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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, 2012

Scientist Shortage? The Media Starts to Catch On.

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Posted by Derek

If you haven't seen it, there's an excellent article in the Washington Post by Brian Vastag on why the whole "America Faces Critical Shortage of Scientists!" thing is ridiculous. I hope it does some good - this idea gets repeated too often by people who have no idea of what they're talking about. Vastag hits a lot of important themes - layoffs in once-thriving sci/tech fields, the perverse incentives to churn out more PhDs and post-docs, and so on.

Chemjobber has good commentary on the article here, as does David Kroll. It's good to see a major media outlet pick up on what people in the field have been saying for some time, and going against the lazy America-falls-behind-in-science-race take.

Comments (97) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Business and Markets


2. HTSguy on July 9, 2012 10:40 AM writes...

The "scientist shortage" is another zombie idea - no matter how many times you kill it, the people with a vested interest in promulgating it will revive it.

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3. Will on July 9, 2012 12:15 PM writes...

Towards the end the article mentions: After earning her expensive doctorate in neuroscience over seven years, which she financed by working and drawing down her savings

Are neuroscience degrees not stipend-based like chemistry or is the author stretching the truth to make his point? (eg, the person didn't want to live on just $20k (or whatever current stipends are now) and so dipped into savings and worked other jobs to pay for the lifestyle she wanted)

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4. Chemjobber on July 9, 2012 12:27 PM writes...

Will, this is a point I attempted to address in my post. I suspect that it was lifestyle/family-based, and most correspondents seem to agree.

(Of course, people disagree about how essential lifestyle-related financing is...)

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5. Anonymous on July 9, 2012 1:47 PM writes...

Back in the 1970s, I took out lots loans while in gradschool to pay for the birth of my daughter, to pay some of my stay-at-home wife's mental illness bills, to pay childcare when my wife was in the mental ward, to pay school fees and charges (those loans were called fee deferments back then), to buy books and to support my family's day to day living costs which do to inflation at the time were going up much, much faster than my stipend was (one year my rent in married student housing went up 25%). I guess you can call that all life style borrowing. I did not think so at the time, and it sure was not spent much on fun. I ended up with student loan debt that was about 76% of my annual starting salary as a medicinal chemist.

So perhaps we should not be too judgmental here about why someone needs student loans during gradschool.

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6. TBSOTf on July 9, 2012 2:22 PM writes...

While I was in grad school (about 10 years ago, in Canada), my yearly tuition was 5000-6000$. My stipend was only 19-20K (including the money made from teaching assignments). Considering rent, cost of mass transit and other necessities (which I understand can vary from city to city), taking out a loan allowed me to avoid the soup kitchens.
On the other hand, I know someone who used an NSERC (Canadian government) graduate scholarship to buy a sailboat. I have issues with the "lifestyle" comment in the article - most people take out loans to avoid financial difficulties, not to support a lavish lifestyle.

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7. will on July 9, 2012 2:24 PM writes...

@5 - no doubt there are plenty of good/necessary reasons why loans may be needed while in grad school. My point was that the article makes it sound like her neuroscience PhD had costs associated with it similar to law/med/business school, wherein students really do need to "finance" their degree specifically. A PhD student does not pay (in currency at least) to attend school to receive the degree

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8. Chris D on July 9, 2012 2:43 PM writes...

I would like to see an academic system with fewer graduate students and more staff scientists, especially with the precipitous decline in biomedical industry positions. This would be more sustainable, and would probably also boost research productivity. I worked with academic staff scientists that are incredibly skilled, talented, and knowledgeable, but simply aren't cut out to be professors. More of these people could make solid contributions in "lab manager" type positions if there was a little more pay and job security to go with the responsibility. The people who I know in these positions have often made important contributions as both skilled technicians and mentors, and they can retain and pass along the important tacit knowledge which busy PIs may not always be able to share.

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9. milkshake on July 9, 2012 2:54 PM writes...

@8: Chris, after leaving big pharma for academia and then spending 7 years at two top-tier academic institutions, as a staff medicinal chemist, I became very turned off by the experience. Each place is different but academia can be every bit as bureaucratic and insane and viciously political as industry, the pay is typically lower. The system you think works fine (a PI and then a group of PI-dependent staff scientists and then postdocs) in my experience can be more feudal, dysfunctional and abuse-prone than the industry environment.

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10. Paddywhacker on July 9, 2012 3:30 PM writes...

America does need more scientists. The world needs more scientists. Scientists who do science for the love of it. Scientists who do science even if nobody pays them to do it.

Society anywhere does not need more drudges of any persuasion who are only in it for the money.

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11. Anonymous on July 9, 2012 3:50 PM writes...

#10 -

Everyone, including scientists who love their work, typically needs to eat something that they might not be able to synthesize and to have someplace to live other than at the place they work.

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12. Anonymous on July 9, 2012 3:50 PM writes...

#10 -

Everyone, including scientists who love their work, typically needs to eat something that they might not be able to synthesize and to have someplace to live other than at the place they work.

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13. Anonymous on July 9, 2012 3:51 PM writes...

#10 -

Everyone, including scientists who love their work, typically needs to eat something that they might not be able to synthesize and to have someplace to live other than at the place they work.

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14. startup on July 9, 2012 4:13 PM writes...

You're are just repeating a BS line from Madeleine Jacobs archives. And why single out scientists? What about baseball players, lawyers, politicians, contract killers, televangelists, doctors, plumbers? Should not not they all be motivated solely by the love of it?

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15. Sad Chemist on July 9, 2012 4:23 PM writes...

I'm a 40 year old chemist (Ph.D.) and have been laid-off twice already. TWICE! My motivation for looking in my field and my moral are both extremely low.

I use to blame the system and the H1B glut but now I blame myself for not seeing the writing on the wall in grad school.

I thought I did everything right, but I'm a complete failure with a huge student loan (currently deferred).

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16. Chris D on July 9, 2012 4:27 PM writes...

