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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

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Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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July 11, 2014

Employment Among New Chemistry PhDs

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Posted by Derek

Another dose of reality for the "Terrible STEM Shortage!" folks, courtesy of Slate. Here's what author Jordan Weissmann has to say:

With a little cleaning up, however, the federal data do tell a pretty clear story: The market for new Ph.D.s in the much obsessed-about STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and math—is stagnant. Over the last 20 years, employment rates are either flat or down in each major discipline, from computer science to chemistry. It’s not what you’d expect given the way companies like Microsoft talk about talent shortages.

Why no, it isn't, is it? There seems to be something a bit off. Weissmann is working with data from the NIH NSF and their surveys of new doctorates in the sciences, and it shows several things. For one, the post-doc populations remain very high in every field, which isn't a good sign. The number of new doctorates who report being employed has not attained the levels seen in the late 1990s, for any field. And here's chemistry in particular:
Not a very pretty picture, to be sure. It's true that the number of postdocs have been declining the last few years, but the slack seems to be picked up, more or less equally, by people who are getting jobs and people falling into the flat-out unemployed category. And remember, this is a snapshot of new doctorates, so the numbers for more experienced people are going to be different (but ugly in their own way, to judge from the waves of layoffs over the last few years). It's notable that the new chemistry doctorate holders who are unemployed have outnumbered the ones with non-postdoc jobs for the last few years, which may well be unprecedented.

Weissmann's figures for computer science doctorate and engineers are telling, too, and I refer you to the article for them. Neither group has made it back to its heights back in 2000 or so, although the 2011-2012 number have picked up a bit. Whether that's a blip or a real inflection point remains to be seen. It's safe to say, though, that none of these charts support the "Just can't find anybody to hire" narrative that you hear from so many companies.

Comments (43) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Business and Markets


1. Chemjobber on July 11, 2014 9:47 AM writes...

Should be noted that this is NSF data, not NIH.

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2. Anonymous on July 11, 2014 9:59 AM writes...

It's interesting that starting 2011 the # of postdoc started trending down while the em

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3. Witold on July 11, 2014 10:19 AM writes...

As a relatively recent Chemistry PhD grad with gainful employment, I know first hand how hard it is to get a job in this market right now.

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4. CMCguy on July 11, 2014 10:35 AM writes...

But I thought we need to allow more US educated immigrants to stay (at least in computer science)?®ion=c-column-top-span-region&WT.nav=c-column-top-span-region&_r=1
They basically challenge Congress suggesting because the three of these business tycoons could write immigration legislation together that means Congress should be able to do that as well and although agree US politics is a huge mess, especially related to complicated issues like immigration, I would like to see them actually try to do what they say and still satisfy the even more diverse viewpoints of the US population.

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5. Justin on July 11, 2014 10:37 AM writes...

From the article: "Unemployment among doctorate holders, even young ones, is extremely low, usually around 2 percent."

Maybe, but when I throw in the ones who are "negotiating" (read: unemployed, and one of ten persons the company is "negotiating" with) the real percentage is closer to 10%, and more in line with what most of us probably see.

I'd also like to see what percentage of those employed are in a field unrelated to that which they earned their degree in, like me, who is now a forensic toxicologist coming from an organic/synthetic, and brief pharma, background.

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6. NLchemist on July 11, 2014 10:45 AM writes...

As a current graduate student, I'm kind of confused about all of the negativity surrounding the high number of post-doc positions. My understanding has always been that I'd be doing at least one post-doctoral appointment after this. Even if I didn't want to go into academia I I figured it would be necessary to round out my skill set for future employment.

Is this a relatively new outlook or am I just looking at it through the rose colored, "anything's better than grad-school" glasses?

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7. Anonymous on July 11, 2014 10:57 AM writes...

Maybe NSF should stop awarding graduate student fellowships. Use the money for something else.

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8. captaingraphene on July 11, 2014 11:08 AM writes...


Don't know about a post-doc being necessary regarding skills for employment. Just like throwing more money in a fruit machine isn't going to increase the chance of a nice, big payout at the end.

