The Value of a Chemistry PhD

There has been a number of articles wondering if there are too many or not enough people studying science in general and chemistry in particular. Last week it was Daniel Lametti’s Slate piece, saying basically that unemployment among PhDs is much less than the general populace so we shouldn’t worry about them. ChemJobber did a very nice job rebutting that article but I wanted to add a little to what he said.

Chemistry unemployment is at a high level, with many jobs eliminated from the U.S. to go overseas or maybe just eliminated by the “synergy” created by the latest merger. But more than that, the type of jobs that are available has changed. A lot of chemistry folks have gotten out of chemistry, either out of need or disillusionment. I myself considered options beyond the laboratory when I was let go. After some soul-searching, I decided that I most wanted to stay in the lab and sought out a position, but the range of jobs of that type out there was very low indeed. The typical job in synthetic chemistry or medicinal chemistry is either a contract or, if you are lucky, with a small start-up or a more academic drug discovery effort (such as the Broad Institute in Boston or the Vanderbilt Center for Neuroscience). While good jobs, these are typically either short-term, lower paid or dependent on grant funding (in other words, could also be short term). Permanent medicinal chemistry jobs such as were the typical destination of a semi-decent Ph.D. synthetic chemist are now in very short supply and are savagely competitive, with many hundreds of applicants.

So to to get back to the title of this post, what is it worth to be a chemistry Ph.D.? If I wanted to be rich, I would have done something else; I did chemistry because of its challenges but also because I was interested and relatively good at it. I also followed it because it seemed like it was a degree that led to a career, rather than a qualification that would then need further training to start on the career path. So that latter consideration might cause me not to advise a young student of science to go into chemistry – the career path is much murkier now than it was when I started. And the advice I got around that time was lacking in many respects: what would set me on a true course toward a steady career? Getting a degree in a good school for a well-known professor was the basic advice (and the professor mattered more than the school). I think that remains true to this day, though it is more treacherous than it was then.

But still, things can change and today’s nadir could be tomorrow’s zenith. Labor differences between China and the US are narrowing, the US economy does at least appear to be recovering, albeit slowly. There will still be a need for new medicines. There is some kind of future for the pharmaceutical industry even if we don’t know exactly what that will look like. So if you were passionate about the subject, if it was something that you really wanted to do, then I would tell you to pursue that dream. I haven’t regretted it. But if you are looking at it as an easy way to a career, then it might bear some serious thought, because that easy path is no longer so straightforward. Pure research is a narrowing market, though if you are interested in chemical engineering, a talented engineer is still in demand (as seen by their consistently higher average salaries). Plus, further down the drug development track there is room, in drug formulation for example, but this rapidly becomes more clinical studies rather than medicinal chemistry. Something beyond benchwork is also a possibility – law or teaching or scientific writing for example. Some of those can be pursued without a PhD, though teaching, for example, can be easier to get into if you have a higher qualification, partly due to a lack of teachers in some subjects and science tends to be one of those.

I have had periods where I have questioned the value of doing a Ph.D., where we collectively wondered how easy it would be to erase that part of our life from our resume and take on the life of an associate. It is hard to separate all the things that have happened to you such that you could remove one facet and still remain the same person. But I have enjoyed the challenges of becoming a Ph.D., it gave me opportunities I never would have had otherwise. If I was to do it all over again, I might do it a little differently, apply myself a little more to some things, but as youth is wasted on the young, maturity can’t be granted retroactively. So I’d do it all over again, but if it were someone else, I would make sure they knew what they were getting into.

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One comment on “The Value of a Chemistry PhD

  1. It depends what you want. Without a PhD you cannot really do academic research. We all question our choices but if one is lucky to have a working environment that stimulates research then that PhD is worth a lot.

    One of the many problems is the way research funds are allotted. If you happen to be in a hot area, good but ones area is seldom always hot.

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