@9: Milkshake, I've seen such politics myself at large academic institutes, and I agree that it can be a problem anywhere (and of course it's less palatable with lower pay). But the system I'm thinking of involves just traditional university research groups (PI + students and postdocs), each of which could retain 1 or 2 staff scientists. There wouldn't really be any opportunities for promotion, but the resulting politics would also be minimal. Such staff members could even support more than 1 PI at different times in order to deal with funding droughts. Not everyone would be happy with the lack of upward mobility, but a lot of people would be happy doing academic science if they could have some stability. Such arrangements are much more common in biology (where I think it can work reasonably well) than chemistry.

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17. lynn on July 9, 2012 5:26 PM writes...

I thought about commenting on the expensive neurochemistry PhD on the WP article itself - but the comments there were incredibly awful and political. I'm glad Chemjobber and Derek have commented on it. Back in the dark ages - early 1970s, my tuition and fees were paid and I got a stipend of $200 per month!!! And I lived on it - eating lots of soup, OC potato sticks, and the occasional Chinese combo plate. Parents threw in a little in the particularly lean times - and I had no family to support. But I think will (#7) had it right - the article is misleading in that it seems to imply that a PhD has costs similar to that of Law or Med school. Otherwise - the WP article is a welcome breath of truth from the MSM on the science PhD glut.

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18. Chemjobber on July 9, 2012 5:47 PM writes...

My father was a grad student in the early/mid-1970s; he claims to have gotten by $800/quarter plus whatever he could make from grading and working as a busboy. He also helped out at home -- a manlier man than I.

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19. Anonymous on July 9, 2012 6:02 PM writes...


Yeah, of course you are correct about the costs of gradschool, except for all those fees - approx. 30% of my annual stipend I paid each year; well borrowed. I left school with about one half the debt incurred by my friends who went to medschool in that era. However as physicians they had much, much brighter job-career prospects, lifetime earning potential, and job stability than I did. I could only dream about such a lucrative stable career an industrial chemist.

In the end you get what you pay for. I received a free ride on government subsidies that flooded the market with low paid chemistry professionals like me. Whereas my MD friends made very good livings in well-respected professional jobs because the cost of entry for those jobs is very high and restricted to those who pay for it out of their own pockets.

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20. dearieme on July 9, 2012 6:22 PM writes...

@19: your reflections in your last para seem spot on to me.

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21. Jordan on July 9, 2012 6:36 PM writes...

@19 -- This is an interesting way of looking at it ("you get what you pay for"). But don't forget about the other barrier to entry to the medical profession: the qualifications needed to get into medical school in the first place. The requirements for entry to med school are extraordinarily stringent, and anyone not in the top decile of their class has pretty slim chances of getting in (at least here in Canada). By comparison, graduate programs in the sciences pretty much take all comers.

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22. Anonymous on July 9, 2012 7:03 PM writes...

@ 21

You are right about the very high standards medschool applicants are held to. That was as true in the early 70s as it is now. That also should have been true for graduate student in science as well.

Unfortunately when magical free money appears from NIH or NSF for grad student education quality does not matter as much for all concerned. Profs need students to do the grunt work so their careers will flourish and students join up because it is, well, a freebe. Universities make their brand name off the backs of grad student's work, so if they can't get US students who fog a mirror there is lots of imported talent around to bring on board in the name of shortages. Since no one is making any heavy duty sacrifices here the game rolls along until we have what we now have, a glut of chemists who no one gives two shits about because no one had any skin in the game to make them care.

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23. paperclip on July 9, 2012 8:49 PM writes...

@15 You are not a failure! You are not responsible for this broad trend, and don't kick yourself for not predicting this in grad school. That's just a step easier than predicting the winning lotto tickets. Besides, David Burns in "Feeling Good" said it best: Achievement equals achievement and worth equals worth. Achievement does not equal worth.

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24. Elizabeth on July 9, 2012 9:08 PM writes...

America does not need more scientists. But America DOES need a more scientifically educated populace. How do we have the latter without pushing the former?

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25. Piledhigher on July 10, 2012 12:43 AM writes...

@18, Yes, stipends (and cost of living) were lower throughout the 70's and 80's, but it also took far less time to complete one's training and get into the workforce. Ramen noodles and bartending were a common and viable short term solution for 25 year old grad students on the verge of defending.

By the mid/late 1990's most people in biomedical research couldn't finish their Ph.D. and post-doc(s) until their early to mid 30's. In the real world that usually means marriage and kids, daycare, clothing, and safe transportation.

For many, myself included, loans were the only alternative to quitting and finding another career path. I increasingly regret not taking that path when I had the chance.

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26. gippgig on July 10, 2012 1:00 AM writes...

The notion of everyone having a job is obsolete. Only a small fraction of the population needs to work to produce everything we need. What should the rest of the people do? Create, help others, discover (science). The real question is what happens to the below-average Joes who don't have any talents.

If you want to be a scientist, living independently is likely to be an extravagance.

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27. Student on July 10, 2012 1:05 AM writes...

I am so happy someone has finally spoken what I've been thinking...and worrying about as I'm going to defend soon. They could stop admitting PhD students and the importation of foreign postdocs for the next 5 years and we would still have a surplus.

I should have seen this sooner...Now I'm just looking for a good job (non science based, obviously).

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28. Student on July 10, 2012 1:09 AM writes...

To follow up: Something no one has covered yet is that soon the defense industry will start to notice this problem. With more foreigners and less Americans getting PhDs they aren't going to be attracting the best students and are going to be stuck with people that shouldn't be given security clearance. Chinese Chemists? Is that who is going to be working on your next generation tank armor? With something that is such a huge part of our budget, I can't believe no one has pointed this out!

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29. cynical1 on July 10, 2012 1:14 AM writes...

I feel like I just read the epitaphs of my profession. And not one of them gave me hope for resurrection.

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30. newnickname on July 10, 2012 4:19 AM writes...

