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Organic Synthesis: A Dead End For Graduate Students?

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.

66 comments on “Organic Synthesis: A Dead End For Graduate Students?”

  1. anonie says:

    Knowng that a background in organic chemistry can open many different employment and career directions, not just to be in the lab making whimsical molecules, Prof. Whiteside’s perspective can be taken in a broader sense. Chemistry graduate programs should include opportunities, or even requirements, for the student to learn about other areas where the cross skills can be applied in today’s real non-academic world. These cross departmental programs should not be restricted to the “bio” or “nano” world where such efforts are offered as degree programs by several institutions, but could include practicing and practical medicine, project management, business, finanace, international relations, etc. I recently mentioned this to my former grad school advisor, who tended to scoff at the concept (recognized name at one of the top grad programs in the US) as it conflicts with traditionally focussed compartmentalized academic organizational views. If only the “trainers” had to confront in real terms what so many of their “trainees” have had to deal with in real-life terms, maybe things would then be easier to change.

  2. luysii says:

    Well, it’s already happened, if the talks at the Harvard Chemistry Department reunion in April are any indication. I haven’t kept the program, but only one of 8 – 10 faculty talks concerned organic synthesis, not counting Corey’s general remarks about progress in chemistry in the past 50 years.

  3. luysii says:

    Actually this has been brewing for a long time. 5 years ago a brilliant 64 step synthesis of azadirachtin appearing in Nature was criticized, not because it was wrong, but because it was a waste of resources and shouldn’t have been done. For details see

  4. Electrochemist says:

    Disclaimer: I’m not a fan of Whitesides or his opinions on most topics.
    One major flaw in his thinking (this time) is that he assumes that the purpose of getting a PhD in synthetic organic chemistry is to do synthetic organic chemistry at the bench, post degree. To add to anonie’s point, above, the pharma industry (in particular) will continue to have a need for people trained in synthetic organic chemistry to oversee off-shore bench work.
    Despite opinions of MBAs to the contrary, there is plenty of evidence that you cannot have project managers *successfully* oversee technical work performed in an external network for any length of time. (Unless the project managers are PhD chemists.) My $2.00 E-2.

  5. Hap says:

    As long as employers appear to want narrow skill sets for short periods of time in fields that take lots of time to learn, there will be a chemistry employment problem. A Ph.D. is supposed to give one the ability to carry out research, to plan and execute it, interpret the results, and publish them – if the degree is instead only useful to employers as a certification of deep, particular knowledge, then there isn’t really going to be any solution to the “chemists need jobs” (or, for that matter, the “people with advanced degrees need jobs” problems. In addition, the ends of professors and graduate schools aren’t always congruent with those of their students – employment of graduates isn’t directly a problem for them, and if a solution for chemistry employment requires impairing their ability to get what they want from research, it probably won’t happen.
    To answer the interesting problems in chemistry, one is probably going to have to make new molecules, or figure out how to make what we do make now more efficiently. These problems require knowledge of reactions and the ability to optimize them – things that organic synthesis is well-made for. Natural products are interesting and constitute unmovable goalposts, but their synthesis may not be the best use of money – but there are plenty of other things to made, and plenty of reactions need to be found to make them. Someone is then going to have to do the research and teach the grad students if there is going to be the type of chemical research that is useful to anyone.

  6. mass_speccer says:

    As Gilbert Stork apparently said (from that perspective in Angewandte a while back):
    “Well, I… its… not… it wouldnt be that tragic if people got a Ph.D. in chemistry and then were a bus driver because at least in traffic jams, they would have something interesting to think about.”

  7. Frank says:

    It is true that current job descriptions for organic chemists these days lean increasingly more toward designing synthetic strategies and overseeing the Chinese chemists that will do the actual labwork. But that doesn’t mean that you no longer need to be trained to have a strong background in organic chemistry to do that job. It’s just as important as ever.

