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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

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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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October 29, 2009

The Best Ones Aren't Over Here Any More?

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Posted by Derek

Here's one to get your attention: there's been a lot of arguing (on this blog and others) about the continual talk of shortages of scientists and engineers. That's a little hard to take for the number of people who've been laid off from this industry over the last two or three years and who often are having trouble finding a new position.

A study from Rutgers and Georgetown now says, though, that there is no such shortage. Here's the PDF, so you can check it out for yourself. The intro:

A decline in both the quantity and quality of students pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) is widely noted in policy reports, the popular press, and by policymakers. Fears of increasing global competition compound the perception that there has been a drop in the supply of high-quality students moving up through the STEM pipeline in the United States. Yet, is there evidence of a long-term decline in the proportion of American students with the relevant training and qualifications to pursue STEM jobs?

In a previous paper, we found that universities in the United States actually graduate many more STEM students than are hired each year, and produce large numbers of top- performing science and math students. In this paper, we explore three major questions: (1) What is the “flow” or attrition rate of STEM students along the high school to career pathway? (2) How does this flow and this attrition rate change from earlier cohorts to current cohorts? (3) What are the changes in quality of STEM students who persist through the STEM pathway?

What they're finding is (again) that there's no shortage of graduates - in fact, quite th opposite, unfortunately for wages and employment. One worrisome thing, though, is that at some point in the mid-to-late 1990s the top-performing students at both the high school and college level began to jump ship from the science/engineering fields. There are several possible explanations, but the one that comes to mind is that students are looking ahead a bit and don't like the prospects that they see and/or are lured by other fields that seem more attractive.

More on this later - for now, here's some commentary over at Science which shows that the arguing has already begun.

Comments (36) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Business and Markets | Who Discovers and Why


1. Chemjobber on October 29, 2009 1:10 PM writes...

at some point in the mid-to-late 1990s the top-performing students at both the high school and college level began to jump ship from the science/engineering fields.

It's been said that 25% of Harvard chemistry PhDs go into consulting. I couldn't find anyone to strongly dispute that.

From a national perspective, it's the most problematic question. If the 1998?-9/2008? perception holds that there is more money to be made outside of STEM fields (i.e. Wall Street), people will go elsewhere. If law and business sustain permanent damage from this downturn, I predict that STEM retention will go up.

Also, SHOULD our "top minds" go into STEM? I'd like to think so, but there are plenty of other fields that could benefit.

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2. Tok on October 29, 2009 1:20 PM writes...

Hmm... Average bonus at Goldman Sachs this year: over $500,000. Anyone smart would go there. Too bad they don't actually produce anything and just shuffle paper around to skim off the top.

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3. CMCguy on October 29, 2009 2:22 PM writes...

Although Derek notes there a number of factors that likely contributed to shift in 90s away from STEM careers the compensation/rewards gap I think became much more visible in 80s and 90s and as Tok notes still seems evident. So indeed "smart ones" would (should?) get business degrees which, although some may argue, generally demands easier college courses in relative terms and typically greater employment opportunities.

I think there has been some venting against ACS because they have always appeared to have been on the side of "we need more and more chemists" to cover shortages when perhaps could have better advocated for members "more restricted" supply as AMA is purported policy with MDs .

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4. milkshake on October 29, 2009 2:43 PM writes...

ACS is bunch on self-serving greedy nimrods - all they really do is cheerleading for the industry, raising journal subscription rates and poo on their members.

Did anyone ever get a decent job interview through ACS? I stopped renewing my membership few years ago even as my employer would pay for it - I would rather buy a two boxes of hexane for our lab than give our money away to ACS.

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5. retread on October 29, 2009 2:57 PM writes...

Well it's a very skewed (and small) sample, but the 12 kids taking the QM course (admittedly at an elite Women's college) are quite sharp (even if some of them talk like Valley Girls). It's gratifying to see that the tradition will be maintained.

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6. Fellow Old Timer on October 29, 2009 2:57 PM writes...

It was common knowledge in the Med Chem Department of of at least one Big Pharma Company in the '90s that you could advance your career much faster by going into a more business oriented division of the company. I would submit that the same trend goes throughout our society; science grads are not stupid and unmotivated. They get a greater financial reward by leaving science and going elsewhere in the economy. Thus in normal times the excess supply of STEM folks are siphoned into law, sales, management, and so on.