The prestigious institution I attended had a bare bones standard student budget for (cheap) room, (cheap) board, laundry and a few other sundry items. There was no budgeted allowance for a car, uncovered health care (no dental plan or vision care for students back then), etc.. The stipend (from TAing and grant money) was then only about 80-90% of the "official" budget. And there was an official departmental policy of no outside work without departmental approval. Of course, there wasn't much time for outside work when you were in the lab 60+ (or even 80+) hours per week. If you didn't have family money, you had to resort to loans to cover emergencies.

For all that, I'm sure that many of us loved it. Woodward said to some of his students, "You'll look back and see this [grad school] as the best time of your life." He was right, but for reasons I don't think even he anticipated.

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31. vanad on July 10, 2012 4:44 AM writes...

gippig > I'm not sure I followed all of your post. was the question rhetorical? is the answer in the last line? I am confused. please explain more clearly: just what is it you want me to do?

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32. anchor on July 10, 2012 5:34 AM writes...

@Milkshake_ I am living the kind of life style and feudalism you are talking about at the present time even as I write my response. Overall, my feeling is that it is much worse than industry. As an organic and medicinal chemist it is not paying off. My point is for the first time I am regretting as to why I did organic chemistry? In comparison to other fields of chemistry, I reckon that organic chemistry is the most demanding and labor intensive. I find that my contribution is either ignored or marginalized. It is dangerous when the biologist start to think half-baked ideas about organic chemistry and suggest what should be done. Sad truth be told, organic chemistry will never get funding unless it is linked in with underlying biological project. That is the problem in academia. Unfortunately, there is little or no choice other than to suck it up and move on! Signs of the time, I suppose.

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33. anonymous on July 10, 2012 6:14 AM writes...

Having seen the axe fall many times now in a large Pharma setting, I can tell you that in general (although certainly not always), "high" talent (i.e., outstanding intellectual ability) is recognized and retained. On the other hand, "high" talent at the bench, in the absence of the former qualification, is often not as prized...Of course you can argue this is wildly unfair. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the moral of the story is clear: be the very best or find a different career. Sorry.

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34. anchor on July 10, 2012 6:57 AM writes...

@33-..I can tell you that in general (although certainly not always), "high" talent (i.e., outstanding intellectual ability) is recognized and retained. Not true. What I have seen is "highly prized" morons from Ivy league are retained, while "high talent" intellectual from non-Ivy school are shown the door. I do agree with your assessment that "high" talent, prized bench chemist always takes the frontal assault!

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35. MolecularGeek on July 10, 2012 8:28 AM writes...

Anchor (@32):
I don't think that it's that there is a particular hostility towards funding organic chemistry. The problem is that organic chemists found that they could get funding from NIH that was 10x the pot of money that NSF had for pure chemistry. So the organikers learned how to target the biomedical applications of their work and were relatively well funded compared to physical or inorganic chemists as a whole. But now that so many bioorganic synthesis people have been trained that it is a commodity service in the eyes of many biomedical researchers and the funding line keeps dropping for everyone, there's little interest in or justification for NIH funding synthetic methadology development on a large scale. It's the same situation that the pharmacologists or neuroscientists (for example) are facing where an interesting hypothesis without a clear and compelling public health impact is not going to make it into the top 8% of proposals.

In the eyes of NIH, current synthetic organic chemistry is good enough to meet most of their programmatic needs. Whether or not this is actually the case is something I don't pretend to have the answer to, but I have few doubts that this is the perceived situation.


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36. Anon on July 10, 2012 10:53 AM writes...


We now live in a dystopia, one feature of which is that is is an 'ineptocracy'. Competence, wisdom, and common sense are disdained by the leadership (itself inept).

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37. alig on July 10, 2012 11:32 AM writes...

@33 From my experience seeing layoffs in three departments, it seemed it was more important to never have disagreed with the VP/director than to be "high" talent. It seemed like protecting an empire was more important than retaining the best talent.

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38. Hobbes on July 10, 2012 12:13 PM writes...

I do find this Washington Post article somewhat sour to the taste-buds. It only came after Derek and others posted on this matter continuously for years. It is an obvious replay of Derek's recent piece.

And before Derek awakened to the obvious truths of the employment situation, the posters on this blog alerted aspiring chemists to their bleak career prospects.

The only real solution to this problem is the abolition of Federal grants to all scientific institutions that grant tenure to faculty.

You can't run a business or fight a war with leadership that lives on a different planet than its employees.

As any resident living within the slimy bowels of academia will tell you, a faculty member's priorities are largely skewed to the acquisition of grants and the recruitment of as many people into their group as possible. More people = more space = more facilities = more grants = more money.

Tenured faculty have purposefully designed a system where they privatize the gains and socialize the losses.

Faculty are parasites sucking the life, labor and intellectual property from their so called students.

Your tax dollars fund faculty who glut the labor market with unemployable individuals who must then compete with armies of foreign post-docs and students for the few jobs. No doubt many chemists are ending up on some form of public assistance. This process continues because any American scientist can be instantly replaced with a Chinese grad student or post- doc.

Most universities do not even advertise their internal scientific positions. Arrogant faculty merely hire a docile Chinese or Indian on a visa and move on.

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39. A. Postdoc on July 10, 2012 12:52 PM writes...

Why should only academia get cheap labor? If those asking for more scientists get their way, there'll be so many scientists it will be cheap chemistry for pharma and everybody else. More and more scientists will make sure everybody gets nothing for their efforts, equalizing industry and academia.

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40. Sundowner on July 10, 2012 1:32 PM writes...

"[...] exporting of jobs to India, China and Europe".

Well, I am in Europe, and I can tell you that those jobs are not here. I work in a CRO and I have seen my PhD buddies laid off from Pfizer in Sandwich, Schering in The Netherlands, and so on. And I have to hear that they hire me for the difficult things, but the easy work is going to India, because is cheaper.

So honestly, those thousands of jobs are not here. Specially now. Look elsewhere, please.

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41. gippgig on July 10, 2012 3:34 PM writes...

#31: the question is not rhetorical.
You should do whatever you want to do; I of course have no idea what that is.

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42. Sisyphus on July 10, 2012 6:22 PM writes...

