How About A Career In Science? Don’t Call Saul, Ask Chemjobber

“Chemjobber” (1) made the best of a bad situation. Back in 2008, when the pharmaceutical industry was already imploding (See: America’s Vanishing Science Jobs, NY Post June 24, 2011) he took on the Sisyphean job of keeping track of what few jobs were available in chemistry and has become the go-to source for anyone who is looking for work, either in industry or academia. His 12,000 Twitter followers and his tenacity in keeping up with employment possibilities are an indicator of how tough it is in the science world. He kindly took the time to speak with me about the state of employment in the world of science and how it has changed over the past 15 years.

“What’s the job market like for chemists? Dude — it’s always bad.*

The logo from Chemjobber’s site

JB: I know that you have a full-time job in chemistry and maintain your blog regularly. Thanks for taking what little time you have to speak with us. At the American Council, we write about a huge assortment of topics, but employment in science is not one of them. But it is a topic that should resonate with many of our readers. Can you tell us about how and why you started your blog? Where did you get the idea?

CJ: I started the blog in late 2008, after an 8-month long search for a permanent position in the middle of what would be known as the Great Recession. I am a quantitatively-oriented person, and it bothered me that I didn’t know anything about the math of the chemistry job market (other than I needed one job, and that (not counting my postdoc), I had zero offers when I started out.)

I have always loved blogs (I started reading Derek Lowe’s blog in 2003 or so) and this was actually about the 3rd blog that I started, but it’s been around for a little bit now. But I wanted a blog to talk about the experience that I had just been through, and also to provide the service of just counting the number of available positions. Getting that data is hard!

JB: How and when did people first start to pay attention? Were you surprised?

CJ: It’s hard to say, but it took about a full year before people started paying attention regularly. Of course, with all blogging, you have to write for about a year regularly before anyone will pay attention to you, and you find your voice, and what you’re good at writing about. I think I was surprised, but it’s been 8 years, so I don’t entirely remember.

JB: Can you compare the state of employment in the sciences today to what it was in 2008? What trends have you seen during this time? For example, your blog today lists 462 academic openings – a far cry from 10 years ago.

CJ: I’ll go so far as to say that “we have no data for a good comparison.” No one reliably tracks any of this, and those that do so (the Indeeds and Glassdoors of the world) I don’t really trust that their algorithms do a good job. Who knows?

If I were to do a broad qualitative view, my suspicion is that things are somewhat better now than they were almost 10 years ago. I think that wages are up slightly (broadly), but still down against inflation. I think that unemployment is down, and the number of people who are taking postdocs is at least flat for chemists. Other than that, I will once again say that we don’t have granular enough data to really know for sure.

JB: A decade ago the pharmaceutical industry was shedding jobs almost every month. Do you know how many industrial researchers lost their jobs since 2000? Have some of these jobs come back?

CJ: The short answer is, of course, we don’t know. What we do know is what Challenger and Gray have had to tell us:  between 2000 and October 13, there had been 349,502 jobs lost in the pharmaceutical industry. This number is a total which includes receptionists through CEOs.) Of those, I am sure many have been hired back, but we really don’t have a good handle on it. Interestingly, we are just as blind from the perspective of employment data in 2017 as I feel that we were in 2007.

There haven’t been very many major site closures in the last 2 or 3 years – the last one that I felt was really devastating was the Roche Nutley closure in 2012. Of course, there aren’t a lot of major sites to be closed anymore, either.

 

 There haven’t been very many major site closures in the last 2 or 3 years…Of course, there aren’t a lot of major sites to be closed anymore, either.

JB: You and I once appeared together in an interview about science employment. Can you tell us about other times you have been interviewed and what kind of response you got?

CJ: I’ve been interviewed a few of times by reporters, and it usually ends when I say that I write under short-circuits a lot of interviews. It doesn’t bother me though.  I think it’s far more important that my viewpoint gets out there, and that my perspective is heard by reporters than it is that I get quotes in stories. That said, it’s happened a few times. I think journalists are pretty cool folks, and I think good journalism is one of those things that makes America a pretty special place.

JB: It’s not a matter of whether people contact you about finding a job, just how often. Have there been some success stories?

CJ: There have been! Those are the best e-mails I get. Often, it’s “I applied for a position that I saw on your blog and I got it!” I get them about twice a year, and it’s enough to keep me going for another little while. They are absolutely the best e-mails that I get, and I really enjoy them when they happen.