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9. Toad on July 11, 2014 11:10 AM writes...

@ 6. NLchemist,

In the not-so-distant past, there were waves of hiring where the supply did not keep up with demand. I experienced it as a new graduate and as a hiring manager in large pharma.

I too expected to need a post-doc and sent out letters to companies inquiring about positions prior to writing up, and was surprised to have a dozen interviews on-site 6 months before defending my PhD in the late '80s. In the mid- to late '90s we hired a number of fresh PhDs for med chem work as well.

This is just one factor for getting gainful employment. It still includes networking, how strong your PhD work was, and the quality of your post-doc. You're right, if your post-doc adds experience and demonstrates independence and creativity, then you may have an advantage over someone without a post-doc; however, we all know other factors can come into play (who you worked for, how you handle yourself, etc.).

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10. Chemjobber on July 11, 2014 11:32 AM writes...

@6: I agree with Toad and his overall advice.

What I spot in your comment is the assumption that your number of postdocs is not less than 1 and possibly more than 1. I suspect that in the late-90s (or pick-your-better-time-here) that the assumption was either 0 or 1.

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11. Skeptic on July 11, 2014 11:38 AM writes...

NL, when I was a graduate student you could tell who wanted to work in academia and who didn't based on who did postdocs.

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12. Chemjobber on July 11, 2014 11:45 AM writes...

@11: My beloved father (70s-era MS graduate, engineer) kept asking me why I wanted to do a postdoc, even though I wanted to work in industry. Sigh.

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13. Anonymous on July 11, 2014 12:59 PM writes...

@9: "if your post-doc adds experience and demonstrates independence and creativity, then you may have an advantage over someone without a post-doc"

...and since when has independence and creativity ever been an advantage at a big company? No, they screen out that sh*t as fast as they can, and instead look for conformity and doing what you're f&*#"@ing told.

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14. Skeptic on July 11, 2014 1:16 PM writes...

CJ, everybody promised me after I graduated I'd have no problem getting a good job without a postdoc due to the high demand for organic chemists. This, of course, was during the boom times for pharma.

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15. Anon on July 11, 2014 1:35 PM writes...

What the graph fails to illustrate is the second problem next to unemployment...underemployment.
In biology this is a HUGE issue. I've seen tons of people with master's and PhDs that selling pipette tips door to door (they literally walk from lab to lab). How many ended up teaching 2nd grade English? How many ended up working at their uncle's office supply store?

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16. John Wayne on July 11, 2014 1:53 PM writes...

I believe that the focus on postdocs has been captured by many comments; I'll try to sum up: people used to do zero to one postdoc; now they do at least one. I know more and more chemists who have done multiple postdocs and/or 3 to 4 year postdocs. All of these things imply that finding work is tough.

Several of the young professors I'm acquainted with have done two postdocs; it is very hard to get translational or cross disciplinary grants funded unless you've dipped into several fields, gotten your ticket punched, and made contacts there.

My mind keeps returning to something my uncle-in-law (is that a thing?) said to me when I was in between jobs; "We are starting to live in a journeyman culture. Business aren't interested in training great people, they want to hire somebody who has all the skills already in place."

I think he is on to something. Under circumstances like that, it is easy to understand why the pool of highly qualified, specifically trained persons with the ideal level of experience seems a bit shallow. I work at a small company that has a likely life cycle of a few years. We just did some hiring with a strong focus (80%ish) on current skills with room for each person to grow into new roles.

I have a hypothesis that the thing that has changed is the expectations for research scientists; specifically, the market has run out of patience. We are no longer given labs and money with the dictate of doing something interesting during our careers. Now we are given labs on the other side of the world and asked for specific inventions in 2 to 4 quarters. The business folks are likely to think that scientists need pressure and consequences to deliver; unfortunately, the flow of novel medicines into the health care system suggests otherwise.*

* I'm not saying we could definitely have gotten this done had things remained the same as they were in the 90's, but we would have had a better chance. Uncertainty like this also infuriates MBA's who are trying to follow a formula for success.