Scientists? Most of you are not scientists, you are technologists. You are paid for practicing trial and error in a similar way to T. Edison who is rarely referred to as a scientist. There is very little science left in the world today.

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43. Esteemed "Scientist" on July 10, 2012 6:25 PM writes...

But there really is a shortage, it's the reason for the collapse in research that's going on. There may be plenty of bodies out there that call themselves "scientists", or "engineers" for that matter. Anyone with an ounce of street sense and a pair of good hands that has worked in these pharma dog and pony shows can attest to the fact that most of them weren't even worth letting into the building, much less the paycheck they were given. The reasons given why "pipelines" are empty are laughable, the effort was kind of a joke, hampered by management lacking the will to work on the hard questions, instead pumping most of their money into TV ads and such, staffing with automatons from places where challenging authority was dealt with harshly.

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44. Sisyphus on July 10, 2012 6:32 PM writes...

@ 28. Ha Ha Ha...B. Clinton already placed the moles in the DOD. Remember J. Huang and the Lippo Bank. Hey look at that, China developed a space program in under 10 years.

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45. MTK on July 10, 2012 6:36 PM writes...

Sisyphus' comment, while a blow perhaps to our ego, may be closer to the mark than we care to admit.

The situation as it exists is that modern Western society does not value science as it once did.

Changing the postdoc system, limiting foreign students, etc will do little in the long run. Those are symptoms, not causes. The bottom line is that we as a society do not want to pay for science or scientists. The new world order has commoditized us.

Until we as a society value return on investment in timeframes consistent with the pace of science that's not going to change. And if you think that MBA's and such are the only source of the problem, think again. How often have you changed the distribution of your 401k or other investments based on return over the last year or two? Exactly. That's what we're dealing with on a societal level.

With science incongruent with modern expectations perhaps it's true that we've been reduced to technologists as Sisyphus suggests.

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46. Anon on July 10, 2012 7:03 PM writes...

@42 Sisyphus

Scientists? Most of you are not scientists, you are technologists.

Useless information and a gross overgeneralization. Perhaps you think doctors are nurses, and horses are zebras.

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47. gippgig on July 11, 2012 12:53 AM writes...

Another Post item that should be of interest: (I tested this address & it worked (but I wouldn't be surprised if that changed!))

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48. Chemist turned Engineer on July 11, 2012 3:38 AM writes...

I think the biggest problem with these "not enough scientists" articles is that they lump all scientists and engineers together. Different industries are in completely different economic environments. For example, we all know the current (sad) state of the pharmaceutical industry. But what about the oil industry. I can tell you right now - If you get a B.S. in petroleum engineering, you can get a near six-figure salary without a problem if your GPA is > 3.0. The problem is that policymakers, who have absolutely no exposure to science or engineering, think that all scientists are the same and are capable of working the same job. Gross generalizations of this sort, while easy for laypeople to digest, are misleading. I was misled by them! I just left a top-tier organic chemistry PhD program to pursue a career in a field with an actual future. It was either now or after 6+ more years of making a terrible salary as as grad student and postdoc...

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49. CR on July 11, 2012 7:46 AM writes...

@34, Anchor:

Sounds like someone didn't get into that Ivy league school they had dreamed about, huh?

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50. The Iron Chemist on July 11, 2012 8:31 AM writes...

@45 MTK: I think your comments are dead-on. I was thinking just the other day how similar science has become to teaching. Everyone says that scientists and teachers are important to our society, yet our society seems to be hell-bent against paying either what they're worth. The difference is that everyone's known that about the teaching profession for decades. I shudder to think what kind of chemists will be getting Ph.D's in ten, fifteen, twenty years.

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51. Rick Wobbe on July 11, 2012 9:42 AM writes...

Elizabeth #24, Very well said. I don't know what a full answer to your question would be, but it must begin by confronting the hailstorm of politically-motivated attacks on science and scientists. Until then, many educational efforts will be useless at best and often counterproductive, as exemplified by the Texas Board of Education.

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52. anchor on July 11, 2012 11:07 AM writes...

@49- You betcha! The name tag would have helped to save my job, I suppose.

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53. MoMo on July 11, 2012 11:59 AM writes...

Supply and Demand. Supply and Demand. Supply and Demand. Supply and Demand.

That's all. Let's close all graduate schools for a few years and let the Demand catch up.

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54. Fred the Fourth on July 11, 2012 10:15 PM writes...

I cringe every time I recall the advice I gave my daughter, to the effect that bioengineering would be a good major. MIT 5.0, Phi Beta Kappa, no prospects in either grad school or industry.

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55. Chemist turned Engineer on July 12, 2012 12:46 AM writes...

@ 54:
I made the same mistake as your daughter. I started in bioengineering, made excellent grades for 3 years, and switched to chemistry because I found out that bioengineers have a very difficult time finding jobs. Of course, that was kinda a lateral move, since chemistry isn't any better. Perhaps she could get an M.S. in mechanical or electrical engineering? That's what I'm doing.

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56. Student on July 12, 2012 1:19 AM writes...

For more thoughts:

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57. Ajay K Malik on July 12, 2012 3:18 AM writes...

The stories about scientist shortage will keep coming up because every time there is a new technology, the hiring companies (even academic labs) prefer pre-trained people. Gone are the days when companies hired people based on solid background and considered training (or bringing up to speed) as part of their hiring process. The Shale and Fracking companies do the latter. Pharma needs a change of mindset. There are thousands of scientists from Nutley to bay area that they can choose from. Right now, patience is in short supply.

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58. Anonymous on July 12, 2012 3:10 PM writes...

#45 - right on! And #53 just illustrates your point. Hard to pin an ROI on a revolutionary achievement, but it's society's problem, not (just) big pharma's. Kind of like public funding of the arts.

#42 - speak for yourself! I apply the scientific method to technological problems. I am a scientist.

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59. Rahul on July 12, 2012 4:05 PM writes...

