position, and feel that going back for a PhD is pointless given my desire to remain in industry. Yes, there is certainly the 'glass ceiling' and yes it is likely I will never rise above group leader without a PhD. Fact of the matter, though, is unless one has a distinguished academic pedigree, the job search within industry will likely be very challenging, if not outright unfruitful.

Thus, the only reason I would go back for a PhD, with my lack of 'top 5' pedigree, would be in pursuit of an academic position, likely at a lesser 4-year institution. Why might I do that? The answer to this question is simple, I do enjoy teaching, a profession I dabbled in in a past life, so-to-speak.

Tom: Only go back to school for your MS if you really want it. It sounds as though you may be qualified with your current research experience. Weigh your decision carefully.

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18. datadriven on April 16, 2007 1:05 PM writes...

Ethel wrote "It takes a tremendous amount of drive, passion and plain old determination to get through a PhD. Is salary really the motivator for most of us PhDs? I would assert not."

I agree that, during those young grad school years, money was not a driving decision-making force, but the passing of a dozen years, a huge mortgage, two kids and a spouse to support make the money MUCH more important ...

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19. Corey on April 16, 2007 2:06 PM writes...

I am an undergrad that is graduating in May. I am having a delima because I have a job offer as a production chemist I with Sigma-Aldrich, but I also have been accepted into graduate school. Which route should I go and why?

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20. Janet on April 16, 2007 2:36 PM writes...


I would argue that under your definition of 'why someone should pursue a PhD' the vast majority of current PhD holders would not have gotten the degree. Most people do not have the luxury of pursuing their interests to the exclusion of everything else (particularly as they age and matters like retirement become more pressing.)

So why did all of these PhD holders get the degree? In opposition to some of the views above, I would argue that the majority saw the degree as a way forward in their career - both in prestige and compensation.

The argument that someone should pursue a PhD because of a love of learning never held much water for me personally. Anyone with a 'love of learning' will do so wherever they may be - learning cares not for accreditation. And anyway, lets face it - the current PhD system crams about two years of education into a 6+ year span. I remember feeling that my education stopped not long after my qualifiers, and after that I was nothing more than a pair of hands afterward. And yes, I went to a highly respected 'Tier-1' institution. (On the other hand, I did continue to learn throughout my degree, but then again I continue to learn even today. My point is that one can always learn on the job, but that's not the same as a formal 'education'. Education must be a formal process to be successful.)

Why do I bring all of this up? Because I believe that real-world compensation issues matter and that the sooner scientists as a profession address the shortcomings of the current system the better. (Better = Not only a better life for scientists but better scientific output. A happy worker is a productive worker.) Further, I assert that most PhD programs aren't doing an adequate job of educating at present. In the current system, graduate students are employees first and students second. This subordinates concerns for the education to the immediate output of science. This leads to an inferior education. In summary, the current system of education doesn't adequately address the needs of its graduates. To answer Derek's original question - yes - there are too many PhDs being produced and most of them with a limited and inadequate skillset.

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21. EllaB on April 16, 2007 2:51 PM writes...

I am an example of a person that really felt the need to get a PhD but didn't, and ended up being very happy about that decision over the last 10 years! When I was an undergrad, there seemed to be no question of what I should do - getting a PhD was like getting into an honors program or getting a 4.0 - if you were any good, then you should aspire to as much. I worked for a few years in academia after graduating, thinking about where to apply, which labs would be awesome to rotate through, etc... My coworkers in academia only reinforced this thinking - they made me feel as though it was the only noble choice; that going to biotech was effectively "selling out" and quitting. Then the grants ran out and the reality of deciding what to do settled in!

I had to apply for a job in the meantime, so I applied to several academic labs and 2 biotechs. Needless to say, the biotechs responded first and I ended up taking one of the biotech positions thinking it would be temporary while I took the GREs. I figured I would be in a program within a year or so. Then I started working there and everything began to change! Once I saw what the PhDs were doing vs. the non-PhDs, I began to think about my choice. Many were bad managers in not so desireable positions; many were stuck at the bench, refusing to become bad managers. There were also shining examples of non-PhDs that were doing so well, they had exceeded their doctorate coworkers.

Over the years, I gained so much experience in so many different areas that I began to realize that my interests were much broader than I had initially thought. With experience came more opportunities to grow and with that growth came more confidence, more responsibility, and more income. 10 years later, I am still in biotech, I am still challenged and loving it, and I am still grateful that I did not restrict myself to a single discipline well before I truly knew what I was capable of becoming.

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22. CET on April 16, 2007 3:51 PM writes...

Why a PhD:

My understanding is that without one, I will never be able to direct my own research. Working on other people's ideas is fine for now, but someday . . .

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23. EllaB on April 16, 2007 4:13 PM writes...

I think that depends on what you mean by directing your own research - if your motivation is to one day lead a lab of researchers in an academic setting, then by all means you will not be able to do so without a PhD! If you mean that you wish to be able to independantly conduct your own research within the confines of a company project or sometimes even in an academic setting, then that is not always the case. It may take a bit longer without a PhD, but if you are talented enough to run the show and are motivated enough to jump on opportunities to demonstrate your abilities, you will find that your skills will not be wasted! If you have good ideas and the skills needed to bring them to life, you will eventually find the means to do so one way or another.

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24. anon on April 16, 2007 4:44 PM writes...

I've read lots of posts saying that one can move into a project leadership role without a PhD in industry. I've never heard of this phenomenon and the company I work for has specifically informed me that this is not a possibility. Is this a Big Pharma vs. biotech/small company issue?

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25. milkshake on April 16, 2007 5:27 PM writes...

Milkshake Ode To Schadenfreude:

"Shut up, you associate"
I got served too many times
(From some fresh-faced fellow)
And I have a reply to the snotty fellow:
We make the same salary
And I got more publications
I chose my boss and project
In 2 years you will be asking me
If I heard of something - anywhere

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26. Jose on April 16, 2007 6:03 PM writes...

If you have any geographic constraints/preferences (family, sports, outdoor rec. etc), an MS might serve you better than a PhD. You will likely find a *much* easier time finding a job where you want to live as an associate; with a PhD you are almost certainly going to have to move where the jobs are (Bay Area, Cambridge or La Jolla). You trade some salary (not as much as you might think) for a hell of a lot of flexibility and the ability to find a job fairly easily. Yes, you will almost certainly never run a lab, but that doesn't mean you can't move up a "technical scientist" career path.

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27. Thomas McEntee on April 16, 2007 7:18 PM writes...

There are too many PhDs when the market says so. To the extent that professional societies and academia encourage more students to get PhDs when there is an oversupply, one must ask who the professional society represents and for what purpose is academia seeking more PhD candidates? I would argue that perhaps the professional society really represents the employer community and academia seeks more PhD candidates to support growth in the professorial ranks. Heresy?

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28. ChemStudent on April 16, 2007 7:39 PM writes...

I, for one, believe there are way too many PhD's coming out of school. And the blame lays solely on the schools. They are the ones who are looking for cheap labor and end up sending out drones of students out there with a degree that doesn't suit them.

I'm in my final years at a midrange school (ranked between 10 to 20) and from what I can tell, about 50% of the students from our organic division leaving with a PhD are average at best. The problem is that there is no weeding out process. Sure, we have exams, classes, and proposals. But they are all set up for only the absolute idiots don't pass those hurdles. The ones that decide to try for more than 5 minutes can make it all the way to the end. It's sad but schools are too afraid to kick people out when they don't measure up.

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29. TNC on April 16, 2007 7:41 PM writes...

I am consistently surprised when I hear that PhDs ignore the advice of experienced associates. The way I see it, good lieutenants listen to their platoon sergeants and good doctors listen to their nurses. Although there are clearly differences in both the relationship and the relative knowledge bases, I think that the analogy holds.

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30. MTK on April 16, 2007 7:49 PM writes...

There is only one reason to go for a Ph.D. Because you love chemistry. If you don't love it, and I mean dream about it at night, think of an idea while taking a shower, stop in the middle of a completely unrelated conversation desperately looking for pen and paper to jot down an idea love it, then don't do it. There isn't enough chance of a big enough financial upside to make it worth it. So how do you know you love it that much? You don't. Like a marriage, it doesn't matter how much you're in love, to make that type of commitment still takes a leap of faith. It may be small, but there's still a leap. And you may lose. My point is that if you're doing any type of cost-benefit or risk-reward analysis, then you may already have answered the question of whether to pursue a Ph.D. or not.

OK let's say that you're already beyond the decision point and are in grad school, what do you do. Well, the biggest difference between MS and Ph.D. scientists that I've seen is that associates can work a normal work week and excel. In my experience, at the Ph.D. level that's very rare. If you want to move up and get those promotions, 40hrs/week doesn't cut it. There's too many other talented and smart people. It's the combination of talent and work ethic that gets it done. As in most things in life, you make a choice and live with the consequences. It's a perpetual balance between career and home life and, unfortunately, it's usually a zero sum game. There's exceptions as always, but you'd have to be pretty damn arrogant to think you're one of them. I often believe that whatever glass ceiling is there is often a self-fulfilling prophecy. At the risk of offending some of the M.S. folks out there, I gotta say it's rare to see any of them in the lab more than 50 hrs a week. I see about 50% of Ph.D. in there at least that long. Nobody wants to put a person in a position to fail, so when you see someone doing well in their current position, but you see them potentially being behind in a higher position, it's very difficult to promote them.

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31. RKN on April 16, 2007 9:11 PM writes...

Most people do not have the luxury of pursuing their interests to the exclusion of everything else (particularly as they age and matters like retirement become more pressing.)

While that's probably true, I offer myself as the exception. I earned an MS in geophysics in 1985 and then worked in the oil and gas exploration industry for most of twenty years. Learned a tremendous amount about scientific software development along the way. At age 43 I went back to school to retake undergrad chemistry courses, and ultimately, after working my way through biochem, finally matriculated a PhD program in Pharmacology at a top twenty university. Specializing in proteomics. I'm now 47.

I really appreciated the attitude of Ethel's comments. She sounds like the kind of person I'd enjoy working with.

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32. eugene on April 16, 2007 10:16 PM writes...

Yeah I liked Ethel's post too, but Ethel is speaking from a minority point of view of someone who was happily married and had kids.

That sounds difficult, but on the flip side, most grad students are dysfunctional loners who haven't touched a human being of the opposite sex in two to three years and are therefore full of phobias and angst. It makes it very difficult to focus your life, it does.

It actually makes grad students rather easy, but since they don't go out much with new and different people, preferring instead to spend time in the lab or the departmental happy hour, no confident and charming outsider can marry them and give them children to bring life into perspective and make them think about 'different fields' or 'learning new things' while appreciating their hectic home life. Instead of the usual thoughts such as: "My life has no meaning. I have no future with this degree, make no money now and I don't have a boyfriend/girlfriend. I live alone in a dirty apartment, haven't seen my family in a year and haven't touched a person of the opposite sex (same depending on your preference) in three. I need to get out of this place. Please God, why have you deserted me in my time of need!?".

