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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

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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July 9, 2009

Too Many Scientists?

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Posted by Derek

Let's open up again that contentious subject of scientific jobs. In my entire memory, I have never once heard anyone editorialize that we are turning out too many scientists and engineers. A looming shortage has always been, well, looming. And these days, it's easy to wonder how much of a shortage there can possibly be. This USA Today article (link thanks to a longtime reader of this site) rounds up a lot of quotes from people in the game, and wonders about the same thing:

While there have been warnings for more than 50 years, a renewed push over the past four years has earned the attention of both the Bush and Obama administrations.

Speaking to the National Academy of Sciences in April, Obama announced "a renewed commitment to education in mathematics and science," fulfilling a campaign promise to train 100,000 scientists and engineers during his presidency.

Only problem: We may not have jobs for them all.

As the push to train more young people in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — careers gains steam, a few prominent skeptics are warning that it may be misguided — and that rhetoric about the USA losing its world pre-eminence in science, math and technology may be a stretch.

I think that one muddying factor (as the article mentions later on) is that lumping all scientists, mathematicians, and engineers together isn't very useful. Civil engineering is very different from optimizing computational algorithms, which is quite different from medicinal chemistry, which is quite different from semiconductor research. When I hear people talk as if all these were part of a coherent whole, I sometimes get the impression that, because of the speaker's own educational background, they must seem to be one somehow. But it doesn't make sense to me.

That said, I know that employment prospects in our own field of drug research are very much on everyone's mind. The last year or two have been the worst I've ever seen for hiring in the industry. I go back only to 1989, but longer-serving colleagues report the same feelings. Looking over the ads that appear in the likes of C&E News certainly doesn't make a person think differently.

The unimpressive rate of successful new drug introductions, coupled with the rising costs of R&D (especially clinical trials), was already squeezing us before this whole economic downturn hit. Outsourcing was one big response to that (again, pre-downturn), and we've hashed over that issue around here several times. (The downturn's effect on the outsourcing business has been mixed, by the way, as far as I can see. Some companies may have increased their offshore work, but others have cut back on it as one form of discretionary spending).

But back to the big questions, which are pretty damned hard to answer: are there technical/scientific fields where the US has too many people for the jobs available? If so, are these situations part of various cyclical trends, or are they full secular downturns, or what? Did we get there by training too many people for a job market that was otherwise in reasonable shape, or did the number of positions start to fall and not hold up that end of the process, or both? And where are all these variables going in the future?

I don't know, and I'm willing to bet that no one else does, either. When you're listening to someone talk about these issues, though, I think that there are several things to look out for that might indicate that the person you're hearing has not thought things through well enough. First off, there's that everything-in-one-category problem that I mentioned above. Anyone who seriously wants to address the issue in that fashion hasn't, I'd say, worked on the problem long enough. Secondly, I think it's fair to say that anyone who seems to uncritically accept the idea of a severe shortage of manpower across the whole technical/scientific area is not arguing from a position of strength. Unfortunately, that category has, in the past few years, included people like Bill Gates, various cabinet secretaries, heads of the National Science Foundation, and other such riff-raff. This isn't helping to clear the air.

Next, anyone who brings up the numbers of Chinese and Indian graduates in these areas, especially anyone who just quotes numbers of "engineers" without breaking things down more, needs to think harder. It's true that impressively huge numbers can be quoted, but (sad to say) they're not all they're cracked up to be, at least not yet:

Even Asia's much-touted numerical advantage is less than it seems. China supposedly graduates 600,000 engineering majors each year, India another 350,000. The United States trails with only 70,000 engineering graduates annually. Although these numbers suggest an Asian edge in generating brainpower, they are thoroughly misleading. Half of China's engineering graduates and two thirds of India's have associate degrees. Once quality is factored in, Asia's lead disappears altogether. A much-cited 2005 McKinsey Global Institute study reports that human resource managers in multinational companies consider only 10 percent of Chinese engineers and 25 percent of Indian engineers as even "employable," compared with 81 percent of American engineers.

So there's that to consider. And we haven't even talked about the various solutions proposed, even stipulated what the problems are. Pour money into education? Industrial policy? Retraining? Tax incentives? It's a mess. I guess my main message is to beware of anyone who tries to tell you that it's a reasonably understandable one.

Comments (67) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Business and Markets


1. Dennis on July 9, 2009 9:28 AM writes...

"Unfortunately, that category has, in the past few years, included people like Bill Gates, various cabinet secretaries, heads of the National Science Foundation, and other such riff-raff."

Although I have to admit, if you're going to be like all those who spout this nonsense, I greatly prefer that you dump millions of dollars into funding scientists like Gates does, rather just spouting hot air.

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2. opsomath on July 9, 2009 9:47 AM writes...

Derek, you make a really good point here: it is deeply pointless to train scientists if there are no jobs for them. On the other hand, if you create jobs for them, I strongly suspect the scientists (engineers) will appear.

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3. processchemist on July 9, 2009 10:01 AM writes...


