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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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January 25, 2013

The Chemistry Jobs Market

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Posted by Derek

Here's the latest big picture, from Chemjobber. Note, though, that on Twitter he said that after writing this post he felt as if he could press KBr pellets with his jaws. That should give you some idea.

Comments (31) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Business and Markets


1. Boghog on January 25, 2013 2:57 PM writes...

An insightful quote from Vannevar Bush:

The plans should be designed to attract into science only that proportion of youthful talent appropriate to the needs of science in relation to the other needs of the nation for high abilities.

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2. watcher on January 25, 2013 3:24 PM writes...

Few long time professors, stuck in their cozy academic worlds, looking at their next set of grants to be able to bring in the grad students and post docs and getting the next set of data to enable an ongoing flow of publications, have any idea of being a chemist in industry. How many profs try to match the number of people in their group to the anticipated to the future economic environment for scientific jobs? I know of several very talented folks in several years of ongoing post-doc servitude within excellent, well known labs who have had job offers withdrawn or have not been able to get any type of offer over the last few years. These people do not even count as "unemployed" but almost certainly are not where they really want to be at their ages and point of career when they started the process.

Some in the country say we need more people to be trained in the sciences, yet their comments don't match today's economic realities. Today. I would try to discourage my son or anyone else I know from going through the path I took, unless they seemed absolutely brilliant at it from the get- go. As for myself, I'd likely take a different path which would still use my skills in math, science, logic, problem solving, but avoid going to chem grad school.

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3. MTK on January 25, 2013 4:04 PM writes...

As a semi-defense of professors, keep in mind that they've got pressure on them from university administrators also to bring in the grant money.

Even after you obtain tenure, if you don't keep the funds coming in you might find yourself in a cramped basement lab with little chance of expanding your research group and getting out.

In other words, the prof's world isn't as cozy as some may think and in some ways they're trapped in the system also. Obviously with less risk than the grad students since they have jobs, but you get my drift.

It's all down to chasing the cash.

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4. David Formerly Known as a Chemist on January 25, 2013 5:54 PM writes...

I understand the job market is dismal for basic scientific research (especially chemistry), but what else should we encourage young people to study and pursue? Literature? Business? Engineering? Law? All these professions have tight job markets. People need to pursue their passions. I for one see no need to place artificial restrictions on the number of people that train in whatever field they wish to pursue. I'd rather have a population more highly educated in science and technology than not. I no longer work in the chemical industry, but the skills and experience I gained earning my PhD and working as a chemist for nearly 20 years are still valuable to me today.

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5. Chemjobber on January 25, 2013 7:19 PM writes...

@4: I am, believe it or not, a policy agnostic; I'm not sure we understand the situation well enough and have good enough numbers to make exactly the right decisions.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of potentially artificial inducements that lead students into graduate school (and specifically, doctoral) programs in the sciences. That they do not pay tuition (someone else pays that) and that they are paid for their training might indeed be an inducement. So there might not need to be artificial restrictions needed, just a shifting of the funding scenario (simple task, right?).

Literature, medicine, business and law all require upfront investment of your own funds as well as your time. I suspect that might clarify the mind a little bit, and make the student balance passion against the need to make rent. (...until a low-job-growth economy and cheap student loans muddied the waters some more.)

The place to educate more people in the sciences is high school and in the first two years of college; I'm all for it then. [One of the problems that I have with US education as a whole is that rather than education in various topics (science included) being pushed earlier and earlier, it seems to be happening later and later. Witness the first two years of college seeming to look more and more like remedial high school.]

My final comment: I liked graduate school; it was, in the end, a hell of a lot of fun. Working in chemical manufacturing is deeply, weirdly fulfilling and makes me (most days) very content. If I can spend 20 years in this industry, I'd really like to.

I suspect that our different perspectives on the future may be related to the time that we hit the working world. The 80s and 90s (when I suspect you were training and working) were basically an era in the United States of relatively high GDP growth and relatively high job growth. Things may look different to people (like myself) who started to look for work after the Great Moderation was over.

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6. Anonymous on January 25, 2013 7:56 PM writes...

@4 pontificated thus:

"I'd rather have a population more highly educated in science and technology than not."

And of what good to society is a highly educated in science and technology but unemployed/unemployable populace? I seem to recall reading that such dynamics don't exactly scream "oh joy" in countries such as Egypt.

"I no longer work in the chemical industry, but the skills and experience I gained earning my PhD and working as a chemist for nearly 20 years are still valuable to me today."

Ah yes, the "your experience in medicinal chemistry has equipped you with so many transferable skills that will be useful in other career opportunities" glad handing spiel that the outplacement folks pedal to each and every one of the thousands of severed pharma employees. I guess if one or two of them have that experience then that must be truly representative of the entire lot. I guess the rest either just don't know how to market themselves or don't have enough Linkedin connections.