I think it takes a few years to look back on Grad School with fondness. Come on RKN... don't you want to work with someone full of ornery habits and anger that slowly drains out of them after Grad School as they learn again to become a normal human being? You know, like Derek Lowe apparently (from the archives).

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33. Wavefunction on April 16, 2007 10:17 PM writes...

RKN: that's really something!! talk about variety and patience!

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34. the DNAcowboy on April 17, 2007 3:14 AM writes...

Maybe worst than chosing between a MS and a PhD, is chosing between a PhD and a MD. That's a terrible choice at least in Europe, where getting a scientific job is still more difficult for PhDs than for MDs. Which is a non-sense to me !

A good example (and I should like to know the situation in the US) is getting a job in an hospital environment. In hospitals, where medical testing is getting more and more high-end technology driven, you won't get a chance for a job if you own a PhD! what the #$%@?

Working with DNA sequences, SNPgenotyping, microarrays and others, is a job for a PhD, not an MD. But the situation in most european countries is more favourable to MDs than PhDs. Also, you will never find a PhD heading a clinical diagnostic facility. Why?

I should be curious learning about your situation in the US in regards of PhDs vs MDs.

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35. LNT on April 17, 2007 5:07 AM writes...

From my interactions with PhD and MS chemists, I could ask probably ask them the questions below and tell you right away whether they have a PhD or an MS.

1.) Do you take a stack of chemistry papers with you on a vacation hoping to get a few spare minutes to catch up on new methodology or medchem?
2.) Do you find yourself planning out your next few reactions while you're taking a shower in the morning?
3.) Are you willing to work 20% harder to make only 20% more money?
4.) Are you willing to give up some future job security in exchange for some additional freedom to pursue your own direction in the lab?
5.) Do you ever take the time to isolate biproducts from a reaction your doing in the hopes of getting some insight into the reaction mechanism and/or in the hopes of finding a new scaffold for SAR?
6.) When you fly, you you take a stack of Time and Sports Illustrated to read, or do you take your last 3 months worth of C&E News and 5 JOC articles with you?
7.) How often do you run reactions "just to see what will happen" and never tell any supervisor or coworker about it unless the reactions works out?

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36. ploppy on April 17, 2007 6:45 AM writes...

i think this is more a test to find a workaholic with no life and no girlfriend.....

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37. LNT on April 17, 2007 7:49 AM writes...

I'm not sure that's the case, Ploppy. I actually only work about 45 hours a week. I do spend a little more time at home reading chemistry stuff. I'm not sure what to think of the girlfriend comments that you and Eugene keep aluding to. I got married just before graduate school and now 10 years later we have 2 kids. There are plenty of happily married people who think about work while they are at home simply because they enjoy the work they do. (heck, how many hours a week outside of his "real job" do you think the writer of this Blog puts into thinking & writing about chemistry?) I think it goes back to MTK's comment. To get a PhD, you really should love chemistry. It's not just something you do to simply earn money, you should genuinely enjoy designing/making molecules and exploring SAR. If you don't have that enjoyment, then you probably shouldn't have a PhD. (the problem is that you probably won't KNOW whether or not you have that level of enjoyment until quite a while into your PhD program)

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38. SD on April 17, 2007 8:36 AM writes...

I think that too many people *are* getting doctorates. Outside of the top programs (and sometimes within them), it has become very easy to find extreme cases of mediocrity. From what I’ve observed personally, in my own graduate program, professors are often very reluctant to let people go after their qualifying exams. If they squeeze past this point, it simply becomes an endurance test for the student. Stick around long enough and you’ll “earn” a PhD. The qualifying exams are often the last chance to kick someone out of a program at a reasonable time, with a reasonable rate of return on time (i.e., MS). More faculty need to take advantage of this.

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39. Dave on April 17, 2007 8:58 AM writes...

I'm sorry all, but I see this thread as proof positive that we as a profession are doomed. If we can't see that low pay, long hours, and a saturated job market are a problem than we deserve what we get. (Six years of post graduate education plus postdoc resulting in less than $100k USD = low pay. MDs graduate in less time than this for a multiple of this compensation. JDs and MBAs also graduate less time for more pay. Some engineering disciplines are pushing this level with a BS and a year or so of work. Starting pay matters as levels usually track from there unless you make upper management.)

What people are describing here is a priesthood. While not quite a vow of celibacy, the willingness to accept conditions 'less than ideal or even in-line with other fields' will drive most promising individuals with other options away. We wonder why there is such a gender gap. We wonder why a significant percentage of degrees are awarded to non-westerners. The answer is clear: our field has become one of high career risk and low reward.

Possibly some see that this situation is a good thing by keeping the PhD population low. Obviously it's not working as academia fills the ranks with those with 'less opportunity'. I'm personally not convinced that relying on immigrant labor is a solid policy. Yes, I suppose that in time the situation will right itself. But I for one will not be working in the year 2100.

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40. SP on April 17, 2007 9:16 AM writes...

I don't know where you went, eugene, but that's mostly crap. I went to a top school and that wasn't the case at all- in my group, there were 16 grad students during my final year. 4 were married (one with kids), three were in committed relationships, I know of three who dated regularly, and the others I'm probably just unaware- I can only think of one who was known for not having much of a social life. There were also two postdocs who were married (one with kids.)
I say mostly crap because your description does apply to foreign postdocs who don't speak the language and don't have any family here- they seem to be mostly in lab or perhaps hanging out with each other.

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41. eugene on April 17, 2007 10:04 AM writes...

Well LNT and SP, obviously if you got married in grad school and dated regularly then you missed out on the horror of social isolation. Good for you. I personally think it's better for your sanity to be married and have a kid during grad school. Speaking as a removed, partial observer of course.

To be fair, I did not have a problem with dating, but with holding down long term relationships and I made sure to have a life outside the lab. However, this is not the case for most domestic students at my school. And you're right SP, it's definitely not the case for foreign grad students and post docs (although the rate of marriage there is the same at my school).

Anyways, I get a lot of my wonderful (mis)information from here:

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42. Analytical Chemist on April 17, 2007 10:22 AM writes...

LNT--You are dead on target with your questions in comment 36. I'd add as a corolary to the salary question that if you are an excellent MS and a middle of the road PhD, you may actually earn more and have a more scientifically fulfilling job as an MS anyway.

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43. Dougie-Fresh on April 17, 2007 10:42 AM writes...

Another thought- it is pretty damn easy to impress your employers an Assoc; the expectations are absurdly low. As as PhD that becomes a much more difficult task....

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44. eugene on April 17, 2007 10:46 AM writes...

Actually, I disagree with question 5 in post 36. I've seen a lot of time wasted on unnecessary garbage. Part of being a good chemist is knowing when to cut your losses so that you can save time for yourself and for your organization. If you're going by an established protocol, unless you're really bored, I don't want people figuring out what the other minor byproducts are. Unless you're in academia and that is your field of study, that kind of thing won't fly if you're trying to synthesize a particular product on a schedule.

And also I have a problem with number 7. While it's a good idea to run blind reactions, if the answer to that question is an empathetic yes, then it makes me suspicious. Why wouldn't you ask for the advice of your peers first? It would save you a lot of time if you figure out that your stupid idea is crap and then you don't do it, or it will give you some ideas of how to tweak the blind run to get the best possible result. Your boss and/or colleagues are not going to say to you: "If you do that experiment, you are so fired" or "That's the stupidest idea I ever heard. I can't believe we hired you in the first place". So yeah, a right answer to question number 7 would tell me if you work well in a team environment. I could have saved some time for a person working under me if he had just told me a few times what reaction he was doing and why on the side. He now usually asks for my opinion if he wants to try anything new on his own. 10 hours wasted = lesson learned.

While it's exciting to run a blind reaction and not tell anyone (secretly hoping in the back of your head that it works and you win the Nobel), it is a crap policy and I bet a lot of us get tired of it after grad school. It's good to have feedback. Of course, when you're in charge of the project then it's not really an option most of the time so I don't get that butterflies in my stomach feeling that I'm "doing this secret thing all on my own and boy won't the boss be impressed".

The rest of the questions are pretty good for figuring out who has a doctorate or an MS. Up to a point of course.

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45. JBJB on April 17, 2007 11:23 AM writes...

Great topic. I have to agree with Dave's sentiment. The reason why salaries suck for chemists is because chemsit accept these low salaries as given. It all starts with the grad school indoctrination that one is supposed to work their ass off and suffer financially "for love of science" and to be accepted into the club. However, once in the real world (especially in industry), chemists/scientists are blindsided by the fact that no one else is playing by these archaic and inane rules. After the 5-6 years of living in poverty, people are delighted to snarf up shitty salaries only to get delegated to the always dangerous expense side of the balance sheet where R&D resides. The competiiton from foreingners who righlty see science as a one way ticket out of the third world who are willing to work for 50 cents on the dollar only exacerbate the problems here in the US. Not to mention, basic R&D FTE's are being seen more and more as a tradable commoditiy in global economy.

Chemistry, whether at the BS, MS, or PHD level, is fantastic training for a varity of disciplines outside of academic or basic R&D such as marketing, sales, business, law, competitive intelligence, ie. I for example moved immediately into Business Devleopement almost straight out of my Ph.D. and would never consider going back to research which I was completely burnt out on after defending. The critical thinking skills one devleops in a PHD program are highly useful and marketable in cross-discipline areas. However, grad schools are mostly oriented towards training for focused bench careers which is not surprising since these schools are obviously ran by academics. Our graduate system is in dire need of reform to allow for more diversified educational opportunities outside of the basic slave labor model. Good luck selling that to the powers that be at our universities though - as the blood, sweat and tears of the naive grad student is the foundation of the comfy academic lifestyle.

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46. Wavefunction on April 17, 2007 12:41 PM writes...

The ones who irritate me are those who get a PhD., spend their whole life making analogs using a Williamson ether synthesis or something, and think they are doing something highly valuable and creative. Well, valuable it is in a way, but not terribly creative.

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47. Ned on April 17, 2007 1:04 PM writes...

Derek's description of what a PhD should be is Idyllic. In the synthetic world I came from, the big name groups demanded blind obedience and little creativity. And of course the students from the brand name chemist's get the best jobs and thus enforce the same kind of system in industry. The sickening sense of entitlement such people have because they came from "so and sos group" is akin to a feudal system. I've witnessed awesome feats of endurance, inspired creativity and multitasking carried out by individuals in much less known groups with half the resources. These people fit Derek's model well, but they're often given short shrift. I see a big part of the problem is that HR people are lazy. They want simple, superifical solutions to complex personel problems. So they buy into the branding concept.