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7. Thomas McEntee on October 29, 2009 4:29 PM writes...

The ACS website's Employment Dashboard (search for 'Dashboard') has regional and national-level salary info, demographics, etc. If you examine the data by years beginning with 2000, you note that the surveys of 2000 and 2005 have much higher numbers of respondents than other years up to and including the 2009 survey. Nonetheless, the number of respondents in 2005 was significantly lower than 2000. Presumably, ACS lowers the cost of the intervening yearly surveys by reducing the sample size. Still, when I look at the data, my conclusion is that participation is dropping. Ditto for the smaller-sample years. Given the number of industrial job opening ads that have graced the pages of C&EN this year, I'd say the employment prospects for chemists in the US are lousy. The dashboard reports on unemployed chemists but here, the numbers are at the 3 to 4 percent level. Given what's happened since 2000 with chemical and pharma M&As and the subsequent layoffs, I suspect that many people have just given up.

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8. Lu on October 29, 2009 5:00 PM writes...

Shortage, my ass... There is a shortage of one particular kind of chemist:
A living-addition-to-chromatograph 12-USD-an-hour-third-shift California-based-wastewater-treatment-plant-technician kind of chemist, the same kind that Aerotek, Manpower, Yoh and NetTemps are willing to hire. I'm no kidding. I actually see this kind of job postings quite frequently.

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9. AlchemX on October 29, 2009 5:32 PM writes...

As a graduate student I do realize these things. I and very few other grad students are taking actions to leave. Some are just laughing at the incredible lack of opportunities and real training in graduate school and just hang out in lab now. It's fairly depressing how little we are actually needed. However, there are just as many students who are tirelessly optimistic. They put their marriages and relationships on the line with lengthy hours and post-docs. They ruin their finances with loans, credit cards and deplete their savings to live somewhat comfortably during their long stay in academia. They'll eventually work all over the U.S. (and maybe world) tirelessly promoting their PhD qualification. A few will make it to more permanent positions in life. But most will barely be able to keep a job for more than 1-2yrs as contract workers.

It's not a life most students want to live. Graduate students that are staying on have engaged in a "Sunk Costs Fallacy" of thought. They will most likely never make up the debt and opportunity costs they have accrued. Society will have wasted it's tax dollars on talent that was never needed, nor should have existed. When I leave, another sucker will take my place, the status quo will prevail.

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10. Hap on October 29, 2009 5:42 PM writes...

8: That sounds like the same sort of shortage in construction, food service, etc. - "we wouldn't hire illegal/undocumented immigrants if we could find domestic workers..." ...who are willing to work 12 hours a day for $6 an hour with no benefits. Gee, I can't imagine why you can't find people to do that. So many people have the ambition to spend twenty-five years on the edge of poverty so they can be physically broken and unemployable at 45 that I can't imagine why employers can't find any of them.

I liked hearing from the Business Roundtable about how they didn't really mean the life sciences when they said there's a shortage of STEM, but that there's still a shortage that needs to be addressed. I guess the market can only be trusted to regulate the supply of labor and wages when the outcome is helpful to business. That socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor thing keeps raising its ugly head again.

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11. Slurpy on October 29, 2009 6:50 PM writes...

Shortage, my ass... There is a shortage of one particular kind of chemist: A living-addition-to-chromatograph 12-USD-an-hour-third-shift California-based-wastewater-treatment-plant-technician kind of chemist, the same kind that Aerotek, Manpower, Yoh and NetTemps are willing to hire.

Hey, I resent that remark.

Aerotek pays me $12.50 an hour! And it's a second shift, petrochem, ICP position, dammit!

. . . sigh. . .

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12. Hap on October 29, 2009 7:13 PM writes...

I don't really like the concept of an AMA-style association to restrict the supply of scientists, but I don't know how to do anything differently. Wile encouraging people with scholarships and making more scientist positions at NIH (replacing some of the flocks of post-docs paid for by NSF and NIH in academic labs) might help to encourage people into the sciences and by mitigating some of the labor dislocation, that wouldn't foster any sort of entreprenurialism that might be useful for the creation of jobs or companies. I am frustrated that the market rules only seem to apply to those poor enough not to be able to entreat gov't to negate them on their behalf, but I think that it isn't bad at apportioning jobs (so long as you account for all the costs in doing so).

