Skip to main content

Academia (vs. Industry)

Postdoctoral Life (AKA What Shortage?)

. . .is not very pleasant, according to this report. It never has been, but it’s not getting any better. This should sound familiar to many people:

it is notoriously difficult to determine how many postdoctoral scholars there are, let alone what kind of training they are or should be receiving. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) define a postdoctoral scholar as “an individual who has received a doctoral degree (or equivalent) and is engaged in a temporary and defined period of mentored advanced training to enhance the professional skills and research independence needed to pursue his or her chosen career path” (Bravo & Olsen, 2007). Most postdoctoral “trainees” conduct research under the supervision of a single Principal Investigator (PI), and there are no explicit guidelines to determine what training a postdoc should receive or when this training is complete. In reality, postdoctoral research is often not a training period at all, but a time when experienced junior researchers contribute significantly to the goals of a PI’s grant. There is no expectation of specific training, and no defined period in which the training takes place: “training” ends only when the postdoc takes another job.

To be fair, I don’t see how any meaningful guidelines could be drawn up for what kinds of specific training would be needed. That’s the problem with the postdoctoral world: you’re a bäckfisch, more than a grad student who hasn’t defended a dissertation, but less than someone with experience in an academic or industrial job. The situations postdocs find themselves in vary wildly; they almost have to vary wildly. You’re also supposed to, as much as possible, be starting to make your own way, and that means very different things in different labs.
One disturbing point raised in this article is the possible rise in fraud and dishonest behavior in research labs as a result of the postdoctoral glut. The competition has gotten nasty, and desperate people will do desperate things. As the Nature News commentary puts it:

. . .a whopping 58% of scientists in the UK report said that they were aware of colleagues feeling tempted or under pressure to compromise on research integrity or standards. Asked whether they felt this way themselves, just 21% of scientists aged 35 or over said yes; strikingly, that figure shot up to one-third of those aged under 35.

Worth noting. And as Nature goes on to say, correctly, even though postdocs have complained about their situation forever, under the current conditions senior scientists really can’t go on ignoring them. And they can’t go on ignoring the fact that only a small number of their students and postdocs will, or can, go on to a similar academic career to their own. The lack of those prospects, and the denial of that lack in some quarters, is probably the root of the problem.
A related article is found here at Bloomberg – another worthy attempt to get across to people that there is no across-the-board shortage of qualified scientists and engineers. Good luck! Many have tried. Here’s a particularly appropriate quote, in reference to the IT field:

“There’s no evidence of any way, shape, or form that there’s a shortage in the conventional sense,” says Hal Salzman, a professor of planning and public policy at Rutgers University. “They may not be able to find them at the price they want. But I’m not sure that qualifies as a shortage, any more than my not being able to find a half-priced TV.”

Oh yes indeed. But next week, and the week after, and the week after that we’ll see more people talking about the terrible shortage of tech and science people. Bet on it.

83 comments on “Postdoctoral Life (AKA What Shortage?)”

  1. sim_2d says:

    “They may not be able to find them at the price they want”. Do we have an idea of what that price is? Or the post-docs have too high expectations, or the industries and labs are trying to get people with the lowest salary as possible because of the number of applicants (at the extreme, an Indian/China chemistry salary may be a bit low in the US, but good reason for CEO to close sites or blame the people who do not want to accept that type of jobs in the US)

  2. NMH says:

    It appears I am a post-doc-for-life (until the grant money runs out) as I am a 50 year old research associate at a large state R1 university. Very unlikely I’d ever get an industry position at this point.
    Positives: interesting project, good boss (the later is a huge plus since it is so rare to find in academic science).
    Negatives: With benefits I was making $55 K, but I recently took a 20% paycut to extend my soft money in the lab for support. The money will run out late next year.
    I can clearly see why people cheat. Interesting, positive results are required to receive the next grant, and hard work but negative results don’t count. If I don’t find something interesting soon I’m out on the street. I don’t have a family, but if I did it would be a huge temptation to cheat.
    Fortunately, because I never had a family, I have some money saved up. Now if only I had some other talent outside of science…..

  3. Virgil says:

    Unless we stop minting new PhDs the problem will only worsen. A key issue here is I don’t see career advisors at the undergrad level giving their students a true picture of what life after grad school is like. I’m on the admissions committee for one of our PhD programs, and I’ve seen absolutely no down-turn in the percentage of students who confidently state “I want to run my own lab in academia” when asked about their career goals. How do we get the message across to these kids that they are frickin’ delusional?
    I’ve tried to limit the numbers of trainees in my lab (12 years in as faculty, 3 graduated PhD students so far and 1 in the pipe), but we all hear tales about retiring professors being proud of the 50+ students they trained over their careers. We can’t all make 50 clones of ourselves. The system is only sustainable if we replace ourselves once over (and I’m already guilty of going over that limit!) Hell, I was even told at last promotion that I wasn’t pulling my weight in terms of numbers of grad students in my lab.
    So, if we won’t slow down on making PhDs, what are we going to do with them instead?
    Well, clearly they can’t stay post-doc’s forever, so hey let’s place an arbitrary 5 year limit on post-doc training, as NIH and other institutions have done. It addresses the symptom but not the underlying problem.
    Then comes the latest trend at Universities – let’s make them all “staff scientists” (the logic being that such positions are better than R.A.P. or instructor, since they don’t count toward the total numbers of faculty and so don’t affect the denominator in the faculty performance rankings). The problem is the stagnation of the NIH modular grant budget ($250k/yr for over a decade, and often gets cut lower). These are soft-money positions paid off grants, so when your grant budget is not even keeping pace with inflation, the prospect of adding a $60k plus benefits employee does not exactly appeal. I know of just 3 or 4 such appointments at my institution, against a back-drop of hundreds of post-docs. The lucky few post-docs get RAP appointments, and the rest evaporate.
    So where do they go? Well, the fact that the local pool of adjuncts teaching at the small liberal arts colleges has swelled into the hundreds might be a clue. Now when a tenure-track position at one of these colleges comes up, they’re deluged with hundreds of applications from ex-post-docs. If you work hard as an adjunct (>50 hrs./wk including marking, prep etc.) then teaching 6 courses a year (3 per semester) might bring in $15k pre-tax with no benefits. it barely even covers gas money for driving to the different colleges.
    But hey, at least our Univ. president pulls in $850k/yr plus deferred compensation (i.e., money that was too embarrassing to claim during the ’09 recession and so got set aside). And he’s not even the highest paid exec in the building.