Exactly. And, about political action (in Europe) you can create jobs for scientists mainly in academia and government institutions. But, from a strategic/long-term point of view, IMHO the problem is a major loss of *industrial scientific culture* in the western world.
In my line of work you can "touch" the problem, and it's getting worse year by year. The unsaid underlying concept is that "we don't need good processes, we need good indian concract manufacturers". FOr sure also in the drug discovery and development world there's people that thinks that "we don't need scientists, we need new products", and that new products will come cheap from academia and small biotechs.

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4. Mike on July 9, 2009 10:01 AM writes...

All politicians - liberal, conservative, Demo, Repub - preach better education, and in particular, an effort to churn out more scientists and engineers. It makes me wonder. Have they looked at the employment numbers and salaries? If supply and demand is at work, high salaries should be a signal that we need more people in a job. What we need now are more high finance people. The salaries there are very high, much higher than for scientists and engineers, indicating that there aren't enough people in those jobs. There are more than enough scientists and engineers.

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5. Sili on July 9, 2009 10:35 AM writes...

Being fresh out on the jobmarket after my illness (here in Denmark), I'm not wanting for jobs to apply for.

But I certainly haven't been invited for any interviews yet, so I think it's safe to say that there are plenty of candidates.

Of course, I only have a MSc, myself, since I thoroughly screwed the pooch on the Ph.D.

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6. John Harrold on July 9, 2009 10:48 AM writes...

Here's my experience: BS, MS, and PhD in chemical engineering, now I'm doing a post doc focusing on PKPD modeling in Buffalo.

When I started the PhD program there were 15 of us. Other than myself there was only one other american. The others were a mix of Asians, about 50/50 Indian to Chinese (ethnically speaking), a Colombian, and a guy from France. When I got here, I did a quick survey and found that I was the only American postdoc. We've since picked up another.

Personally, I don't think I'll have too much trouble finding a job. But I selected a career path that has more opportunities than most.

One of my best friends from gradschool is Indian. When he graduated he had a limited time to find a job. And he eventually found employment with a company that shall remain nameless. It is basically a research version of a sweatshop. He was constantly writing grant proposals with short time frames, and he was (in my opinion) underpaid for the work he was doing.

Now you might say: He should just find a new job. But the way the visa system works here he couldn't even advance in that company because his visa was tied to his job. The only way he could change jobs would require a new employer to sponsor him.

This creates a barrier of sorts, and it enables employers to underpay their employees. And the few Americans who choose science related careers will get paid less as a result. I should confess that I'm a bit of a libertarian here, so the following isn't going to come as much of a surprise. I think that when you've completed your PhD in a field that is in high demand, you should get a greencard.

This would make the workers more mobile, and allow jobs to be priced based more on the demand of their skills. If Americans are uninterested in science, that's fine. We can provide the incentives to attract those who are to this country. If there are too many people in whatever field, then the demand will shrink. It's all about the market baby.

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7. BioBrit on July 9, 2009 10:48 AM writes...

Meager would be a polite way of describing the job market at the moment. One hopes that the diaspora from various companies start a new round of exciting startups and that opportunities, at least in small companies, begins to pick up in a year or so. However that's a long time for those on the street to wait twiddling their thumbs.

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8. Cloud on July 9, 2009 10:49 AM writes...

@Mike, compared to the vast majority of the working population, we do have high salaries. I'm a midlevel manager at a biotech and my husband is a scientific software engineer. We both make salaries that are fairly average for our fields, and that easily puts us in the top 5% of income in our area, probably even into the top 1-2%. I'll give you that the finance guys make a lot more, but there are a heck of a lot of people making a lot less.

I've always put the focus on training more scientists and engineers down to the idea that some very small percentage of us have new ideas that actually create new companies and even industries. From society's standpoint, it may be worth it to have a bunch of unemployed or underemployed scientists/engineers if that is what it takes to ensure we have enough of the ones who have those job-creating ideas. Of course, this completely sucks if you are one of those unemployed/underemployed scientists. But our society doesn't exactly have much of a track record for caring about that sort of thing.

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9. Ed on July 9, 2009 10:58 AM writes...

BioBrit - it does seem very meagre here in the UK doesn't it, especially at PhD level. I think it is as bad now as at any time since I started working about 8 years ago. However, I wouldn't be anticipating much in the way of synthetic chemistry opportunities at UK start-ups. Just look at Heptares (founded last years, and now a 2009 Fierce 15 company). It appears that they are outsourcing all their synthetic chemistry, and all the listing on their jobs page are for biologists/pharmacologists/computational chemists.

I envision this trend continuing. I would guestimate that unless you plan on employing more than 10 chemists, it just doesn't make sense to invest in the necessary equipment and infrastructure to support an inhouse med chem team.

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10. qq on July 9, 2009 11:09 AM writes...

"employable" by English speaking employers?

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11. Hoo on July 9, 2009 11:54 AM writes...

Politicians love science/tech education the same way I pine for the romances that I had as a teen. The difference is that I recognize that I'm middle aged now - policians don't.

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12. partial agonist on July 9, 2009 12:48 PM writes...

It would be nice to do things to encourage many more kids to go at least half way: to become much more scientifically literate through improved education by teachers willing to call creationism a pile of nonsense, homeopathy more nonsense, fear-mongerers like Jenny McCarthy being full of nonsense-squared, but not necessarily getting them to become scientists and push us old coots out the door through "rightsizing".