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13. wallstchemist on October 29, 2009 7:50 PM writes...

Bravo AlchemX. Bravo. I have never heard the situation of the experimental scientist described so deftly.

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14. Anonymous on October 29, 2009 7:51 PM writes...

Don't get a Ph.D. whatever you can get a technical lab job for almost 6 figure salaries these days and easily move within a company (regulatory, admin, etc) WITHOUT the advanced degree. Most of my Ph.D. level colleagues (both chemistry and biology) are out of work while the 10+year labrats are making 100K......some deal we get.

The only reason you should be doing a Ph.D. is if you feel that academic research is the life for you (and you can be competitive). Otherwise the Ph.D. is NOT like an MBA, law degree etc that leads to better pay and more opportunity.

Take my word for it...........47 year old Ph.D. with over 15+ years of experience in biotech/pharma. I'm in regulatory now and loving every minute of it. Oh...I get paid better too.....Sadly I could have done this without a Ph.D...................

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15. Thomas McEntee on October 29, 2009 7:57 PM writes...

In the October 26, 2009 C&EN, there's a report on academic R&D spending trends. According to this report, based on data from NSF, spending on science and engineering R&D by universities and colleges grew to $49.4 billion in 2007. Data in the table "Fields of Academic R&D Spending" indicates that 2007 spending for life sciences was $29.76 billion while chemistry came in at $1.45 billion. The table "Top 25 Universities in 2007 R&D Spending" is subtitled "Top schools invested only 2.3 % of their R&D funds in chemistry." Sounds like kind of a backwater to me. Apart from (a) it being an utterly fascinating subject and (b) its practical utility for understanding much of the material world we live in, we aren't investing much in chemistry and I cannot imagine the despair that students (e.g., #9 AlchemX) must feel being trapped mid-way through grad school and having to confront what awaits them when they're done.

Hap's mention of an AMA-type association MAY be what's needed. There will be resistance: University faculty require cheap labor and enthusiasm to produce the papers necessary to be granted tenure. Industry will demand that supply exceeds demand to keep salaries down. Eventually, however, the Ponzi scheme will collapse. I wrapped up grad school a mere 25 years after the end of WWII and before China and India had emerged from colonialism and isolation. On a global level, the world has made tremendous progress but we are in somewhat the same position that Great Britain found itself when the Empire began to disintegrate. It will be interesting...

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16. Steve on October 29, 2009 8:40 PM writes...

I'm a junior in college right now, Chemistry major (Math minor), and sadly, I'm considering jumping the ship. I've known since I was 2 that I wanted to do something with science, and always figured I'd get my PhD... Well, that was until I got into a lab, and woke up, and realized that I was never going to get that dream job where I'm doing interesting research AND getting paid a decent salary. I'm realizing that if I go to grad school, I will be poor my entire life, and I'm not sure I want that. Which is why I'm now applying to both med schools and grad schools... I feel I can get myself interested in medicine just as much as I love the pure sciences... And at least with an M.D. there'll be jobs waiting for me on the other side, and I can probably still do research (I can't see myself not doing research for a career). I'd love to do chemistry for a living, and if I knew that I would have a decent job afterward I would jump at grad school, but I just don't think it's a viable option for me nowadays... *sigh*... I submitted my pre-med advising committee forms today. We'll see what happens.

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17. T on October 29, 2009 9:25 PM writes...

If you can get into a top-tier (top 10 organic chemistry) graduate program with a famous professor (Evans, Myers, Boger, Nicolaou, Trost, you get the idea) you won't have too much of a problem getting a decent job. 90% of the job offers in chemistry go to the top 10% of candidates - both in academia and chemistry.

If you can't get into a top-tier program or a top-tier postdoc, get out with a MS. Yes, it's true, you'll never likely be a group or project leader, but you can work your way up an associate chemist ladder. Associates in pharma are well paid. All of my friends who went to mid-tier schools and left with a MS found jobs pretty easily, even in 2008 and 2009 - when the market for chemists was relatively poor.

