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


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.

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

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