Compounding this is the fact the bigger schools staff their much of their post doctoral ranks with lower cost foreigners. Hence the native PhD's are placed in instant competition with a large complement of global labour. You'll also note that most Europeans and Chinese didnt pay a dime for their college educations as well. This adds to other factors in their willingness to accept a lower salary. How many Americans have the luxury of no student loans these days?

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48. JBJB on April 17, 2007 1:27 PM writes...

Nice blurb with a pic of Derek in the current C&E News. The article is apropos to this thread (or the origin of this thread?)

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49. Anonymous on April 17, 2007 1:57 PM writes...

Just out of curiosity, regarding posts 37, 40, 41, etc, were any of these married with children grad students/postdocs female? If so, were any of them in synthetic labs? Having a child in grad school is both a wonderful addition to one's life and a huge drain on one's work schedule. As far as I can tell, though, for a woman in a synthetic lab it's not even an option unless she's willing and able to drop a full year (probably without pay) from her program and likely take a hit to her career along with it. More accommodating departments may provide teaching options in the interim, but this is not necessarily the standard.

For the industrial chemists out there, what's the SOP for bench chemists who become pregnant? Does pregnancy get you an express ticket to the patent office for a year? I may have opened up a whole new can of worms with this post...

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50. LNT on April 17, 2007 2:27 PM writes...

Just to bring a little perspective on the money issue... Yes, it's probably true that chemists, PhD in particular, are undercompensated as compared to similar degrees in business, finance, medicine, etc. However, this is only looking at one side of the coin. How many social workers, school teachers, and artists/musicians feel that they are fairly compensated given thier training? Do you think money attracts them to those fields? Of course not. The same is true of scientists. Of course we would all love to be better paid -- but ultimately we are paid based on two things:
1.) Supply and demand
2.) The value that society puts on us
Unfortunately neither of those things are working in our favor presently. But just like the many, many people that go into social work and teaching, I enjoy what I do and wouldn't trade my job for any other in spite of the poor compensation. If you don't enjoy chemistry enough to put up with the poor compensation, then please look for work elsewhere. That way maybe the supply and demand balance will start tipping back in our favor for those of us left in the field.

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51. sciwriter on April 17, 2007 4:07 PM writes...

this is a belated reply to tom: if you are having any doubts about your potential commitment to graduate school, don't do it! career aspirations aside, you should think about what is going to make you happy-- it sounds like you're not completely into the idea of 5 more years of school. the most successful people in my graudate program were those that were either so passionate that they didn't mind living in near-poverty and working long hours, or those that took a year or two off and went into the situation with more maturity and certainty that it was what they wanted.

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52. Jose on April 17, 2007 4:12 PM writes...

At my grad program, a large number of organikers were there because they excelled at chem as an undergrad, and it was therefore the obvious, simple next step. Many, many of these folks had no drive, desire, or serious passion about research or science. I feel the admission process should weed these folks out, but then where would all the cheap labor come from?

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53. Markus on April 17, 2007 5:12 PM writes...

ok people, Since not much direction is provided when it comes to alternate careers available to someone with a PhD in synthetic chemistry, where or who does one turn to for directions??
Would Derek have a post on alternative oportunities for PhD chemists besides academia and industry?

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54. StructuralBioDrew on April 17, 2007 5:35 PM writes...

After working as an associate for 4+ years in both acedemia and industry I realized that the PhDs definitely had something that I was lacking so i went back to school. There is nothing quite like having your *own* project. I never felt the drive, interest and pride in being a skilled pair of hands for someone else that I currently feel for my own thesis and experiments.

This drive translates to enthusiasm for the science and labwork that even the masters students cant approach. I never once pulled an all nighter as a technician for example or really even read background publications for that matter and the end result is that my lab 'chops' are really solid as a result. My point is that for me personally I just cant be an associate for someone else because the job satisfaction is nothing like being a scientist. Believe it or not having high job satisfaction totally trumps getting paid a lot for 8+ hours a day of something you despise. Dont forget entry level lawyers and hedge fund managers work 80 hours a week also, and a number of my friends are miserable in those positions (despite getting to eat fancy meals all the time).

Finally to address the posers who are all up in the "ya'll losers doin yo PhD wit no life n shit" I would respond that grad school is a total bangfest and even though we all work until 10pm friday and saturday night the DJ gigs in new york dont start till midnight giving us plenty of time to make the lab rounds to gather 20 or so peops and hit the dive bars in the east village. Being smart is cool.

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55. Anonymous on April 17, 2007 5:56 PM writes...

markus' point is well taken-- i don't remember my professors either as an undergraduate or a graduate student ever talking about any career options outside of industry or academia--more specifically, outside of the LAB in industry or academia. even as a grad student, i had no concept of the possibilities to use my degree to go into business development or consulting or stock analysis or science writing. being successful in chemistry requires a level of critical thinking that can translate into being successful at a lot of different kinds of jobs...

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56. Jose on April 17, 2007 6:46 PM writes...

One last thought- I am pretty certain that the level of job satisfaction is no different between PhDs and Associates. Many, many PhDs are pretty damn disgruntled, and many, many Assoc. are pretty damn content....

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57. tim on April 17, 2007 6:53 PM writes...

As an associate in pharma for 7 years, I have worked for 5 lab heads, worked in 5 projects, met 40 PhD chemists in all level. Here is my feeling about PhD chemists.

Only 10% of all PhD chemists have the adequate knowledge for their job. Whenever we had a problem, I wish some PhD chemists could give guide right way; however, it rarely happened. For example, potency of a project should be improved, PhD chemists had no idea or ideas all over the place, just like BS/MS associates. Moreover, even single chiral center could become a huge problem for 5 PhD chemists, who built 30 chiral centers in their theses.

20% to 30% of PhD chemists are totally politician.

Another 30% PhD chemists are totally stupid. They got burnt in grad school. Associates for them are baby-sitters.

By the way, I never saw any PhD was as productive as an average associate. On the other hand, I have heard lots of stories that lab heads borrowed their associates' idea under the name of TEAM WORK, and enjoyed the glory of success.

My fellow BS/MS chemists do respect and love to work for lab head who is decent in knlowdge and nice as human being. But this kind Lab head is as rare as dinosaur.

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58. Ethel on April 17, 2007 7:05 PM writes...

We have indeed opened a whole can of worms, as you can see from the thread of this discussion. An interesting thread we're starting is about alternative careers for scientists that are more lucrative paths financially.

I routinely speak to the groups I mentor (often via postdoctoral associations or professional development offices at research institutes) about alternative careers for scientists. There are also organizations that promote career development for life scientists-see if there is one in your city. I chair a committee devoted to career and professional development of women in particular in the life sciences (see, but there is also AWIS and other prof organizations), and have many scientists in my circle (colleagues, customers, etc) who moved on to other careers, many attaining leadership positions. There is even a book entitled Alternative Careers for Scientists that I routinely lent out to other postdocs and grad students when I was one. It is definitely worth reading.

This discussion has brought up a lot of issues for scientists: the "feudal" system, the "cult mentality" promoted by academia, (I still believe I couldn't have done it if I didn't love it, remember, I had a young family at the time -- it took A LOT out of me), the "pedigree labs," social isolation (for some, some of us are, gasp, extroverts!), the lack of professional guidance/training/mentorship and probably the most important: the paucity in financial compensation for enduring those 10+ years of training. These are all matters to consider when making the decision regarding doing a PhD, we are all aware of them. What can we try to change?

Let's take the most emotional issue first: salaries. Since it is the market that sets the benchmarks, what can you do? You have little power over the forces of supply and demand, but you can learn to play the game a little smarter. How many of us learned to negotiate or got guidance pre-negotiation? I have to literally hold the hands of the scientists I mentor to negotiate more favorable compensation packages. They are literally quaking in their boots at the thought of negotiating! How many of us moved into highly desireable, marketable fields (don't know about chemistry, but RKN got it right by going into proteomics, especially with a background in software dev) after surveying the market needs? Who is even giving you guidance on how to survey the market's needs? How many of us learned about informational interviews? How many of us learned how to network before it was just for the necessity of getting a job? This is not something you are going to learn in graduate school, you have to learn it on your own (unless you have a professional dev office or postdoc assn that brings in speakers or other outreach support) or get a mentor who can point things out to you. The grads/postdocs who approach me get an earful about helping those who help themselves. If the salaries in your field of interest are untenable, learn about those alternative careers for scientists and do something about it. You can always vote with your feet (money, time, labor, etc). Again, think about areas of intersection of multiple disciplines rather than becoming the world expert in.... This might stack the odds just a little in your favor.

Send anyone even considering a PhD to this blog to get a realistic picture of what scientists are struggling with. THEN and only then can you decide that a PhD is worth it for you. Just go into it with your eyes wide open, knowing that your PhD is NOT guaranteed to bring you ANY enhanced prestige or compensation (commensurate with the pain). Janet asserts that this would clear out most of the PhD programs in our country. THAT should solve the PhD glut problem!

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59. milkshake on April 17, 2007 7:09 PM writes...

Tim: The quality of people varies from company to comapny, I have seen in action some astonishingly unhelpful people on various levels (from associate to CEO) over the years and I noticed that the concentration of these unhelpful colleagues markedly differed from one company to another. I think it all comes from style of management in the chemistry department, what kind of person the chemistry boss is, what kind of chemists they bring in, how generous they are to people, how emploees get promoted etc. Each institution has its history, politics and culture.
If your boss sucks, go to another group within chemistry or change your employer.

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60. JBJB on April 17, 2007 8:20 PM writes...

Ethel raises two great points that I have discovered are absolutely key to survival and advancement of the modern day professional - negotiation and networking. I know may hardcore chemist types will pooh-pooh the idea that these are critical skills, but I believe these capabilities alone can at times separate the wheat from the chaff, and are far more important than lab pedigree or area of expertise. It may not be a bad idea to skip an ACS meeting and consider attending a business negotiation seminar. I also have noticed that many chemists are for some reason reluctant to "market" themselves and really advocate why their skills are critical and clearly communicate how their efforts evolve into real dollar value for the organization.

As for networking, it can't be emphasized enough how important it is. Most PhD's for example have similar skills, all are up to date on the coolest reactions, all can think of nice ways to put molecules together, but people hire who they know and like and want to spend 40-60 hours a week around. Networking includes mingling with non scientists, even dreaded sales people, and may at times require putting on a jacket and tie and eating with the correct fork. Like my dad always told me, be careful of the toes you step on today as they might be connected to the ass you kiss tomorrow.

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61. industry guy on April 17, 2007 8:27 PM writes...