I have a few comments

1. Considering the fact that more than 50 % of recent college graduates are working in jobs that do not require a bachelors degree or only 15 % of law graduates work for major law firms, I do not think scientist have it that bad. At least PhD slots are limited by how many they can support on TA/RA grants, law graduates are limited by only as many as they can sucker in. If you think science departments and NSF are not honest about career prospects, law graduates are actually suing their Alma Maters and the ABA for dishonesty

2. The scientist shortage/surplus debate is as old as science itself. Albert Einstein got his first job at the patent office.

3. My Ph.D class was 50 % foreign and 50 % american. I do not know of anybody who is unemployed. Did we struggle, sure, but we all eventually made it. Just because someone has a Ph.D., does not mean they are competent or fit for this profession. If they try hard enough, they will eventually get a break, it is up to them to make something out of that. The world does not owe you a living just because you are a scientist.

4. When I joined the Ph.D. program, the Indians/Chinese all drove jalopies while the americans all drove shiny new cars and vacationed in Europe with their girlfriends. 2 years later, I asked my american roommate who worked in the lab next door why his lifestyle was so much better than mine. He let me on to the secret. While I made slightly more money than him (I did not have to pay FICA, he did), he could borrow $ 8500 a year in Federal money though he got a stipend and his tution fee was paid and he did not have to repay a penny while he was in graduate school. My after tax salary was about $ 12,000 a year while his was $ 20,000 a year. Did he graduate with a big student debt, sure he did. This is a free country and you live with the choices you make.

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60. Anon on July 12, 2012 4:35 PM writes...

1. "At least PhD slots are limited by how many they can support on TA/RA grants"
That is entirely not true...
2. No it isn't. This problem began to emerge 20 years ago and in the last 5-10 it has really taken off.
3. They are looking for talent. And as stated, unemployment records hide how many people are in different careers (i.e. they wasted their time)
4. Anyone can take a loan. I don't see how this is relevant to the topics being discussed...

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61. Nick on July 12, 2012 5:03 PM writes...

@59 said -"When I joined the Ph.D. program, the Indians/Chinese all drove jalopies while the americans all drove shiny new cars and vacationed in Europe with their girlfriends."

You're obviously one of those sub-talented foreign grunts hired by a mega-group to run the roto-vap 24/7.


@59 said -"The scientist shortage/surplus debate is as old as science itself. Albert Einstein got his first job at the patent office."

This statement actually supports your identity as a sub-talented foreign faculty member who is exploiting the current system. No American would EVER say this.

Please take a hike. Be grateful the American people have paid your bills and allowed you the freedom to utter such preposterous statements.

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62. Shonkin on July 12, 2012 5:04 PM writes...

I'd like to bring up another (and related) point: Scientific societies don't necessarily act in their members' best interests. The American Chemical Society is a prime example of this. Many ACS members in industry have their dues paid by their employers. Guess what? "Whose bread I eat, his song I sing." ACS generally acts on behalf of (1) big industry, (2) big academe, and (3) itself. ACS has thousands of employees, especially if we include the ones who work for Chemical Abstracts Service. The President and elected directors have very little influence over this behemoth of an organization. That's probably why the dues keep rising and members have to support the useless C&E News (which is mostly an industry rag except when it prints session schedules for ACS meetings).
There is probably an explanation in the above for the fact that the ACS shows absolutely no concern for the surplus of people with chemistry degrees. A glut of workers is good for industry, good for universities that want cheap postdoc labor, and good for the ACS budget.
Yes, I am still an ACS member (at my own expense -- I work for state government, which doesn't pay dues for me). But I'm about to retire, and I'm thinking I don't need the ACS life insurance any more, and I really ought to drop my ES&T subscription. Those are my only reasons to maintain membership. National meetings? I'm a geochemist. There's nothing for me at those confabs.

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63. Rahul on July 12, 2012 5:09 PM writes...


1. I do not know of anybody who financed their own science PhD.

2. The problem started 20 years ago because they do not need to grow the ranks of tenured faculty for various reasons. If your goal is/was to become a tenured faculty, you better be in the top 10/15 % of your Ph.D. class. If a graduate student does not realize that within a month of starting his Ph.D., he/she is living in a fools paradise.

3. Eventually your research has to show a return for somebody to keep funding it. I don't think there is any shame in not being on the bench. I was in the chemicals industry when it went through a bad time 15 years ago and now I am in the Pharma industry. Bench level research scientists are the last people laid off in any company. Are sites closed due to mergers? sure they are, but that is a fact of corporate life.

4. This was aimed at earlier comments which wondered about Ph.D.'s graduating with MD type debt.

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64. Rahul on July 12, 2012 5:38 PM writes...

@ 61

I don't know you and you don't know me. I did not post on this forum to trade insults with anybody. I merely posted so that we could have an enlightened discussion. Because you are anonymous on this forum, you felt it safe to throw personal insults at me. Maybe that reflects on your character and attitude. I have lived in this country for the past 20 years and am past the stage where I am affected by comments from people like you. I came here without any sense of entitlement, followed the law and built my career honestly. Maybe you should look in the mirror once in a while to find out who to blame for your troubles.

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65. Ted on July 12, 2012 5:47 PM writes...


I worked in midwestern big pharma for 5 years - I left them for a job in biotech. They said I was a fool, I had a job for life. I bore them no malice, I just needed mountains and sea.

They merged, they reorganized, they merged, they reorganized. They were all laid off. The town nearly disappeared.

I rose rapidly at biotech. A non-PhD running a project - egads! After the second merger, the group re-focused. I was reorganized. Med. chem. is dead, they said, we need to become chemicalpharmacogenomists...

The writing was on the wall. The chemists were laid off in '01. The rest hung on for another year or two.

The next biotech was delusional. Good targets, poor justifications, abysmal compounds. The bridge loans ran out. We were laid off in two waves - I was grateful to be in the first.

Process development with an established biotech looked good. They had a drug, and they had a pipeline. I reacquainted myself with the joys of scale-up, the thrills of pilot operations. I started to move up again, the work was exciting, I started to see a lifetime ahead of me.