  4. K says:

    We have to remove the stigma from “post-doc for life” much like we need to remove it from skilled laborer jobs like welding, etc. I know several “post-docs for life” who are doing great work and are happy to be doing it and making a pretty decent salary. I don’t see the problem here, there are no academic jobs to be had, so why are we shaming these people into thinking that they are some how underwhelming as professionals? They generally do a great amount of grad student training, since the PI is obviously never in the lab. These guys/gals have a wealth of practical knowledge to pass on, and since they are more or less staying for a while, they are not so busy that they can’t help, unlike traditional post-docs who would shoot you if you asked them for help as a grad student. How are they any different than a chemist working in the industry?

  5. Anon2 says:

    The problem is hard for people to admit, even when they acknowledge it by other means.
    Lately the NIH [and faculty of universities] have been saying we need to provide training for alternate careers.
    There in and of itself you are admitting that there are more job candidates being produced than you know there are jobs. So you are trying to push them into other job markets.
    They need to IMMEDIATELY cut the production.
    However, Collins will likely just call for another “investigation” a year from now and again declare the results inconclusive.

  6. Mike says:

    Derek, you say, “senior scientists really can’t go on ignoring them [postdocs]. And they can’t go on ignoring the fact that only a small number of their students and postdocs will, or can, go on to a similar academic career to their own…”
    I disagree with what you are saying here. Professors can and will go on ignoring postdocs’ complaints because they are the ones who benefit most from the current situation. They have an ample supply of inexpensive skilled workers who have few alternatives to working for them. Professors have the most to lose by any improvement in postdocs’ condition and prospects; in fact, they are often active impediments to any attempts to improve the postdocs’ situations.

  7. Anon3 says:

    The problem is we want to maintain scientific output at the same time. And if we immediately cut down postdoc positions to the number that would have a chance of eventually getting their own group… out output will take a nose-dive. We need to find a compromise, extremes either way are damaging for the community.

  8. Anonymous says:

    We should move to a model more similar to math departments, where postdocs don’t belong to a particular professor, but instead are the department’s responsibility. Combine this with:
    At my graduate institution (UAB), everyone who got a paycheck was considered an employee of the State of Alabama, which meant after 20 years you could start drawing a pension. The time counted towards this limit included time spent as a grad student, lab tech, postdoc, RAP, or tenured professor. There were some long-time techs and post-docs who were taking a pension, then being paid a salary off of grants. Some professors who had kept their postdocs or RAPs around for many years would pay them a salary that came out of the department’s or university’s budget, but if they had enough initiative to write and get their own grants, then they could supplement their income from there.
    It makes more sense IMHO to combine these two tactics. Make these “career postdocs” individual contributors whose salaries are paid for by the department or the university, let them apply for their own grants, and for those in public institutions, make them eligible for state benefits. They wouldn’t be full professors, but they would have some degree of autonomy, career stability, and they wouldn’t be completely at the mercy of their PI’s whims or funding cycle.

  9. Chemjobber says:

    “I want to run my own lab in academia” is the “I want to play in the NFL” of science.

  10. Chemjobber says:

    …that’s an exaggeration, of course.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Problems in academia and problems in industry (GSK cuts, etc, etc)—maybe science is just a dead end career path.

  12. NMH says:

    All professional career paths are dieing out, if you wanted a job in the middle class. If your smart enough to make it to the top in any field you will win big, while the rest of accept more job instability and lower wages.
    I suspect this is a consequence of systems that are dependent on growth to allow a middle class that can no longer grow, and the presence of people that can convince boards of trustees/ directors that they deserve close to millions in salary for marginally more productivity.

  13. SteveM says:

    I live in Virginia. The heading of a press release from my Senator, Mark Warner dated November 17, 2014:
    Sens. Warner, Kaine Sign Onto Legislation to Create High-Skill Korean Visas
    Would help fill Virginia’s high-skill labor gap & strengthen bilateral ties between the U.S. and Korea
    WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senators Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine signed onto bipartisan legislation to provide up to 15,000 visas annually for Koreans with specialized skills that are lacking in the U.S. labor market.
    Smart reforms in the high-skill visa program will help Virginia businesses struggling to find qualified individuals to fill open positions. This bipartisan approach will help Virginia businesses fill this labor gap…said Sen. Warner.”
    Maybe some laid off American STEM workers can start up Korean food trucks and park outside the gates of the STEM companies at lunch time.

  14. anon the II says:

    Actually, it’s getting ever worse for post-docs. Beside the fact that there are fewer jobs out there, these guys now have to compete for dwindling funding with people like #2 NMH and me. We’re people who used to have real jobs and now have taken on jobs that a friend in a similar situation has labeled “geriatric post-docs”. Why hire a newbie for 50K or even a Korean immigrant when you can get a guy/gal with 30 years experience for the same price? Glaxo just dumped a bunch more candidates onto the geriatric post-doc market.

  15. Chris D says:

    I think #8 has the right idea. As a PI, I would love to have stable position(s) for a few of the talented people who would be happy to be career academic staff scientists for a modest sum. Not everyone needs or wants to be a PI. But the nature of capricious grant funding makes this very difficult. A few of us are working to set up a core med. chem. facility with people with broadly useful skills who can essentially do contract work for multiple labs, while being backstopped by institution(s) that will benefit from the accumulated experience over the long term. We’ll see if it flies. Certainly the idea of a core facility is nothing new, but I think it could be extended to include additional productive researchers (and perhaps even researcher/teachers) with broadly useful skills.

  16. Bunsen Honeydew says:

    One thing that continues to completely baffle me about the American academic system is this omnipresent notion that a master’s degree is a failed PhD. There is absolute cognitive dissonance here. The majority of BS holders are not suitable for research positions. However, you don’t need a 5+ years of graduate school to efficiently and effectively do research under someone else’s supervision. For years I have seen – and still see – a parade of Canadian master’s graduates snapped up by small and large US companies. Why? Because they have sufficient training to do the job. PhD’s are OVERqualified. Look, if you have a PhD and postdoc experience, you are (or should be) qualified to lead a group (or at least be able to get to that point with a year or two at a company). Do you need an army of PhD’s working for you? Nope. An ideal system would produce 1.5 to 3 master’s grads for every PhD. I would say Canada gets pretty close to that ratio. In the US? I’m guessing it’s actually more like 1:8 – in the wrong direction. What does this have to do with the postdoc glut? Frankly, many of those postdocs probably shouldn’t have gone for a PhD in the first place and now there is a backlog through the whole system.