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7. Anon007 on January 25, 2013 10:35 PM writes...

Imagine deciding to major in chemistry in 2003, being told "the job market is cyclical, don't worry..."

"UNEMPLOYMENT AT RECORD HIGH, This year, 3.7% of ACS members are out of work and looking for jobs" June 23, 2003 Volume 81, Number 25 CENEAR 81 25 p. 12

Almost 10 years later, trying to finish a PhD, watching the jobs go away the whole time, every postdoc has a wait list and getting told "the job market is cyclical, don't worry..."

"Unemployment Data For Chemists Improve Slightly
ACS News: Unemployment rate of 4.2% for ACS members in 2012 is down from 4.6%"
Volume 90 Issue 30 | p. 6 | News of The Week
Issue Date: July 23, 2012

What was the definition of insanity?

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8. anon2 on January 26, 2013 2:52 PM writes...

Like inbesting in stocks, past history does not predict future results. Back in the day, jobs in chemistry were cyclical with dependence on the economy's ups-and-downs. While this is still true, to an extent, this dependence of job demand is now superimposed on the general decline of some industries and businesses. Losses from the latter are likely to never return.

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9. Jon on January 27, 2013 9:35 AM writes...

It's not that chemists aren't in's that they're in demand in different areas than in the pharma industry.

Areas like fuel science and materials science.

Indeed...the unemployment rates amongst ACS members show it. Yeah...3.9% or 4.2% or whatever sounds bad...but if you're under 45, the rate drops to 2%, and these numbers are still way lower than the overall rate of ~8%.

Even in the pharma industry, these jobs are in demand...just not at traditional big pharma anymore with it the higher salaries and cushy benefits that people have gotten used to in the "Roaring 90s".

So the trick is not in discouraging young folks not to pursue chemistry, especially if they have the passion for it. The trick is to teach them to know how to scan the external environment to find a career match for their passion.

Something I wish someone had taught me how to do when I was 18.

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10. PC on January 27, 2013 12:29 PM writes...

@Derek - you got the wrong hyperlink to 'latest big picture' text. Here is the one you are referring to-

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11. Anonymous on January 27, 2013 2:38 PM writes...


"It's not that chemists aren't in's that they're in demand in different areas than in the pharma industry.

Areas like fuel science and materials science."

Are the big names training their legions of students for careers in these disciplines?

"3.9% or 4.2% or whatever sounds bad...but if you're under 45, the rate drops to 2%"

O.k. but we don't have control over the aging process and the "experienced career coach" advice of leaving the year you got your PhD off your resume doesn't get you pass the current crop of "talent acquisition specialists" who aren't particularly interested in hiring laid-off mid- or late-stage career professionals who are over 45.

"Even in the pharma industry, these jobs are in demand...just not at traditional big pharma anymore with it the higher salaries and cushy benefits that people have gotten used to in the "Roaring 90s"."

And you honestly think that the 1000s of laid-off > 45 year old ex-big pharma refugees are not interested in all those "in demand jobs" that don't have "high salaries" or "cushy benefits"? You clearly aren't an >45 year old ex-big pharma refugee who has had to grovel unsuccessfully in front of "talent acquisition specialists" for such "in demand" jobs and "state your salary history and expectations or you will not be considered" only to be told that you are "overqualified" aka too old or "if hired, will leave when the economy recovers" aka made too much money at your last big pharma job.

"The trick is to teach them to know how to scan the external environment to find a career match for their passion."

You are focusing totally on one side of the equation. Do you honestly think that most >45 year old laid off and currently unemployed or underemployed ex-Pharma refugees haven't considered this easy solution to finding a job?

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12. anonymous on January 27, 2013 3:21 PM writes...

I like your youthful optimisim, but you are in some fantasy land.

I have to disagree with you. If this was a four year degree, then I would suggest letting the market control the amount of students who study chemistry. However, a PhD requires >10 years of post high school education, a lot of work, sacrafice, and dedication. All for what?
The market won't control this. The colleges need the cheap labor for teaching and research, and industry needs a larege supply of young, disposable labor. If students see that the jobs are not there, the schools will just get more H1bs to fill the slots.
In addition, the job market is not comparable to other fields, it is very bleak. I have seen Hardard post docs go back to China because there is nothing here. If it was a Hardard business student, he probably would be running the company. This profession really has tanked.

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13. Chemjobber on January 28, 2013 12:35 AM writes...


"But if you're under 45, the rate drops to 2%, and these numbers are still way lower than the overall rate of ~8%."

I like statements like these, because they're falsifiable, and Jon's is especially so. Only the 2009 and 2010 ACS Salary Survey numbers have unemployment breakdowns by age decile. 2007, 2008, and 2012 published ACS Salary Survey numbers do not. In addition, the detailed 2011 numbers have never been published.