More kids believe Roswell New Mexico was visited by aliens than have even the most vague notion about what DNA does other than it can get you convicted on "Crime-Stoppers"

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13. Hap on July 9, 2009 1:08 PM writes...

#11: Better at the context (or the faking of context anyway) and capitalization thing, but it's still spam. Thanks for playing.

Glad to see you're diversifying from narcotics, though. Misusing antidepressants might only get one dead by suicide rather than dead by OD and/or in prison for possession. There's that.

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14. Anonymous on July 9, 2009 1:35 PM writes...

As a twice laid off "PH.D. level drug discovery scientist" (i.e 5 years in a cardiovascular TA,5+ years in assay development/molecular pharmacology,2+ years managing a high content profiling group)and currently unemployed life scientist, I am telling my children to NOT go into life science as a profession. Oh and my wife is a medicinal chemist who teaches now. Are there even medicinal chemisty jobs in this country anymore....?

As someone who has seen industry R & D disappear my job prospects are not very good at my age even with alot of transferable skills, good communication skills etc etc.

My vote - pick a profession that will always be necessary - Doctor, lawyer, plumber, nurse... Scientist/Tech jobs will ALWAYS be outsourced in the new economy. I am currently looking for a job in the bay area and even here it is very very tough.

My overeducated, umemployeed 2 cents.

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15. Mark on July 9, 2009 2:20 PM writes...

"On the other hand, if you create jobs for them, I strongly suspect the scientists (engineers) will appear."

That sounds like a system I've heard of before...... capitalism maybe?


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16. Chrispy on July 9, 2009 2:20 PM writes...

Another side effect of the too-many-scientists-for-too-few-positions issue is that those who DO have jobs are scared stiff of losing them. This makes for a corporate culture of suck-ups. Part of the great appeal of science as a profession was always that ones colleagues would be smart and opinionated and unafraid to voice their opinions. Now the CEO of my particular Wonder Drug Factory can end an all-staff meeting with "Any questions?" and all you hear is crickets.

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17. zzzzz on July 9, 2009 2:37 PM writes...

Wow, the comments of #15 are really depressing. I find myself in a similar situation, and unfortunately I can't help but agree...

By the way, the academic market was absolutely horrific last year as well.

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18. Hap on July 9, 2009 2:41 PM writes...

That should have been #13 above. Sorry.

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19. emjeff on July 9, 2009 3:07 PM writes...

Anyone who is thinking about grad school at this time should think long and hard about it. Unless you choose your field carefully, you could spend 6 years of your life getting a degree that does nothing for you.The current recession does not worry me; we'll get through that. Obamacare is another story. Once any expectation of profit is taken away from companies, investment will dry up in a hurry, and bye, bye new drugs.

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20. milkshake on July 9, 2009 4:02 PM writes...

yea, in the agreement with the previous commenter, the long-term industry medchem research prospects are not good. I came to US because chemistry jobs were much easier to get here than in Eastern Europe, and with a green card and a decent resume one could easily quit a lousy employer and find a new job right across the parking lot. This used to be true in SSF and San Diego, as recently as 8 years ago - now these areas are hardest hit and the laid-off people there are really getting desperate. For me the refuge was academia, but how many chemists in US can find a decent job at university/academia, and how many new drugs will come out academia I am very skeptic about. State-controlled healthcare will most certainly put caps on drug prices.

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21. retread on July 9, 2009 5:20 PM writes...

Interesting that Hap thinks #13 is spam (presumably computer generated ? ). Test yourself -- try to paraphrase #13. I doubt that any of you can (I certainly can't). The only way to capture #13 is to write it down word for word.

This type of production is typical of some forms of schizophrenia. When I ran up against it as a clinician taking a history, the diagnosis was always unfortunately the same.

"A Beautiful Mind" contains some verbatim productions of John Nash when he was quite ill, which are quite similar -- which is why anyone interested in schizophrenia should read the book. It's very sad and hard to get through (even for some of my psychiatrist friends) but it is an unvarnished description of what schizophrenia is really like, unlike most literary representations of mental illness -- "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" for example which romanticize it.

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22. Hap on July 9, 2009 6:07 PM writes...

If it isn't spam, then the person writing it has an obsession with a certain drug website. The inclusion of the website is consistent among multiple messages - the style (particularly the lack of actual topical reference to the post on which the comment appears and the (usual) lack of caps) seems to be similar to the others mentioning that particular website. The comments might not be computer-generated - I was lumping the comments in with other undesired computer-sent messages attempting to sell products.

Won't the profits of pharmaceutical companies be adversely affected when the system goes belly-up? I wouldn't figure drug and medical costs can rise 10% a year for all that long without something going off the rails - at some point, there is no money left, and before that, either insurance companies will ration care, or the gov't will. Also, there's been an awful lot money to be made selling drugs (those increased costs again), yet there hasn't been a corresponding increase in drugs or their development - money's been spent, but no output. If the drug industry requires either infinite patent life or an infinite well of cash (to support the increased amount of money required to stimulate investment), then it's doomed, with or without gov't health care, because neither of those circumstances is likely to exist for very long.