JB: One issue that gets discussed from time to time is the life of post-docs. There have been times when people got trapped in the two-year revolving door, migrating from one post-doc to the next. Is this still going on?

CJ: Yes, this is definitely going on still. I think that the number of desirable industrial and academic positions is not high enough to successfully absorb the 2600-2700 chemistry Ph.D.s that “graduate” each year. Often, I see entry-level industrial positions that are asking for 1-2 years of postdoctoral training, so that’s driving the market as well. If a company can get more training, why not ask for it?

Finally, the funding cycles (for example, you have a grant for 2-5 years, and then the money runs out) drive the itinerant nature of postdocs, which requires move after move. This will never end, I suspect until we have a different funding model – which is going to happen sometime after the heat death of the universe, I suspect.

The funding cycles [that] drive the itinerant nature of postdocs, which requires move after move. This will never end

 

JB: This may be a sensitive subject, but what are your thoughts about H-1B Visas? Do you think that they are keeping salaries lower or making the job market even tougher for American scientists? Are companies and academic institutions using them extensively to save money?

CJ: My general thoughts about H-1B visas is that they probably don’t affect the US chemical job market that much so far as we can currently gather from the data. The number of H-1B visas for chemistry is actually not that high(compared to the overall total.) That said, what we do know about H-1b visas and the tech industry is that there are a lot of abuses in the system, i.e. large corporations firing their IT folks, and then requiring them to train their H-1B visa holder replacements. Also, H-1B visa holders are tied to their employer (i.e. they cannot voluntarily leave their position without having to go home), which is a form of indentured servitude that is, in my opinion, rather un-American.

JB: You must be asked constantly whether going into science is a good idea. What do you tell people?

CJ: Depends on what that means. Does it mean “getting a bachelor’s in science”? Yes, that’s just fine. Go for it – it’s a great degree, especially if you work hard at it, gain technical skills and get just a glimpse of the breadth and depth of the field.

Does it mean “going to graduate school in the sciences?” No, you need to understand what the structure of the labor market is for M.S. and Ph.D. students in the sciences. What is a postdoctoral fellowship? What is their median salary? If you say “I want to be a tenure-track professor in the sciences”, understand that’s kind of like saying “I would like to be a professional athlete.” It could happen, but it will take a lot of work, and there will be a lot of out-of-your-control circumstance driving your career path as well.

That said, it’s super fun, you get to do interesting things and you get to have a deep understanding of the physical world, something that gives me great joy and satisfaction. Do I wish I had become a physician so that I had a job that everyone valued, respected and I could drive around in a late-model Audi? Sometimes.

JB: The standard meme, which we’ve been hearing forever is that America needs more people to go into STEM. Do you believe this?

CJ: I am not sure I believe that. I think it is true that our country does well when many people have advanced technological skills, i.e. it is good for the United States of America and its economy. I am not so sure that it has been good for the individual scientist.

The massive investment by Congress (and therefore, the American taxpayer) has been very, very good for America’s global position in the life sciences. However, there are there are far, far too many stories of life scientists who are in their 2nd or 3rd postdoc for me to believe that there is a massive demand for life scientists of any sort. You don’t take the 3rd postdoc unless the market demands it! Taxpayers will pay for whatever will deliver their cancer cures faster – if that means that we put our molecular biologists through 80-hour a week penury in order to deliver the best scientists, taxpayers will turn a blind eye to it.

Short answer: good for the country maybe, but not good for the individual

JB: How do you see science as a profession 10 years from now? What do you think will be the biggest changes? What advice would you give to a 10-year old who is interested in chemistry or biology?

CJ: Ten years from now? I have no idea. I think we’ll have a much different mix in the pharmaceutical industry (i.e. we will understand better what works better for curing disease and promoting human health, i.e. small molecules or biomolecules.) I think that I would tell that 10 year old (the age of my kids) that what they need to do is to do their best to understand the fundamentals of each field (i.e. math, chemistry, physics, biology, computers and engineering) and to talk to as many people as they can about their jobs, so that they understand what they would enjoy doing and what will support their desired quality of life. Having that good foundation will be better for them than any crystal ball prediction that I might be able to offer.

JB: What is your favorite employment story since you’ve been doing this?

CJ: I am not sure I have a favorite story, but I have a good story that happened recently, i.e. a friend of mine got up the gumption to start networking for her next position, and after a long, hard six months, she got a position that she was happy with that paid her what she should be making. It’s really remarkable what can happen when people have just a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work.

[“Source-acsh”]