Prospects for MS Chemists

There have been a number of articles and blogs asking if we are generating too many Ph.D. chemists for the number of jobs in the U.S (with Bethany Halford’s C&E News article prominent). But less attention has been given to the prospects of Masters (and also Bachelor) level chemists.

I’ll confess that I had not given a great deal of thought to it until I got an email asking me my opinion. As we are all aware, a lot of chemistry is being outsourced and a major amount of the work that MS chemists get is exactly that which is most commonly being outsourced. A lot of the lab leg work, the working out synthetic routes and trying out chemistry. The production of a bulk intermediate. So is there much of a market for the Masters now and in the future?

This was certainly a bit of a wake-up call to me. My impression had always been that MS/BS chemists had an easier time getting a job than Ph.D.s, even if it was not always the ‘dream job’ they could get A job. Good research associates were a valuable resource, people you wanted as part of your organization. There have been points in my career where discussions have been had about how we could undo our Ph.D. and become MS chemists instead. Usually after seeing an ad for a nice job at a desirable company.

Some of this remains true. There are a number of MS/BS where I currently work who tend to be the longer term research associates, complemented by the more fluid post doc population and headed by the Principal Investigators. As a non-profit, money for salaries is tight and tied to grants coming in, so a large posse of research scientists is not sustainable. The research associates – under the direction of the P.I. – are well placed to do the lab work the projects need to move forward.

However, a non-profit like mine is a little removed from the norm. A lot of chemists have been laid off and the most recent report from the ACS (the 2009 survery) noted that unemployment was higher among MS chemists than their Ph.D. counterparts. There is still a need for associates, but my impression is that it is increasingly on short term contracts. The currently employed are not likely to give up their position to move around, making new opportunities scarce or short term.

One advantage is that MS chemists are not so specialized as Ph.D.s and so can be more adaptable. A colleague of mine had a roller coaster of a time, had two contract positions that were abbreviated even from what was initially mooted, but eventually landed a permanent position with a polymer company. Moving from a particular area like pharma into polymers or green energy perhaps looks more difficult for the Ph.D., but a MS should have more success. I think there are those contract positions out there too, which gives time to consider what you want to do. That might end up being getting out of lab work altogether and I will guess than more than a few will make that jump out of the lab.

I want to believe that there will be more opportunities down the road for chemists at all levels. They might be more in smaller companies (though getting the funding for such an enterprise still looks hard right now) but the challenges of working across disparate time zones means that some of the drug discovery work will remain on these shores. Companies will try to find ways to compete. Good associates are still a part of making that a success, so I hope we don’t lose all the best and brightest.

I’d welcome comments and feedback on this subject.

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This entry was posted in career.

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