Chemistry careers from multiple angles

Comment

Credit: G. Grullón

Unemployment among chemists, which rose sharply in the wake of the financial collapse, is nearly down to pre-Great Recession levels, reports Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN), using data from the American Chemical Society’s (ACS’s) latest annual employment survey. What’s more, “the drop in unemployment isn’t solely related to people taking part-time or postdoctoral work,” notes Steven Meyers, assistant director of the ACS career and professional advancement department, in the article.

That’s the good news from the survey. The bad news: The median salary is stagnant in real dollars, and down in real dollars by nearly 10% since 2008. Men, at a median of $100,000, still earn far more than women, at $79,400.

The bad news: The median salary is stagnant in real dollars, and down in real dollars by nearly 10% since 2008.

Industry pays best of course, with an overall median of $108,000, followed closely by government, at $106,100. Academe trails far behind, at $74,300.

The figure for academe, however, lumps together a highly disparate academic workforce that includes students, postdocs, technicians, and various ranks of professors, some of whom enjoy handsome incomes. A set of revealing articles in the same issue highlights the challenges and rewards encountered by those two kinds of academics: faculty members at the end of their careers and those at the beginning.

Despite some easing in the overall chemistry job market, the market for faculty jobs remains “extremely competitive,” notes C&EN’s Susan Ainsworth, in one of those articles. The article highlights four people lucky enough to have landed one of those very scarce jobs as assistant professor.

Interestingly, Kara Stowers, newly arrived at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, says she has never experienced any gender discrimination and does not expect to. Having done both her Ph.D. and postdoctoral work under female supervisors at the University of Michigan (UM), Ann Arbor, and Harvard University, respectively, she may be a beneficiary of growing female representation in academic science.

For Abraham Badu-Tawiah, one of the major challenges of starting his assistant professorship at The Ohio State University, Columbus, has been carving out family time with his wife and two young children while teaching graduate courses and getting his lab underway. He fits it all in by starting his day at 4 a.m. and leaving the lab by 7 p.m., leaving time to play with the children before their bedtime.

Closing the lab was a “difficult process” for UM, Ann Arbor, professor emeritus Edwin Vedejs, quoted in another article from the set. “There are things that one has to do that frankly shake you to the core.” These include disposing of materials representing decades of “passion and effort.” The process of clearing out an office and lab creates “a lot of nostalgia, and you relive things that you hadn’t thought about for 40 to 50 years,” adds Emory University professor emeritus Albert Padwa.

Also crucial is seeing to the continuing careers of students and postdocs. To protect the safety and welfare of the lab’s sole remaining postdoc as he finished up his research, Padwa brought into the lab visiting students on temporary, half-year assignments so that the postdoc would not be working alone.

Senior faculty departing, of course, is one factor in opening up some of those new assistant professorships. The situation for some other experienced chemists may be unclear, however. The survey has no way of capturing chemists suffering long-term unemployment who have, out of necessity, taken work in other fields. “Those who have been out of work for a while and have few resources to receive further education or training will eventually take a nonideal position that at least keeps a paycheck coming in, even if it means being underemployed,” says ACS’s Meyers, quoted in C&EN. “Once that happens, it becomes more difficult to reenter the chemistry market. We know that some individuals are unfortunately in this regrettable situation; we just don’t have a way to measure how large their numbers are.”

The employment outlook for chemists appears “promising,” the article says. Unemployment is particularly low for Ph.D.s—at 2.2%, versus 3% last year—but it is unclear how many chemists are working in postdoc positions. For master’s and bachelor’s degree chemists, unemployment rates remained fairly high, at 4.6% and 4.2%, respectively, compared to 4.7% and 4.6% a year ago.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers