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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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June 14, 2012

Organic Synthesis: A Dead End For Graduate Students?

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Posted by Derek

Via ChemJobber, here's a quote from the National Research Council's Committee on Challenges in Chemistry Graduate Education. Their report has just come out, and I agree that this should be a key point for people to ponder:

Whitesides believes that the question should be asked whether PhD theses are narrow technical presentations for jobs that no longer exist. Should U.S. graduate students be doing organic synthesis if most organic synthesis is being done in China? “That’s not to say that these aren’t really important activities, but we need to connect our investment in graduate school with what’s actually needed to give jobs to students.”

It's worth remembering that Whitesides hasn't exactly been the biggest booster of traditional organic synthesis over the years, he does have a point. This may not be the right way to look at the situation, but if it hasn't crossed your mind, you haven't thought hard enough about the issues yet. I have a couple of quick responses:

1. There are all kinds of organic synthesis. I don't think that there's much point to the human-wave-attack style of making gigantic natural products, as I've said here several times. And if there's not much point to what's considered the highest level of total synthesis, then there must really not be much to the low levels of the field. Those are the papers I'd characterize as "Here's a molecule that no one much cares about, made in a way that you'd figure would probably work, using reactions everyone already knows". But there's more to the field than that; at least, there'd better be.

2. Prof. Whitesides is exaggerating to make a point. It's not like there's no organic synthesis being done in the U.S. A lot of the stuff that's moved to China (and India) is routine chemistry that's being outsourced because it's cheap (or has been cheap, anyway). As that changes, the costs go up, and we head towards a new equilibrium. It seems beyond doubt that there are fewer people doing industrial organic chemistry than there used to be in this country, but it's not like it's only found in China (or will be).

3. That said, he's absolutely right that people need to think about where the jobs are, lest chemistry (and some other sciences) go the way of some of the humanities graduate programs. If you go off and get a doctorate in English with a dissertation on minor 18th-century poets, you're mostly qualified to teach other people about minor 18th-century poets so they can go off and write dissertations of their own. (Actually, your own work would probably have concentrated on the relation of said poets to prevailing gender norms or something, in which case I really don't see the point). We do not want to teach people to do organic chemistry if the majority of them are going to have to seek jobs teaching other people to do organic chemistry.

4. Doing that - thinking about the larger economic and scientific context - is hard. The time it takes to get a degree means that the situation could well have changed by the time a person gets out of grad school, compared with the way things looked when they made the decision to go. But this has always been the case; that's life as we know it. People have to keep their eyes open and be intelligent and flexible, because there are potential dead ends everywhere. As hard as that advice is to follow, though, I still think it's better than any sort of scheme to allocate/ration people among different fields of study. My bias against central planning isn't just philosophical; I don't see how it can possibly work, and it is very, very likely to make the situation even worse.

I'm on the train, and can't download a 120-page PDF at the moment, but I'll have a look at the report and add more thoughts as they come up.

Comments (66) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Business and Markets | Graduate School | Natural Products


1. anonie on June 14, 2012 8:06 AM writes...

Knowng that a background in organic chemistry can open many different employment and career directions, not just to be in the lab making whimsical molecules, Prof. Whiteside's perspective can be taken in a broader sense. Chemistry graduate programs should include opportunities, or even requirements, for the student to learn about other areas where the cross skills can be applied in today's real non-academic world. These cross departmental programs should not be restricted to the "bio" or "nano" world where such efforts are offered as degree programs by several institutions, but could include practicing and practical medicine, project management, business, finanace, international relations, etc. I recently mentioned this to my former grad school advisor, who tended to scoff at the concept (recognized name at one of the top grad programs in the US) as it conflicts with traditionally focussed compartmentalized academic organizational views. If only the "trainers" had to confront in real terms what so many of their "trainees" have had to deal with in real-life terms, maybe things would then be easier to change.

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2. luysii on June 14, 2012 8:18 AM writes...

Well, it's already happened, if the talks at the Harvard Chemistry Department reunion in April are any indication. I haven't kept the program, but only one of 8 - 10 faculty talks concerned organic synthesis, not counting Corey's general remarks about progress in chemistry in the past 50 years.

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3. luysii on June 14, 2012 8:30 AM writes...

Actually this has been brewing for a long time. 5 years ago a brilliant 64 step synthesis of azadirachtin appearing in Nature was criticized, not because it was wrong, but because it was a waste of resources and shouldn't have been done. For details see

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4. Electrochemist on June 14, 2012 8:31 AM writes...

Disclaimer: I'm not a fan of Whitesides or his opinions on most topics.