I believe Tim (comment #37)hit the nail on the head. In my 8 years of pharma experience as a MS, where I have reached the entry level Ph.D. position, only about 10% can answer simple med chem questions. What we most often forget is that when it comes to pharma med chem....we all start at zero out of the gate. The only difference being that a Ph.D. "may" have more chemistry knowledge to start, which may help when difficult cores or compounds require synthesis, although applicability of this extra learned knowledge to med chem is usually not there. Most of the chemistry done in pharma is not ground breaking stuff when it comes to complexity and therefore everyone must learn what helps solubility, PK, PD, etc. There are some Ph.D's from nobel prize winning labs whom I have seen submit aziridines and heptafluoro analogs. Those with an inkling of what makes a good drug candidate please laugh now. Don't get me wrong, both Ph.D's and MS's are needed to make a successful company as they compliment each other. I know if I had to make slides worrying about color schemes and font sizes all day I would have quit long ago (one of the major factors I left with a masters after my BS med chem job) What I dont like about some of the comments in this post are that there appears to be a sense of superiority that attaining a Ph.D may give you. My MS was not a failed Ph.D., but a bonified MS program where I could have chosen to get a Ph.D., but having done all the course work, getting a couple of pubs on my very own research project, I thought there wasnt much more I could do there and was willing to work my way up starting from a lower salary bracket. But coming from my experience, if I had to pick a group to run a successful project, I'd take a groups of experienced MS over a group of pedigreed Ph.D's everytime.

On a lighter note, maybe all of the Ph.D.'s who have time to post on blogs in the middle of the work day should consider that while you write these messages, some MS is gaining more valuable experience by making analogs and some other Ph.D. is gaining more suck up time than you with the higher ups...haha j/k :)

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62. BS Chemist on April 17, 2007 9:49 PM writes...

Re: LNT (post 35) and eugene (44):

I find it interesting that LNT's questions to distinguish a PhD from an MS are all gauges of attitude and interest, which makes it a rather elegant (Socratic!) answer to the question of "should I get a PhD?" I know plenty of BS and MS chemists who could answer many or all of those questions in the affirmative (I'm one of them, actually :)

Re: anon (24) and CET (22):

It happens in big pharma. It's rare, but it happens. I know of at least two non-PhD scientists leading projects at my company - one is a BS with a zillion years of experience, and I think the other is an MS (but don't quote me on that one.)

As far as "working on your own research" goes, the real question is just *how much* ownership of the research you want. In industry, there is rarely work that is completely *yours*. You work with a team, and even the project leader takes suggestions and direction from others. The closest you come (as a chemist, anyway) is to be the first chemist on a new project, the one analyzing HTS hits and identifying pharmacophores and deciding on chemical series to pursue. Even then, it doesn't take long before the work becomes so collaborative that the question of ownership is moot. In an effective project team, the role of project leader has more to do with setting goals than directing research. The leader obviously has lots of experience with the chemical matter, and is experienced and knowledgeable enough to suggest avenues of exploration, but like in any research group, everyone has a hand and the work you do is in large part your own.

An example: as a BS with two years of experience, I am, for the most part, designing my own analogues, figuring out routes to them, and doing the chemistry under my own steam. I present the work to the group, take suggestions, and give input on their work, but I essentially define my own research area and my reasons for going after it. There are always times when other chemists need me to work on their compounds, or when they need intermediates that I can make, but that's part of being on a team, and it hits the PhDs as well as the associates.

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63. Anonymous on April 18, 2007 12:48 AM writes...

This is a really good topic initiated by Derek. Congratulations, and we expect lot more from you. Let them keep coming!

I have few points to make.

1. Some body commented, rightly so, that in the name of doctoral training you are indoctrinated.

2. The professors (beginners) push the even below average students to PhD even though they do not disserve, or want to go for Ph.D. Reason for this is that they would get more credit if they graduate more PhD’s .......or they can keep them as slaves for long time so that they can have cheap labor, who would not ask anything in return because their life would be at stake if they question back.

3. Some one also commented that Europeans, Asians do not spend as much as American students spend for the education. It is true. But the former spend more time in classes, libraries, and labs simply because they do not have option of working in wal-mart or k-mart to pay the tuition. They depend until they finish their studies on their parents. The only job go in the world is to study through out their career as a student. It is in a way good and bad.

Every one is entitled to their opinion but the facts are facts. They settle for lower salary not because they spent less money for their education. They too come all the way for money, but that is how the system uses them.

Thanks to the laws, at least the salaries on H1 visa have some minimum level. Even then few professors like Katritzky, Corey (chemistry) make the postdocs work for next to nothing. Hopefully I do not have to go through the postdoc-ing, while we are debating about going for PhD or not. Any comments?

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64. can I have those six years back? on April 18, 2007 12:56 AM writes...

I'm surprised Markus (53) and Ethel (58) were the first to say something about alternative careers in a thread dedicated to whining about PhD programs. Here's my story: I graduated about a year ago from a top chemistry program, but unlike many people in this thread, I was not a molecule jock. I somehow signed up for one of those cutting-edge, fascinating, interdisciplinary projects that are of course doomed and leave you with a skill set completely useless for industry. Definitely useless for medchem, and not quite the right mix of skills for biotechs. Those of you in the same situation will know what I'm talking about.

So what to do? Well, I joined a law firm as a patent agent and that has worked out swimmingly. You have to have pretty good communication skills, and you have to like being around people. You also have to be naturally curious (which you should be if you're in a PhD program!) and you have to have (or learn to have) the confidence to jump not only from one scientific field to another, but also to absorb as much as you can learn about law, business and regulatory issues. Perhaps the thing I find most surprising and pleasant is that projects in this field end - no six year-long treks here! As a disclaimer, I should mention that being a patent agent can be a dead-end job unless you're planning to become a lawyer. There are pitfalls like in any other career path, but overall I am much happier than I've ever been as a PhD...

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65. JSinger on April 18, 2007 9:51 AM writes...

A terrific site that explores these issues in a factual, unemotional way is

Main site


I'd love to see more participants in their comment sections!

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66. SynChem on April 18, 2007 9:58 AM writes...

On the notion that having a PhD affords one the opportunity to lead projects, realistically what percentage of PhDs in the industry ever get a chance to do that in their life time? One has to be pretty high up in ranks and experienced to be able to do that. Maybe 10% of PhDs will eventually get promoted to that level?

On another note, anyone, PhD or not, has the freedom to conduct his own research, obviously on a much smaller scope (within the projects).

On yet another note, how many of you really WANT to lead projects, with the sacrifices in family, personal life (if you have one outside of work)and all?

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67. A. Nonny Mouse on April 18, 2007 10:55 AM writes...

All this talk about the value of a PhD and whether they are overproduced makes me echo the questions asked above by students approaching the completion of their BS. I got my BS 17 years ago, and was one of those "absolute idiots" who got bounced out of a PhD program shortly thereafter. In retrospect, it was a combination of immaturity, political payback, a department wanting to prove how "good" they were, and a complete burn-out on large lecture courses.

Having said all that, I still want to be doing science. I was not a synthetiker, and there aren't as many BS/MS level positions open as there are in organic sythesis or biochemistry. I've spent the better part of 15 years in another career that is relatively lucrative and with a lot of locational flexibility, but I have no real interest in it. I still keep up on current developments and drag stacks of reprints on vacation so that I can find time to read them. To me, it's clear that I want to be doing science. Is it worth the frustrations to go back to get an advanced degree, given all the comments above and the wonderful job market in industry, or have I reached the point where I need to accept that am no longer employable in science and that it's time to find a third career option?


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68. anon 24 on April 18, 2007 11:41 AM writes...

BS Chemist,

It sounds like we have pretty similar situations. However, at the company I work for, what you are describing is pretty rare. I'd say 15% of the BS/MS chemists in medchem have that much freedom. I guess the main factors are who your boss is, what company you work for, and the culture of the group. I consider myself lucky to be in the position I am in as many of my peers are micromanaged quite severely.

Full disclosure, I am going back to get my doctorate, but the question of how it would position me for industry wasn't a significant issue. If I am lucky enough to get a good offer from industry, great, if not, there are many other options available. I have to say though, the unease about job prospects communicated from the above posts, while understandable, is hard for me to relate to. Opportunities always exist for people who look for them (they just might not be at the bench).

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69. Markus on April 18, 2007 1:23 PM writes...

So Derek, what about those alternative careers for PhD chemists on a post??

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70. fng on April 18, 2007 3:55 PM writes...

"Even then few professors like Katritzky..."

hah, glad to know I'm not the only one who considered the fact of a possible asian sweatshop on the 2nd floor of CRB. the whole floor smelled like a China One restaurant, all the time

sorry, side-tracked otherwise great post

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71. Shannon on April 18, 2007 8:13 PM writes...

The problem is the US chem/biotech complex is contracting while the ranks of chemists continue to grow. Looking at the C&E News article which featured our hero Derek, I was puzzled as to why the ACS was portraying chemical employment problems in the USA as an experienced chemist’s dilemma. All the chemists I know are trapped in their jobs. I'm trying to figure out where in God's name C&E news is getting their employment data? They keep talking about needing to educate more chemists and bringing in boat-loads more from abroad. I am vaguely aware, that in other serious professions experience is to be valued and compensated for. I could envision a necessary certification for chemists that would assist in keeping the numbers down.

And I hear a lot of quitters on this board who are pushing re-education in law or Business! Why? So your job can be handed over to some inexperienced foreigner on a temp v-isa? I suggest you contact your elected representatives and tell them the American Chemical Society does not speak for you!
You might be surprised to hear that they believe the ranks of chemists are shrinking.

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72. JBJB on April 19, 2007 8:16 AM writes...

Shannon, you are correct it noticing the consistent chatter by ACS/C&E News about the need for more chemists and foreign scientists. I really have no idea either what the basis for these claims is. I've never seen any of these stories/editorials accompanied by any actual data. However, they then turn around and publish employment statistics and salary surveys which paint an abysmal picture for the industry, thus the ACS position does seem to be at odds with their own data.

I also often here this type of commentary from business and technology leaders in industry - complaining that they can't find enough good technical talent. I tend to think what they really mean to say is that they are having trouble finding competent scientists who will work 40-70 hours a week for 70 grand a year.

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73. MolecModeler on April 19, 2007 10:09 AM writes...

The alternate career path is something I am definitely interested in, and I hope you pursue the topic in a subsequent post Derek.

Unlike most of you, I'm not a synthetic/experimental chemist, but a comp chemist. If you think your options are limited, ours are even more limited than that. I work at BigPharma, and there is basically little career development as far as I can tell. There's simply a management structure that inhibits/prohibits upward mobility.

I do love chemistry, but I don't love research. I find my mind wandering a lot. I get bored easily. So I think to myself: can I do this for 10-20 more years? Would I even have a job? If I did, I look at what senior people are doing in my group, and it's just the most inane management garbage you could think of. They don't like doing it, but that's what it is. I don't want to do those things.

