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.

Science and Superstition

As we know, scientists are rational people, not given to flight of fancy, but seek a reasoned explanation for why something happens the way it did, one consistent with the scientific model that the scientist has constructed to explain everything. And yet…

Sometimes, that rational scientist is indeed given to flights of fancy. When the world’s biggest science experiment at CERN kept being plagued by problems (including a dropped piece of bread shorting something out), the playful explanation given was that it was caused by time-traveling birds from the future, stopping us from discovering the Higgs Boson, which is thought to so abhorrent to the Universe that it is acting to prevent their creation in the Large Hadron Collider.

Incidentally, you can find out if the LHC has destroyed the world by creating a black hole here.

Quite fanciful. But I know I am not the only one who has implored for mercy from the mysterious goods of chemistry during a particularly intransigent reaction and I have been instructed most carefully to run reactions in exactly the same way so that they will continue to work, even if that means standing on one leg and running it only on the full moon. That last may be taking things to an extreme, but it does demonstrate that we don’t know how everything works and that we try to control the environment by keeping as many things the same as possible. Even that effort is somewhat futile, as chaos theory tells us that even a very small change in the initial conditions can have a profound influence on the ultimate outcome (the Butterfly effect). Still, we try to give ourselves some kind of control over the environment and minimizing the variables is as good a way as any. After all, if a small change in initial conditions can give a change in outcome, a large change in initial conditions is pretty likely to do so as well.

I also think it is interesting that we like to give such unseen forces a personality, even though any rational thought puts them down as a number of coincidences. In the end, it is just down to the irrevocable fact that scientists are human too. We like something to believe in.

Getting Value From Twitter

I have heard a number of people say that the microblogging site Twitter is largely a waste of time and of little practical value, especially for those who’s time is precious. As a Twitterer myself, I’d like to spend a post defending my ‘waste of time’.

The main complaint against the site is that it has what most scientists would see as a low signal-to-noise ratio: in other words, there are lot of people talking but not so many saying anything very important. And in any case, they only have 140 characters, so can’t say much in any detail anyway. The amount going on is overwhelming, where do you even start? Plus there are all these celebrities twittering away, which surely shows what a shallow undertaking it must be?

These points are all valid and yet I still find value. Let me explain.

The signal-to-noise issue is quite simple. There are indeed people tweeting what they had for breakfast, but I quite simply do not follow those people. Excessive inanity is a quick way to get me to unfollow. In short, I look for people to follow that give me what I looking for in my twitter feed. So that is people talking science, about the pharmaceutical industry, about networking – all professionally-related subjects. I also follow people more for my own entertainment – several news people, and rather more than I expected related to soccer (but given the approaching World Cup, perhaps understandable). I have dropped people from my follow list for going off-subject too often (though I am forgiving of the occasional aside, as I hope those that follow me are as well!). I have become a little more picky about new follows too – will they add to what I am already getting?

So to come back to the signal-to-noise ratio, mine has been tuned to the wavelength I like and thus the signal is strengthened.

The 140 character limit is occasionally restricting, but Twitter is not the place for verbose exposition. The ideal tweet contains, essentially, a headline and a link. If the headline told you all you needed, then move on. If you want to know more, the link will take you to a website where a more complete treatment of the subject can take place. The headline/link combination is important, as I don’t tend to click on Twitter links (which are ubiquitously shortened URLs) if I don’t have a good idea of where it is taking me. There is an amount of trust I put in those I follow to give me links that are valuable – I don’t want to click on a link and find myself somewhere …. unsavory.

When I first got a twitter account, I had no idea at all where to start. What you need are a few people to follow, then you can see who they follow, what they re-tweet. So slowly you can build up a portfolio of twitters. It takes time though. A lot of people lose interest or just give up in frustration before they have established themselves. That’s OK. There are other ways to get what you want.

That last point is important. I see blog posts from In the Pipeline, market news, interesting tid bits from various journals. But I could get those things in other ways. I don’t use Twitter to keep up with my ‘main’ journals – I have those in an email feed. RSS feeds and numerous other methods (even *shock* non-electronic ones!) can all get you the information that you are looking for. Twitter works for me and I like it because of the occasional unexpected things that come up, plus you can interact with the senders of those articles much more easily. People have compared Twitter to a noisy cafe where lots of people are talking about all kinds of things and overhearing what the next table are talking about, then throwing their 2 cents in. It is rather like that, but cutting out some of the background makes it rather easier to cope with.

I will follow this post up with one about how I use Twitter, which is probably quite different to how many others use it, plus some interesting people to follow!