One major flaw in his thinking (this time) is that he assumes that the purpose of getting a PhD in synthetic organic chemistry is to do synthetic organic chemistry at the bench, post degree. To add to anonie's point, above, the pharma industry (in particular) will continue to have a need for people trained in synthetic organic chemistry to oversee off-shore bench work.

Despite opinions of MBAs to the contrary, there is plenty of evidence that you cannot have project managers *successfully* oversee technical work performed in an external network for any length of time. (Unless the project managers are PhD chemists.) My $2.00 E-2.

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5. Hap on June 14, 2012 9:09 AM writes...

As long as employers appear to want narrow skill sets for short periods of time in fields that take lots of time to learn, there will be a chemistry employment problem. A Ph.D. is supposed to give one the ability to carry out research, to plan and execute it, interpret the results, and publish them - if the degree is instead only useful to employers as a certification of deep, particular knowledge, then there isn't really going to be any solution to the "chemists need jobs" (or, for that matter, the "people with advanced degrees need jobs" problems. In addition, the ends of professors and graduate schools aren't always congruent with those of their students - employment of graduates isn't directly a problem for them, and if a solution for chemistry employment requires impairing their ability to get what they want from research, it probably won't happen.

To answer the interesting problems in chemistry, one is probably going to have to make new molecules, or figure out how to make what we do make now more efficiently. These problems require knowledge of reactions and the ability to optimize them - things that organic synthesis is well-made for. Natural products are interesting and constitute unmovable goalposts, but their synthesis may not be the best use of money - but there are plenty of other things to made, and plenty of reactions need to be found to make them. Someone is then going to have to do the research and teach the grad students if there is going to be the type of chemical research that is useful to anyone.

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6. mass_speccer on June 14, 2012 9:17 AM writes...

As Gilbert Stork apparently said (from that perspective in Angewandte a while back):

"Well, I… its… not… it wouldnt be that tragic if people got a Ph.D. in chemistry and then were a bus driver because at least in traffic jams, they would have something interesting to think about."

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7. Frank on June 14, 2012 9:23 AM writes...

It is true that current job descriptions for organic chemists these days lean increasingly more toward designing synthetic strategies and overseeing the Chinese chemists that will do the actual labwork. But that doesn't mean that you no longer need to be trained to have a strong background in organic chemistry to do that job. It's just as important as ever.

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8. CMCguy on June 14, 2012 9:25 AM writes...

I see a couple connections here as to the past success Org Syn has had in being able to do exciting and relevant things, particularly in regards to making complex natural product, that does seem to less of an accomplishment these days (who had the "Better than the Beatles" analogy?). Also at least in Pharma Org Syn types where fairly dominant as heads of Drug R&D and where able to drive programs through creation of large medchem groups but often held reins over other groups (Biologist) incorrectly viewed as less valuable. Both aspects lead to significant arrogance/resting on laurels mindset which has not adapted to current environment where Org Syn no longer at the top of science/pharma (if it ever really was other than just being perceived as such). Although believe still opportunities, especially if adapt as non-bench scientist per #1, rather than focus on previous status Org Syn types need to learn to join the crowd of other sciences and find ways can continue to contribute, with med/process chem remaining as prime areas where skills required (both bench and beyond).

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9. anchor on June 14, 2012 9:28 AM writes...

Derek: When I think of organic chemistry, I also think of Physics. Courses will be offered by all the major universities, students will take these courses but at the end of the day, there will be no jobs tailored to either physics or organic chmeistry. I believe that organic chemistry has matured and the scientists these days can make anything!

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10. SupportStaff on June 14, 2012 9:36 AM writes...

Per Electrochemist, I see org synthesis as the training needed to be a medchemist in pharma. If there's no need for the former, are people saying there's no need for the latter? Looking at employment over the last few years...

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11. Derek H on June 14, 2012 9:46 AM writes...

Maybe focusing on training in process chemistry would be better since that is more likely to be done here in the US rather than overseas, and a more marketable skill. Requires a diffrent mind set and would need a new breed of academic trainers with experience in pharma (some of which have filtered down from pharma now)

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12. Lewis on June 14, 2012 9:48 AM writes...

@#2-- I think that's just the way the current chairman mao/jacobsen wants it to be - He can rest easy in his cozy nest with a bunch of bio people and Ritter as colleagues...

And who is hiring Whitesides students? Are they really employable people making cubes that float or polymers that measure density? Why not just hire talented high school students from the local science fair.

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13. NoDrugsNoJobs on June 14, 2012 10:09 AM writes...