Also, as others have noted, there is a big trend to outsourcing chemistry. Now comp chem (I think), is not quite as outsourceable, simply because our product is more idea generation/educated guessing, rather than concrete things like compounds. But I wouldn't bet my career on this.

So I'm planning on doing what #64 did, and move into patent/IP law. I'm going to have to go back to school obviously (something I swore 3 years ago I would never do), but a career in chemistry research is just not something viable for me in the long term.

Thank god my undergrad grades were uber is all I have to say. :)

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74. Bill on April 19, 2007 11:13 AM writes...

I am in a totally different field. I am doing my Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering.

My choice for a Ph.D. was purely on my love and interest in researching, specifically to chip designing. In my city, there was only 1 professor who his work was really aligning with my interests and whom I found admirable. He was the Ph.D. supervisor of my then Masters supervisor, when he was a Ph.D. student.

Therefore, I started my Ph.D. in a university that I wasn't even knowing the language (it is a French speaking university) just because of the supervisor. His credentials are great. He is the Canada research chair in his field, he is in the board of governors in the non-profit organizations that helps the country's universities with research and later I found out that he is a very smart, knowledgeable and still extremely hard working person.

I know that I am forfeiting salary but I will never regret my decision. I did learn many more and new things, I did evolve to a better researcher, I did develop a vision which is needed for Ph.D.s, I strive for excellence in my work and I have found that I have become more critical at my own work.

I have found that what differentiates Ph.D.s with non-Ph.D.s is the ability to lead a project (instead of taking commands and excellently execute them), the ability to have a vision of where your project should go and what will be the end result that will contribute to the research and to society (and to business because everything is for profit).


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75. A. Nonny Mouse on April 19, 2007 11:35 AM writes...

MolecModeler, If you have a few minutes, I'd like to ask you a couple of questions off-list. Could you email me at "m a u s (a) f_o_o_b_o_x _.c_0_m" if you don't mind and can spare the time? Thanks.

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76. A. Nonny Mouse on April 19, 2007 11:49 AM writes...

Funny you should bring up going to a school because of a supervisor. That was the big political problem that contributed to my premature departure from the PhD program I was in. I, too, chose the school I wanted to attend on the basis of the person I wanted to work for, but this irritated several faculty members, first because it meant that I was coming right into a lab and was therefore not fresh meat available to be potentially recruited into their labs, or at least overworked in lab rotations. Also, there was RA money available in the lab to pay my stipend, so I wasn't immediately put through the mill as a TA in one of the service courses (and therefore didn't "pay my dues" soon enough). When I did get to being a TA, I did well enough (and the professor I TA'ed for was happy enough with my performance to ask the committee for a probationary period to let me get my act together, and coincidentally have me work for him another semester).

My point is that by going in with an intended advisor/mentor, I subverted the established process of the department and when I got into real problems, there were fewer faculty inclined to give me the benefit of the doubt than might have otherwise done so. Laurence Peter put it well when he said "In a hierarchy, internal consistency is favored above external productivity".

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77. MolecModeler on April 19, 2007 12:49 PM writes...

Nonny Mouse: e-mail sent.

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78. SynChem on April 19, 2007 2:27 PM writes...

As a foreign born chemist myself, I can definitely understand the frustration some may feel having to complete with people like me for jobs. But on the hand, I haven't had one American colleague not being able to find jobs so far.

Ultimately, one has to ask the question--does America want the brightest of the world or not? I'm more than grateful for all the opportunities this wonderful country has afforded me and which my family and I call home. However, should America decide to close its graduate school doors, I'd be understanding too. One can not deny the scientific contributions by foreign scientists in this country. Just browse through any journal or the faculty list of any school.

Reality is the many graduate programs in the US NEED foreign students to fill the labs. There're simply not enough Americans who want to go to graduate school for chemistry. The majority of the chemistry (but not limited to chemistry) research groups simply can't function or at a MUCH lower capacity without the foreign grad students or postdocs. The solution to all this is to either recruit more domestic students, or reduce funding and research conducted in this nation (imagine that!), so less labor is needed.

Also, foreign scientists on visas don't get paid any cheaper by the way. In some ways they're MORE expensive because of the cost associated with the visa application etc.

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79. Anon on April 19, 2007 3:19 PM writes...


I'll preface my response with this: I have worked with many many foreign born scientists, and I have to say that on the whole they have been excellent to work with. I agree that America does benefit from recruiting many of the best and brightest from around the world.

That being said, I fear that the situation has gone too far. An oversupply of labor in the marketplace is bad for all scientists working in the U.S. be they native or born elsewhere. I specifically take issue with the statement that there are not enough American students to fill existing graduate spots. I've heard this for years from the academic set as they justify spending more money to encourage American students to enter the sciences. It is true that there are currently fewer 'competent' Americans than there are graduate student slots - but paradoxically I view this as a reaction to the overproduction of scientists. In other words, there is too much labor chasing too little work. This drives down wages and opportunity while increasing the effort to survive in the field. American students see this, and opt for alternate careers in medicine, law, business, engineering, etc. Thus, the graduate schools do not have 'enough' domestic applicants to fill their slots. So they fill them with foreign applicants. This, in turn, drives wages further down thus decreasing domestic interest further. We are currently in a cycle where every increase of the NIH/NSF budget will actually drive MORE young Americans from a career in the sciences.

An additional problem with the current system is that the taxpayers are funding a decade of education for foreign students who by definition will not be able to remain here upon leaving the educational system. They will return home to 'compete' against the U.S. (Yes, the whole world benefits from an increased production of science, but this is not the premise upon which the government budget was increased.) Yes, many are forced to leave because of a lack of visas. But even if the visa limit were to be increased there would still be a lack of jobs. So raising the visa limit would, of course, drive scientist wages and opportunity still lower and push yet more American undergraduates away. In any event it appears that our policy of persistent budget increases for academic science are making the country more reliant on foreign labor, not less.

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80. MolecularGeek on April 19, 2007 3:26 PM writes...

I won't deny that it's something akin to scapegoating to blame the problems of US Chemical R&D on non-US-born workers, but I don't think that the people calling for more H1-B visas and pressing for more domestic production of PhD-level chemists have the best interests of anyone but themselves at heart.

As far as filling the labs in graduate schools, graduate students are the least cost-effective way to get productive research done, at least if you hold to the official level-of-effort numbers. If you ignore that the cost of the tuition waiver is essentially nil in real dollars to the university, and consider that the nominal work load for an assistantship is 20 hours/week, and take the costs of stipend, tuition waiver, and associated overhead for 2 graduate students, you have salary for an experienced technician, who probably isn't trying to cram for midterms, and cumes, and candidacy exams all at the same time. The difference is that you don't have the leverage of fear to hold over the tech. You can't do worse than fire them, and even with that threat, blackmailing them into 60-70 hour workweeks without vacations is pretty much a no-go. Grad students have the degree and letters of recommendation to be used as weapons against them. International graduate students are even better in the eyes of many advisers, because they are viewed as being more deferential towards authority, less likely to have family or friends near them to distract them, and un-integrated enough into American culture to want to do social things on Friday nights when they could be more productively running spectra and watching solvents reflux.

In a similar way, H1-B visa holders may not be paid much less than their permanent resident/US citizen colleagues, but they are much better from the eyes of their employers. The visa is only issued by application of the employer and expires upon termination of employment. As I recall, even with the H1-B, the ability to leave and return to the US at will is much more limited than with a green card. To be a H1-B visa worker in the US is to be essentially an indentured servant. The leverage to demand extra hours of work or compliance from the worker until a green card is obtained is rife with the possibilities for abuse. Why hire someone who might actually stand up for themselves when you can hire someone else who desperately needs the job you have (and not just A job)?

As far as "domestic" R&D demands, with "American" companies shifting R&D operations overseas to avoid pesky tax and environmental regulations, and to take advantage of lower costs of living, as a US taxpayer, I don't see why the government should be subsidizing large-scale production of PhD-level scientists. The only direct benefit from this spending to US residents are the ones who are either top-level managers in those corporations and/or their shareholders. I would accept the argument that this is a temporary imbalance that free trade will eventually redress, except for two factors. 1) Most of the destinations for off-shored R&D don't have anything like the H1-B visa program. If I were a US citizen with a freshly minted PhD in Organic Chemistry who had become something close to fluent in Hindi or Chinese (for the sake of argument) and I were to apply for positions in China or India at one of the new contract R&D firms, I would be laughed out of HR and/or the consulate. Those nations don't want American workers, just American dollars 2) The time that it takes for market forces to adjust the cost of living between nations is long-term. In the long term, we are all dead, and market forces won't do a thing to help the situation of people like our host who just want to use the skills they put so much effort into acquiring and come close to paying their bills.

If we in the US want a domestic R&D program, we need to develop our own talent, and not depend on exploitative practices to keep labor costs low. And if we don't want that program, we should stop using Federal and State funds to subsidize the training of workers whose efforts will not benefit the majority of our residents.

(I'm really not a isolationist, just very tired of the BS and the desire to get something for nothing)


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81. Anon on April 19, 2007 3:33 PM writes...

One last thought: in my opinion, birthplace matters not for the American workplace. I for one certainly consider all able scientists as equals - regardless of origin of birth. Further, the American economy *does* benefit from immigration of some of the world's best and brightest.

But an influx of labor, driven beyond its normal pace by billions in government subsidy, is distorting the marketplace such that everyone loses.

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82. SynChem on April 19, 2007 3:33 PM writes...


You make several excellent points. The viscous cycle you described makes a lot of sense. Even as a beneficiary of the open doors of american grad schools, I'm inclined to agree with you that maybe the recruiting of foreign students should be pulled back. But for that to work, that has to be part of a comprehensive solution attacking the root of the problem. Or we're simple left with non-functional chemistry depts. What might that comprehensive solution be? How do we break this cycle? I have no idea.

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83. SynChem on April 19, 2007 3:42 PM writes...


I can't say I disgreee with you on most of your points. I'm just at a loss as to what would be the practical solution(s) that can be carried out realistically without stalling the giant academic research engine.

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84. Anon on April 19, 2007 4:10 PM writes...


Here's an idea I've seen bantered about elsewhere on the interweb.

What if the NSF/NIH were to phase in a rule restricting funding (R01 etc) to professional non-student/non-postdoc/non-temporary labor? The restriction could start at something small like 10% of funding then rise to like 80%+ over a 10-year period. This would serve two purposes: the first would be to increase the demand in the labor market for professional scientists. The second effect would be to cut the subsidy for producing graduate students. Yes, this would drive down graduate student numbers in the short term. Up front few students would be able to justify paying or taking loans for 5+ years of education given the current salary levels. But as supply and demand came back into line salaries would rise. Eventually students would find that a scientist career is lucrative enough to justify the cost. Enrollment would rise, but then float with the demand for scientists. (As opposed to the current situation where ever more labor is produced regardless of the opportunities of the graduates.)