  8. CMCguy says:

    I see a couple connections here as to the past success Org Syn has had in being able to do exciting and relevant things, particularly in regards to making complex natural product, that does seem to less of an accomplishment these days (who had the “Better than the Beatles” analogy?). Also at least in Pharma Org Syn types where fairly dominant as heads of Drug R&D and where able to drive programs through creation of large medchem groups but often held reins over other groups (Biologist) incorrectly viewed as less valuable. Both aspects lead to significant arrogance/resting on laurels mindset which has not adapted to current environment where Org Syn no longer at the top of science/pharma (if it ever really was other than just being perceived as such). Although believe still opportunities, especially if adapt as non-bench scientist per #1, rather than focus on previous status Org Syn types need to learn to join the crowd of other sciences and find ways can continue to contribute, with med/process chem remaining as prime areas where skills required (both bench and beyond).

  9. anchor says:

    Derek: When I think of organic chemistry, I also think of Physics. Courses will be offered by all the major universities, students will take these courses but at the end of the day, there will be no jobs tailored to either physics or organic chmeistry. I believe that organic chemistry has matured and the scientists these days can make anything!

  10. SupportStaff says:

    Per Electrochemist, I see org synthesis as the training needed to be a medchemist in pharma. If there’s no need for the former, are people saying there’s no need for the latter? Looking at employment over the last few years…

  11. Derek H says:

    Maybe focusing on training in process chemistry would be better since that is more likely to be done here in the US rather than overseas, and a more marketable skill. Requires a diffrent mind set and would need a new breed of academic trainers with experience in pharma (some of which have filtered down from pharma now)

  12. Lewis says:

    @#2– I think that’s just the way the current chairman mao/jacobsen wants it to be – He can rest easy in his cozy nest with a bunch of bio people and Ritter as colleagues…
    And who is hiring Whitesides students? Are they really employable people making cubes that float or polymers that measure density? Why not just hire talented high school students from the local science fair.

  13. NoDrugsNoJobs says:

    I personally used my knowledge of synthetic organic chemistry as a starting point and moved on. The thing is that I had a place to start and a job to get me started in the industry. Coming out with a PhD in organic chemistry used to get you a position at the bench where you would either stay or move onto other things if you were the sort to do that (whether it was law, project management, reg affairs, information science). However, you were alwyas started as a chemist at the bench because that is what you were able to do. I’m not sure how we will preserve the thread and be able to feed off into the new positions if we don’t have a place to start anymore. Where will the future molecule designers come from if little new talent is being brought up through the ranks. I fear that the MBAs with their spreadsheets will begin to direct the compounds to be made at that point – probably no less successfully than they’ve run the rest of the business these past several years.

  14. FatTony says:

    Academic endeavors catering to the needs of the employers? Lucky Einstein’s schools didn’t agree–he’d have ended his days as a competent patent examiner. I remember when Stanford Business School openly stated that they would canvass big firms to find out what courses they should teach. Maybe that’s why the US is becoming a financial services nation and letting the rest of the world do the manufacturing. And I think we’ve all seen how that’s working out for us, thank you very much Jamie Dimond.

  15. UWBS says:

    As a recent B.S. in Chemistry looking at PhD programs in organic synthesis, I’ve thought a lot about this very issue. Beyond the practicality of developing new reaction methodology or optimizing conditions (which often feed back into large-molecule synthesis, anyway), the idea of synthesizing a large molecule just for the sake of doing it seems kind of… Pointless.
    I was lucky enough to get a job as a lab tech right after graduation doing lignin synthesis, and I have a feeling that organic synthesis will have more of a supporting role in the future. I could see how the synthesis of small model compounds to investigate biological systems (lignin polymer biosynthesis, for example) might play a more important role.
    The narrow view of a “specialist” in any field seems less and less useful. Interdisciplinary research is all the rage now, seeing as how the majority of newly funded research institutions on campus tout a highly “interdisciplinary” approach. We still need scientists that specialize in particular fields, but I think the more successful researchers will have a broader knowledge. I can see organic synthesis finding a place in that kind of framework.

