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What does a Ph.D. in chemistry get you?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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A few weeks back, Chemjobber had an interesting post looking at the pros and cons of a PhD program in chemistry at a time when job prospects for PhD chemists are grim. The post was itself a response to a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education by a neuroscience graduate student named Jon Bardin which advocated strongly that senior grad students look to non-traditional career pathways to have both their Ph.D.s and permanent jobs that might sustain them. Bardin also suggested that graduate students “learn to approach their education as a series of learning opportunities rather than a five-year-long job interview,” recognizing the relative luxury of having a “safe environment” in which to learn skills that are reasonably portable and useful in a wide range of career trajectories — all while taking home a salary (albeit a graduate-stipend sized one).

Chemjobber replied:

Here’s what I think Mr. Bardin’s essay elides: cost. His Ph.D. education (and mine) were paid for by the US taxpayer. Is this the best deal that the taxpayer can get? As I’ve said in the past, I think society gets a pretty good deal: they get 5+ years of cheap labor in science, (hopefully) contributions to greater knowledge and, at the end of the process, they get a trained scientist. Usually, that trained scientist can go on to generate new innovations in their independent career in industry or academia. It’s long been my supposition that the latter will pay (directly and indirectly) for the former. If that’s not the case, is this a bargain that society should continue to support? 

Mr. Bardin also shows a great deal of insouciance about the costs to himself: what else could he have done, if he hadn’t gone to graduate school? When we talk about the costs of getting a Ph.D., I believe that we don’t talk enough about the sheer length of time (5+ years) and what other training might have been taken during that time. Opportunity costs matter! An apprenticeship at a microbrewery (likely at a similar (if not higher) pay scale as a graduate student) or a 1 or 2 year teaching certification process easily fits in the half-decade that most of us seem to spend in graduate school. Are the communications skills and the problem-solving skills that he gained worth the time and the (opportunity) cost? Could he have obtained those skills somewhere else for a lower cost? 

Chemjobber also note that while a Ph.D. in chemistry may provide tools for range of careers, actually having a Ph.D. in chemistry on your resume is not necessarily advantageous in securing a job in one of those career.

As you might imagine this is an issue to which I have given some thought. After all, I have a Ph.D. in chemistry and am not currently employed in a job that is at all traditional for a Ph.D. in chemistry. However, given that it has been nearly two decades since I last dipped a toe into the job market for chemistry Ph.D.s, my observations should be taken with a large grain of sodium chloride.

First off, how should one think of a Ph.D. program in chemistry? There are many reasons you might value a Ph.D. program. A Ph.D. program may be something you value primarily because it prepares you for a career of a certain sort. It may also be something you value for what it teaches you, whether about your own fortitude in facing challenges, or about how the knowledge is built. Indeed, it is possible — maybe even common — to value your Ph.D. program for more than one of these reasons at a time. And some weeks, you may value it primarily because it seemed like the path of least resistance compared to landing a “real job” right out of college.

I certainly don’t think it’s the case that valuing one of these aspects of a Ph.D. program over the others is right or wrong. But …

Economic forces in the world beyond your graduate program might be such that there aren’t as many jobs suited to your Ph.D. chemist skills as there are Ph.D. chemists competing for those jobs. Among other things, this means that earning a Ph.D. in chemistry does not guarantee you a job in chemistry on the other end.

To which, as the proud holder of a Ph.D. in philosophy, I am tempted to respond: join the club! Indeed, I daresay that recent college graduates in many, many majors have found themselves in a world where a bachelors degree guarantees little except that the student loans will still need to be repaid.

To be fair, my sense is that the mismatch between supply of Ph.D. chemists and demand for Ph.D. chemists in the workplace is not new. I have a vivid memory of being an undergraduate chemistry major, circa 1988 or 1989, and being told that the world needed more Ph.D. chemists. I have an equally vivid memory of being a first-year chemistry graduate student, in early 1990, and picking up a copy of Chemical & Engineering News in which I read that something like 30% too many Ph.D. chemists were being produced given the number of available jobs for Ph.D. chemists. Had the memo not reached my undergraduate chemistry professors? Or had I not understood the business model inherent in the production of new chemists?

Here, I’m not interested in putting forward a conspiracy theory about how this situation came to be. My point is that even back in the last millennium, those in the know had no reason to believe that making it through a Ph.D. program in chemistry would guarantee your employment as a chemist.

So, what should we say about this situation?

One response to this situation might be to throttle production of Ph.D. chemists.