For those years, here are the unemployment numbers:

2009: 20-29: 3.1%, 30-39: 2.3%, 40-49: 3.9%
2010: 20-29: 3.8%, 30-39: 2.5%, 40-49: 3.6%

None of these numbers, except for perhaps the 2009 30-39 decile bears a resemblance to Jon's comment.

I find it terribly frustrating when people keep insisting on comparing ACS Salary Survey numbers to the National Unemployment Rate. Are we really going to keep comparing a society of over 60% Ph.D.s versus the US labor force that has more than 60% of its members without a bachelor's degree?

If you do the direct education-level comparison, ACS member chemists came out looking much worse in 2011:

National B.S. unemployment rate: 4.9%
B.S. ACS members: 6.4%

National M.S. unemployment: 3.6%
M.S. ACS members: 5.2%

National Ph.D. unemployment: 2.5%
Ph.D. ACS members: 3.9%

I would like to know what "in demand" means; if it means, "we'll still hire you, at a different company at a lower salary", then yes, I suppose those positions are still in demand. But that twists that word close to out of recognition.

Finally, I think we all know that switching subfields is something that is much, much easier said than done. I personally would enjoy leaving chemical manufacturing for a career as a platoon sergeant of infantry troops (I hear it offers stable employment.) But that's not practical, and neither is telling out-of-work medicinal chemists to suddenly become inorganic chemists.

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14. Anonymous on January 28, 2013 1:39 AM writes...


As a young chemist who only had an ACS membership when he was unemployed and looking for a job, I think you put far too much merit into those numbers.

ACS memberships are expensive. I got one as a graduating B.S. senior to find a job. I put out three applications, had three interviews, and now am comfortably employed. I then stopped renewing my ACS membership, and do not contribute to those statistics.

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15. Jumping Ship on January 28, 2013 1:57 AM writes...

I agree with 9: "It's not that chemists aren't in's that they're in demand in different areas than in the pharma industry."

I know from first-hand experience. I left a PhD program in synthetic organic chemistry at a top 5 institution for a PhD program in materials science and engineering at a 20-something ranked institution. Post-docs and graduate students alike struggled tremendously to find jobs at my previous institution. At my current institution, graduate students seem to find jobs very easily. In addition, graduate students rarely do post-docs - only if they are considering academia.

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16. Chemjobber on January 28, 2013 1:57 AM writes...

@14: I tend to agree that they're somewhat tricky to work with, but in this case, I'm responding to Jon's use of them.

[There are a lot of critiques of the ACS Salary Survey numbers, and I think they all have valid points. But what other numbers do we have to argue over? The BLS unemployment numbers for chemists are 1) higher than the ACS numbers (2011: 6.1%, 2012: 5.5%) and 2) show more or less a similar trend to the ACS numbers.]

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17. Jumping Ship on January 28, 2013 2:05 AM writes...

I want to add that I'm not hating on organic or med chem. It made sense for me to jump ship because I realized that I didn't really like synthetic organic as much as I thought I did. That coupled with a less than favorable job market made leaving an easy decision. I still peruse the JACS ASAPs and read excellent blogs such as this one because they are interesting!

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18. dearieme on January 28, 2013 8:06 AM writes...

All the evidence in Britain is that workforce planning by government doesn't work - not even for medics who almost all end up as government employees (except when there turns out to be a shortage of NHS jobs, when they end up as emigrants).

Chemjobber's elaboration of the idea of refraining from "potentially artificial inducements" seems the best hope to me.

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19. Hap on January 28, 2013 9:23 AM writes...

9: If you note on Chemjobber's website, jobs likely to be found for chemists at atypical employers are...not there.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics measures chemist job growth at 4%, while all occupations are expected to grow at 14% for the period between 2010 and 2020.

To Professor Houston's point that there are jobs in the chemical manufacturing sector, the expected job growth in chemical manufacturing for that period are as follows: Basic chemical: -15.1%, Resin/synthetic rubber, etc.: -7.1%, Agrichemical: -22%, Pharma: -0.7%, Paint, coating, adhesive: -11.3%, Cleaning products: -6.3%, Other: -17.3%, Plastics: 21.3%, Rubber, -7.4%

It also seems that employers want people to not require training (or at least training by them - no general skills required...or useful) while having the exact skill set they'll need. Even if retraining were available or affordable for most (also tagging some more years onto the 8-12 already invested in training), it would require a medium, religious inspiration, or a time machine to actually be useful.

I don't think that switching fields is likely to solve anyone's problems.

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20. Anonymous on January 28, 2013 9:43 AM writes...