I personally used my knowledge of synthetic organic chemistry as a starting point and moved on. The thing is that I had a place to start and a job to get me started in the industry. Coming out with a PhD in organic chemistry used to get you a position at the bench where you would either stay or move onto other things if you were the sort to do that (whether it was law, project management, reg affairs, information science). However, you were alwyas started as a chemist at the bench because that is what you were able to do. I'm not sure how we will preserve the thread and be able to feed off into the new positions if we don't have a place to start anymore. Where will the future molecule designers come from if little new talent is being brought up through the ranks. I fear that the MBAs with their spreadsheets will begin to direct the compounds to be made at that point - probably no less successfully than they've run the rest of the business these past several years.

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14. FatTony on June 14, 2012 10:16 AM writes...

Academic endeavors catering to the needs of the employers? Lucky Einstein's schools didn't agree--he'd have ended his days as a competent patent examiner. I remember when Stanford Business School openly stated that they would canvass big firms to find out what courses they should teach. Maybe that's why the US is becoming a financial services nation and letting the rest of the world do the manufacturing. And I think we've all seen how that's working out for us, thank you very much Jamie Dimond.

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15. UWBS on June 14, 2012 10:38 AM writes...

As a recent B.S. in Chemistry looking at PhD programs in organic synthesis, I've thought a lot about this very issue. Beyond the practicality of developing new reaction methodology or optimizing conditions (which often feed back into large-molecule synthesis, anyway), the idea of synthesizing a large molecule just for the sake of doing it seems kind of... Pointless.

I was lucky enough to get a job as a lab tech right after graduation doing lignin synthesis, and I have a feeling that organic synthesis will have more of a supporting role in the future. I could see how the synthesis of small model compounds to investigate biological systems (lignin polymer biosynthesis, for example) might play a more important role.

The narrow view of a "specialist" in any field seems less and less useful. Interdisciplinary research is all the rage now, seeing as how the majority of newly funded research institutions on campus tout a highly "interdisciplinary" approach. We still need scientists that specialize in particular fields, but I think the more successful researchers will have a broader knowledge. I can see organic synthesis finding a place in that kind of framework.

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16. weirdo on June 14, 2012 10:51 AM writes...

Just out of curiosity, what jobs are Whitesides students being trained to do, except go into academia and train more students?

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17. Sili on June 14, 2012 10:52 AM writes...

(Actually, your own work would probably have concentrated on the relation of said poets to prevailing gender norms or something, in which case I really don't see the point).
I must be misunderstanding you, since I don't recall you being that dismissive of the humanities before.

How can one analyse poetry if not the light of the culture where it originated? Isn't it worthwhile to investigate what "prevailing gender norms" mean for the concerns of the populace?

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18. Student on June 14, 2012 11:03 AM writes...

We as students, don't have the luxury of innovating.

Everyone is coming out of grad school either unemployed or ending up as a postdoc(...lets be honest, its just a glorified grad student).
We need a job, and if someone is going to pay me to help set up a manufacturing facility and do non-Einstein work I'd be EXTREMELY happy. You've heard the spiel before, all of our classmates from undergrad in most other fields started at higher salaries with a bachelor's than we do with a PhD, and with better job security, quality of life, etc. You don't pursue scientific curiosities because you know you may not be employed a year from now. In biology this is often why a lot of good research is done by those with medical degrees. They knock out a few surgeries in the week and they are set. You can dick around in lab all you want after that without any worry about being unemployed, missing the next grant, giving a bad departmental seminar etc.

From what I read, many people in industry have this same issue, they say they can't be innovative because there is a poor risk/reward ratio and if things go wrong you could be looking for another job.

BTW, Einstein didn't require reagents or even supercomputer time. Most of his stuff was mathematical and require much less funding. Though I do see the point you are trying to make.

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19. Chemjobber on June 14, 2012 11:43 AM writes...

Everyone is coming out of grad school either unemployed or ending up as a postdoc.

The numbers from the latest ACS Starting Salary Survey: new Ph.D. grads: 38% full-time employed, 4% part-time, 47% postdocs, 12% unemployed. (For a total of 101%, but hey, who's counting?)

Caveats: the sample size and the response rate are relatively small, so these numbers are pretty tenuous.

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20. imatter on June 14, 2012 11:58 AM writes...

It's a dead end. It's a great discipline too. From my experience, graduate students end up producing products with brute force, without understanding thermodynamics and kinetics. And those are the ideas that chemistry becomes truly translatable to other disciplines.

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21. JE on June 14, 2012 12:06 PM writes...

It seems to me that the problem is that, particularly in some countries, people spend up to 7 years doing a "narrow technical presentation".

Contrary to the comment that it has always been the case that the job situation may change while in grad school, PhDs have not always taken so long.

It should be possible even in just 2 years for a hard working, adequately supervised, person to accomplish something worthwhile and to show that they have acquired the skills necessary to be an independent scientist.

If PhDs were much shorter this would bring back some flexibility