This might result in a landscape where there is a better chance of getting a Ph.D. chemist job with your Ph.D. in chemistry. But, the market could shift suddenly (up or down). Were this to happen, it would take time to adjust the Ph.D. throughput in response. As well, current PIs would have to adjust to having fewer graduate students to crank out their data. Instead, they might have to pay more technicians and postdocs. Indeed, the number of available postdocs would likely drop once the number of Ph.D.s being produced more closely matched the number of permanent jobs for holders of those Ph.D.s.

Needless to say, this might be a move that the current generation of chemists with permanent positions at the research institutions that train new chemists would find unduly burdensome.

We might also worry about whether the thinning of the herd of chemists ought to happen on the basis of bachelors-level training. Being a successful chemistry major tends to reflect your ability to learn scientific knowledge, but it’s not clear to me that this is a great predictor of how good you would be at the project of making new scientific knowledge.

In fact, the thinning of the herd wherever it happens seems to put a weird spin on the process of graduate-level education. Education, after all, tends to aim for something bigger, deeper, and broader than a particular set of job skills. This is not to say that developing skills is not an important part of an education — it is! But in addition to these skills, one might want an understanding of the field in which one is being educated and its workings. I think this is connected to how being a chemist becomes linked to our identity, a matter of who we are rather than just of what we do.

Looked at this way, we might actually wonder about who could be harmed by throttling Ph.D. program enrollments.

Shouldn’t someone who’s up for the challenge have that experience open to her, even if there’s no guarantee of a job at the other end? As long as people have accurate information with which to form reasonable expectations about their employment prospects, do we want to be paternalistic and tell them they can’t?

(There are limits here, of course. There are not unlimited resources for the training of Ph.D. chemists, nor unlimited slots in graduate programs, nor in the academic labs where graduate students might participate meaningfully in research. The point is that maybe these limits are the ones that ought to determine how many people who want to learn how to be chemists get to do that.)

Believe it or not, we had a similar conversation in a graduate seminar filled with first and second year students in my philosophy Ph.D. program. Even philosophy graduate students have an interest in someday finding stable employment, the better to eat regularly and live indoors. Yet my sense was that even the best graduate students in my philosophy Ph.D. program recognized that employment in a job tailor-made for a philosophy Ph.D. was a chancy thing. Certainly, there were opportunity costs to being there. Certainly, there was a chance that one might end up trying to get hired to a job for which having a PhD would be viewed as a disadvantage to getting hired. But the graduate students in my philosophy program had, upon weighing the risks, decided to take the gamble.

How exactly are chemistry graduate students presumed to be different here? Maybe they are placing their bets at a table with higher payoffs, and where the game is more likely to pay off in the first place. But this is still not a situation in which one should expect that everyone is always going to win. Sometimes the house will win instead.

(Who’s the house in this metaphor? Is it the PIs who depend on cheap grad-student labor? Universities with hordes of pre-meds who need chemistry TAs and lab instructors? The public that gets a screaming deal on knowledge production when you break it down in terms of price per publishable unit? A public that includes somewhat more members with a clearer idea of how scientific knowledge is built? Specifying the identity of the house is left as an exercise for the reader.)

Maybe the relevant difference between taking a gamble on a philosophy Ph.D. and taking a gamble on a chemistry Ph.D. is that the players in the latter have, purposely or accidentally, not been given accurate information about the odds of the game.

I think it’s fair for chemistry graduate students to be angry and cynical about having been misled as far as likely prospects for employment. But given that it’s been going on for at least a couple decades (and maybe more), how the hell is it that people in Ph.D. programs haven’t already figured out the score? Is it that they expect that they will be the ones awesome enough to get those scarce jobs? Have they really not thought far enough ahead to seek information (maybe even from a disinterested source) about how plausible their life plans are before they turn up at grad school? Could it be that they have decided that they want to be chemists when they grow up without doing sensible things like reading the blogs of chemists at various stages of careers and training?

Presumably, prospective chemistry grad students might want to get ahold of the relevant facts and take account of them in their decision-making. Why this isn’t happening is somewhat mysterious to me, but for those who regard their Ph.D. training in chemistry as a means to a career end, it’s absolutely crucial — and trusting the people who stand to benefit from your labors as a graduate student to hook you up with those facts seems not to be the best strategy ever.