  17. Chemjobber says:

    NSF 2014 Science and Engineering Indicators, appendix tables 2-29 and 2-31 (US numbers):
    Earned chemistry master’s degrees in 2011: 2,324
    Earned chemistry doctoral degrees in 2011: 2,685
    I would have guessed the opposite, but I was wrong!

  18. texmex says:

    #16 Are BS/MS candidates still in demand? Much of what Ive read over the past few years says that they are not as much in demand as back when I worked in the industry many years ago. The reason given is that the bigger companies today want to offshore or contract out as much of the lab work as possible. Just curious

  19. hn says:

    @18: Probably not compared to the Good Old Days, but they’re in a better situation now than PhD graduates.

  20. Bunsen Honeydew says:

    @17 Chemjobber. I stand corrected, sir. I had a hunch you would be able to find those stats. However, I also think there is a discrepancy between the calibre of universities that produce the vast majority of those master’s graduates versus those that produce many of the top PhD graduates. The sense I have from this side of the border is that most MS grads come from smaller, weaker, poorer (financially, at least) schools, while an MS from a top school is viewed as a failed PhD. Am I wrong in that perception? If I’m not wrong, I believe that that’s a serious flaw in the US system. MS graduates are an extremely useful part of the research picture. Maybe the US really is just overproducing highly qualified people.

  21. Postdoc says:

    1) Job Opportunities
    2) Scientific exaggeration/dishonesty
    3) Postdoctoral life
    I am a postdoc in organic chemistry, the field has taken a huge dive in terms of quality of work and quality of opportunities since I started research as a wee undergrad. It is scary how many times I have seen recruiters cancel their visits due to hiring freezes. Even more scary is how many times I see PI’s threaten to write no reference letters because of dreaded negative results. When graduates do get jobs, they are often contract and layoffs are a constant problem.
    There are a plethora of PhD graduates looking for any kind of work these days. I have seen many just go unemployed and have to retrain in other areas, borrowing even more heavily to finance it. A few have just disappeared. I have even run into some PhDs just by talking to people at a restaurant who have left chemistry to work in law, the FDA, etc.
    A major problem for a lot of researchers are projects that do not yield positive results supporting the initial hypothesis (poor assumptions?). There is tremendous pressure to give yields, selectivities, etc. that appeal to the “big” journals. Obviously, this is minimized due to the need to provide actual material, but it doesn’t stop that 10-20% boost people give things to get by…
    Because many researchers feel what they are doing is irrelevant, it only becomes so much easier to cave in to these pressures. Because a university and PI can just dump the blame on a student/postdoc while maintaining their pressured environment.
    Life as a postdoc in organic chemistry is extremely dull. After years of striving to be a top undergrad, than more years being a graduate student, it seems to me personally that a postdoc is just about cheap labor. I would like to tell family and friends that I spend my days trying to cure cancer. But truthfully, I spend my days stroking my boss’ ego, taking the blame and trying to increase the reputation of my vain PI.
    Why do I still work Saturdays and evenings? Well I guess I just don’t know what else to do. At times I wonder if I would just be better off using my Saturdays to study something more lucrative than put one test tube in front of the other for a few more hours, hoping to finally get that impressive result that will wow my boss and hopefully future employer. I am too tired to be a great companion in a relationship and it is just awful at the age of 30 to look back at how little my efforts amounted to.
    I am highly skilled, but it just so happens, there is not much demand for highly skilled people who have not published in the big journals or who refuse to embellish their work.
    Things have gotten better this past year for graduates and postdocs, but even I recall far better times.

  22. Garrett Wollman says:

    Re: #20 Bunsen Honeydew: at least at the program I’m most familiar with (not chemistry but at a major east-coast research university you can easily identify by Googling my name), someone who leaves with a Master’s *is* a failed Ph.D., because *they don’t admit students to get Master’s degrees*. The Master’s is explicitly a stepping stone on the way to the Ph.D. (or Sc.D., which is still an option). I’m not sure what the actual career prospects have turned out to be for these people — some have left to found companies with billion-dollar exits, and others have left to open restaurants — but my impression is that those looking to go into academia are a minority. (That may simply be because corporate employers in my field actually hire lots of Ph.D.’s, but I hear a good deal of “no way would I ever…” when I ask grad students about whether they wanted to stay in academia.) It used to be that most of the ones who did want to be academics would get faculty jobs right away, but now many of them become postdocs or take (soft-money) Research Scientist positions for a few faculty-hiring cycles before they manage to get their desired position.

  23. matt says:

    The doctoral and postdoctoral pathways are a pyramid scheme. PIs care more about their own research than the glut of academic-aspirants they produce. Who can (mainly) not achieve that goal. That is all.

  24. youngchemist says:

    I can only confirm that the academic system is a pyramid scheme

  25. eugene says:

    I’m not a postdoc. I’m a ‘visiting scientist’ dammit! Wait, is that worse?

  26. SteveM says:

    I was a B.S. Chemist in a former life, realized I didn’t want lab grunt for a career so got a graduate degree in Operations Research (Applied Math). I do computer and statistical modeling among other things. I like it because it requires the same kinds of creative, analytical thinking as science. Much of the work is in consulting so requires good communications skills and a lot of interaction with clients, so less risk from H-1B imports than bench science. You don’t get rich doing it, but it sure is a better upside than lab grunt. Especially in this day and age.
    That said, if a Chemist sees Chemistry as a dead end, then maybe rather than just cursing the darkness and ruing over it, transition to an analytic domain with an upside.
    If any of you guys are thinking of moving on, maybe check out some of the course offerings at Coursera. They are free. Hopkins offers a cluster of courses in Data Science in which you can earn a certificate if you want to pay the certification fee ($49) a course. But it’s not required. Just slap the courses on your LinkedIn page as you complete them.
    The Hopkins modules are only about 4 weeks long. You can register for a course and download the content to work through it offline. If you don’t have time to finish a course, just take it again the following month. You can also peruse the Coursera eco-system for other interesting course offerings.
    Try out the Hopkins R Programming course. Base R is easy to learn and R has a boatload of “packages” that make using it fun. If you find that you enjoy it, great. Take more courses and position yourself as a quant. If not, you can always go back to being a disgruntled Chemist.
    I wish all you guys caught up in the storms of academic dysfunction and crony corporatism a safe haven doing something you like.

