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Beryl Lieff Benderly

The Chemistry of Recession

The recession is taking a toll on both the employment prospects and the starting salaries of newly minted chemists, according to a sobering article in Chemical & Engineering News. Just-reported results from the 2009 edition of the American Chemical Society’s annual survey of new graduates reveal higher unemployment rates than a year earlier, at all degree levels. Among bachelor’s degree holders, joblessness rose a percentage point over the previous year, to 15%.  Ph.D. unemployment rose 2 percentage points to 9%.  But unemployment among master’s degree graduates nearly doubled, from 10% to 18%, in a single year.  

Meanwhile, the percentage of the employed holding full-time and permanent positions fell.  Overall,C&E noted, “survey respondents of all degree levels [were] significantly less employed than the national average” of workers.  These national unemployment figures  mask large numbers of workers so discouraged that they have given up the hunt for work; it could be that the recent graduates surveyed by C&EN have not yet had enough time to give up hope.

Given these conditions, C&EN expressed “relief” that starting salaries for new bachelor’s and doctoral graduates fell only 5%, while those of new master’s degree graduates,  counterintuitively, rose 15%.  The article also details the sectors where employed graduates have found jobs — at all degree levels, about half in academe — and the areas of chemistry in which they specialized.  Since universities and colleges are hiring very few faculty members, one can only surmise that many of those jobs are for postdoc, other soft-money research positions, or non-tenure-track teaching posts. Because of the dire financial position of many academic institutions as well as continuing “layoffs of scientists in the pharmaceutical industry,” it’s obvious, as the article predicts, that future surveys will most likely reveal further “downward trends” in both pay and employment.