Via ChemJobber, here’s a quote from the National Research Council’s Committee on Challenges in Chemistry Graduate Education. Their report has just come out, and I agree that this should be a key point for people to ponder:
Whitesides believes that the question should be asked whether PhD theses are narrow technical presentations for jobs that no longer exist. Should U.S. graduate students be doing organic synthesis if most organic synthesis is being done in China? “That’s not to say that these aren’t really important activities, but we need to connect our investment in graduate school with what’s actually needed to give jobs to students.”
It’s worth remembering that Whitesides hasn’t exactly been the biggest booster of traditional organic synthesis over the years, he does have a point. This may not be the right way to look at the situation, but if it hasn’t crossed your mind, you haven’t thought hard enough about the issues yet. I have a couple of quick responses:
1. There are all kinds of organic synthesis. I don’t think that there’s much point to the human-wave-attack style of making gigantic natural products, as I’ve said here several times. And if there’s not much point to what’s considered the highest level of total synthesis, then there must really not be much to the low levels of the field. Those are the papers I’d characterize as “Here’s a molecule that no one much cares about, made in a way that you’d figure would probably work, using reactions everyone already knows”. But there’s more to the field than that; at least, there’d better be.
2. Prof. Whitesides is exaggerating to make a point. It’s not like there’s no organic synthesis being done in the U.S. A lot of the stuff that’s moved to China (and India) is routine chemistry that’s being outsourced because it’s cheap (or has been cheap, anyway). As that changes, the costs go up, and we head towards a new equilibrium. It seems beyond doubt that there are fewer people doing industrial organic chemistry than there used to be in this country, but it’s not like it’s only found in China (or will be).
3. That said, he’s absolutely right that people need to think about where the jobs are, lest chemistry (and some other sciences) go the way of some of the humanities graduate programs. If you go off and get a doctorate in English with a dissertation on minor 18th-century poets, you’re mostly qualified to teach other people about minor 18th-century poets so they can go off and write dissertations of their own. (Actually, your own work would probably have concentrated on the relation of said poets to prevailing gender norms or something, in which case I really don’t see the point). We do not want to teach people to do organic chemistry if the majority of them are going to have to seek jobs teaching other people to do organic chemistry.
4. Doing that – thinking about the larger economic and scientific context – is hard. The time it takes to get a degree means that the situation could well have changed by the time a person gets out of grad school, compared with the way things looked when they made the decision to go. But this has always been the case; that’s life as we know it. People have to keep their eyes open and be intelligent and flexible, because there are potential dead ends everywhere. As hard as that advice is to follow, though, I still think it’s better than any sort of scheme to allocate/ration people among different fields of study. My bias against central planning isn’t just philosophical; I don’t see how it can possibly work, and it is very, very likely to make the situation even worse.
I’m on the train, and can’t download a 120-page PDF at the moment, but I’ll have a look at the report and add more thoughts as they come up.