  16. weirdo says:

    Just out of curiosity, what jobs are Whitesides students being trained to do, except go into academia and train more students?

  17. Sili says:

    (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).

    I must be misunderstanding you, since I don’t recall you being that dismissive of the humanities before.
    How can one analyse poetry if not the light of the culture where it originated? Isn’t it worthwhile to investigate what “prevailing gender norms” mean for the concerns of the populace?

  18. Student says:

    We as students, don’t have the luxury of innovating.
    Everyone is coming out of grad school either unemployed or ending up as a postdoc(…lets be honest, its just a glorified grad student).
    We need a job, and if someone is going to pay me to help set up a manufacturing facility and do non-Einstein work I’d be EXTREMELY happy. You’ve heard the spiel before, all of our classmates from undergrad in most other fields started at higher salaries with a bachelor’s than we do with a PhD, and with better job security, quality of life, etc. You don’t pursue scientific curiosities because you know you may not be employed a year from now. In biology this is often why a lot of good research is done by those with medical degrees. They knock out a few surgeries in the week and they are set. You can dick around in lab all you want after that without any worry about being unemployed, missing the next grant, giving a bad departmental seminar etc.
    From what I read, many people in industry have this same issue, they say they can’t be innovative because there is a poor risk/reward ratio and if things go wrong you could be looking for another job.
    BTW, Einstein didn’t require reagents or even supercomputer time. Most of his stuff was mathematical and require much less funding. Though I do see the point you are trying to make.

  19. Chemjobber says:

    Everyone is coming out of grad school either unemployed or ending up as a postdoc.
    The numbers from the latest ACS Starting Salary Survey: new Ph.D. grads: 38% full-time employed, 4% part-time, 47% postdocs, 12% unemployed. (For a total of 101%, but hey, who’s counting?)
    Caveats: the sample size and the response rate are relatively small, so these numbers are pretty tenuous.

  20. imatter says:

    It’s a dead end. It’s a great discipline too. From my experience, graduate students end up producing products with brute force, without understanding thermodynamics and kinetics. And those are the ideas that chemistry becomes truly translatable to other disciplines.

  21. JE says:

    It seems to me that the problem is that, particularly in some countries, people spend up to 7 years doing a “narrow technical presentation”.
    Contrary to the comment that it has always been the case that the job situation may change while in grad school, PhDs have not always taken so long.
    It should be possible even in just 2 years for a hard working, adequately supervised, person to accomplish something worthwhile and to show that they have acquired the skills necessary to be an independent scientist.
    If PhDs were much shorter this would bring back some flexibility to the job market. A PhD should not be about specialising in a particular area, but about preparing for any kind of scientific career.

  22. weirdo says:

    The degree program you discuss already exists. It’s called a “Master’s program”.
    Back about 15 years ago, BS/MS students had a much easier time getting jobs than PhDs. At Merck, BS/MS chemists would work out charts showing that the payback for getting a PhD was a decade or more (post-PhD degree).
    Those times don’t exist any more.
    The top PhD organic chemists ARE getting good jobs in pharmaceutical companies. It has always been thus. A decade ago, the “top” was defined at 50-80%. Today, the “top” is defined as a much smaller percentage. 10%? 15%?
    1998-2004 was a bubble in the “PhDs for pharmaceutical companies” market. It takes a long time to recover from a bubble popping, as current homeowners who are underwater can attest.

  23. paperclip says:

    If the current grim situation continues indefinitely, more and more undergraduates (like #15, recently) will question the value of going on to graduate school. True, there will be always be a supply of the ignorant and the relentlessly optimistic, but the supply will dwindle, leaving many labs understaffed, or possibly not staffed at all. Although much academic organic synthesis research won’t exactly revolutionize the world, it is sad to think that the part that is not trivial at all will not reach its potential for lack of students.
    In other words, it won’t be pretty when this pyramid scheme collapses. Academia is in need of an overhaul, but the system is so entrenched and fossilized that no one in a position to effect meaningful changes seems to have the will or creativity to do so.