Thirty years ago when employment of chemists was a problem, the ACS president lectured us in a C&EN editorial about how we chemists had no divine right to a job. He was a tenured professor which is the problem with the ACS. A significant percentage of their membership is tenured in their jobs and have lifetime employment. The ACS publishing empire is highly dependent on these guys and this addiction trumps all.

Several years ago the dominate employer of new chemists shifted from chemical companies that had been contracting for years to growing pharma/biotech companies. When life science employment of chemists collapsed things got much worse for chemists than typically happened in downturns of the past. These jobs are now gone and frankly I do not see them returning in any sizable numbers.

About 45% of the new PhDs are imported talent. There really is no need for US students to go into chemistry because the global chemistry manpower pool is so large. Profs and employers will just expand their use of this talent pool if by some miracle US funding for grad students were to shrink.

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21. Anonymous on January 28, 2013 10:08 AM writes...


"employers will just expand their use of this talent pool"

Will? You haven't witnessed the mass pharma laying off of US scientists and fervent feasting on the FTEs at the WuXis of the world? Most of the pharma company mouth pieces, with a straight face, claim it is because future growth will be greatest in emerging markets and they need a bigger presence in those markets.

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22. David Formerly Known as a Chemist on January 28, 2013 10:26 AM writes...

@6...yes, my experience working in the chemical industry for nearly 20 years still serves me well today. Though I no longer make molecules and evaluate them preclincally and clinically as potential new medicines, other skills I acquired over those years are still invaluable; the manner in which to frame and solve a problem, expertise on how to search and find relevant information in literature and patents, effective ways to manage other people, how to work effectively as part of a team, how to interact with other business professionals, etc. These skills were not learned in college or graduate school, but at work. Scoff at the "soft skills" as much as one likes, but they are the ones truly transferable.

@12...if I interpreted your comments correctly it sounds like you advocate controlling the number of people that can earn PhDs in chemistry. So, who will control that? Who do you trust to tell students that really want to pursue a PhD that "sorry, we don't need any more, find another interest"? Isn't this a highly personal decision for an individual to make themselves?

@5...I understand your thoughts here, but I don't necessarily buy the idea that many people would put up with 5-6 years of graduate school in chemistry, even at little to no cost to them, if they weren't truly interested in the field. I'm sure it's happened, but I doubt it's a major factor contributing to the glut of PhDs. I have no evidence of this of course, just a gut feeling.

And again I ask all of you, what alternative career paths would any of you encourage people to pursue? What other careers don't have high numbers of people complaining about how tough it is out there?

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23. Anonymous on January 28, 2013 10:32 AM writes...

@22: what alternative career paths would any of you encourage people to pursue? What other careers don't have high numbers of people complaining about how tough it is out there?

Pharmacists, Dentists, Opticians, Engineers

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24. My 0.02 on January 28, 2013 12:45 PM writes...

It seems that there are endless positions for computer programmers.

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25. anonymous on January 28, 2013 8:52 PM writes...


Accountants, doctors, pharmacists, optometrists, dentists, nurses, chirpracters, computer programmers, market researchers, sales folks. I could go on and on. Not many professions are as bleak as chemistry.

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26. Regret on January 30, 2013 9:36 PM writes...

Everyday of my life, I regret the decision to choose chemistry over computer science. Worst. Decision. Ever.

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27. Anonymous on April 14, 2013 7:08 PM writes...

Having a PhD in Materials Science And 8 years of experience I recently had to switch to computer programming as I could not find any job for 3 months - none, nada, zero, zilch! I wish I never went to chemistry and started in computer science as well. My kids can go to natural sciences only over my dead body.

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28. Anaya on August 6, 2013 10:35 PM writes...

HELP is all I can say. I graduated last year with a B.S. in Biology (should have just avoided taking this route) and a B.A. in Chemistry. I've always wanted to be involved in the healthcare field, but now...I'm stuck. I've been working as a lab tech for a year (I count my stars). I do enjoy it and am always wanting to learn more, but I do not want to be working as a tech for the rest of my life. I'm going back to school to complete pre-reqs in hopes of being accepted to a M.S. in Chemistry program. Bad idea??? I'm not even sure what else I should go for a Master's in??

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29. Anaya on August 6, 2013 11:03 PM writes...

----Thanks ahead of time. Any advice is very much appreciated!!

Confused and struggling to find a niche student

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30. Anonymous on September 14, 2013 7:43 AM writes...

Bad, bad idea. Don't do MS in chemistry. If you can go to medical school, do it. Or just switch your major to do something else. I regret to this day that I majored in chemistry. Low pay, high unemployment. Not worth it!

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31. Anonymous on September 14, 2013 8:08 AM writes...

@Anaya, if by any chance you will be reading this: don't keep pursuing chemistry as your major. Do something else, go to medical school, pharmacy, engineering, business or math. All are better than chemistry in terms of employment opportunity and pay scale. I wish someone told me when I was in my 20's.

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