Any PhD in worth their salt in industry know that talented BS and MS chemists make meaningful contributions to projects and teams. Don't buy the notions that BS/MS chemists 'don't matter' in industry. That's utter nonsense.

Good luck!

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18. Jose on October 29, 2009 10:07 PM writes...

I think even with a top 10 program, things are not totally rosy, unless you really enjoy job hunting/relocating/uprooting your family every 3-5 years....

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19. China Bonding on October 30, 2009 3:12 AM writes...

There are many chemisty and biology STEM jobs in China for experienced people, at least for now.

Fresh recuits right of school, though, are interesting. Like in the US, the fresh recruits are not very productive for the first 6mos or so, but maybe even less productive here than their US counterparts.

Interestingly, the income rise is much greater here. Fresh PhD 2-3x > fresh MS 2-3x > fresh BS. Very unusual. I'm not sure if the same lucrative alternative careers are available here, but there are plenty of the fresh STEMS to be had, esp at the BS level.

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20. Industry Guy on October 30, 2009 7:25 AM writes...

Instead of an AMA type organization, the gov't could simply stop issuing H1-B visas. How many of the people around you are not from the US? I say this even though I have used this sytem to get a job here, but those were happier times when foreign scientists were needed and supply did not meet demand. I don't know how companies today can justify to the INS that workers are still needed to sponser their H1-B's when so many have just been laid off. Let me be clear, I am not against foreign workers as I myself was one, but I think for the times and future of the industry, this needs to be looked at again. Especially now, since the industry is realy picking up in India and China and we are simply training our outsourcing replacements.

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21. lbf on October 30, 2009 8:11 AM writes...

The field to go into is pharmacy. My wife makes more than me (Ph.D., 20+ years experience). New pharmacists make >100K out of the box, plus sign on bonuses....the downside is dealing with retail, medicaid an medicare idiots, drug addicts (I need my Lortab/Oxycontin!!) etc...

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22. Curious on October 30, 2009 8:59 AM writes...

As the Stanford Daily reported a couple of days back, bright students are seeking financial jobs rather than basic industry research jobs even in spite of the recession.

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23. molecular architect on October 30, 2009 9:41 AM writes...

#17; Even a pedigree that includes a top-tier program with a famous professor is no secure ticket anymore. A former member of my research group got his PhD at Columbia with Clarke Still, postdoc at Stanford with Trost, several publications from this work, failed to find a Big Pharma job, ended up in a mid-size Pharma where he worked for me. Brilliant chemist with excellent communication skills (written and oral). Four years experience, several patents, a compound which entered clinical trials. Laid off when the company closed. Searched all over the US for both pharma and academic jobs without success for over 2 years. Finally, although he didn't want to return to China, he accepted an academic post there.

What a waste of the taxpayer dollars that educated him here in the US. China benefits from having a talented, hard-working scientist.

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24. Jonathan on October 30, 2009 9:55 AM writes...

Perhaps things are different in chemistry, but they're completely fucked in life sciences right now. 13% of postdocs go on to tenure-track faculty jobs, and each year that number gets smaller. Yet all these postdocs are being trained to do by their PIs is to be tenured faculty. Couple this with an endless supply of cheap foreign postdocs (a category I used to belong to) and there's massive oversupply of labour.

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25. Hap on October 30, 2009 10:19 AM writes...

15: CMCguy mentioned it before me.

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26. SRC on October 30, 2009 12:52 PM writes...

Here are two eye-openers for the young guys starting out in science. Biotech runs out of money. The scientists are worried, because times are tough in biotech. The finance guys – CFO, accountants, and such – are unconcerned. They walk down the street, knock on a few doors, and in essence say, "Does your company deal with money? It does? Great, because that's what I do. Let me tell how I can help you." Upshot: they get job offers within days. For a friend, a Ph.D. microbiologist, things are not so rosy, since the first implicit question, "Does your company deal with microbial genetics?" generally receives either a puzzled expression or a "no." End of story.