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17. Ed on July 11, 2014 2:17 PM writes...

I did only one postdoc, but as it was basically a med chemist role for postdoc money, finding that first job was not too hard. if i had been doing total synthesis or methodology, things might have been that much harder. tip #1 if you really want that industry job, do a 100% relevant postdoc, not some in-between chem-bio-computational mishmash.

but now that postdoc days are 10+ years behind me, finding suitable lab-based employment is almost impossible, unless I am willing to be a lab-bitch for some POS CRO paying rock bottom wages that will simulataneously boast of how many phd's they have on staff with x number of patents.

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18. Chris Lansodwn on July 11, 2014 3:13 PM writes...

I don't know about chemistry, but in programming, the mere fact that there are people with degrees does not in fact mean that they are qualified. I've interviewed plenty of people with CS degrees who couldn't program their way out of a paper bag. Part of the problem may be the way that academia is something of a degree factory. Without certification competition, it has no incentive for quality control, and lots of incentive to graduate people who are unqualified (since they get more money for that).

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19. Flatland on July 11, 2014 3:24 PM writes...

I wonder if some of the above comments reflect an oversaturation in some areas of chemistry (Ie. Total synthesis & methodology). As a recent graduate in materials chemistry, the job market seems pretty hot right now, and no postdoc required (at least one company highly frowned upon them). If it is oversaturation, I wonder what is the solution?

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20. lynn on July 11, 2014 3:30 PM writes...

And then there's this different analysis [based on a GAO report] saying STEM is too broad a category; you need to look at subcategories [they don't break out chemists]. But they still note STEM unemployment is low compared to non-STEM.

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21. the boss on July 11, 2014 3:39 PM writes...

I run a very small biotech company. I get emails from people with PhDs all the time look for a job. But to be honest, it really is hard to find someone qualified even among applicants with PhDs, many from much respected universities. Having a PhD does not guarantee:
1: I want to spend 80 hours a week next to you
2: You can provide great insight to get my drug developed.

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22. Anonymous on July 11, 2014 3:40 PM writes...

@18 "Part of the problem may be the way that academia is something of a degree factory. Without certification competition, it has no incentive for quality control, and lots of incentive to graduate people who are unqualified (since they get more money for that)."

I agree 100%. There was a discussion maybe a month ago about whether getting a PhD is worth it for some. I have seen a general contraction in hiring in pharma, save a few places, and paying bottom dollar in attempt to get top talent.

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23. Anonymous on July 11, 2014 3:42 PM writes...

crappy schools should stop producing PhDs

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24. The Iron Chemist on July 11, 2014 3:56 PM writes...

To add to #18's comment: companies hire people, not degrees. I've seen some pretty terrible scientists with PhDs. It is a little frightening that many casual observers seemingly think that all PhDs are equivalent, and it is VERY frightening to see that many of those same casual observers are in the process of getting those PhDs.

That said, I've seen a lot of really smart and hard-working people with PhDs have an astonishing amount of difficulty finding employment that befits their talents and the effort that they've invested into their education.

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25. Bring the Movies on July 11, 2014 4:19 PM writes...

regarding @21--" I want to spend 80 hours a week next to you". Pure entitlement to ask for an 80 hr work week,but you can get away with it because of the oversupply of qualified people. Sad state of affairs in Chem right now. No doubt you would like nothing better than to give every foreign national with a PhD a green card---then you can expect 100 hrs per week.

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26. Anonymous on July 11, 2014 4:40 PM writes...

I would like to see employment stats for BS/MS chemists... Also, when I talk to people who are thinking about science as a career, I advise them to not go into chemistry...

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27. Chemjobber on July 11, 2014 5:26 PM writes...

@27: IMHO, there is likely nothing in the realm of chemist employment statistics quite as accurate as this data set. The response rate for this survey is around 90% (i.e. 90% of US PhD graduates filled out this form) and it's analyzed by professional statisticians for NSF.

The ACS's annual salary surveys are the closest set of data to what you want. They have a much lower response rate (40-50%) for their surveys of its members and its members are mostly PhDs (60-70%.)