  24. Hap says:

    Isn’t the kernel of a bubble that values of objects in one have appreciated far beyond their intrinsic value? A chemistry Ph.D’s intrinsic value is supposed to be the ability to do research in chemistry – but instead it doesn’t seem to have any, because its value to employers is only that of the field in which you researched your Ph.D.
    If a Ph.D. is only worth the research it took to get it, then it really needs to be a whole lot shorter, and even then probably won’t draw flies (because at least a house has intrinsic value – you can live in it, and sell it for something). If a Ph.D. is a general tool degree (for a limited number of people) to do research, then it should be trained and treated as such. Degrees that take six or seven years but are bubble commodities probably won’t exist as fields of study for very long, and since we still need some of the people and research they enable, this might be a problem.

  25. expharma says:

    in industry the mini ‘outsourcing’ model has always been around. you come in, work at the bench doing chemistry approved by a supervisor. later you move up the ladder, outsource the prep to new grads. as you move up the ladder you outsource more until you outsource all out of the country.

  26. Chemjobber says:

    A decade ago, the “top” was defined at 50-80%. Today, the “top” is defined as a much smaller percentage. 10%? 15%?
    I believe the “top”, as defined by weirdo, is closer to 5%. Back-of-the-envelope calculation: The country graduates around 2000 organic chemistry PhDs/year. There are probably 500 eligible postdocs in the queue as well.
    How many entry-level PhD med/process chemist positions are there per year at US pharma R&D sites? Are there 250? No way. Are there 100? Maybe. Are there 50? Probably/possibly. Now we’re talking 2-4% of the annual production.
    Of course, it’s very difficult for me to measure how many entry-level positions are available at big pharma sites. Most of their recruiting is done at the elite schools and their annual draw is hidden from view. Last year, I was hearing reports that very few people were being taken, even from the most eligible groups. No word from this year’s recruiting.

  27. job seeker says:

    This is really hard for those of us who, like me, have started their Ph.D. pre-economic meltdown and are just now entering the workforce. All I can say is at least there are some non-organic synthesis companies that are simply looking for good scientists who can be trained. GE and Intel come to mind – I know of total synth. trained people that they have hired recently. Fortunately, synthetic organic chemists are among the best trained scientists.

  28. Chemjobber says:

    27: I’m curious to hear about this. Feel free to e-mail me at chemjobber -at- gmail/dot/com. Confidentiality guaranteed.

  29. Tyro Rex says:

    This Chemjobber really needs to be exposed as nothing more than the ‘Tokyo Rose’ of the ACS.
    There are lies, damn lies and the ACS statistics. The ACS only covers those dues paying members that report their employment status.As I have polled numerous
    graduating chemists from a large, high quality program (subjective), I can say that 50% go to post-docs, 20% try their hand at something else (MBA, ect), and 20% are persistently unemployed (they are mad-deluded souls who cannot purge the notion that ‘we have a shortage of scientists’); such individuals max our their credit cards or madly jot from career fair to career fair in hopes of a career. Only ten percent land real jobs in chemistry.
    I wonder how thousands of newly minted chemists can be employed (along with the hundreds of thousands of laid off ones) based on the trickle of jobs visible on the ACS website? Perhaps the first thing one does when they can’t find a job is drop their ACS membership. This might, just might, distort the ACS statistics.
    Note: Supply and demand govern all real businesses. Academia is a government supported venture which exists solely to optimize the needs of faculty and administrators. Academics are never harmed if their ultimate product is defective. A chemist who cannot find a job is defective.
    P.S -even if you work one hour per week you are considered employed by the ACS and US government.