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23. Derek Lowe on July 9, 2009 8:38 PM writes...

#13 was indeed spam, and I'm irritated that it got past my filters (and past me). It's gone now, though. . .

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24. Thomas McEntee on July 9, 2009 9:10 PM writes...

The issue is 'will there be jobs?' Jobs are found in government, academia, and industry. For chemists, the majority of US chemists traditionally went to industry. What's industry do? Industry makes products and when it can afford it, does R&D...but products are the revenue generators. Product unit costs have a materials component, a labor & overhead component, and a profit margin component. Material costs vary somewhat throughout the world but the thing that really drives differences in costs between manufacturing in the US vs another country is labor & overhead and we in the US are up near the top...there have been lots of discussions herein about what a Chinese CRO charges for a mainland PhD (never mind what the PhD gets out of the CRO management). You do the math and tell me what the future looks like for US-based manufacturing or R&D. My perspective is that this death spiral can be gathering momentum as US universities crank out more chemists (the academic Professor-Grad student Ponzi scheme). As the Apollo 13 astronauts said, "Houston, we have a problem"

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25. Chemjobber on July 9, 2009 9:46 PM writes...

It's terribly sad that I really can't contradict any of the pessimism here, especially about pharma. Man, this stinks.

Question: if you were a organic chemist, where would you go these days? My only ideas? Bio-organic (biofuels, etc.), PET/imaging (they're practically begging for chemists, although these days, I doubt it.) and government work (esp. propellant/explosives).

(Thanks for the link, Derek!)

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26. london lad on July 10, 2009 12:09 AM writes...

There is undoubtedly a widespread perception (and almost certainly it is reality) that there are not enough jobs in the drug discovery sector for the currently trained pool of scientists and engineers. Furthermore, there is little evidence of alternate emerging sectors such as green technology, agrochem, and so on, taking up the slack. This oversupply is pushing down salaries; if you are having to downsize with significant housing, schooling and other commitments it is not a nice experience.

Adding further supply of labour through training yet more scientists does not seem rational from the viewpoint of many current industrial scientists, especially if some of the key other drivers of wealth creation - access to capital, access to markets, mobility, and protection of IP are all highly uncertain for the future. However, an overall drop in salary costs may be what is required to make jobs in Europe and the States competitive again.

From an academic scientist perspective of course the motivation is reversed, they all strongly argue for the training of more scientists, not less, and since many influential academic jobs and their salaries are effectively safe for their life, they have no drivers to modify their view.

I really hope that we are facing a fantastic future for us all rising phoenix like from the ashes, but I fear the only birds I can see now are vultures.

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27. milkshake on July 10, 2009 12:40 AM writes...

cheer up, mate. The job situation should start improving few years after our death

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28. Shane on July 10, 2009 1:48 AM writes...

My perception as a recent PhD graduate in chemistry who has given up on academia is that academia is the sector calling for more science graduates because it relies on postgrad students to do the little actual research work they do (at a cost competitive with second world wages).

It has nothing to do with the amount of jobs in the real industry, especially in Australia where the pickings are particularly meagre. In Brisbane our small pharma industry has been cut in half in the last year, with more downsizing and off shoring on the drawing board. In academia the amount of funding is continuing to shrink, causing more post doc time to be spent filling out forms to grovel for cash. Our tertiary sector is being propped up by full fee paying international students, a risky position to be in given the global financial mess unwinding.
Im retraining to be a teacher (some demand for these with good science backgrounds) and hoping our state government doesn't go bankrupt like California.

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29. LondonChemist on July 10, 2009 7:10 AM writes...

I sometimes think companies that say "there aren't enough scientists" actually mean "there aren't enough scientists for us to get away with the low salaries we pay them". There never seems to be a shortage of people wanting to be doctors, lawyers, politicians--all v. well remunerated professions. Is there a link?

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30. Don B. on July 10, 2009 7:28 AM writes...

Someone much smarter has said "We are/were at the top of a Minsky Credit Cycle". Which I interpret as look out below!

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31. retread on July 10, 2009 8:08 AM writes...

Derek & Hap:

One question about the late lamented #13. Do you think it was computer generated? Why even ask? Because if it was, the algorithm used to generate it casts an interesting light on the speech generated by some schizophrenics.

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32. Hap on July 10, 2009 9:08 AM writes...

I don't know - I guess I assumed it was human-generated boilerplate with perhaps slight modifications (designed to be hard to immediately detect and to fit in to as many potential topic threads as possible, to get the desired website name into the flow of conversation before the people reading it can detect that it's spam) from message to message. Someone has to generate the author names, as well - they differ from message to message (and would make the author easily blockable if constant).

I don't know if the similarity to schizophrenic writing is accidental (above constraints) or is an actual reflection of the person writing it, or is computer generated - since I don't know anything about schizophrenia or its consequences, I can't tell.

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33. madkathy on July 10, 2009 12:19 PM writes...

I'm with partial agonist (12). I think people who assume a priority on more/better science education equates with producing more scientists are as guilty of over-simplification as those who lump all STEM careers into one category. More focus on science education should be a priority for all scientists. What does science gain from having a mistrusting, fearful and ignorant public?