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28. annonie on July 11, 2014 6:01 PM writes...

I know it's complicated as the people without jobs are not always trained or have the right demographic for an open job, but looking at it broadly, where's the big problem in trained scientist that that the government talks about to often?

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29. Puff the mutant dragon on July 11, 2014 6:11 PM writes...

It kinda irritates me how these ALWAYS focus on PhDs as if that's all there is to the world of science. There are BS/MS folks out here you know :).

Also strongly agree with the comments about how academia functioning to some extent as a "degree factory" is part of the problem. Companies are looking for people with specific skill sets, not people with specific degrees -- not always one and the same! I think that's part of the reason why you have this baffling situation where many PhDs are having a tough time finding work while at the same time employers complain about a talent shortage. (Although truth be told some of this "talent shortage" talk probably originates with industry trade groups who want to allow more immigration to drive down wages. Also complaining about the state of US science education is a popular pastime in American politics.)

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30. D.N. on July 11, 2014 7:45 PM writes...

The people asking "Where's the shortage?!" are missing an important point: it is possible for a labor shortage and unemployment to coexist. All it takes is for the government to misallocate resources. In U.S. med-chem, for example, the government has diverted tremendous resources from medical to procedural treatments. Instead of employing pharma people with leptin and ghrelin drug development, the money is diverted to knee replacements and diabetic amputations and ulcer care.

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31. Hap on July 11, 2014 8:12 PM writes...

@30: I didn't think degrees of any sort were really supposed to be about skills or specific knowledge (though if you don't have them, then people wonder either how you got where you got or if your degree is worth much). Rather, degrees are supposed to signify levels of metaskills - not the ability to do specific tasks but how to figure out what to do and how to understand when something unexpected is happening, and ultimately to perform research.

The expectation of specific skills (and complaints of their absence) isn't necessarily a failure of academics, but of industry. In particular, its decision not to invest in its employees and in particular to expect someone else to train them bears ill fruit. It amplifies uncertainty in an already uncertain job market - if you're hired for specific skills, you're expendable once they're not needed, and if you're a company, once your employees know that (and they will), they'll be looking for greener pastures as soon as possible, even more so when getting laid-off makes it hard to get another job.

@21: It's always been hard to find good people willing to work long hours for peanuts (see See Arr Oh's doozie job quotes here). Perhaps you're not working hard enough at finding those people?

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32. aa3 on July 11, 2014 10:38 PM writes...

An old concept called the free market tends to sort these problems out. If there were honest shortages in an area, the pay rates would just keep escalating as firms competed against each other for the talent. At some point of huge salaries, significant numbers of people would enter the field, or take additional courses related to what they already had in order to enter the field.

Because governments are so big in the health care demand business around the world, the way to increase people going into medical related technology jobs is to increase the money flowing to the results of the work. Eg.. the length of patent time, public plan drug reimbursement rates, etc.

Conversely a sure fire way to reduce opportunity for graduates in these bio-chem areas, is to reduce payments for drugs & other medical innovations.

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33. Anon on July 11, 2014 11:45 PM writes...

USA Today had an article out about this:

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34. BT on July 12, 2014 9:35 AM writes...

@31: I wish someone had disabused me of the notion that the metaskills were the important ones (to industry) before I began looking for industry jobs. At this point, I've got a solid-enough publication record between my PhD and postdoc that I might as well just do a second postdoc and apply for academic positions, because no one outside of academia seems to be interested in my catalysis/inorganic reaction mechanisms experience. I've applied for a few dozen jobs and had 2 phone interviews (different companies), almost all of which were spent explaining why I had done my research on the topics I had instead of something "useful".

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35. wizened wanderer on July 12, 2014 11:30 AM writes...

@NL chemist: I suggest you take a masters degree (with a publishable thesis), get some job experience, then ask the question again.

When I was a first year grad student, going into industry was considered the path for the low skill/low motivation students. Having seen the meat grinder of the tenure process drive my brilliant advisor to a small teaching college in the tundra, I was quite discouraged. He had done a 6 year Ph.D. at Berkeley and two three year post-docs in other high profile UC labs. I decided to ignore the Academy snobs and try Pharma to see whether I had what it takes to become a professional scientist.