Second eye-opener, from friends who are lawyers in a mid-sized town, where all the big firms are clustered within a few blocks of each other. They said they have to be careful not to go to lunch with people from another firm unless at least two other firms are represented. Why, I asked? Because otherwise rumors will fly that X is thinking about jumping ship to the other firm. Conversely, firms give some thought to keeping their partners (especially) happy. Otherwise, if the firm pissed off a guy on Monday, he could be at lunch on Wednesday, cleaning out his desk on Friday, and starting at the new firm the following Monday. It apparently happens all the time.

Industrial scientists face yet another problem: business guys can't judge scientific ability or achievement, so they lapse into considering credentials. That means that an experienced Ph.D. is considered more or less equivalent to a newly minted one, which holds down salaries and/or provides an incentive to turn over scientific staff.

Things are no better in academia. Moving from one university to another is not easy to do, since the fit – field, desire of the candidate to move, age of the candidate, age structure of the department, interest of the department to recruit, and of course the personalities involved – all have to mesh at the same time. A move is also a huge pain in the butt, often resulting in grad students in two locations for some time, and of course the delight of moving delicate equipment. For these reasons, many universities figure they have a more or less captive faculty, and treat them accordingly.

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27. Micah Brodsky on October 31, 2009 7:06 PM writes...

Is it just me, or is the problem pretty straightforward? Funding for basic scientific research is overly biased towards the (labor) supply side. It needs to be shifted more towards the demand side, as in research organizations and research results, regardless of whether or not they pump out students along the side. We can't expect to fund basic scientific research by flooding the market with fresh, young scientists and then hoping private industry somehow figures it can make money by employing dirt cheap grads doing work that will have no tangible benefits for 30 years.

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28. startup on October 31, 2009 11:48 PM writes...

#27 For the large part young Ph.D chemists are nothing more than byproduct of educational system which requires a certain number of TA's to make running teaching labs possible and the need for a cheap labor force to allow faculty to produce publications. All this makes cutting supply a tough proposition.

#7 ACS employment and salary data are absolutely bogus - their survey is based on voluntary reporting by members only, so the sample is non-representative. By design, too, I think.

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29. Chemjobber on November 1, 2009 4:17 PM writes...

#28: Which is kind of a hilarious way of saying that pre-med organic chemistry is responsible for too many chemists. Heh.

Maybe the answer is to professionalize TA positions?

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30. AlchemX on November 1, 2009 4:58 PM writes...

I'd say professionalize TA positions and let experienced people teach undergraduates. They'll get more value for their education. Professionalize Post-Doc stuff also. Try to put as much educational talent onto the free market as possible.

ACS surveys are totally bogus, I think most smart people know that by now. Counting Post-Docs as employed (while they consider themselves unemployed) is kind of wacky.

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31. Jim Ancona on November 1, 2009 5:19 PM writes...

I think Philip Greenspun nailed it over a decade ago:

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32. Lu on November 1, 2009 5:27 PM writes...

AlchemX on November 1, 2009 4:58 PM writes...
I'd say professionalize TA positions and let experienced people teach undergraduates. They'll get more value for their education.

How would you enforce that?

The only solutions I see is to duplicate a system which exists for medical or pharmacist education and licensing. How come they have so much power and we have none?

We need a new Chemists' Association which will represent their members' interests, not ones of greedy managers at pharmaceutical industry.

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33. AlchemX on November 1, 2009 9:18 PM writes...


I agree, we do need new representation. We need to separate researchers from instructors more and change our standards to reflect the modern era of science. ACS is doing a poor job.

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34. Thomas McEntee on November 2, 2009 7:23 AM writes...

#28: You missed my point. We all know the salary and employment data in the ACS survey are flawed. My comments were only about the number of respondents and a suggestion that people are disillusioned by the ACS and its cheerleading.

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35. S Silverstein on November 2, 2009 11:56 AM writes...

Y'all need to read the book "Seven Lean Years" written in 1999:

It's all there.

(Note: I have no commercial interests in this company, just found this book spot-on regarding the plague of mediocrity and anti-intellectualism destroying our industries.)

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36. Abuzuzu on November 15, 2009 11:37 PM writes...

I taught electrical engineering for two years at a pricey private university.

The parents of prospective students where quite aware of industry outsourcing and asked in pointed terms why they should risk 6 figures on an engineering degree.

By the way a near majority of my electrical engineering undergrad students had identified an engineering degree as the insiders path to a lucrative non-engineering job.....

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