  27. Paul D. says:

    The solution at a personal level is simple: don’t go into science. It’s what I told my daughter. She’s a practical person and readily agreed, and is doing very well right now in med school.
    You all should be getting the message out to bright and naive young people thinking about becoming scientists that it’s a sucker’s game. They’d do better to go into something that society will reward them for.
    Price signals are what they are for good reasons, and you shouldn’t ignore them.

  28. anon the II says:

    @ 25 Eugene
    That’s funny. When I took the geriatric postdoc, the PI insisted on calling me a visiting scientist. He was trying to make me feel better about my position. Eventually I became a research scientist, which is slightly better than a postdoc but only 1/3 of an old big pharma job in the ’90’s.

  29. NMH says:

    @28. In fact the only “decent” job I had was as a start up where my job lasted 6 months, because I was hired the same day that VC’s stopped the funding stream to the company. After that disturbing experience, I stupidly thought it might be better in academia, thinking I could move up through the system to positions of higher status/pay…this of course, depends on the attitude of your PI and Dept. Chair. Although my PI is a smart and pleasant guy he will not promote anybody to Research Associate Professor positions. Besides, if I happen to have a good idea he needs it for another specific aim on a grant.
    Great posts on this thread, lots of food for thought.

  30. Anon says:

    To be fair, a lot of the “I want to run an independent academic lab” statements that you’re hearing from grad students are probably not entirely genuine. I know I, and most of my classmates, said that line all through grad school/post docs because it’s what is expected and required if you want support from your advisor. We all knew damn well we didn’t want to be professors, but unfortunately, most professors are only interested in training future professors.

  31. anonymous says:

    NMH I hear you. I’m in a similar situation. every good idea becomes another Grant that I’m not a pi on and projects for grad students and postdocs to work on. I guess I should be happy for the salary I get that would not support my family if my wife didn’t work. Unfortunately industry only seems interested in purple squirrel skill sets and not evidence of strong scientific productivitivty. Academia and grants are a total pyramid scheme. I need to go back to my undergrad college and implore people not to go into science as a career it is a complete dead end. it sounds like I’m not alone in this assessment.

  32. jbosch says:

    Sorry for the long post, but I felt this is an important topic.
    @3, Virgil
    “I’m on the admissions committee for one of our PhD programs, and I’ve seen absolutely no down-turn in the percentage of students who confidently state “I want to run my own lab in academia” when asked about their career goals.”
    Well that’s the answer the person who is interviewing wants to get right ? If there is doubt that person X is going to continue in academia then the likelihood of that person being rejected by the program increases. Our own fault if we ask such questions. There are other more complicated ways to get at the truth of somebody’s motivation. Too often parents have a huge influence on the “kids” and they don’t know what they really should do with their lives at this stage.
    @30, Anon
    yes many want to hear that reply. But I dare say I’d rather assess the person and give good advice and sometimes it was “you have excellent grades (which I don’t care about) but you really should think about your life and if you want to pursue a career in academia”. I have recommended several persons not to join our program (I’m affiliated in three) as it would not fit their bill. These students unfortunately were not prepared for such an open suggestion/reply and were clearly confused about those statements. Needless to say I have kept in contact with those who I suggested not to join and they are doing very well and are happy about their decisions. Some went to other schools others did something completely different and ventured first into industry to get an idea how life is there, others have completed their PhD within a short period and started a startup company.
    Every program wants to attract the brightest and smartest but sometimes you get those gems that deserve better. And if you know that your institution is not able to mentor and really truly allow them to excel you should pass on them. Three people followed my advice and do not regret the decision.
    And yes, I agree I am crazy.
    One should also keep in mind that Master’s are a form of revenue for most (all?) departments that offer a Master’s degree. In addition many Master students want to pursue a different career path that does not require a PhD.
    that’s definitely not true for all PI’s I actually want my students to be successful in life and that does not necessarily mean become a PI. I support them in their choices whether it is academic or industrial setting or quit science and start something completely different. But I agree there are not many PI’s that care for their students or postdocs.
    @26, SteveM
    that almost sounds like advertisement – but yes the offers made through online learning solutions are tremendous (not only at Hopkins) and are utilized by many people you would not even think off. My wife runs several online courses worldwide and it’s really astonishing who participates in them.
    @29, NMH
    you should be eligible to apply for F31 or similar fellowships with your own ideas.

  33. Yab says:

    Well, academia is a pyramid scheme. No shit. It has been for the last 30 years, ever since the massive expansion of jobs for the now-60-pushing-on-70-PIs came in at the same time as student numbers expanded. There never will be be that many jobs again.
    I’m a great fan of staff scientists in universities, though I wish there were more. Where I am (top EU university), the core facilities do hire people in long-term roles, though there are nowhere near as many openings as there are people. Usually, these are great bench scientists with no particular desire to climb the greasy academic pole, and many have industrial experience.
    I do also see good, productive scientists retraining as high school teachers because they can’t find jobs. Good for the high schools in the long run, I guess….

  34. RKN says:

    Re: “Korean food trucks…”
    And here I lamented just a couple weeks ago the shocking lack of humor by certain commenters here.
    Thank you for restoring our hope. 😉

  35. LiqC says:

    As an NIH-funded postdoc, I had to go through ethics training. We had three faculty panelists on one of the sections, from three different departments, all very senior (65-80 years), current or past dept chairs. My question to them was how ethical they feel it is to keep sending people through this very expensive pipeline, at the end of which any position in both academia and industry is fought over by 100+ applicants?
    Anyone care to make a guess on what their unanimous answer was?

  36. anonymous says:

    35 good for you. Some
    nausea inducing bromide about your trAining being
    Useful for a variety of careers I imagine.

  37. NMH says:

    @35: Hmmmm…. “Be grateful you have a NIH-funded fellowship, young man! And show a little more respect to your elders!”