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34. Bored on July 10, 2009 1:33 PM writes...

#11 Hoo has a good point. I grew up in the '60's and '70's when we were landing on the Moon and science was "in." Unfortunately, it seems to be "in" only for the scientists today. Our culture is more concerned with dead celebrities than ice at the lunar south pole. I hate to make that old comparison with ancient Rome, but.......

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35. Anonymous on July 10, 2009 3:32 PM writes...

#15 again.....

I agree with you madkathy however the question here is do we have too many scientists not do we need better quality/more science education.

I'm not quite sure we need more science education or if this will even change the belief system that is engrained in about 50% of the population that science is not important, too hard to understand or conflicts with their religous worldview.

I am all for training/educating a population to employ rigorous scientific methodology and thinking in everything they do. I am also a big fan of scientists being trained in the "liberal arts" so they can speak, write and convey scientific theory and thought clearly and persuasively.

I believe these are 2 different topics. The problem is that we have produced way too many PhDs during the past 20 years to keep the academic wheels turning. The problem is now many of us middle age life scientists who have been working for many years in industry find ourselves with few if any science career opportunities and due to the economic situation also find it hard to transition to other industries since they aren't hiring either......

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36. Anonymous on July 10, 2009 3:33 PM writes...

make that last post #14 again ...

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37. Allen Templeton on July 11, 2009 12:42 AM writes...

At Merck, we believe in putting patients first in all we do. And we recognize that our employees are our single greatest asset in achieving this mission.

Top 5 reasons our people are committed to working at Merck:

* Quality of co-workers
* Ethical standards and values
* Merck's mission
* Compensation and benefits
* Work environment

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38. Morten G on July 11, 2009 5:17 AM writes...

#37 Spam? ;)

And Derek could perhaps please just replace the text in the spams that get through the filter with "SPAM" or something? It would keep the numbering of the comments consistent. Thanks!

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39. Chemjobber on July 11, 2009 9:27 AM writes...

#37, I'm guessing, is a prank on the part of some MRL underling -- the name appears to be an actual Merck employee.

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40. Robert on July 11, 2009 11:44 AM writes...

I think a former poster hit the nail on the head. Academics and Industry both desire a massive oversupply of scientists to suppress wages and opportunities for their employees. An employee that fears he can't move to another company will be both docile and less likely to demand increased benefits.

I'd wager about 100,000 jobs have been lost in the US pharma/chemistry world over the last 2-3 years. Yet do I hear a single peep of concern from the ACS, AAAS or NAS?

No, what I hear is the continual drum beat for more more more scientists (largely from abroad). Universities are educating 4X scientists and the US requires 1.5X (at decent wages). All these parties are effectively tenured and are obviously dismissive and contemptuous of other's pain. Obviously their objectivity and powers of observation are blind to certain facts.

The universities grow at the expense of their students as well as undermining the plight of older workers by funneling large numbers of foreign workers into a limited market.

The facts are clear at this point :

Supply of scientists greatly exceeds demand

Scientists are not being properly represented by their professional organizations and that's a major source of wage/opportunity destabilization. Scientists are relying on overpaid ACS/AAAS executives and sociopathic professors/executives to tell their story.

The obvious solution is to form an alternative organization that provides real benefits to scientists. The new University of California post-docs union is a step in the right direction.

p.s -The only thing Merck seems to excel in is the firing of its employees!

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41. Lu on July 12, 2009 1:05 AM writes...

Nice post, enjoyed the comments too.

The only thing... Why do Derek and ChemJobber think that the number of job postings C&E News is a valid indicator of a job market health?
Is this data set really representative?
It seems to me that in the recent years more and more job postings appear web sites rather than on paper simply becaus it's faster and cheaper.

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42. london lad on July 12, 2009 6:37 AM writes...

#40 Very interesting point regarding the professional societies (ACS, RSC, etc). I believe they all turned their backs on the direct interests of their subscription paying national members some time ago, and now primarily act in the interests of their commercial and publishing arms, and their other sponsors.

Other professional societies (lawyers, medics, architects, and so on) seem to do an excellent job in protecting the status, employment terms, and professional position in society of their members - why can't chemical societies do the same?

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43. J. on July 12, 2009 9:55 AM writes...

It's sort of interesting that as a direct result of the terrible job market, more and more recent college graduates are heading to graduate school to guarantee some sort of income (not much but an income nevertheless) with hopes that the market will be better in 5-8 years.

I wonder if outsourcing the chemistry efforts at these companies is necessarily the best approach, but it is obviously leading to this huge problem of job availability. How about instead of using so much of the in-house R&D on understanding the target, leave that to academia and support the increase in academic efforts directly related to drug discovery.

One thought is a series of government subsidies, in addition to the money for research grants and fellowships, for graduate programs to expand their facilities, number of professors and graduate students. While increasing the number of job opportunities, it might also aid in making the industry more successful in producing drugs by providing important research on biological targets and our understanding of disease.

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44. Jonadab the Unsightly One on July 13, 2009 7:59 AM writes...