Now, lets look at how this would effect the various parties involved. Scientists would certainly benefit as they would find their services in more demand. Academic research would increase its productivity as starting graduate students were replaced with seasoned teams of researchers working together for the long haul. Additionally, universities would receive a financial benefit as students added tuition dollars to the government grant money they've always received. New students would have to take on loans - admittedly not something that appears to be a good thing. But in return for these loans they'd expect a higher starting salary. (Note that this tradeoff seems to work well for MDs, JDs, and MBAs.) A side effect would likely be reduced graduation times as the demand for new graduates would rise. (A six+ year PhD wasn't always the norm in the U.S. It used to be lower, back when there was more demand for graduates.) Also, as students would no longer be de-facto employees, they'd expect a more robust education. Labor needs met elsewhere, institutions would begin to value their students as such. The only group that might dislike this new reality is the business community. They'd have to pay more for their labor. Somehow I personally think they'd manage to survive the change. ;)

Lastly, I think it's worth pointing out that under this scenario the U.S. would increase its recruitment of the world's best and brightest PhD scientists. But these foreign born folks would be coming to stay as employees. They'd be recruited with higher salaries and better conditions. Instead of training the world's best and brightest and then sending them home we'd begin to reverse the situation.

One problem I've seen with this proposal is that cash is has fungibility. In other words, if you cut NSF funding for graduate schools they'd just use undergraduate tuition dollars to cover the costs. On one hand it seems like there'd need to be a mechanism to control this redistribution. On the other hand, most programs are so driven by NIH/NSF dollars that I'm not sure that undergraduate tuition could cover the gap. Either way, this concern seems like more of a tactical concern than a deal-breaker for the overall concept.

In any event, it's a new idea. There need to be more of them.

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85. Jose on April 19, 2007 5:58 PM writes...

I heard well placed rumours that a fairly famous methodology jock told students and post-docs alike, "High ee's, or back to your homeland for you!" and made good on the threat a few times....
"The last vestige of indentured servitude"

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86. arthur on April 19, 2007 6:35 PM writes...

"Ultimately, one has to ask the question--does America want the brightest of the world or not? "

I am inclined to ask the question -"Who is America?"

Last time I looked it was the current citizens and their needs. The one's who pay the taxes and fight the wars, remember them? The government is constructed around the forward needs of it's present citizens (the reason why we invest in infrastructure and soc sec over decades). I've been struck by how overused and abused the above phrase is. Many of the foreigners I've met believe it is their RIGHT to take an American job. To be fair, they are encouraged by our media which asserts there is a pent up demand for scientists in the US. This propaganda continues unchallenged for one simple reason-

-There is money to be made by the exploitation and
marginalization of all scientists, foreign or domestic-

The largest beneficiaries are tenured professors and the academic complex. The Sun-King mentality they've created stifles creativity and funnels the
rewards of what are ultimately collaborative efforts into a few pockets. Wouldn’t it be grand if each person in a lab were assigned a proper measure of their creative input? That the millions and billions that are generated from those ideas were truly shared with the creators. Right now its up to the whims of the PI as to who gets what. Perhaps more Americans would seek out the field if such a system were in place. I believe Stanford actually allows their students to enjoy some of the benefits of their creations. It’s the case that far too many academic scientists believe their personnel were a nuisance to be endured. That attitude is obviously shared by their industry counterparts.

Just a few thoughts. Hope everyone is employed and happy in the coming months.

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87. eugene on April 20, 2007 9:33 AM writes...

I thought this article had an interesting view on what a doctorate degree in chemistry is.

"wake up to the reality of what Ph.D. degrees really are—a testament to graduate students’ perseverance, not their intellect"

And, it's ACS approved.\chemsp07\for_closers.html

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88. Med Chemist on April 22, 2007 9:28 PM writes...

A good idea for graduate students in pharmacology and medicinal chemistry programs is to seek an internship in industry before graduating. Establishing contacts within industry will greatly increase the likelihood of landing a job upon graduation. Another good idea for graduates wanting to enter industry as opposed to academia is to work in a lab that actually does medicinal chemistry or pharmacology, as opposed to far more basic research. There are certain programs at UCSF, Northwestern, Purdue, Michigan, and other schools in medicinal chemistry or pharmacology. Graduates of these programs actually know something about the drug development process, and not just the abstract beauty of general ligand binding.

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89. Med chemist on April 23, 2007 12:04 PM writes...

Another fine program is at UNC Chapel Hill, and UT-Austin - both of which have excellent schools of pharmacy and pharmaceutical sciences. The advantage of these programs over programs in a medical school or basic science department is that most PIs do collaborations with people in industry.

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90. MolecularGeek on April 24, 2007 10:00 AM writes...

Hear hear, Med chemist. My personal bias is that a pharmacy-school based med chem program is more likely to turn out a practitioner who knows enough about the pharmaceutical realm as a whole to be at least dangerous. If nothing else, they will probably have had to take at least a semester of pharmacology along the way, and made their piece with the way that biologists like to reduce complex molecules to 3 or 4 letter acronyms 8). Sadly, it seems like these programs are starting to be merged into straight A&S chemistry programs, both because the medicinal chemists feel lonely, and the molecular biology types worry that traditional medicinal chemistry isn't as fundable as the latest and greatest in hybrid expression. I can think of 3 programs that have folded this way in the past 5 years.


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91. CR on April 24, 2007 12:52 PM writes...

In response to #88-90:

In reality, most BigPharma med chem departments are not looking to hire people from academic med chem/pharmacology departments. I know my company (a top 3 in sales) only hires from synthetic chemistry groups. They would not even consider anything else--whether that's smart or not is up for debate. In addition to my company, every contact that I have in either BigPharma or Biotech says the same thing. They only hire from synthetic groups--the old, "we will teach them medicinal chemistry". So even though your advice might be good--in reality, those types may not have an easier time getting hired, and at least in a few/many instances it would hurt their chances severely. Now maybe a Ph.D. in one of those groups and a post-doc in a synthetic lab might be the best?

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92. MolecularGeek on April 24, 2007 1:30 PM writes...


If your employer is only willing to hire from synthetic organic groups in A&S chemistry department so that they can teach their own spin on medicinal chemistry to them, it sounds like a really bad case of the other NIH syndrome. On the other hand, it's a data point that supports the impression that the most important thing about the PhD isn't what it's in or how much you learned doing it, but who is signing off on the dissertation and writing the recommendation letter afterwards.


(I would agree that if the company is particular worried about a lack of synthetic chops on their doctoral-level synthetikers, a post-doc in a hard-core synthetic organic lab ought to help prove the point)

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93. Bill on April 24, 2007 1:52 PM writes...

I do not know, I must be missing the picture with this PhD degree. It all seems a bit obsessive to me. Life is about balance, compromise. To me at least, money seems to be the key to achieve a multitude of aspiration. Spending time with the family, enjoying a multitude of hobbies. A Doctorate means you have a huge loan when you graduate and no money in site with the slight possibility to eek out a slight increase in pay. Eating ramin noodles and living in a room with 5 other graduate students. The Director of my R&D department has only a B.S. I'm sure he is making plenty.

I think the most demanding part of a Doctoral program is the fact that they use you, because of your enthusiasm. You know somebody is getting paid, where do you think all that grant money is coming from? You think the people paying for the research really care about science?

I myself have only a BS in Chemistry, but will hit the 100k mark within 10 years. Although a PhD is temping, I don't think that it is practical at the present time. Although I think graduate education is essential in furthering your career. Science can be outsourced. There seems to be an abundance of PhD's, especially with Pfizer closing down plants. I just don't buy into the fact that you necessarily need a PhD to get to high positions. You just need to work hard and be willing to learn new things.

Correct me if I am wrong, but it seems the only difference between the MS and PhD is the research. This can be obtained by working for a research group in industry. Also in industry, you are using more up to date equipment, and working on more realistic projects. How is this not more useful then a student who works with old equipment, studying phenomena that are not of economic importance? I mean that seems much more of a hobby to me? Don’t get me wrong I appreciate science as I do art and music, but I am not going to quit a job to go to paint and play my guitar. Perhaps they should open an institute of higher guitar playing? I’d love to hear some feedback on this, since I am considering both a PhD and Masters program.

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94. Flash-column Jockey on April 24, 2007 3:39 PM writes...

To Bill, #93.

If happiness to you means a balanced life where compromise play an integral role, then my advice to you is DON"T GO BACK TO SCHOOL. You are exactly correct in that profs USE grad students for their own ambitions. "Spending time with the family, enjoying a multitude of hobbies" has no place in their Old Boy's Club or worldview. Should you enroll in a PhD program, I'd wager you'd find yourself frustrated and smothered. See also this post on TheChemBlog:

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95. Nv-Da on April 24, 2007 4:51 PM writes...

Well, you'll never get an academic position if you don't have a PhD. Beyond that, the PhD is a degree whose sole purpose is to feed the Academic machine. Don't ever ask a Professor for advice, because he'll just screw with your head. Once upon a time it was a worthwhile pursuit but now the Pharmaceutical industry can get instant PhD talent from anywhere on the globe. Obviously, as many have stated, they work cheaper and hey, isnt that what life's all about? So get a M.S and forget about the PhD crap. It only represents wasted time and a place at the end of the unemployment line.

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96. CR on April 25, 2007 1:08 PM writes...


To your first point--My company is not the only company that prefers to hire from synthetic chemistry groups (sorry, I'm a bit of a novice and I don't know what A&S chemistry means). It's has been a long standing assumption in medicinal chemistry that one can learn this discipline while on the job, and that companies would prefer to hire synthetic chemists for their ability to solve problems. I don't know what your snide remark of "their own 'spin' on medicinal chemistry" is referring to. Medicinal chemistry is medicinal chemistry--one company may have a new/clever name--but it's the same no matter where you go. Nor do I understand the "NIH syndrome"?

To your second point--it has always been about who signs the dissertation. That holds true for synthetic chemistry to biology to pharmacologists. If you didn't know that by now--I would be surprised. So, even if companies went looking for people in "pharmaceutical science" departments--it would still come down to who signs the dissertation/letters of reference.

I have to say this post has generated some very interesting/surprising comments. The most interesting are the posts from the associate level chemists out there and their view of themselves and the Ph.Ds. It's interesting to also note that virtually all the associates are where they are by their own choosing. Only one has stated that they didn't make it for one reason or another. It is also interesting to see the comments from these associates and their view of Ph.D.'s ranging from one's view of what it's like to be a Ph.D. (taking articles on vacation,etc.--which is totally fictional, by the way); to others commenting that only 10% of Ph.D.'s know what they are doing; to yet another comparing the Ph.D. to 'advanced' guitar lessons. Seems a bit of an inferiority complex to me--but, hey--I just am a simple "advanced" guitar player.