The company sold out to its big pharma partner. It was a sordid affair, with conflicts of interest, payoffs, hidden material facts. It actually took two votes to get the buyout to go, despite near criminal efforts by the leadership to make it happen.

Contract manufacturing took another year to come around, but we finally came up to speed. The great recession was a tough time to be hanging a shingle out front, but eventually the business came.

We limped along, little sister to a big, expensive behemoth. Our sales grew, our clients loved us, and we started to find our niche. I moved up some more.

Then they looked the books over. "You know what?" they said, "Drugs are just not profitable enough. We're getting out." They gutted the building. It was an easy decision - they had never actually seen it.

So now I'm on to the next thing. Maybe you are too. If not, you probably will be. I wish you luck, but not too much. I need to keep a little for myself.


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66. Anonymous on July 12, 2012 8:27 PM writes...

electrical engineering is tough as well, know many out of work or who could only get a job in a different field. Try computer science.

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67. turdcoloredglasses on July 12, 2012 10:47 PM writes...

@59 Rahul said "When I joined the Ph.D. program, the Indians/Chinese all drove jalopies while the americans all drove shiny new cars and vacationed in Europe with their girlfriends."

Where did you go to Grad School, Narnia?

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68. Mathishard on July 12, 2012 11:00 PM writes...

@63 In his Imaginary Grad School fable, Rahul blathered "If your goal is/was to become a tenured faculty, you better be in the top 10/15 % of your Ph.D. class."

No wonder there is a glut of unemployed post-graduates...

Two phrases come to mind, the first is from a real Grad School advisor: "There's only one equation you need to know for Grad School, B equals Ph.D." If you were worried about your class standing, you weren't at the right school, and if you were worried about grades, you weren't in the lab enough.

The second I'll share because by now you're just embarrassing yourself. "When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging."

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69. fuelcelldave on July 13, 2012 5:46 AM writes...

@68 Rahul makes perfectly reasonable points if slightly optimistic about hard work being rewarded.
On this one. Anyone who has to worry about being in the top 10% while doing their lab work as well probably won't make it to the top. What a shock. If you measure top % by results and papers the lab work is the only way. If you measure by exams then at that stage if you still want to be faculty you shouldn't have any problems with exams anyway.

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70. patentgeek on July 13, 2012 7:05 AM writes...


I do wish you luck. Thanks for your graceful writing.

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71. alig on July 13, 2012 7:14 AM writes...

@Rahul "the americans all drove shiny new cars and vacationed in Europe with their girlfriends"

This statement is so different from my grad school experience. I wish I had gone to grad school where you did so I could have had a vacation, in Europe no less.

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72. UpNorth on July 13, 2012 8:03 AM writes...

In the ancient times, we technically got 4 weeks of vacation a year at grad school. However, if we took more than 1, maybe 2 (spread out) they questioned our motivation. Particularly as those of us on TA's already lost huge swaths of time every semester...

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73. turdcoloredglasses on July 13, 2012 8:19 AM writes...

@68, You and I know that IF one's performance is measured by lab performance (paper output and impact on one's field), it's a perhaps good start towards a faculty position. But it's also clear that what really matters is where one does one's post-doc. That, in turn depends more on the recommendations of their thesis advisor than on whether one got a B or an A in biophysics. Some of the weaker students in my class got almost staight A's in their coursework, then published in marginal journals, only to have their well-connected advisors land them cherry post-docs that have ultimately established their path towards tenure. Good scientists, no doubt, but class standing played zero role in that process.

Looping back to the original topic, where you went to grad school matters to some degree, but nothing influences the job search more than one's post-doctoral mentor. Like publishing in SCN, viable candidacy for faculty positions (and many industry jobs) depends on one's PI making the right connections. How many crap papers are out there because they were communicated by someone who did something important (and got tenure at a decent university) 25 years ago?

And here lies a big part of the problem. As in industry and government, rampant cronyism is a cancer on academic research. Post-doc in Boston, publish the latest conventional wisdom in Cold Spring Harbor Press journals, spread the Gospel around some more at AACR and Keystone conferences your PI's buddies are organizing, then lock in a tenure track position with the rest of your fraternity brothers. This is one reason cancer drug development is so exclusively locked into kinase research and the one gene-one target approach.

As long as there are tenured faculty and people like Rahul, thinking in 1980's terms about science education, funding decisions and Pharma R&D will continue to be an unproductive exercise in mass marketing, and the layoffs will continue.

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74. joenonymous on July 13, 2012 9:35 AM writes...

How awful that taking vacations is now something that the little people are supposed to feel ashamed of.

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75. G on July 13, 2012 10:26 AM writes...

Older people like to think that young scientists are lazy and feel entitled. This job market and economy are so out of whack and are worlds apart from the one you had to deal with 30 years ago! Jobs are not there. Funding is not there. Everyone is just sitting tight. We've been waiting for things to get better for 4 years.

I've worked my a$$ off. I published. I networked. I got fellowships. I had not debt from my PhD. All reasonable people would say that my PhD was "successful".
However, I somewhat began to see the writing on the wall before I defended. I decided that I'd give science one more chance. I was not going to do a postdoc. I applied for jobs. I networked and did a million informational interviews. Nothing. Everyone said that I was doing the right things and my resume looked good, just keep trying.

I am getting out of science. I love science, but pursuing a career in it is depressing and stressful.

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76. Rahul on July 13, 2012 10:51 AM writes...

@67,68 & 73

If you are honestly willing to listen, there are people including your advisor who will look at your research and tell you if you have a chance to become a faculty.

When I was a PhD student about to graduate, I knew a Postdoc on the next station who despite being very talented, had horrible grades in his undergraduate and Ph.D. coursework. He took 7 years to do his PhD with a few mediocre publications. He was is his 4th year of postdoc just getting ready to publish his first paper from his postdoc research. I had a career discussion with my advisor where he bluntly told me that a postdoc is about the best I could expect and he also added that a second postdoc was the best my colleague could expect. When I told my colleague what our advisor had said, it was news to him. He had somehow assumed all these years that he would become faculty despite his lack of credentials. This gentleman had to take a sales/service position with a instrumentation company for a few years and now he is at a national lab.