And, as I noted in comments on Chemjobber’s post, the whole discussion suggests to me that the very best reason to pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry is because you want to learn what it is like to build new knowledge in chemistry, in an academic setting. Since being plugged into a particular kind of career (or even job) on the other end is a crap-shoot, if you don’t want to learn about this knowledge-building process — and want it enough to put up with long hours, crummy pay, unrewarding piles of grading, and the like — then possibly a Ph.D. program is not the best way to spend 5+ years of your life.

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. matthartings 9:11 pm 04/18/2012

    Thanks for chiming in on this. And, in the end, I agree that the biggest reason to go to graduate school in chemistry … is because you want to and are interested in building knowledge in chemistry. If you’re in grad school primarily for the job prospects, you are in it for the wrong reasons.

    Now, while CJs site has many commenters who aren’t so sympathetic to the ACS, on the topic of the way they push careers in chemistry/alternative careers, I happen to agree with the commenters. Both the ACS and the government are pushing STEM training to fill a need in the job market (that isn’t there for all PhD/BS/MS level jobs). These, to a prospective graduate student are “reliable” sources. I think that the rhetoric needs to be toned down a bit.

    I think that there are many benefits to a training in science or engineering whether or not those students end up in science or engineering careers. (In fact, I’m interested to learn more about West Point’s requirement that students be educated in arts/sciences/and engineering) But, we all need to tone down or shift the rhetoric for the sake of the grad students upon whom so many researchers (and funding dollars) rely.

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  2. 2. seearroh 10:34 pm 04/18/2012

    Janet – Great piece, well-organized discussion.

    Matt – Referring to your comment: “If you’re in grad school primarily for the job prospects, you are in it for the wrong reasons.”

    I respectfully disagree with this assertion.

    My path to graduate school was non-traditional. I worked in my chosen field (medicinal chemistry) for a few years, and thought that my career prospects might improve if I were to re-enroll. Looking around, as a BS-level chemist, I realized that Ph.D. chemists had more management responsibility, more project input, and generally rose faster in the organization.

    Although I loved the work, mine was a “business decision” – to reinvest 5 to 7 years of my life for a chance at future opportunities.

    I don’t believe I’m alone in this, either. Businessmen get MBAs, accountants CPAs, schoolteachers continuing education, and mechanics certifications – all to increase their skills and gain better employment.

    If you can truly do what you love, that’s fantastic. But sometimes education can be a means to an end, and that is no less valid.

    I wholeheartedly agree with Janet’s proposal that the real decision begins before grad school, as students carefully consider the pros and cons of enrollment, and try to tease out future employment prospects for their chosen discipline. This might save several from the “automatic attendance” mindset often instilled by well-meaning advisors and parents.

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  3. 3. Steve D 8:23 am 04/19/2012

    Define “job.” Far too many Ph.D.’s in all fields assume a “job” in their field means a research position at a major research institution like the one they just left. I’ve even seen people say they have a “right” to a research career. That’s like assuming a spot on a college football team guarantees an NFL career.

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  4. 4. E81ER 3:01 pm 04/19/2012

    It’s true that as undergraduates, the best information on job prospects (of BSc, MSc, PhD etc) is either not made available, or falls on deaf ears.

    But, surely the information is out there. I wonder if institutions of higher education have considered prorating the tuition costs of subjects based on projected demand for specific skill sets in 4,6,10+ years.

    You’ve asserted that the job market changes quickly, however as an example the oversupply of nursing students, and the under-supply of engineers has been ongoing for quite some time.

    By altering the up-front cost of different educational paths within the same institution, you incentivize the degrees which are most in-demand (especially useful for the students who are essentially flipping a coin when deciding a path right after high school.) And you ‘thin the herd’ in fields with lower job prospects, leaving only the students who are most passionate about chemistry, philosophy, etc.

    As the job market changes, the cost of each course fluctuates, and funnels the ‘undecideds’ into the areas of greatest demand, rather than to the ‘general arts’, ‘general sciences’, or ‘business’ as seems to be the case now.

    If some unforeseen event drastically changes the job market and eliminates all the engineering jobs overnight, well then you’ve got a bunch of unemployed engineers who only have a half or a quarter of the debt of the unemployed philosophy majors, making them more able to return to school.

    It’s in university that most people are first exposed to the idea of opportunity cost, if they learn it at all. But the financial cost is something that everyone understands much earlier, and seems a fairly gentle way to nudge students in one direction or another.