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97. Markus on April 25, 2007 4:35 PM writes...

Spanish guitar sounds good right now...

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98. Abalone on April 25, 2007 7:31 PM writes...


You've criticized everyone, taken no positions and lobbed lofty assertions of certitude. We're honored you took time from your busy schedule to tell us these things. You must make everyone who works around you miserable.

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99. A Knowing Mess on April 25, 2007 11:30 PM writes...

CR is dead on - I work at a large company, and I can guarantee you that med chem here is only interested in PhDs with strict synthetic organic backgrounds. It doesn't matter how much hardcore synthesis they do after the PhD, the only people we hire to make any molecules (even if it's simple heterocycle series) are people who did synthesis PhDs, usually total synthesis in large, well-known groups. (I am not one of these people, so I'm not tooting my own horn here..)

Talking to some of my past coworkers at other mid-to-large companies, I find the situation is the same elsewhere. I don't think this situation is necessarily justified (or even wise), but it's what the reality for people want to work in industry, and it's been described here a number of times by Derek and other commenters..

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100. Bill on April 30, 2007 8:16 AM writes...

I've read some commentary on the foreign influx of PhD's into America. Their opinion that they have the right to take their spot in the American economy. The simple fact that we live in a capitalist economy is the question.

Even though morally I do believe this country was founded on giving everybody equal opportunity. More people in this country means a dispersal of wealth. We live in one of the richest countries simply because we don't share the wealth. Mostly made on selling weapons during the First and Second World War, we have been a loosing venture since the golden age of the 40's.

Simply put, if we want to continue to buy our fancy houses and drive our big cars, we need to limit the people acquiring the wealth in this country. I know that this is not incredibly moral, but that’s the world we live in. That’s why we have the money to fund our projects.

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101. CR on April 30, 2007 8:58 AM writes...


I certainly have not "criticized everyone" nor have I "lobbed lofty assertions of certitude". I was (originally) stating what it is that big pharma are looking when hiring medicinal chemists (based on my company, and conversations with colleagues at other companies). You can keep the snide remarks to yourself. It is interesting that you make snap judgement on someone after two posts regarding their demeanor. What does that say about you? Anonymity on message boards does wonders for people and their view of their own self-importance.

My last observations are just based on what has been written in this thread. It was interesting to see what some associates think of their Ph.D. colleagues--many of those observations I feel are completely false. My opinion of the Ph.D. is simple--it's a personal choice (it's not a hobby or guitar playing as another suggests). Nor is it simply a perserverance award as others seem to want to think. There are plenty of very talented Ph.D. chemists (not the 10% as someone wants to think); and there are plenty of very talented associate chemists. And conversely, there are many duds in each category. The reality of the situation is even though it is going to be more difficult to find a job--the opportunities for a Ph.D. level chemist are much greater than an associate level.

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102. CR on April 30, 2007 9:11 AM writes...

One thing I would like to see changed is that graduate schools take more of an MBA-like attitude to admitting students. It would be nice for grad schools to expect students to work prior to being admitted. I think this would solve a few issues: 1. more associate level chemists would be available for hire, 2. it could weed out those students that didn't know what to do after undergrad and by default went to grad school, 3. give a more focused view of grad schools to those students that return, and 4. it might keep some very talented associates in the industry due to the financial pull (speaking from experience--it wasn't easy to convince my wife that I wanted to give up my salary and go back to grad school for

I can say from experience that those graduate students that returned for their Ph.D. were far and away more motivated and more focused than their straight-from-undergrad colleagues. Having said that there were obviously very talented straight-from-undergrad colleagues; but percentage wise there was no comparison.

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103. eugene on April 30, 2007 10:54 AM writes...

"Simply put, if we want to continue to buy our fancy houses and drive our big cars, we need to limit the people acquiring the wealth in this country."

Oh, for a truly great theorist of economics...

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104. eugene on April 30, 2007 10:59 AM writes...

Simply put, if you actually let PhDs into the country and allowed them to immigrate instead of anyone who can cross the land border illegally (or include those since it's impossible to stop them apparently, and let 1/10th the amount of educated immigrants in), there would be more wealth in the country.

Of course, there is always that aversion to becoming like Canada.

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105. MB on April 30, 2007 10:19 PM writes...

Bill: Your view of economics is, in my experience, unique. Before we entered WW2 we were still in a great depression. After we entered, we gave most of those weapons away. In any event, foreign workers are a minor contributor to our negative trade balance.

What have foreign and immigrant scientists given us? Nuclear weapons, much of the early space program, just off the top of my head. Is this enough benefit to the average citizen for you Arthur?

America is a nation of immigrants, otherwise we would not be America. Big cars and fancy houses are not worth giving up our national identity.

Furthermore, what is up with people comparing their salaries with a few cherry picked professions known for being lucrative? Yeah, MBAs get a better return on investment. They have a Masters in making money! Lawyers run the country, Doctors keep you alive etc. If money was my prime motive I would not be a chemist at all.
As it is, I can live comfortably on my stipend and a small fellowship. Compare that to what things are like in the English or History departments. Then compare job prospects with them after graduation.

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106. Al on May 1, 2007 2:01 AM writes...

MB, Bill's take on economics may well be erroneous (FWIW I think in the 50's the US made half of everything that was made in the entire world!), but to say that in WWII the US "gave most of those weapons away" is a load of cobblers. The UK only finished repaying the money loaned by the US for WWII armaments last year!

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107. Nick on May 5, 2007 4:54 PM writes...


It's not that immigrants haven't contributed (they have!) it's the subsitution of American scientists with cheaper foreign labor that's a problem. Why so many on this board dont give a hoot as to what they're paid or what their future prospects will be is astounding. I think we're all a little brain washed as americans to believe we're all free agents that nobley compete on a fair playing field for our services. People act locally while corporations act globally. Hence they'll use global tactics to supress wages.

We let in 2 million people a year in this country (more than the rest of the world combined) so that's proof positive the US is a welcoming country. Right now there are too many foreign scientists coming into the united states. I'm sure a large portion of those 2 million a year are technically apt people. If you say that isnt depressing wages then that runs contrary to the laws of economics. On top of that throw the other visa stuff and you realize that no one is looking out for the American scientist. Since we're the only country who does this kind of thing I'd say its disingenuous to suggest there's a level global playing field. I doubt anyone would give a US citizen the same opportunities in France or Belgium.

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108. boo-hoo on May 5, 2007 5:17 PM writes...

What a bunch of whining losers here. You are telling me that people born and brought up here and who received the best education in the world are afraid of competing with a bunch of foreign scientist' like me.

When I went to school in India, we had nothing in our class rooms except a chalkoard and some scratched wooden benches. Even the teachers for most part were crappy. The onus was on us to work hard and learn and understand the subject matter.

Lets be clear, most immigrant workers end up doing the jobs that most Americans are really not interested in doing. So if you are a small struggling biotech, you have a choice of hiring a good foreign chemist or some loser whining american chemist, who is not very competent but expects to start directing traffic the second week on the job - whether he/she is capable or not.

I have yet to see a well qualified American chemist who cant find a decent job.

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109. eugene on May 6, 2007 9:47 AM writes...

Nick, two big misconceptions there that I can't leave alone lest someone else naively believes you.

"I'm sure a large portion of those 2 million a year are technically apt people."

In reality the vast majority of those 2 million likely possess no secondary education at all. A lot of them probably didn't even finish high school. Out of all the English speaking countries, the USA is one of the most difficult to immigrate to (become a permanent resident) for people who hold a doctorate or a masters degree based on their merits.

"Since we're the only country who does this kind of thing I'd say its disingenuous to suggest there's a level global playing field."

No, the USA is now the only English speaking country that does this thing. Most other advanced nations now have a point system for educated immigrants and with a Masters and one year work experience, you would have no problem obtaining permanent residency in Australia or Canada with no job lined up.

"I doubt anyone would give a US citizen the same opportunities in France or Belgium."

Then you don't know much about France or Belgium. As long as an American scientist can speak the language, they have just as many opportunities as a native to find an industry job. In some cases more due to what is believed to be a good education and a desire to have a diverse workforce on the part of the employer. After all, there is a reason that there are ~250,000 Americans (excluding the army) living in Germany. I would assume a large number of them are educated.

Countries with a smart government encourage educated people to come over. This isn't the case in America today. However, America does have a good PR machine and a lot of third world scientists ignore better immigration opportunities because of it. This situation won't last forever though.

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110. boo-hoo on May 6, 2007 12:21 PM writes...

Eugene has done his homework. Here are the immigration stats for 2006.

About 1 .2 million people were granted LPR (legal permanent residentship) out of which 159K were employment based immigrants (people with advanced degress ~ 22K, skilled workers/professional/unskilled workers 90K, priority workers 36K).

Compare this to family based (800K), the immigration lottery (44K) and asylees (250K, category most prone to fraud). Of course, some of the family sponsored immigrants are likely to be skilled workers too - and many of them end up working in university departments as post-docs, technicians for life.

The last time I checked, the employment based immigrants are probably the only who contribute positively to the economy, pay taxes and dont burden the social services.

So quit whining, get off your asses and show up to work and compete in the global marketplace. Americans have one of the best education systems in the world and better opportunities from early childhood than almost anyone else in the world. Dont tell me you can compete with some indian/chinese/mexican worker who is usually a social misfit, an average scientist and a poor communicator.

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111. Nick on May 7, 2007 12:30 PM writes...

Thanks Eugene for your response. My general observation is that foreigners desire unlimited immigration while Americans hope for some more pragmatic approach. You must understand this is in light of the large numbers we already admit.

As for your comments I think they're somewhat skewed from the issue as it pertains to the technical class. The education distribution of new immigrants likely does mirror that found in the global population. On the other hand, in absolute numbers the influx can be destructive for the citizen population. For instance, only 2500 Americans recieve a Phd each year in Chemistry. It doesnt take very many newcomers to destroy the job market for many years. The L-1 visa allows in several hundred thousand a year and the h1b provides 20,000 automatic slots provided to higher education graduates of US universities. A big problem is that the INS (defunct sort of) does not keep digital records of much of this information.

"Then you don't know much about France or Belgium. As long as an American scientist can speak the language, they have just as many opportunities as a native to find an industry job."

That's the fist hint you've given me that you're out of touch with the European job market. I work around a family of major universites and know dozens of German, French, Swiss, Swedish etc scientists. The job market is poor for natives, much less Americans. Since I and my colleagues -several who've done post-docs at European universities-unlike myself-, have applied for numerous positions, I'm classifying your comment as an off the cuff remark. The Job market there is terrible, although better than it was three years ago.

"Countries with a smart government encourage educated people to come over. This isn't the case in America today"

It is my understanding that my government's first responsibility is the protection of the civilian population. This from foreign threats of both labor dumping as well as errant nukes.