  30. David Formerly Known as a Chemist says:

    Certainly many people trained as chemists go on to successful, productive careers in other fields. I’m one of them. But every chemist I’ve known that’s done that has done so AFTER working in a traditional chemistry job, or after pursuing other formal educational training. I’m not aware of any examples of people coming straight out of college (undergrad or graduate school) and successfully moving directly into another career path. I’m sure it’s been done, probably plenty of times, but I’d guess it’s a small percentage of chemistry grads that pull this off (based off my admittedly limited sample size). The idea that chemistry education is a great foundation for many career paths is too simplistic. A chemistry education plus meaningful work experience (which builds other valuable skills such as teamwork, real world problem solving, coping with failure, communication, thinking outside your niche, etc) is a great foundation for other career paths. It’s naive to think that chemistry students straight out of school are going to find themselves in satisfying careers.

  31. anon says:

    The value of a Ph.D. should be well beyond the actual science produced. it should demonstrate one’s capabilities to solve very complex probems on their own, or with little guidance. for those that cnat get through challenges, they dont (err, shouldnt) be awarded Ph.D. degrees. And that extraordinary individual who can solve chemical problems on paper and in the lab, can likely solve problems across many many industries that i wont bother to attempt to list. The Ph.D. represents more than technical competence, it may be that as the world turns, lets expert chemists will need to look at other opportunities.

  32. Hap says:

    No, but if you can’t get a job with your degree, then you can’t ever get to the point where the confluence of your chemistry knowledge and ability to guide and conduct research with your experience is useful anywhere else. If graduates can only start working doing their Ph.D. research, then a significant portion of graduates are guaranteed to be hosed at any time, since whenever anything bad happens, they won’t be able to get started up the ladder to make their knowledge useful.

  33. Chemjobber says:

    needs to be exposed as nothing more than the ‘Tokyo Rose’ of the ACS.
    Thanks for making my day, dude. Those who know me will have their day made, too.

  34. Hap says:

    I think he’s been cutting and pasting the same rant, too.
    I guess that’s what makes Uncle Al different – he doesn’t cut and paste his rants.

  35. See Arr Oh says:

    @CJ – Is “Tokyo Rose” an upgrade? Does this mean I have to stop calling you “Deep Flask”?
    P.S. The next secret ACS communique will be delivered on mumblemumblemumble…

  36. The Iron Chemist says:

    That’s funny; I always thought of you as more of an Axis Sally.
    Also funny given that your estimates (which I think are dead-on through observation) don’t resemble the ACS’s Pollyanna numbers in the slightest.

  37. Ed says:

    As a current postdoc at one of the premier universities I can tell you that most people here are facing the same situation as the rest of the country, and I am preparing myself for the same fate when I finish with my fellowship in a year time.
    Having said that, I don’t blame out-sourcing for the decline of organic chemistry. In my mind, the decline is inevitable due to a severe lack of innovation in the past few decades as a result of the “big name” tenured professors continuing the same research direction that got them tenure decades ago. Furthermore, the academic off-springs of these big name professors went on to do the same unimaginative work that are irrelevent and archaic. Hence the decline of the discipline.
    To save this discipline, there needs to be a revolution, a whole-sale change. Contrary to the common beleifs, there are still many things that can be improved upon in organic chemistry. For example, the manner in which we conduct our experiments. We have been taught to throw chemicals in a flask, add some solvent then add some reagents, follow by stirring, add heat if no reaction takes place. This has been the way an organic chemist conduct experiments for over one hundred years. It’s amazing to me how people refuse to come up with more innovative and more efficient ways to make chemical bonds in the midst of technology boomtime. There are many other aspects of organic chemistry that can be improved upon, but very few current academics are willing to venture outseide of their comfort zones. All the major journals continue to publish these unimaginative works, and the cycle continues until the field of organic chemistry becomes as relevent as the field of 18th century English poets.

  38. jackgg says:

    Ed: Exactly! Organic chemistry has vast areas yet to me optimized. Say, go green for all chemistry, aqueous reactions with no organic solvents, flow chemistry, functional chemicals etc. For new graduates, I still have faith in the rebustness of the training in OrgSyn, and they should be ready to utilize these training in whatever areas relevant. The Chinese saying about chemistry “化学变物,化优人生 (transform substances to improve life” is exactly what it means!