  38. SteveM says:

    Re: #35 LiqC
    A huge portion of U.S. higher education is a racket. That same (excellent) question could be posed to a large percentage of academic departments at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Think dropping $200,000 for a theater degree from NYU and then trying to get a job. But it is “caveat emptor”. A student who doesn’t do their homework these days is nuts.
    The one scamster domain being explicitly uncovered is law school. (Do a search on “toilet law schools”.) Applications are down 37% since 2010 as potential applicants now realize that the employment rates published by the law schools are essentially fraudulent. Law schools closing outright will be the first signs of the implosion of the metastasized American university model. Liberal arts departments are unsustainable at those prices. They’ll be the next to go.
    I’m not wired into the demographics of academic science enrollments, but where law schools attempt to attract American students who are now wise to the con, I’m guessing that science departments will continue to con foreign students who either don’t know any better or don’t particularly care. Which if true, would suggest a permanently barren employment landscape for American scientists.

  39. Anonymous BMS Researcher says:

    Whether an MS is a failed doctorate varies wildly, not only among institutions but also among departments. At the place where I got my Ph.D., Engineering was a standalone MS program after which one could apply to try for a doctorate. But my department (Biology) admits directly into their Ph.D. program so I only hold two degrees (BS and Ph.D.) and the MS degree was basically a consolation prize for those who failed prelims. Technically, anybody who had passed prelims was entitled to pay a modest fee to the University and collect an MA degree, but only one person I knew bothered — and the faculty discouraged the rest of us from doing that!

  40. Anonymous says:

    The problem is not that PhDs are not in demand, that’s just a symptom of the real problem. The real problem is that scientific research isn’t delivering enough value to society for what it costs. Otherwise, the demand for PhDs would be greater as employers, investors and anyone else responsible for capital allocation will always invest where they can expect to get the greatest return on investment.
    So don’t moan at the lack of demand for skills, go and create that demand by demonstrating its value!

  41. SteveM says:

    Re: #41. Anonymous
    I agree up to a point. The point is that both software and drug development are crap-shoots. But software development has a much shorter timeline and is much cheaper. I.e., hire some programmers and stuff them into a recovered urban warehouse.
    Moreover, a software product doesn’t even need a business model that makes sense. The start-up owners only need a giant stupid enough to buy them. Microsoft alone made 149 acquisitions costing Billions in total during Steve Ballmer’s 13 year tenure. Most of those packages were eventually shelved at huge losses to Microsoft after delivering huge profits to the start-up founders/funders.
    So that’s the thing, it’s not that Ph.D. scientists can’t produce adequate value, it’s that they won’t be recruited to produce (expensive) real value in a cheaper low/no value entertainment economy.

  42. Mike C says:

    I think Prof. Honeydew is headed in tje right direction, but NIH should be the one to limit the supply by limiting the funding that can be used to support students who have advanced to candidacy. Make it so most of the funding available for those students is from fellowships they would have to win themselves. Then adjust the fellowships available accordingly.

  43. Anonymous BMS Researcher says:

    @SteveM: unfortunately, in a political environment where funding does not keep up with inflation, anything that improves the lot of junior people would reduce the power of senior people. How many senior academics will go for that?
    The bigger national picture is that as the top 5% capture more and more of US economic growth, life gets tougher for those at the bottom of the pyramid. This has long been true for the working class, but the chattering classes only began to notice the problem when trends that had long affected the working class began to affect professionals.
    Also, for a while consumption kept rising even while hourly incomes stagnated via multiple stopgaps. The massive movement of women into the workplace increased the national number of hours worked and thus national income even though pay per hour was flat. Then we had bubbles in various asset classes as people desperately sought wealth by means other than earned incomes. Now those trends have gone about as far as they can go, so the only remaining mechanism by which the lot of the middle and working classes could improve would be from taking some goodies away from those at the top.

  44. Anonymous says:

    Where’s Robin Hood when you need him?

  45. Diels My Thrills says:

    The economics of this is such that even if we stopped producing PhDs today AND stopped importing them, there would still be an oversupply for years to come. A PhD is a biological related science is the longest education out there.
    4yrs undergrad, 6yrs gradschool (the average now), and 2-5 years of postdocing (possibly including a second lab). Longer than most MD degrees, law degrees, etc. and you end up with a fraction of the pay and no job security.
    And even then, if you were to do the academic path you then move on the research scientist, then instructor, before you can get to assistant professor.

  46. Anonymous says:

    @45: Why should the value of something depend on how much it costs to make? Surely its value depends on how useful it is. Cost of production does not equate to usefulness.
    Similarly, why should the value of someone depend on how long they take to train? Surely their value depends on how useful they are. Time in training does not equate to usefulness.

  47. postdoc says:

    I like the idea of doing the math, we just need to put some probabilities in at each stage of training! Just to show how absurd of a bet it is for the typical undergrad to go into science and come out with a good career.
    What’s the attrition rate for a PhD program?
    How many postdocs actually go on to the coveted academic position or dream pharma job?
    Considering an MD student faces a >90% chance of graduating with a residency and probably a >90% chance of actually practicing medicine for the rest of their lives, a person of similar aptitude who chose a career in science should really consider the odds in science of ever landing a stable, satisfying job as a scientist.
    Even outside of medicine and science, a person of this ability putting in nights and Saturdays has got to be worth a lot more even by their mid-20’s then in the science profession.
    But it wasn’t for money right? It was supposed to be fun right? Right?

  48. Anonymous says:

    For fun? Money? And what’s in it for the employer? I sense a sense of entitlement…

  49. postdoc says:

    I guess I had a sense that there was going to be some moment where I said it was worth it, maybe it will come eventually?
    I think we were all aware this career was not a path to wealth, but I don’t think we thought about how long the odds were or how unfulfilling it could actually be 7-10 years later. Discovering that solution to that difficult problem at 11pm on a Saturday just doesn’t have quite the satisfaction it did when I was just starting out! Nor the payoff I thought it could have.
    As for the employers, I understand they have to make money, probably more urgently then us job applicants. Considering that they face a more than 92% attrition rate on small molecule drugs (Example: I understand their unwillingness to hire me, pay me much or keep me any longer than they absolutely need to:
    But this is the central science right? Plenty of other work right? Right?

  50. Andrew says:

    According to people here, chemistry job prospects look pretty bleak, but I’ve heard that fracking is going to be a huge jolt for the chemical industry. Isn’t that something to brighten our future for the next 20 years at least?

  51. Anonymous says:

    At least we have it better then the biologists.