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  5. 5. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 4:51 pm 04/19/2012

    Honestly, I’m hesitant to introduce different fees for different majors based on their (perceived) utility in the workforce. Part of this is that I would expect it to reinforce current societal prejudices about who is entitled to “useless” majors like philosophy (usually: only rich kids) and who ought to study something “practical” (everyone without a lot of disposable income). Not only does this overlook the fact that a major like philosophy actually builds a lot of skills that are valued in many sectors of the workforce (reading/writing/thinking clearly, for example), and that people who have taken “practical” majors often learn a huge amount of what they need on the job rather than in the classroom before they’re hired, but it also reduces higher education to job-training. A good college education can give you job training, but it ought to deliver you a whole lot more besides.

    Also, at least in California, my understanding was that the “excess” of nursing students is not an excess relative to the nursing jobs, but rather an excess relative to the nursing faculty available to teach them.

    And … the ability to return to school to retrain during an economic downturn assumes institutions of higher learning that are not dealing with their gigantic budget shortfalls by imposing enrollment caps. In California (where I am), this would be a bad assumption.

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  6. 6. NJCondon 4:46 pm 04/20/2012

    I find these discussions vexing, and a primary source of this vexation is the failure to address what those who go to school without regard to the dreaded “job training” are supposed to do to earn money.

    People wax poetic about the values of education and challenge, and how problem-solving skills will help you in any job, but what job? If you have a PhD in chemistry and can’t find a job in chemistry, what options are available to you? For a lot of jobs (such as those that might be done by a BS or MS chemist, or those for which a BA in a liberal arts field might reasonably apply), you will be perceived as overqualified, while you will be flatly unqualified for most jobs with pay comparable to what one could earn in chemistry.

    Is the solution more education in a field where the emphasis is more on job training, like business or law or medicine? If so, then why should degrees in chemistry (or physics, or philosophy) be held to a different standard with regard to future employability?

    I also take issue with the idea that prospective chemistry PhDs are given a good idea of the job market. There is a persistent perception that a PhD in chemistry makes you highly employable; it takes a good deal of initiative to discover otherwise, and by the time a lot of students exercise think to exercise that initiative, it’s too late. It is terribly useful and important lesson to question common wisdom, but this is an awfully hard way to learn it.

    I feel like colleges and universities have an ethical responsibility to prepare their students for life in the outside world, and preparing them for work is part of that. Students should be helped far more than they are to develop a plan for their future employment, whatever field they choose to purse; this should include help plotting paths of education and experience that will lead to the sort of career they might like to pursue. Students should be provided, as a matter of course, employment and further education statistics on people who obtain various degrees, both nationwide and from that specific school.

    There’s absolutely nothing wrong with someone getting a PhD then choosing to work as a waiter because they enjoy it; there’s something very wrong when someone ends up in a low-paying, unsatisfying job after obtaining a PhD because they were misled (intentionally or by omission) about their future employment prospects, or because they were never taught how to use the things they’ve learned to find fulfilling employment.

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  7. 7. NJCondon 4:51 pm 04/20/2012

    To clarify in shorter terms, Dr. S. said, “A good college education can give you job training, but it ought to deliver you a whole lot more besides.” I would revise that to, “A good college education SHOULD give you job training, and a whole lot more besides.”

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  8. 8. denisosu 1:10 pm 04/27/2012

    Great discussion. Just to add perspective on one point. The reason many PhD’s, and particularly science PhD’s, are frustrated, is that often the ones who go on to do PhD’s were at the top of their undergraduate classes, and therefore had pretty good employment prospects as undergrads. And, further back, they were probably among the smartest kids in high school and could have chosen and succeeded in any one of a number of fields with excellent career prospects.

    Instead, they graduate aged nearly 30 with nothing except a degree, while most of their peers have been earning money for 5-10 years and have houses, cars and other investments already made. In other words, if they get a pretty well-paid job at graduation, they will still be many years catching up with their peers, and some they will never catch.

    When smart people decide to do a PhD in science, they realise all this. They realise there is a huge trade off in the sense of deferring earning potential. And they realise of course that there is no guarantee of a well-paid job at graduation. And they make that trade-off for some of the many good reasons outlined above, which make PhD study worthwhile for reasons other than career enhancement.

    What they do NOT sign up for, though, is to leave college and find that their job prospects are even less than they were at the end of undergrad college – because now they are overqualified for some careers and seen as too specialised for others, and yet cannot find anything in a field relevant to their studies.

    I am sick of hearing industry leaders claim that the country needs more scientists and engineers, when what they really mean is that they need a gross over-supply of desperate scientists and engineers among whom they can pick and choose, whom they can then underpay, hire and fire at will.

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