> Civil engineering is very different from
> optimizing computational algorithms, which
> is quite different from medicinal chemistry,
> which is quite different from semiconductor

They're only different once you get into college and start taking major classes, and the largest differences come out at the graduate level. To people who studiously avoided taking any more math or science than was absolutely required in high school, these differences are not so readily apparent.

Most people can understand that a medicinal chemist makes drugs; whereas, a semiconductor researcher makes electronic stuff. But they don't know anything about the higher education that goes into either of them, so how would they know about the differences? It's obscure to most folks.

> I know that employment prospects in our
> own field of drug research are very much
> on everyone's mind.

This is true in most fields right now. Unemployment is as high as it's been since it came down from the late-1982 peak. Good jobs take months to find instead of weeks. Of course people are a little edgy about employment prospects.

> are these situations [in science fields]
> part of various cyclical trends, or are
> they full secular downturns, or what?

For now, I think it's reasonable to guess that any difficulty you might experience in finding a job in drug discovery is probably related to the overall unemployment rate. The economy is in a down cycle currently, and a longer one than average. That explains a lot.

When the overall economy picks up again and starts doing what it started doing in the mid eighties, and the overall unemployment rate drops back down toward the "natural rate" (mostly short-term unemployment due to companies and people shuffling around), if at that point a particular field doesn't follow that recovery in a timely fashion, then you start wondering if it's got long-term problems.

But right now, I'd say there's no reason to panic.

As for politicians saying "we need to focus on education and train more scientists", they say that because it sounds good and helps them win elections. Like 90% of everything politicians say, it's harmless enough, as long as they don't start trying to pass actual legislation.

> > "On the other hand, if you create jobs for
> > them, I strongly suspect the scientists
> > (engineers) will appear."
> That sounds like a system I've heard
> of before...... capitalism maybe?

Actually, pure capitalism would be if you let the jobs for them arise naturally. If scientific skills are useful, someone will be willing to employ scientists. An attempt to create jobs in a certain field artificially would be trying to force the economy in a direction it isn't naturally inclined to go, which would create an imbalance and ultimately lead to a market correction. (Minor encouragements, such as advertising campaigns, are mostly harmless. It's when the government starts meddling in more concrete ways that things get all muddled up.)

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45. Chemjobber on July 13, 2009 2:20 PM writes...

@Lu, #41:

If you look over the months that I've been measuring, you'll see that I consider my measurements to be 1) an experiment in measuring 2) not necessarily representative of the market overall. Historically, however, it tends to jibe with the sense that people have.

As for web measurements, I do that too, but it's tough to come up with a 1) quantitative system that 2) doesn't eat up more time than I already invest. Besides, which sites to measure?

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46. Kinetix on July 13, 2009 7:50 PM writes...

"For now, I think it's reasonable to guess that any difficulty you might experience in finding a job in drug discovery is probably related to the overall unemployment rate."

Nonsense. Unemployment for US chemists is above 25%. Unemployment was surging in chemistry as much as two years ago. If you're a foreigner you actually have a much better chance of finding employment than a US citizen. In NJ, most big pharma companies focus on hiring only indians and chinese. Servile, easily bullied employees they can keep on a short leash. Discrimination is rampant, now.

I'd say there are 3-4 chemists fighting for every Job.

So Lu, I know you are dead wrong.

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47. Chemjobber on July 13, 2009 8:53 PM writes...

Unemployment for US chemists is above 25%.

Cite please -- thanks!

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48. squeezedout on July 14, 2009 8:21 AM writes...

Just as we see with general labor, politicians do what corporate lobbyists tell them to do.

More people vying for less jobs will equal lower pay and the ability to employ without providing benefits.

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49. Chemjobber on July 15, 2009 12:57 AM writes...

I challenge Kinetix' assertion here. The ACS salary survey for 2008 sez the rate is 2.3%.

Yeah, I don't believe that either.

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50. jgo on July 15, 2009 6:06 PM writes...

You're right about the lumping together in statistics being frustrating. Part of the trouble, as explained to me by the BLS folks, is that, by the time you get to a detailed occupational category, the sub-sub-sample (out of the total ~60K households surveyed each month) is much too small to be reliable. Still, they do publish a quarterly report, and I've graphed some of their categories for comparison purposes, and, as much as is possible since the definitions change every few years, some historical context:

The occupations with more erratic and missing figures tend to be those with low sample sizes.

On the up-side, at least we're not actors. Sorry, I didn't include pharmacists in these graphs.

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51. Hydrogen Rules on July 16, 2009 10:59 AM writes...

I think chemjobber is tripping. Most chemists are either unemployed or underemployed. Do you count six years of post-doc as a job? Not really.

But I'm glad that someone had the courage to take those blue pills that come with each edition of C&E News!

I think CJ doesn't realize that their salary surveys are based on ACS members only. And there you actually have to fill out their forms and respond.

Only faculty respond to ACS surveys, because most real chemists have either given up their ACS membership or are too busy living a real life.

ACS does nada for the run of the mill chemist. And aren't the ACS executives so overpaid they make Goldman Sachs executives blush?

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52. Chemjobber on July 16, 2009 12:55 PM writes...