  52. Cornflower says:

    @50 ANDREW
    Mid-term fracking prospects are bleak in the US. Also there’s been alot of hype to the US-Fracking
    ‘miracle’. Most of the wells don’t yield much and those that do were bought with near zero interest money at the fed. Expect to see many Fracking concerns go bust in the coming year.
    As quantitative easing just ended (zero interest money to the banks and oil speculators) you can expect to see interest in fracking wain. Some of the drop in oil due to strengthing dollar (oil denominate in dollars). Demand for dollars is high, therefore fewer dollars, and thus higher dollar value, oil price drops.
    Everything in economics (including employment) is supply and demand. Chemists cannot comprehend why their degrees are worthless, because everything they study has intrinsic, inherent properties. ( so yes you have to get rid of all those University professors importing students to lessen the supply to improve your prospects. No, you can’t import 15000 korean scientists and somehow expect jobs to sprout from the trees. Supply does not make its own demand. We value things we can’t get).
    The US economy is stagnant and the global economy is contracting. Most US government stats are analogous to C&E news articles for chemistry employment. Just as stagnant and declining wages for chemists show the true employment picture, the price of oil (just watch the price at the pump plunge below $2/gallon), shows the true econmic health of the US. If you look at the job growth in the US (last month in particular), it’s hospitality jobs, temp services and of course medical stuff. The US is a dying country.
    The Saudis not cutting production is a reaction to global demand as well as a side-swipe at US fracking. Expect the whole world to go to hell in a hand-basket soon.

  53. Andrew says:

    Well crap. What’s a first-semester chemistry undergrad to do then? Chemistry is what I’m best at and enjoy the most. Biology, math, physics etc. bore me to tears and/or frustrate me. Not very interested in med school either.

  54. SOL says:

    “What’s a first-semester chemistry undergrad to do then”
    You know what you do. Count your lucky stars that you found this blog and do something different. 50+ year old chemists with kids and mortgages don’t have this option.
    You nailed it. Supply and demand. Every new chemist should be required to study econ 101.
    Med students have a bright future because of supply and demand (see above). No H1b’s, no outourcing, limited number of students=high demand, >job demand, > salary.

  55. SteveM says:

    Re: #54. SOL
    Adding onto that for Chemists already through the educational ringer. The importance of acknowledging the counter to the sunk cost fallacy to yourself. I.e., sunk costs are irrelevant. Only future value matters.
    If the Chem business is effectively DOA, and your Ph.D. sunk cost offers little future value, do something else.
    Life ain’t fair…

  56. Lu says:

    Another shitty factor… I was working as a TA for 5 years but found out it doesn’t count as employment for Social Security. So if I get disabled (and there was a real possibility recently) I get no disability insurance cause I haven’t worked for 10 years yet. Some postdoc fellowships have this issue as well; it’s really complicated and people tend not to think about it until a bad thing happens.

  57. AVS-600 says:

    @53 Keep taking chemistry classes if that’s what you’re interested in, but keep other things in mind too. As an undergrad, especially in your first couple of years, you have the opportunity to branch out a lot and figure out what interests you (and, importantly, HOW MUCH it interests you).
    Don’t become a career scientist unless you truly, absolutely love it. It doesn’t pay well for the time invested, it often has long hours and/or lousy job security, and grad school is genuinely detrimental to a lot of people’s mental health.
    If research is something you’re willing to do despite all that, then go for it. If you’re not sure about it by the time you’ve completed a couple more years of your bachelor’s, then do something else.

  58. Anonymous says:

    @53: Regardless of what discipline you are studying, *create* something of value and set up your own business. A new product, reaction, or whatever. That way you don’t depend on others to employ you, except for your customers, but that’s always the case anyway. Nobody owes anyone a job, or even a living. Education is just another form of consumerism, over-hyped for the benefit of those who sell it. So stop consuming what you don’t really need, and start creating and selling your own ideas. Same goes for everyone else.

  59. Anonymous says:

    Either chemistry is useful and creates value, in which case do it (create value), but don’t do chemistry (or anything else) just for the sake of it.

  60. Anonymous says:

    @49: “I guess I had a sense that there was going to be some moment where I said it was worth it, maybe it will come eventually?”
    You didn’t answer my question, “what’s in it for the employer?”.
    Again, I sense a sense of entitlement…

  61. postdoc says:

    Sorry if I seem to have a sense of entitlement, it really is more of a sense of regret and exhaustion. I am just making fun of myself and past choices and their (in retrospect) absurd justifications. A lot of us stopped expecting to get the carrot on the stick awhile ago. Especially after all those job rejections and cancelled company visits, it is a little hard not to vent.
    As for the employer, I can’t say the employer gets very much from hiring a postdoc such as me. As Derek has pointed out in this post, I probably have not got much, if any, training as a postdoc. All I can say is that I am really good at solving various methodology problems and total synthesis issues. But I have not spent a single second on a med chem problem in all that time! But it wasn’t something I was supposed to be worried about during that time. Oh well.
    Anyone out there who can train me to do something useful?

  62. SteveM says:

    Re: #61 postdoc
    “Anyone out there who can train me to do something useful?”
    Ouch… You, of course, have to take ownership of your career. The sooner you start, the better.
    You may be able to leverage some of your knowledge base, but it may be more important to get into a domain that is aligned with your intellectual interests. That’s for you to decide.
    Many of the PhD Chemists I worked with years ago were forced out of the lab because of downsizing. A few became patent examiners. My old boss became a technical writer. That’s the knowledge base path. Did they like doing patent examining and technical writing versus science? I think they implicitly consigned themselves to a job rather than a career. Which is not all bad. Plenty of Americans approach their professional life that way. It pays the bills.
    I mentioned above, (#26) that I transitioned from science to Operations Research. Because it’s an intellectual domain aligned with how I think – which is analytically. Formulating a mathematical optimization problem is interesting and fun. It requires me to be analytically clever. And I get the some kind of intellectual satisfaction when a model runs right that I got when new reactions ran right. In that context, it’s little different than Chemistry. I would never get that same kind of satisfaction as a patent examiner.
    I occasionally touch problems that have some chemistry/chemical industry connection but not often. But that doesn’t bother me because it’s the analytics that keep me interested, not necessarily the specific commercial domain in which they are applied.
    If you want to get out of the lab because it’s a dead end, the first thing to do is explicitly cut the cord and not look back. You can’t steal second base by keeping one foot on first. Then the career meta-decision is what kind of investment are you prepared to make to move into something else? The easier pathway to pay the bills? Or the more challenging pathway to do something you intrinsically like?
    That’s a personal trade-space that only you can work through.
    Good Luck…

  63. Ed says:

    #61 if you are analytically inclined, i recommend getting to grips with KNIME and/or RapidMiner. Knime is super-cool for cheminformatics and machine learning – you can surely ‘learn by doing’ and soon become a whizz in a new field.