  39. Maitotoxin's ghost says:

    Organic chemistry in and of itself has devolved to the point where it will be primarily a support function in the future. As Derek and others explain, it is pretty well known in the community that any monstrous natural product can be made with enough time, effort, and money. Although there have been some advances in methodology in past few years primarily regarding C-H bond functionalization, there are few landmark syntheses nowadays due to methodology being so mature. Compare this to the Corey syntheses of Erythronolide B and Ginkgolide B in the 70’s and 80’s – these were truly landmark due to the methodology that was developed – these molecules were truly considered nearly unsynthesizable at the time. I hardly see anything nowadays that can’t be accomplished synthetically. Additionally, due to the woes of pharma R&D nowadays, organic chemists are not appreciated at all.
    That being said – I do think there is a role for training synthetic chemists – as others have said, if no one comes through the ranks in the future, who will be the future designers and synthesizers in the industry? Although, I do think nowadays the supply greatly exceeds the demand, especially the output of the total synthesis superstar groups which often have over 50+ people in the lab. Academia needs to decrease their output accordingly, but, good luck with that.
    Although difficult, get into industry any way you can, be it big pharma, small startup or CMO, and get experience, and use your experience to get into a greener area of the company. I cannot tell you how powerful and hot a career path anyone with QA or quality experience at my company (or any other company) has nowadays. However, as we all know, pharma employment operates in boom and bust cycles and I think QA/quality may be the trendy new thing nowadays.

  40. organoscale says:

    “…it is pretty well known in the community that any monstrous natural product can be made with enough time, effort, and money…”
    Don’t forget that the last three factors are short in supply in the current pharma environment. My experience is that fast, robust and innovative (note all these three adjectives) processes are devised by process chemists not located in low-cost countries. Another point, already alluded to above, is the significant impact of nearby (!!) manufacturing on innovation and science. When all this has gone away, only the existing generation of chemists with genuine hands-on experience will manage the outsourcing well, i.e. judge the quality of the science and processes delivered and offered. The next generation with textbook and paper chemistry knowledge will have a hard time to be always one step ahead.

  41. newnickname says:

    @39: “Compare this to the Corey syntheses of Erythronolide B and Ginkgolide B in the 70’s and 80’s – these were truly landmark …”
    No major argument with that or many other 70s-80s synthetic landmarks by other players, but I have asked: What IF Corey, Nicolaou, Evans, et al turned there attention, brain power and students loose on other problems such as (one of many examples) a safer, better, yet cheap solvent replacement for methylene chloride (1 carbon, no chiral centers, … not as challenging as gingkolide?) but, so far, nearly irreplaceable in a number of important applications.

  42. Ed says:

    @41, absolutely spot on. I often wonder if the landscape of organic chemistry would look much different had some of the “older” generation of organic chemists not focus so much on collecting total syntheses trophies. No doubt the training of a total synthesis provide a graduate student with a vast knowledge and techniques. However, they often pay the price in creativity. I still remember asking the professor (pretty well known in the field) teaching my first year organic synthesis class “where is the creativity if we are taught to memorize the top 10 ways to make indole? We’d be reduce to a pair of hands.” The professor gave me the usual academic answer-“once you learn what others have done, you can go on to create your own”. In a sense he is right, it is part of our education to learn what others have done. However, how many people really bother to create their own methods once they memorize the easiest ways to make certain structures?

  43. anon says:

    Emperor CEO: My predecessors have managed Phama for 2,000 clinical trials. And for all that time we have slept. During my reign I have dreamed. I dreamed of a productive Phama. Of a company with strong revenues, independent and modern. And now I am knowing. I have combichem, high throughput sceening, genetics, outsourcing. But I have forgotten who I am …. Or what my predessors did to make drugs.