-Where do we agree? I do like your idea about direct immigration in times of need vs upping the visa numbers. This would prevent the churn associated with irresponsible employers who use labor churn to suppress wages. This would work best if the scientists were organized (like the file-clerks and janitors) to provide longer term contracts which provide some sort of short term stability. I would also require that the new immigrants renounce their native citizenship. I've known several people who, here on visas, got American citizenship simply as a perk and went back home.

I see no way to compete on the global playing field when immigration is unchecked. Particularly when there are ten foreign scientists for every American. Wages will continue to fall.

Maybe things will change.

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112. eugene on May 11, 2007 7:38 AM writes...

I doubt 2500 Americans receive a PhD each year, considering the number of universities and the amount of doctorates just in the chemistry department of a top 50 one in one year. That there are visas that exist that allow for exploitation of smart foreign workers is a tragedy and a misguided policy. The foreign chemists that are allowed in should be allowed in on a secure basis so that exploitation is not an issue and so that the country can benefit.

The INS does keep records of who it gives visas. You are completely wrong there. It doesn't keep records vis a vis illegal immigrants. A foreign scientist who does anything wrong (overstays by a a few weeks and they find out) has no chance to apply for permanent residency.

As for your comments about the European job market, I think my comment was that Americans would get the opportunities there that are more similar to a native, than Europeans would get here (on an equal basis with Americans, and forget non-Europeans). That you think (or I think) that the European job market is poor, has absolutely nothing to do with it. An American will be given consideration similar to a native, as proper channels exist for them to get a working visa and citizenship eventually if they wish it, opposed to the clown dance that is America's treatment of foreign scientists.

Although this website is not informative, it has a useful contrast between the four countries that are on the main page. Notice the country which does not include the word 'immigration' in the heading or a link to a 'points calculator'.

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113. Peter B on June 6, 2007 9:19 AM writes...

Well I have a PhD in Chemistry along with 4 years Post Doc experience, 3yrs in small molecules and 1 in nanotechnology. I also have 2 years working for the government.

I went back home to be with family and guess what? No job - 30 CV's later - not one interview. That was a bit ago now and I've left it behind.

There seems to be a drive at the moment towards production and not research. So there's few jobs for PhDs. Here in the UK science is also on the decline in general. So any PhD jobs are intensley fought. The best bet is to become a salesman for a chemistry company. A PhD seems to be more of a block rather than sign of quality. And as you mention in your article, people may choose to forget about it when applying for a job in the hope of having more of a chance but they run the risk of being dishonest if found out later.

In the end I realised I chose to do a PhD with my heart and I will never regret it. But it makes finding a chemistry career that much more difficult.

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114. T.V. on June 19, 2007 11:50 AM writes...

Interesting discussion and very informative. I too, have an M.S. in chemistry and stopped there because I wasn't sure if I wanted to continue for a PhD. I wanted to work for a while to gain experience and see what more I could do with this degree. Although my M.S. opened doors and gave me plenty of interviews, corporations saw it as nothing more than a glorified bachelor's degree and gave me only 6000 dollars more per year than a bachelor degreed person. I found this disappointing. My first job out of grad school involved teaching this PhD in INORGANIC chemistry (who had 2 postdoc jobs and was unemployed for a year before accepting this group leader position) all about chromatography and how to run an HPLC. Soon after that, he was seen as the HPLC expert because he had a PhD! HUH??? My M.S. research was on chromatography and I used HPLC instrumentation extensively, yet this bozo was deemed the expert because he had a PhD!

Academia seems to put an impression into students minds that an M.S. has a certain level of nobility to it, while industry does not see it that way. I was told that an M.S. and some years of work experience would give me a great foundation to get back into a PhD program. That is where I saw this dichotomy. Grad schools will say that the M.S. is worth SOMETHING, yet industry doesn't have this perception and when trying to reenter into a PhD program, grad schools will only look at undergraduate studies, disregarding the fact that the person has an M.S. degree, 10 years experience, has taken ACS APPROVED short courses and is a certified environmental analytical chemist! WHAT???? This has been my experience. Basically, to graduate schools, everything I have done since my bachelor degree is disregarded. Work experience did not mean too much to them, nor did my M.S. and attending ACS short courses. What is going on here? An M.S. in chemistry does not have the same prestige as master degrees in other areas. This is unfortunate and in many ways I find that graduate schools are doing students a great disservice in having and/or encouraging to any degree, the Master of Science in chemistry. I've become frustrated in the whole process. I'm currently working on my MBA. This will help me get out of the chemistry world.

There needs to be education reform. Graduate chemistry programs need to teach business classes as well as classes that are usefull in industry, like method development, FDA and EPA regulations, project management, etc. There should also be a certification or license in the different areas of chemistry, much like the P.E. for engineers, to set a standard for industry. Finally, taking ACS short courses should mean something to graduate schools.

In the end, I don't think I want to go back to get a PhD in chemistry; I would be entering as if I were a new B.S. graduate and I would rather spend time with my kids than to be alone in some lab at night. I have had a few of my friends from grad school who have recieved their PhD's tell me that they ask themselves why they went for their PhD. One is sick and tired of working in a government lab and really wants to do something else. The other is a professor who is very sick and tired of playing the political game and fighting for government funding through proposals. She wants to leave and do something other than chemistry.

All in all, I think that chemistry education and industry perception of the M.S. both need changing.

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115. LeeLoo on August 13, 2007 12:22 PM writes...

Why so many people get PhDs in USA?
1. There are about 90-95% of foreign graduate students in our department, mostly from China, India and Korea. US graduate school is a way to permanent resident rights for them. They agree to work with any professor on any subject for 60+ hours/week, up to 8(eight!) years.
2. Professors need cheap labor to run their projects.
And if those foreign-born PhDs do not find a job here they are sent off to their home countries.
It's that simple.

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116. a PhD by any other name on October 7, 2007 11:28 PM writes...

I got a PhD simply because I love the work and to prove that I am capable of carrying original and useful research. However, I want to point out that I am highly skilled in the lab, and I do teach these skills as well as theory to the BS/Honours/MSc people I get. There are an awful lot of things I'm still learning, but it's always nice to learn.

I have great disdain though for many people with PhDs, particularly those fresh out of University. Many of them have very poor lab skills, and very very poor knowledge even within their own limited field of PhD work. I have a PhD bozo from Cardiff who doesn't even know the proper way to use a rotary evaporator! Apparently all a PhD does is give these people inflated egos. Most of them can't even publish a decent paper out of their PhD work (two Tet Letts? You've got to be joking!)

I do like most of the senior PhDs because they do not mind pointing out that they are unfamiliar with topics, and they are not offended when facts prove them wrong. But overall even they agree with me: we don't want to hire PhDs when we can get good MSc and BSc people in who will do the work, ask questions when they're stuck, and behave in a collegial manner (yes, we PhD can be quite friendly, we're not all stuck-up).

I think the entire notion of a PhD has been grossly underminded by the fact that universities worldwide are letting mediocre people get the degree. These people in turn demand outrageous salaries despite their rather poor performances. I think part of the solution, though involuntary, is to shut down Chemistry departments which are producing idiots with PhDs. A PhD will only have value if it can be restricted to people who do demonstrate the capacity and ability for it. Until then, don't be surprised to find Pharma firing more PhDs and hiring MSc and BSc people to fill the gap. I personally think the optimum ratio for PhD:Bsc is 1:10.

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117. anyone on May 19, 2010 2:04 PM writes...

Re:"Even then few professors like Katritzky..."
Sadly I did my PHD with Alan Katrizky and I have to agree 100 with the comments regarding this man. He certainly runs a sweatshop on the 2nd floor of the CRB. Salaries offered to Postdocs are below minimum. To go around labor laws the department allowed him to states that people work 1/3 or 1/2 time, when in fact they put in at least 60 hrs /week " you may confirm this with department finance office" He likes to hire couples as postodocs where he would pay one salary for 2 " the spouce signs in as a volunteer" this one way to go around labor laws “someone has to check this. Perhaps let the gainesvilel Sun know . Years ago while I was working with him, he had few post-docs do custom synthesis for companies like Aldrich and Exxon. He would have force the poor post docs to sign confidentiality agreement and would not give them a copy nor would let them read what they have signed” These were not research contract " the papers states that" but we often made thing from Org synthesis. Then his ARKIVOKOV where he takes advantage of foreign authors where he demands that they provide him with the samples as condition for publication. These samples are sold on Scifinder " I hate to name the people who do his dirty work
I recall one time one of his postodocs gotten beaten up by the Russian mafia..The victim was persuaded from filing charges and the felon still works in his office. The administration and past chairmen and the current one are cowards for not stopping him. Other professor are doing similar things. As for supervising, he has never stepped in the lab the 4 years I was in. His post docs are not of high caliber. Had it not I went to small college for undergraduate, I would be trained by those fools
I was on his web site the other day, and I can't believe the lies by Niveen and Parual... when they often they spoke bad about him. DO NOT WORK WIITH HIM. He is the worst chemist I have come to know and his work is worthless and I can challenge if a young professor would have submitted such work it would be rejected .Shame on JOC, TL and Royal society. STOP ARK!!

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118. Nic on May 24, 2011 4:24 PM writes...

I think there may be a bit of a bias from people working in industry. Part of the problem is indeed that Ph.Ds are ill-trained, even within their specialties, but a much larger part of the problem is the duplicity of the private-sector. There are more than enough highly qualified chemists in all disciplines to fill the slots required by (for example) a pharamaceutical company. The problem is, the best and brightest aren't going to join a company with a history of shaky job security! Look at the companies and agencies that Ph.Ds from MIT, Scripps, Berkeley, and Harvard go to; they're all highly stable and prestigious companies (an exagerration, but not by much). Unfortunately, with these people out of the mix for the rest of the companies, Joe Green from B.S. State University looks best. I don't want to be mean, but quite frankly most universitys giving out Ph.Ds are not doing so in a way that lends it credibility. The top 10 schools are going to be the closest thing to a sure bet you get in this world, with anything in the top 50 a solid choice. Top 100 will make you a solid chemist but much beyond that and you're treading into the land of poor preparation and quality.

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119. synchemist on May 27, 2011 11:44 AM writes...

At #118:

I don't know much about how industry hires by looking at the grad school the applicant comes from, but I do have to say that there are very good advisors, who look out for their students and make sure they get good jobs even from a not so highly ranked school.

The mentor's support is the most important thing and unfortunately the school ranking does not reflect the mentor quality all the time. Usually this mentor support is dependent the student's efforts while he/she was in the mentor's lab. Unfortunately I have also seen cases where the mentor's support came from how well the student kissed up to the advisor.

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120. Thelma Ianni on March 29, 2014 12:38 PM writes...

Jay's is definitely worth a visit, though not really a substitute for people who liked Liberty. But hey, all recommendations for alternative watering holes welcome!

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