  64. loupgarous says:

    It’s time to hammer on the immigration laws again, which has led to more talk about how we need to wave H-1B visas to all the foreign post-docs and coders (“coder” in this case being construed as “being able to work a text editor,” we’ll get the American coders to teach ’em their jobs, then fire the teachers… )
    I’m sending a link to this article to my Congressman and both of my Senators to enlighten them about the whole idea that a “shortage of STEM graduates” exists.

  65. Anonymous says:

    #58: “Education is just another form of consumerism, over-hyped for the benefit of those who sell it.”
    So true!

  66. eugene says:

    I used to be a postdoc, but got fired when the lab ran out of money, then worked for a friend helping to set up the new lab for a bit, then I was unemployed for a year. And now the old boss wanted me to work in his lab for a bit so I’m a ‘visiting scientist’ now that the lab got a big grant again. Still, I’m leaving in a short while after a couple more glamour magz pubz come out (which I learned don’t do much for job prospects for me).
    Anyways, the time I was unemployed was the best. I seriously highly recommend it. I learned a new language, read a lot of books, went hiking once a week and played football at least once or twice a week. I had a high paying fellowship before so I had some savings. Anyways, it was glorious and I highly recommend it. Just make sure to have money saved up, lots of hobbies, and have a positive attitude as I heard a lot of Americans for some reason get depressed when they become unemployed.
    I think one of the Google founders said that in the future we will not need to work as much and we don’t even need to work that much now. Most people work in the service economy and they just fool around a lot. Really, a lot of people can stay unemployed or work only 20 hours a week and this will be especially true with increased innovation. Now, all that needs to happen is for the wealth to be sufficiently taxed from the winners of automation in order for the rest of the population not to riot and kill them, and we can create a society where we have a minimum guaranteed income and do what we really like, and that will in turn increase consumption and economic growth as well without requiring people to show up at a desk for 40 hours a week and surf the internet.
    I’m probably going to stick being a chemist for the next decade or though, but I really want this system to exist after this time when I get fired again. Maybe a few riots and societal collapses will be necessary first, but you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. Or something.
    Also it’s possible to move to a different country (especially if you know the language) that doesn’t have the same problems of too much foreign supply and oversupply for chemistry jobs like America, and an American education will be an asset. Singapore is a classic, but Vietnam is up and coming.

  67. loupgarous says:

    My advice to ANY student drawn to a technical field – don’t think “degree.” Degrees are worthless once your employer discovers you can’t work without supervision. Think “skills,” which are more often acquired in technical work-study jobs, other part-time jobs and membership in robotics and other technical hobby clubs – ESPECIALLY the ones that compete in technical competitions on or off-campus.
    Both before and after graduating (I didn’t have the math-fu to do so in biomedical engineering, so I transitioned to technical writing in my senior year and found gratefully that I had a talent for it) I fed my family by doing electronics, building custom computer applications to enable the disabled, and computer programming, all far outside my eventual major field. Time spent learning a technical skill is NEVER wasted.

  68. Anonymous says:

    Every single person considering a chemistry degree should be made to read this excellent post and some of the superb comments within.
    I did my studies in the late 90s when there was still a glimmer of hope. I feel so sorry for those who are embarking on the journey now, because in a few years time I don’t think there will nothing even resembling a ‘career’ left, especially in big pharma.
    Andrew, I have friends that completely missed out on university and became plumbers, electricians and even train drivers. Some reading this thread will see these types of jobs as inferior, but you know what each and every one of them provide good lives for themselves and their families without the constant fear of layoffs and being undercut by cheap foreign labor.
    It’s not for everyone, but you should think hard about all the different options. Good luck to you

  69. Paul D, says:

    @50: fracking is a jolt to the system, but it’s not entirely clear to me how that translates into jobs for PhDs.
    One thing it is doing is displacing ethylene production from naphtha cracking, since frack gas is high in ethane, which is now the preferred feedstock. I understand this is also causing tightness for other products (like butadiene and propylene) that are byproducts of naphtha cracking. So perhaps work on new sources of these affected streams (and things made from them, like acrylic acid) will be needed. Still, this is a far cry from the sort of more complex molecule chemistry you see on this blog.

  70. a. nonymaus says:

    Re. 9/10:
    Is is such an exaggeration? I think the percentages for undergrad –> grad school –> postdoc –> academic job –> tenure are likely to be similar to pop warner –> high school –> college –> NFL –> multi-season contract.
    At least the risk of CTE is less in chemistry.

  71. bacillus says:

    I keep hearing that Post docs should be taught more flexible skills to prepare them for a job outside of academia. Who the hell is going to teach them these skills? Their academic mentors who’ve never done anything else but occupy the ivory tower? Don’t make me laugh / cry

  72. NMH says:

    @71: Excellent point. There was a time when companies picked up PhD’s simply because they were bright and self-motivated and the company would train them for the skilld needed for the job. Not any more, companies are looking for a list of exact skills, and you have to be a perfect match. They expect academia to train students in these skills but it does not do this.
    I think the solution is for the PhD to become a 4 year certifications-for-multiple-skills program, where students rotate through different labs to pick up individual skills, and would not have to write a thesis. Therefore, for people to be trained for what industry needs, the PhD type of training that is present would have to end as we know it.
    I don’t see academia embracing my idea.

  73. anon the II says:

    #66 Eugene has an interesting read on all this. Over the last decade we’ve read about the wonders of creative destruction and how invigorating it is for capitalism and business. Unfortunately, the spoils of creative destruction have flowed disproportionately to the wagers of such campaigns and not to the serfs who make things work. The founder of Google is correct that there is enough for everybody with a bit to spare. How to spread it around a bit more fairly without a revolution? What eggs must be broken to make the new omelet?