HR, if you'll click through, I've referenced the postdoc problem as "U6-like", to get economic. I've also put up my prediction -- you're welcome to tell me where I'm wrong. jgo has other data, too -- which is cool.

Also, you're wrong about only faculty responding to ACS surveys, as the breakdown is 60/8/29 for industry/gov't and academia.

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53. Rob on July 16, 2009 3:36 PM writes...

Wow you chemists don't know how good you have it. I'm 4th year postdoc in life science, am being laid off/fired in two weeks. Its a blessing, really. I've been looking for jobs for 3 years, with nothing to show. The fact is that at least chemistry offers employable and marketable skills. I started going into analytic chem via proteomics/mass spec, well I think I would really need to go back and get a PhD to have a shot in that field. Yeah I can run the machines but that's about it, the theory is pretty complex and really takes some training.

Anyway, point being that life science jobs are just not there, it is extremely difficult to get the foot in the door, never mind getting another job within the same field.

I'm doing what I can to wake people up; whenever I see grad students i caution them to actually look at the job market.

The problems are so vast, but basically we go into the field b/c we love biology, but realize that academia is in fact a plane of hell, and there isn't much escape. If you look at job ads, its 'req 5-7 yrs industry exp.' or 'BS with 0-3 yrs industry exp'. There are so many of us, and we are getting swamped by foreigners. In my last dept there was one other american postdoc, and a handful of faculty (the MD/PhDs). Same in this dept. The American (academic) scientist is just going extinct, there is far too much pressure and not enough reward to justify the hell you go through in this field.

I think culture does play a role, as does reverse discrimination. It's hard to be a team player when you don't speak indian or chinese (I am not racist, this is the truth). The Asian cultures are vastly different from ours (esp china, not so much india). Anyway, i look forward to getting out, and into something different, even if i have to be unemployed for years.

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54. Anonymous on July 16, 2009 3:45 PM writes...

Rob...good call. I have over 14 years of experience in drug discovery, everything from concept/target validation, assay development, HTS, hit to lead pharmacology support with IMHO good communication, writing and leading skills. I have been laid off twice the past couple of years due to mergers (Bayer purchase of Schering AG) and just all around bad luck in a small biotech company whose business isn't doing very well. I am in the midpoint of my career and nowhere to go in the life sciences. There are no jobs to transition into since they are gone as well....

Good luck and I highly recommend a different career/professional path and get out of the life sciences especially if you are a Ph.D. My Ph.D. does nothing but restrict my access to professional level jobs........

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55. Joe on July 19, 2009 12:33 PM writes...

Here's a link to a book on globalization. There is a tendency on this blog for certain posters to blame the individual for his employment. The destruction of jobs in the US and the replacement of citizens with temp wage slaves is part of a new religion amongst the executives (who smartly demand a lifetimes wages to work for a single year!).

Low Wage Capitalism by Fred Goldstein

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56. Joesephpeabody on July 21, 2009 11:31 PM writes...

>Re posting : Top 5 reasons our people are committed to
>working at Merck:
>* Quality of co-workers...* Ethical standards and values...
>blah blah

What rubbish. I've grown tired of entering my resume into the Merck HR database because those folks _never_ show any interest in hiring me, also not for a temp job in NJ or PA. Merck, go to hell. I will try to buy my meds from some other company, too. Sell your products in the countries where you hire, not here.

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57. AlchemX on July 27, 2009 1:41 PM writes...

To many scientists? Kind of.

There seems to be a very high demand for scientists (aka associates, technicians, etc.) but a lot of people are pushed into the PhD because it's the only way to move up, an act of self defense, not love of science.

We need a standard that scientists can meet throughout their careers that allows them to advance. Japan has something similar to this idea called "ronbun", a thesis doctorate that industrial professionals can obtain combined with continuing education.

Productive, smart employees could be recognized and industry would be encouraged to share more science.

Being able to advance in science through industrial research will allow people to fill niches in industry more effectively instead of academic doctorates with narrow training.

The U.S. currently awards PhD's to anyone willing to be poor and live on noodles for 5-10 years. Not a good standard and American undergraduates have definitely seen it as a poor decision for over a decade.

The current surplus of PhD's in most fields is definitely driving away people. An undergrad that speaks to post-docs and takes a look at these blogs would definitely be driven away from a science career. I am.

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58. jolinda on July 27, 2009 2:16 PM writes...

Stumbled here from another site. Ah, this brings back memories.

Favorite part: "Senior physicists...contend that an advanced degree in physics is an excellent education, even if it leads to no job. Besides, physicists are at the pinnacle of science, they argue, and superbly qualified to take jobs as applied scientists, engineers or even plumbers."

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59. Anonymous on July 27, 2009 2:17 PM writes...

"There seems to be a very high demand for scientists (aka associates, technicians, etc.) but a lot of people are pushed into the PhD because it's the only way to move up, an act of self defense, not love of science."

This is a very accurate description of the current issue facing us Ph.D. Biologists. There are plenty of associates/technical positions (some that pay in the 6 figures, at least in the bay area)but few if any senior scientist level Ph.D. positions. Sadly us "overachievers" can't seem to convince those with the jobs that we can do the same work for that pay and since we cannot find high level jobs are out looking at alternative career positions that pay much less than what our non-Ph.D. level peers are getting.