Most people you come across on the campus have no incentive to tell you the truth. They know you will understand after you have sent out your 100th CV what the market is like. When somebody asked about their career prospects, my advisor liked to say all his past students have jobs. He left out the part about the struggle they went through getting where they were. He left out the part about the ones who wanted to be faculty but never made it. He forgot to mention those who had left the profession entirely or failed to get their PhD after spending an eternity in the lab. On the flip side there were those who graduated in 4 years and got exactly the position they wanted. One even rose to become CEO of a fortune 500 company for a few years. It is up to you to dig out the truth and plan accordingly.

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77. N on July 13, 2012 11:12 AM writes...

I think Rahul, you might be overestimating just how many jobs there are in the market right now. If you want to have a position as a technician, there are lots of those positions but Ph.D level positions just aren't available for the number of people that are obtaining these degrees. The chemical industry used to work on the idea that a few Ph.D's can should crank out enough ideas to keep an entire process or research group busy. That simply isn't the case anymore since Ph.D's at the vast majority of institutions have become severely watered down. This means that companies are hiring more Ph.D's but since WAY more people are getting them, the jobs are getting harder and harder to come by.

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78. Harv93 on July 13, 2012 12:05 PM writes...

@15 - I am a 40 yr old Ph.D. biologist and I've been laid off *three* times. So don't be so hard on yourself!

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79. Cersei on July 13, 2012 12:25 PM writes...

When you play the game of drug discovery, you win or you die.

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80. coprolite on July 13, 2012 12:27 PM writes...

So many people here just P&M. If you're disappointed that life is always going to be a struggle and that a career in science is not be the easiest way to attain the almighty dollar then quit P'ing and M'ing and end it already.

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81. Big Freddie on July 15, 2012 12:59 PM writes...

Lots of technician jobs? Hmm...not in Chicago. One question...when are the "money center" universities going to act like the tax free charities they are and begin to support research on their own campuses? Sitting on an 8 billion endowment, buying defunct biotech company campuses, and talking about how "happy and empowered university presidents are" kind of makes me wonder when "Big Time U" will spend a little money on science. Building a lab is fun...why can't we "sell" research to donors? I just don't see a funding drought when a university sits on an 8 or 9 billion dollar endowment....bloated administrations are poor mouthing while building monuments to themselves on campus.

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82. Jgault on July 15, 2012 2:08 PM writes...

It seems most everyone is missing a basic point. Univerisites are no longer teaching what the world wants (at least in the basic sciences) and as a result a degree in science from a university is not worth very much. As with all institutionalized entities they eventually fall behind the curve, do to protectionist and unimaginitive beurocracies. Unversities are now sucking up more and more tax dollars and producing less and less valuable educations. This is the price we pay for government institutionalization of education. God, just go to a poster session at an ACS meeting and veiw the hundereds of esoteric and irrelevant research posters by university research groups. From what I can tell from SFN, biology is even worse. Until the Tenure system is abolished this situation is not going to get better. The inescapable truth is skills are always worth what others are willing to pay for them, at the time they are willing to pay it. Noone is a losser, they just have the wrong skills at the wrong time. The skill which fetches 200K one year may be worth nothing the next, that is the way of the world. We don't get to reengineer the world because our skill is not needed any more, or forcible take tax dollars from others because of some over inflated sense of our own value. Adapt or don't, but jesus stop whining about it.

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83. Ayntnosuchthing on July 15, 2012 3:09 PM writes...

@82 I don't care what people say, I think Randians are cute.

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84. N on July 15, 2012 6:57 PM writes...

A simple google search reveals literally hundreds of chemistry related jobs in the Chicago area (probably not downtown, but the surrounding areas). I also have many friends who have gotten jobs doing bachelors level work and technician level work in Chicago just this past year alone. The jobs are there, they just require some looking. And as a side note, endowments of that size are not common. In fact, only the top 6 schools (in terms of endowments) get more than 8 billion dollars and one is school system wide. It drops off heavily from there with most research heavy universities receiving closer to around 1-2 billion and sometimes less.

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85. Anonymous on July 15, 2012 8:44 PM writes...

As 53 said, Supply and Demand rules. Demand went ou the window when we decided to offshore everything to India and China. Supply skyrocketed with all of the layoffs in addition to all of the new graduates.
A simple search through this blog over the last 5 years should provide some guidance. If Demand exceeded supply, we would be hearing stories of multiple job offers, signing bonuses, high salarys, etc. Instead, what we hear are stories of layoffs, long bouts of unemployment, site closings, and overall misery.
I don't see this problem correcting itself anytime soon. Academics like the ample supply of cheap labor, and industry enjoys a large supply of cheap disposable employees. If it did not, it would not be outsourcing in the first place. Normally, this would correct itself. For example, if Nursing became saturated, students would enroll in something else. This would lower the supply of nursing graduates, and create a more balance picture in a few years. However, in this field, I would only expect a dropoff in American students pursing a science PhD and an overall lower percentenge of Americans getting a PhD. However, the defecit would be quickly filled by students from India and China. After this happens, the politicians would agree that a green card should be stamped on every PhD granted.

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86. N on July 16, 2012 9:31 AM writes...

You also have to keep in mind that we receive one particular view on this blog (at least that's the overwhelming majority opinion here). There are many chemists that are employed happily and many that have received multiple job offers (myself included), it's all about how you market yourself and applying to jobs that you think you're a strong candidate for.

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87. Bane on July 16, 2012 3:29 PM writes...

I really love the smell of propaganda in the morning. No matter how bad it gets the ACS smear machine sends out their minions to post the proverbial 'yes Virginia there really is a chemist shortage' posters.

I suppose such tactics may work to keep the flow of Chinese graduate students hot and thick. A simple look at the ACS job board refutes any such nonsense.

A fundamental problem is that employers today are now so enamored with slave wages that they'll fill any new positions with h1-b. Since the number of h1-bs is not tracked, and many institutions (academic, non-profits) don't have caps, it's likely that institutionalized unemployment for graduating chemists is the new normal. I find it odd that event the GAO (government accounting office) doesn't know how many h1-bs there are in the USA.