  44. keitje says:

    I find it tyopical that Howard Wolowitz, the only non-PhD, is professionally and privately, the most successful. Do the writers of the BigBang Theory know something that we PhD’s haven’t figured out yet?

  45. Taco says:

    2 points I wanted to make after reading all this:
    1) Total synthesis isn’t about the molecule you’re making or how many techniques you use to make. At least, as a hiring manager I don’t see it that way. The story I want at the end of the day is “I solved problems.” Total synthesis is only nice in that it tends to present you with a lot of problems.
    2) I’m not convinced that outsourcing will continue to grow at such a torrid pace. Having managed outsourced groups I can tell you that China has a lot of really bad chemists. They have good ones, but they have a lot of bad ones. I think outsourcing is a permanent feature of the industry, but personally I think the pendulum will start to swing back towards internal efforts.

  46. Chemjobber says:

    @46: Want to talk more? E-mail me at chemjobber -at-gmail/dot/com. Confidentiality guaranteed.

  47. dvizard says:

    I agree that a PhD in organic synthesis is not necessarily preparing you for bench organic synthesis alone – if synthesis goes to China, the corresponding project leaders in the US still have to understand chemistry. So we need more OChem PhDs than actual bench chemists… Whether there’s too many is a different question, of course.
    But a more important point to me is that a PhD thesis should be more than education. It should aim to solve an interesting scientific problem and advance the knowledge of the scientific community. Some natural products efforts might not necessarily fall into this category.

  48. GradStudent says:

    The field does seem like a dead end right now as I manually collect tubes off this column. Getting ready for the TLC, plus the staining. Doesn’t a machine already do my job? Also, it seems like the Chinese increasingly do anything the machine does not do. So I’m doubly obsolete.

  49. luysii says:

    With the death of synthetic organic chemistry, there probably won’t be anyone left to teach it to pre-meds. Where else will they acquire the type of thinking they’ll need the rest of their professional lives. The following is from some notes on Clayden’s new text (which is great).
    p. 172 —This is thefirst example of the type of thinking required for organic chemistry (and medicine). In the discussion of acidities, the increasing stability of negative ions correlates with both acidity and with electronegativities when comparing C, N, O, F. However acidity does not correlate with electronegativity when you compare F, Cl, Br, I. In the second case, bond strength is more important. So you are called in an individual case to reconcile two contradictory trends and figure out the appropriate balance for a given case.
    This is EXACTLY the way it is in medicine. For instance, corticosteroids depress inflammation, so they help autoimmune disease, but too much suppression of inflammation decreases the resistance to infection, and the MD hopefully tries to balance the two effects. Similar thinking is required for any medication with side effects (which is ALL of them). This is one of the reasons I think pre-meds should take and pass organic chemistry — it’s the sort of thinking they’ll be forced to engage in for the rest of their professsional careers.

  50. gradstudent1 says:

    George Whitesides: Words.
    Easy to pick apart a problem. My undergrad can do that. Solutions? Not so easy. Glad this text is buried where no one will see it. Not to mention it is virtually unreadable. Quite a pathetic compilation of armchair philosophy.

  51. Mr. Perceptive says:

    Re: 51 luysi and “pre-meds”
    As an undergrad, I didn’t know any pre-meds who had an intellectual interest in Organic Chemistry. Their approach to courses was almost strictly utilitarian. I.e., punching tickets for admittance to med school. There are of course intellectually curious and insightful doctors, but I don’t think that Organic made them that way.
    BTW, Mitt Romney wants to staple a Green Card to every immigrant student earning a STEM grad degree. Regardless of his/her actual level of talent or the Podunk school he/she graduates from. Another reason to get out of STEM and transition to the employment domains that will be the last to collapse – Bankster Finance, Beltway Reptile Government, Leviathan Military-Security Complex.