To me that signals that there are way too many Ph.D.s out there in the market. What I can't figure out is why organizations don't want to hire us. We bring more to the table that just a technical person AND we are bored sitting at home looking for work.............

Oh...and I went into science and received a Ph.D. because I LOVE science and the ability to apply it towards developing drugs to help people.

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60. AlchemX on July 27, 2009 2:32 PM writes...

Thank you for replying to my comment. I am so angry that this issue gets so little attention. I love science also but I am stuck getting a PhD so that I can defend my contributions and smarts later. I know people from industry that have had to come back to academia, taking large pay cuts only to find that there are barely any jobs for them!! Now they hate science.

We need a more reasonable way to advance our careers in science besides the BS->PhD route, it creates large surpluses of narrowly trained people. Undergrads continually regard the bachelors degree as a dead end because the PhD's keep success away from them.

In today's economy we need more flexibility so we can gain skills and keep up with the constantly changing landscape of science.

The PhD is outdated, it needs to be replaced with a more flexible standard.

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61. AlchemX on July 27, 2009 2:36 PM writes...


Industry doesn't hire PhD's like that because they will hop to another place that will employ them at full capacity later. Thus a loss on the company's part to train a PhD scientist for a BS/MS level job.

Under employing someone is not a good idea.

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62. Anonymous on July 29, 2009 6:26 PM writes...

"Under employing someone is not a good idea."

This goes against your thesis that the Ph.D. is outdated and needs a more flexible standard. No one would be "underemploying" me as a Ph.D. if I am doing laboratory work, summarizing data, presenting data...all those things that non-Ph.D.s are doing for almost the same amount of pay as a Ph.D. scientist. The only difference is that I cannot get one of those jobs I can only apply to senior/mid level jobs of which there are almost none.

What has been going on since the late 1980s is an over production of Ph.D.s in chemistry and life sciences. Ph.D. level scientists need work too and waiting for a job to materialize at our level is just plan silly. So because I have a Ph.D. I have to look for work outside of my training for less money because I am "over-qualified". Sort of a catch 22 if you ask me.

I would be happy for a bench science job that paid me well for my knowledge and experience. I don't NEED a senior level position for that........

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63. AlchemX on July 29, 2009 7:18 PM writes...


That is what the PhD is, a Catch-22. My friends with BS/MS degrees are making plenty of money doing some very boring work. They will never move up very far and always be under PhD supervision.

If they do get a PhD, then they have to deal with the glut of PhDs! There is no middle ground because academia has taken it away. Instead of being able to advance through your career and get up to those more creative, management positions, people are stopped and forced to go through 5 years of stuff that doesn't train them very well.

So if my thesis doesn't make sense, then I've made my point, the PhD process doesn't make sense. It's a Catch-22.

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64. AlchemX on July 29, 2009 7:28 PM writes...

To address you other points. Yes the PhD's, for the most part, are not doing that much more than the non-PhD's. But the problem is that those three letters "PhD" make you expensive and overqualified in the eyes of HR. Paying you less is like trying to deny reality.

What I mean by a more flexible standard is that we need a way to move up that doesn't require this abrupt outcome called a "PhD". We need to be able to allow people to advance from BS/MS positions into creative/management positions that is responsive to supply and demand. A non-academic process.

Business grads don't need a PhD to run a company. They get promoted based on their contributions. Same with engineers, PhD is overkill a lot of times.

Academia does not answer to supply and demand, it's government backed, hence creating the PhD bubble, housing bubble, etc....

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65. pennybright on December 23, 2009 11:31 PM writes...

how many scientists are there in the US?

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66. UnemployedEngineer on October 25, 2010 11:25 AM writes...

I'm an engineer. Graduated in 2005 from Purdue. I've been unemployed for nearly a year now. It seems to me that if we really needed more scientists and engineers, someone would have given me a job by now. Unfortunately, we live in a country that has given up on building things, researching things, and being at the forefront of technology. In short, the top 2% wealthy in this country that run everything have given up on us. What ever happened to American exceptionalism? It was swallowed whole by the aristocracy that is now our government.

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67. Chris on February 1, 2011 2:40 PM writes...

I am a PhD Biologist with over 17 years experience in the Biotech Industry. Throughout the years, the majority of scientists I have worked with are foreign born scientists which have come over to the US to pursue their careers. I recently worked for a company as a Sr Research Scientist and was definitely a minority there.....most other scientists were either Asian or Indian. I am now unemployed and have started to look back into a position in Academia. Almost every single position I am interested in reports to a faculty which is either Indian or Asian (primarily Chinese). Many departments in the Med Center where I would like to work in are chaired by a foreign scientist and are chock full of foreign scientists (again primarily Chinese).

What is going on here? The positions are out there but we as a country have brought in so many foreign scientists that we do not have any room left for native US trained scientists.

There has been such a push for diversity that I think we went a bit overboard. I sure hope I did not work as hard as I have for 20+ years to be pushed out of the field due to lack of faith in our own scientists here in the US.

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