  74. NMH says:

    @73: Hmmm…in academia, how to spread the money more fairly? If only the decades inactive at-retirement-age faculty making well into 6-figures a year would take a paycut to support bridge funding for my lab and salary.
    Ain’t going to happen, unfortunately.

  75. SteveM says:

    Re: #72. NMH
    Good points. My craft (Operations Research) is an MS/PhD opportunity space. If you can think incisively and consult with some social skill, few care if you don’t have a Ph.D. Because results are bottom line driven.
    The reason I didn’t get a Ph.D. is because of what some call the “mathematical masturbation” of academic OR. Fewer than half of the courses in my M.S. program had any actual utility. And OR is predicated on utility! I couldn’t see doubling up on the arcane onanism for a couple of more years. Better to get out and learn meaningful stuff via OJT.
    I agree with your recommendation as to how academic programs can be structured to provide better employability for those graduating from the academic Chemistry programs. But yeah, you can’t fight City Hall. Or rather you could, and end up an unemployed crank.
    The certification idea is a better one. Wash your hands of the whole lab thing and train up to do something else either formally or informally. Use the many web based and open source resources.
    A Ph.D. Chemist could teach himself optimization or stochastic modeling without going through the academic bullsh*t. Or almost anything not requiring a professional license. I know a bunch of engineers who migrated to analytics without formal training. A doctorate in physical science gives someone legitimacy absent some other degree. So just take the bull by the horns and move on.

  76. Anonymous says:

    Everyone likes to think the grass is always greener on the other side, in other fields and professions. Having worked in multiple professions (academic research, big pharma, small biotech, consulting, banking, venture capital), I can tell you that the only place the grass is green, is at the very top.

  77. Anon says:

    @76: because the grass at the top has been fertilized by the blood, sweat, and tears of all those underneath it? 😛

  78. Doug Steinman says:

    A lot of good comments on this post. Having been out of school since the early “80’s, I’m not sure my education or chemistry career experience is particularly relevant to the discussion. However, I do currently work at a university with a graduate program in chemistry after having spent a full career in the pharmaceutical industry. The students, both graduate and undergraduate, who ask me about careers in chemistry I advise to continue to pursue their degree paths as long as they understand that getting a job in chemistry that pays a decent salary and has good benefits is going to be difficult. I feel that it would be unfair of me to be more negative than that because the possibility exists, even though unlikely, that the job situation will improve by the time they finish their degrees. I was able to do what I loved and loved what I did until it was yanked away from me and I feel that current students should have the chance to do the same. I hope that I am not being too naive.

  79. Shion Arita says:

    @40: I don’t think you’re completely on track there:
    I think what we’re seeing is a bit of a double choke point from bottom and top: the USA produces about 2000 chem phds per year. That’s about the population of a single large high school. Compare that to the population as a whole and you get the picture that this chemistry stuff is a pretty niche thing, and not very many people are interested in it.
    It just so happens that slightly more people are interested in it than than the niche system is able to support.
    I think that both of these issues have a main root cause, and it’s not lack of capacity to produce value like you say, but only a perceived lack of ability to produce value, or lack of recognition of existence because the of the small numbers of people. The problem is that in our society, what ‘value’ means is something like “ability to immediately produce something people care about.” The key phrases there are ‘immediately’ and ‘people care about’. My PHD research fails both of those criteria, but I still think it’s valuable. Right now the only people who could CARE about my research are other chemists, and again due to the small population that’s really only a drop in the bucket, and it’s not going to turn into anything immediately either.
    The thing with basic research is, a lot of it is going to, directly and indirectly, end up bringing about things that people care about 30 or so years from now, and without what people were doing 30 years ago, there wouldn’t be a lot of the stuff that people care about today. This really isn’t recognized in the way that it should be. Thus, not much allocation is given to either promoting the interest or enabling the work. For the most part, the people who end up here gained the interest on their own.
    So why do slightly more people care than the system is able to support? I guess because more individuals end up caring by themselves than society in aggregate cares.
    So what am I to do then? Keep going. Why not? This is what i want to do. If at some point I’m really not enabled to continue then I guess I’ll just fondly accept my time in chem as part of my life and then go do other things. I guess what sets me apart from most of my grad school peers is that what I want to be doing right now in my life is this research, and the reason I joined the program was to do that, not just to enable some goal in the future. And I like what I do (It’s not like there aren’t stressors, but for me they all come from things that are not research. Man these departments have a real problem with getting in their own way, don’t they?)

  80. Anonymous says:

    I like art and painting, but nobody wants to buy my paintings.
    Chemistry is a hobby.

  81. AVS-600 says:

    @80: Yes, but how many CEOs of art companies say “we have a shortage of qualified artists, we need to convince more young people to learn how to paint”?
    There’s clearly still some utility to be had from organic chemistry, because it’s not like NO ONE is being hired to do it. The problem (or at least, A problem) is that students and lawmakers are being convinced that it’s more valuable/profitable than it actually is.

  82. Anonymous says:

    “Oh yes indeed. But next week, and the week after, and the week after that we’ll see more people talking about the terrible shortage of tech and science people. Bet on it.”
    I don’t feel bad at all, it will be well deserved. The way postdoc are treated is a shame. Do you know anyone who makes 30-50K a year with 5-7 year of post college eduction? probably not that many, except in science. That’s how postdocs are paid. You want to start a family, buy a house while being a postdoc, good luck with that. Or wait until your first job, when you’ll be 35. Then what? if you look at the field of pharmaceuticals, you are most likely to lose your job several times during your career, because of merging (biotech and bigger companies), closing down, or big cuts (GSK-like). Good luck finding a job quickly then. The system (academia and industry) is totally exploiting this very qualified underpaid labor skill, because there are no other options, you have to suck it.
    So if I have to recommend the younger generation or even my kids to go to the field of science, i’d just say stay away, go to business or law school, you have better chance to quickly succeed.

  83. Kaleberg says:

    The corporate world has gotten way too used to getting everything given to it on a silver platter. It’s a far cry from the days when Land at Polaroid would recruit promising liberal arts majors from women’s colleges and train them to be top flight chemists. They see no point in investing in people; people, to them, are a cost, not an asset.
    (A friend of mine in electrical engineering spent so long working on his PhD that when he left to work full time at his start up they gave him an EE degree. That’s a post-masters degree that no one but some obscure charter expert at the the department had heard of. Maybe chemistry needs something like this for non-academic track PhD level students.)

Comments are closed.