What’s in It for Me?

June 23, 2008

Many undergraduate chemistry majors will at some time in their careers be faced with the question of whether to get a Ph.D. Reasons for considering this question range from a desire for a higher salary (starting Ph.D.s are paid twice what corresponding B.S. chemists are paid), hope for an academic position (about 25% of all Ph.D.s are at academic institutions), or even for personal reasons. In my case, I was more or less programmed from kindergarten to get a chemistry Ph.D. My father had one, and family urging combined with the push for more science majors after the 1958 Soviet launch of Sputnik really left little room for disagreement. Of course, I had seen, too, the benefits of working in the chemical enterprise, because my father had a very good research position in a small town. He worked in polymer chemistry applied to the development of synthetic textile-fiber products. Our family lived a nice life.

When I enrolled in graduate school in the late 1960s, my classmates and I believed we should choose a major adviser who was in tune with our desire to learn chemistry as a means of having a good middle-class career. We thought that a major adviser would be perhaps not a friend, but at least a mentor, in providing us entry to companies that based their products on science and technology. The adviser would help in the assessment of our talents, guide us in our decision on what chemical subdiscipline would best suit our capabilities, and ultimately shepherd us into the club of Ph.D. chemists.

Safe to say, we were rapidly disabused of that point of view.

Graduate school became for us what it is for many who attend: an overwhelming series of hurdles to be jumped in an effort to avoid failure. There were entrance examinations, 300- and 400-level courses, cumulative exams, and ultimately proposal defenses. Our class of 25 steadily dwindled as individuals left, and slowly those of us who remained began to examine our chosen chemical destiny.

One day, after studying an especially obscure organic reaction mechanism, several of us were sitting around after class with our instructor, who was then an associate professor. I asked if the chemistry department had considered offering graduate students the opportunity to take classes not necessarily in the department but that would be applicable to our future life in the scientific world. Perhaps a polymer course from the chemical engineering department, a finance course or two from the business school, or even an introduction to legal theory for those of us who might want to consider a patent-law career.

The professor answered, “What’s in it for me?”

It was a revelatory moment, for suddenly it was clear that graduate school wasn’t about students at all. It was about professors.

While my graduate-school revelatory experience may have been breathtakingly direct, I suspect it is as true today as it was in the 1970s: what most graduate students study is what is best for their advisers. So my advice to anyone considering a Ph.D. program: first, choose your adviser carefully, and second, recognize that much of the knowledge and skills you will need in your employment will have to be learned on the job or through continuing education programs throughout your career. And wake up to the reality of what Ph.D. degrees really are—a testament to graduate students’ perseverance, not their intellect.

This article was written by Jim Ryan, Ph.D. retired consultant and former Assistant Director of the ACS Continuing Education program. Originally published in the Chemistry magazine, Spring 2007.

Wanted in Europe: U.S.-Trained Chemists

June 2, 2008

Face it, for many Americans, globalization is a four letter word, and while the U.S. research enterprise has largely been immune to the adverse impacts of globalization, there are growing concerns that science jobs may soon follow the path of information technology jobs.

I say, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. As in, join the flow of jobs overseas and grab one for yourself, especially if you’re at all interested in a biotech job.

European biotechnology companies are actively recruiting U.S. Ph.Ds to join what has become a fast-growing industry. Although the United States is still the unquestioned world leader in biotechnology, the past decade or so has seen Europe develop a nascent biotechnology industry.

However, the one thing that almost everyone involved in European biotech agrees is restraining the continent’s growth is a serious shortage entrepreneurially-minded scientists – and they see the U.S. as providing the solution to that problem.

Wolfgang Renner, chief executive officer and founder of the Zurich-based biotech firm, Cytos, told me that entrepreneurism seems to be ingrained in the minds of our American counterparts in a way that’s missing from students trained in Europe.

“Some people, like myself, go to the States for graduate school or do a postdoc in large part to get exposed to that culture, but we need to have more American-trained Ph.D.s here. It’s essential,” Renner said.

European industry leaders and governments alike have recognized the dearth of entrepreneurs and they are starting to take action to promote the development of home-grown talent. For example, universities across the continent are following America’s lead by setting up offices to foster the movement of research discoveries into startup biotechnology firms. Nevertheless, the effect has been less than startling. Herbert Reutimann, managing director of Unitectra, the technology transfer arm of the Universities of Berne and Zurich, told me, “Culturally, we’re fighting an uphill battle. Entrepreneur is still a dirty word among many professors in the chemical and biochemical sciences. Europe is still a couple decades behind the U.S. in that regard.”

The result, say many who are close to the industry, is that investors remain reluctant to provide budding entrepreneurs with the necessary capital to get their young companies off the ground. This tight-fistedness is a major reason why opportunity exists for U.S.-trained chemists. As one venture capitalist told me recently, “When you think of entrepreneurs, you think American.”

This article was written by Joe Alper, a freelance science writer and technology analyst in Louisville, CO, who writes frequently for the ACS journal Analytical Chemistry.

Job Searching with Positive Outcomes

March 10, 2008

It is often hard to keep a level head during the job search process; however, those that can do so fare better than those that don’t. Failing to keep your equilibrium can set you up for an emotional roller coaster.

In the childhood story of Chicken Little, a hen is hit on the head by an acorn falling from the sky. Thinking the worst, she jumps to the conclusion that the sky is falling. Her premise is quickly confirmed by the other farm yard animals leading to hysteria.

Optimistic people are generally perceived to be more productive and able. They are also more fun to be around. This second factor should not be underestimated in importance, since a hiring manager and new hire will typically spend extensive amounts of time together during training and orientation sessions. Additionally, people who see a silver lining behind every storm cloud are also more likely to weather rejections by potential employers better than those with a negative outlook.

In today’s economic climate, it is easy to believe that the sky is falling; however, leading and lag indicators for the chemical enterprise remain positive. The unemployment rate for chemists in 2007 was at the lowest level since 2001 at 2.4%. In a telephone call with Rich Pennock of Kelly Scientific Resources he stated, “The demand for chemists and biochemists has remained steady in the U.S. for the past 24 months.” This is significant, because staffing agencies are usually the first to see increases or decreases in employment requests as a result of economic drivers. Multinational chemical companies with global operations are also performing well in today’s dubious markets; although it should be noted that primarily domestic companies are experiencing significant downturns in stock prices.

No one really knows what the coming months will bring, but occasionally pulling away from the job search to refocus your energies in the ways listed below can help you to cope.

  • Social Support. Formal sources of support such as mentoring programs, as well as informal support groups like friends & family, and face-to-face or online discussion groups, can provide you with people with whom you can talk, seek advice, commiserate, and ease perceptions of isolation.
  • Coping Style. You may need to reevaluate your coping style. Try reinterpreting events in a positive light. You may also try breaking down your overall situation into a series of distinct and more solvable problems. It’s a challenge, but adjusting your outlook will change how you react to stressors and help prevent them from harming your health. Sometimes, just finding the humor in a situation can provide the spontaneous relief that you need.
“It’s not the stress that kills us. It is our reaction to it.” – Hans Selye
  • Make Time for You. It sounds like a cliché, but believe it or not, 20 minutes a day of solitude will make a lot of difference in stress relief and mental balance. Read a fun book, meditate, or just stare out the window.
  • Exercise and diet. Exercise and eat a balance diet to release stress and increase your resistance to stress and stress-related health problems.

In the war between psyches a realistic, but positive outlook wins every time. After all, the only real control any of us have is in how we react.

This article was written by David Harwell, Ph.D., assistant director of the ACS Department of Career Management and Development.