  52. practicalchemist says:

    Synthetic organic chemistry is as much a practical skill, a craft, as it is an academic pursuit. I’ve run circles around “esteemed” PhD level chemists from the worlds top labs many times, with nothing more than a BS and good pair of “hands”. Med chem research labs are filled with klutzy blow hards walking around telling themselves how great they are. It’s funny how I was chased out of so many places, had lies told about me, dismissed by HR and during interviews etc. The truth is that small molecule drug discovery really isn’t as played out as one would think, there was only so much the current group of clowns could accomplish with business types breathing down their necks about so called productivity.

  53. Fooks says:

    @52, Mr. Perceptive states-
    “BTW, Mitt Romney wants to staple a Green Card to every immigrant student earning a STEM grad degree”
    So does Obama. He’s already tried to pass it along with his comprehensive immigration reform package(which failed).
    Choose your poison this fall. You’re not participating in an actual election. Obama is possibly worse than GWB.

  54. link5485 says:

    @52 and 54
    I would rather the foreign students come and stay than come get their degree and leave. At least if their here they can’t undercut us because their cost of living is dramatically lower back wherever they came from.

  55. Pavel Müller (currently living in France) says:

    Unfortunately, in many cases, having a Ph.D. in chemistry means you are OVERqualified and (/but) UNDERpaid… The current situation where people become “ashamed” of their Ph.D. degrees (even try to conceal them and pretend to have only a Bc. or M.S., in order to get a job) is, indeed, ridiculous…. :-((((

  56. DrSnowboard says:

    I would agree with @53.
    There seems to be an assumption floating around that a PhD in organic chemistry means you can manage medicinal chemistry programmes (remotely or down the corridor) without doing bench chemistry and without experience. However, I’d also say if you can’t collaborate with people then you’re prospects are also limited….

  57. robertslinn says:

    Myself and a colleague compiled a Thomson Reuters report ‘The Changing Role of Chemistry in Drug Discovery’ which addresses many of the points above.

  58. Miky Reed says:

    Hallo, here is link to pages with some organic reaction overview:

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  60. JohnB says:

    I agree with a lot of the other comments.
    I did a PHD in organic synthesis out of interest for doing research in the subject and believing that Masters/Bsc were becoming devalued. However, it’s turned out to be an employment dead end, due to the lack of jobs in that field and being overqualified for everything else.
    Furthermore, based on my experiences a lot of phds handed out aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. If you start a PhD in this area than you’re almost guaranteed to be awarded it, regardless of whether your supervisor has helped you out by doing most of the hard work in terms of strategy and writing the thesis. On this basis effectively you are there as a lab slave to further the academic career of your supervisor, but of what benefit to you. Several wasted years of your life with no real earnings and a title that will make it harder for you to get a job in science than before you started out.

  61. Yourmomsmellslikepiperidine says:

    We have well establish how crappy the job prospects are for phd chemists. It’s been a short time since my old boss smugly told me that he could no longer extend my postdoctoral appointment. But honestly, I can’t compete with my international peers who are willing to work 80 hours per week for 30k per year so they can stay in the US. (I don’t intend to be offensive) That said, any solutions in the way of retraining to make us marketable? Preferably something that won’t require me to abandon my family for 5 years?

  62. Thanks for all your efforts that you have put in this. very interesting info . “The price of greatness is responsibility.” by Sir Winston Leonard Spenser Churchill.

  63. Anonymous says:

    Why does it always have to be about jobs anyway? I read this thinking it was something along the lines of “We aren’t teaching students how to actually perform chemical syntheses, just certain steps, but not how to carry them out.” Unfortunately, all academics have lost the way, education is about jobs now, not learning because you enjoy/like it, or actually want to know how things work. What happened to curiousity, discovery, wonderment?

  64. Joey Wheat says:

    It seems to me that organic chemistry is being subtly discouraged and limited by not only the industry but society at large. I can’t help but feel it may have to do with organic chemistry’s connection with everything from explosives to illegal narcotics.

  65. Veena says:

    doing Ph.D. is waste of time, for those who are doing there Ph.D and wants to do just go through this article

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