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88. MoMo on July 16, 2012 5:09 PM writes...

Big Freddie! You are Wise! You know that Universities everywhere get Non-profit Status then have their academics bleed the Taxpayer dry through government grants. Meanwhile they build huge facilities while the students they serve end up working at McDonalds to make ends meet after they graduate.

We should be rebelling against the academic institutions. They created this mess- first by allowing way too many students to be trained, National AND INTERNATIONAL, (and too many Biologists) then by continually pimping out the academics for Taxpayer money- Get a Grant of Else!

Meanwhile the costs of Higher Ed skyrocket, the jobs are not there, and new Graduates are flipping burgers.

The Big MeltDown is Coming Soon!

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89. eugene on July 17, 2012 5:39 PM writes...

"You also have to keep in mind that we receive one particular view on this blog (at least that's the overwhelming majority opinion here). There are many chemists that are employed happily and many that have received multiple job offers (myself included), it's all about how you market yourself and applying to jobs that you think you're a strong candidate for."

The reader and most of the writers of this blog are disgrunteled and unemployed or underemployed chemists? You haven't been reading this blog for too long if you think it's purely an outlet for bitching about the job situation. Though it's definitely a fun diversion.

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90. N on July 18, 2012 4:53 PM writes...

Please do not extend my words and use them to say what you want. I'm merely pointing out that there are two sides of every story, this one is no exception. We all know plenty of people affected by the recent downturn, but we also know plenty who are living their lives just like they always have. I'm just trying to say that from a chemist's perspective, this is the worst job market we've seen in god knows how long, but from the perspective of the entire population? Chemists aren't too bad off (that's not to say it's a good situation by any means and the projected growth for the next decade does not make me want to do cartwheels).

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91. Anonymous on July 19, 2012 4:13 AM writes...

N 84+86
“A simple google search reveals literally hundreds of chemistry related jobs in the Chicago area... “
Wow, use a Google search to find jobs!
“There are many chemists that are employed happily and many that have received multiple job offers (myself included), it's all about how you market yourself and applying to jobs that you think you're a strong candidate for.”
I have been looking for a job for over a year now and I have been doing things all wrong. It is not just me, I know many other chemists who have also just been searching for work unsuccessfully. I must pass this invaluable information on to them!

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92. N on July 19, 2012 9:27 PM writes...

Okay first off, back off. I'm not the reason you've been unable to find a job and saying that there are jobs out there and that people are getting them is the truth, not me trying to be a jerk. That being said, if you're going on a year without a job it might be time to take a look at your approach and what is keeping you from getting offers.

That's not meant to be a put down in any way, but after that amount of time, a serious self evaluation is necessary to find out what your weaknesses are to prospective employers and why they are preventing you from getting a job. College graduates, recently unemployed, and those who have been long unemployed are receiving job offers when others are not. The question is why are they getting them when you're not, which is something that nobody can answer but you and a hiring committee.

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93. BigFreddie on July 20, 2012 9:34 AM writes...

I have been working with lots of M.S. grads, and a few Ph.D. grads...if by opportunities you mean "come to my lab, if you get a post-doc grant in six months you can stay"...I suppose there are some opportunities out there. New real chemistry jobs? I see a lot great kids who just are not getting picked up. are right, Google has jobs listed, I wonder how many of those are current, actually intended to be converted to hires far..not many in my limited experience. As a P.S. I work with Biology folks too, the whole "multidisciplinary" thing NIH and NSF goes on and on Biology it is a blood bath my friend...I am writing as a concerned lab head, 20 yrs experience...sure, my absolute top folks are finding spots that 15 years ago no one with similar training would have even considered. Raising a family? Buying a house? not too likely. Is what you say technically true? what you are saying meaningful to the lived experience of my students...not too sure my friend.

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94. Ving on July 20, 2012 5:29 PM writes...

The above troll poster really fits the bill when it comes to entities attempting to manipulate opinion within forums.

Ignore him. He has absolutely nothing factual to add to the conversation. It is a form of terrorism used by the organization which are outsourcing jobs.

The below link details common techniques trolls use for manipulation of discussion boards.

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95. Anonymous on July 21, 2012 6:07 AM writes...

One job offer that I have received is to act as one of these trolls. I do not know how much it pays because when I found out what it was I just dropped it. It seems to be a very sad way to earn money.

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96. N on July 21, 2012 1:03 PM writes...

So now anybody that doesn't see the job market as a barren wasteland is a corporate troll? It seems like you're really open to thoughtful discussion. Perhaps taking a step back and realizing that compared to a lot of other industries chemistry isn't doing so badly (like my family, all formerly in various manufacturing roles that now simply do not exist in the US).

Also, I do not mean post doc positions. While there are certainly post doc positions, there are also jobs available in industry (perhaps not in pharma, but your degree in chemistry extends beyond that). Also, even assuming that unemployment is higher than the indicated 4-5% (which I do think is possible), I doubt it is over 8 or 9% (realistically it's probably closer to 6-7%) which is still not ideal but not horrible either.

Are people working jobs for which they are overqualified? Yes, absolutely but that's the price you pay in a down economy. My family would be grateful to find ANY job (my father has recently decided that retirement is the best option and is trying to get a part time job) because those manufacturing jobs LITERALLY do not exist in the United States anymore and his experience and years of work can no longer give him a fighting chance for the positions that do exist.

I might be playing devil's advocate a little bit, but I don't it's too much of a stretch to say that saying there are NO jobs in the chemical industry is wrong. Perhaps it's just my perspective from growing up in a lower middle class family where jobs and money were always much tighter than what I have seen in this industry.

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97. eugene on August 2, 2012 8:17 AM writes...

"Please do not extend my words and use them to say what you want. I'm merely pointing out that there are two sides of every story, this one is no exception."

Sorry. In my defense, your wording was very, very vague. Only after your last post I realized you meant something different from what you wrote earlier.

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