After my Master's thesis defense, I was told that the industry lab job I'd just accepted was the death knell for my scientific career. They called it the Golden Handcuffs, and said nobody loves science enough to go back to Ramen noodles and roommates without benefits.

Later, I decided that, I was indeed a good enough researcher to work at the Ph.D. level in industry. I also learned that my four years of above average lab performance in pre-clinical and clinical drug development made me incredibly attractive to top pharmacology programs.

As before, my industry experience and ongoing intention to get out of the Academy ruffled many many faculty feathers, and it probably cost me a year proving to them that my work was as good as those wed to the quest for a tenure-track position. To their surprise, I landed an entry level Ph.D. job in biotech with no formal postdoc (I published the unfinished parts of my thesis project during my post-defense job search). My thesis /postdoc work was generally the LEAST important thing to interviewers. They were more interested in my MS-level industry experience, English communication skills, and character references (not just professional ones).

It's somewhat different now, mostly due to an overproduction of US Ph.D.'s and the influx of wage-killing H1B holders, but my advice is the same: work for a while before you get an advanced degree. One day members of your thesis committee will probably be on the phone making nice as they try to figure out a way to get some money from your company (schadenfreude rocks).

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36. NLchemist on July 12, 2014 12:34 PM writes...

@ 35. wizened wanderer: Thank you for the advice. It's rare where I am to hear to opinions of people outside Academia.

I think my original post may have sounded more negative than I intended. By "Anything's better than grad school" I just meant I was looking forward to those next career phases.

I'm one of those anomalies that loves to teach in addition to research, so the full PhD makes sense (Having won the Supervisor lottery, and being North of the Border both help though.)

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37. Hibob on July 12, 2014 12:38 PM writes...


Perhaps NIH and NSF could change restrictions for R0X, institutional training grants, etc., so that no more than 50% of a PhD candidate's salary and tuition can come from such grants. That way most PhD candidates would either have to individually win fellowships or join a rich lab if they want to proceed past a MSc.

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38. Hibob on July 12, 2014 12:51 PM writes...

@32: "At some point of huge salaries, significant numbers of people would enter the field, or take additional courses related to what they already had in order to enter the field."

Coursework and certs are great, but typically the gatekeeper is years of experience with a particular type of technology/process/etc. If you are in software development you may be able to create your own projects to fill that gap, but in life/chemical/health sciences you need access to expensive equipment and/or patients to be competitive.

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39. Anonymous on July 12, 2014 1:08 PM writes...

hiring shouldn't define degree requirement, so all degrees can start from low ranking positions and gradually move up depending on their abilities.

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40. Anonymous on July 12, 2014 4:28 PM writes...

I'd be interested to see more data, such as what areas of chemistry are hurting more and which are doing better.

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41. cthulhu on July 13, 2014 7:07 PM writes...

@29 makes a good point, and illustrates why STEM is way too broad to draw general conclusions about. In many branches of engineering, a Ph.D. is a handicap to getting a job in industry. Rightly or wrongly, the Ph.D. is seen as overspecialized for a lot of positions. There are some jobs where the doctoral degree is desired, but by no means a majority. So judging engineering job glut by looking at Ph.D. unemployment is speculating way beyond the data.

I do not claim in any way, shape, or form this is applicable to other parts of the so-called STEM area though.

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42. Anonymous on July 14, 2014 4:01 AM writes...

Nothing in these charts suggeests any long term trend, so if there are problems now, they have been around for the last 20 years or more.

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43. Garrett on July 16, 2014 11:21 AM writes...

I work for a Fortune 500 company which is predominantly in the software space. We have trouble finding candidates. Occasionally I interview some of the candidates and ask them straight-forward 2nd year computer science questions. That filters out half of the people who've already passed previous stages of the interview processes. Most notably the 1 PhD in CompSci we interviewed did the worst on those questions, the ones which mattered most to actually producing something people would want to buy.

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