To PhD or Not to PhD? (PART 2)

Here I am, back again to tackle the age-old question (well, the burning question of the past 15 years if you're a chemist, at least): to PhD or not to PhD? In the first part, I wrote about the pros and cons of getting a PhD in the sciences, using chemistry in particular because that is my field. My conclusion/opinion was that it was solely dependant on the individual to decide, but that you should go into graduate school knowing that your job prospects are grim (for the reasons discussed previously). But just how bad is the job market for new PhD scientists? That is the subject of Part 2.

First, I'm going to state upfront that this post isn't going to involve a discussion on statistics or have links to relevant studies, not because I haven't read them (I have) but because other people have already written about these, and done it well. In particular, I would point you towards Chemjobber's blog which regularly updates chemists on the job market's ups and (mostly, these days) downs. Also, keep in mind that these are just my observations and opinions, and that I've been lucky enough to have had steady employment as a chemist since I got out of school in 2008. With that out of the way, let's dive into the discussion and ask the question:

Just how bad is the job market?

The chemistry job market had already been slowing down considerably when I finished my postdoc in 2008 and got my first job. About a month after I started working, the housing bubble burst and with it, the economy, which had already been teetering for a while, absolutely cratered. Along with everything else, it deeply affected the job market, not just for scientists but for everyone. However, the science job market, which had already been sliding for several years due to a variety of factors (shipping of jobs over to Asia, stagnant/declining salaries, oppressive federal regulations, etc) was hit particularly hard by the economic downturn. While I was lucky to find employment, many of my former classmates and colleagues from graduate school and my postdoc weren't as lucky. They, along with others whom I would speak to at technical conferences and meetings during those years told me how they were using their postdocs not only as part of their training, but as a way of maintaining some semblance of steady employment while they looked for full-time positions that just weren't out there. Many of them stayed at their postdocs for longer than the usual 2-3 years, many of them were forced to leave earlier than they'd intended due to funding running out, and several jumped to additional postdocs. Unfortunately, these are all patterns that have become more and more common within the field. However, the consequences of this are quite negative, as postdoc salaries are only a step above the stipend one makes as a graduate student. Additionally, there are typically not health benefits associated (at least there weren't when I was a postdoc..maybe that's changed now? Please update me on this if you know differently). It forces many people to delay marriage, starting a family, buying a house, and settling down until they have a steady job, which can oftentimes last well into one's 30s. I elaborated on this in Part 1 so I won't rehash it here, but suffice to say it is still a grim time to be looking for a job in chemistry, especially for new graduates looking to make their first entrance into the workforce.

This leads me to the next part, which is that at least in industrial science (which is what I know), even an abundance of job postings relevant to your skills doesn't necessarily mean that things are looking up. Why is this, you ask?  There are a few reasons, including:

1) Companies are much less willing to train someone who can't hit the ground running from day one.  It used to be that if a company was hiring for a position and you fit ~70% of the criteria they were looking for, they would have no problem hiring you and training you to get you up to speed in order to perform the job. In many cases, you might not even have needed to fit the criteria that much...if you had skills they liked and a good work ethic (with good references), they would hire you and train you. Nowadays, because it's such a buyer's market, they're much less willing, it not willing at all, to do this. Because they don't have need them much more than they need you.

2) Many positions are only listed online to comply with federal law. Many companies have no intention of looking at resumes and bringing people in for interviews. They want to hire from within and often already have someone picked out for the role. Or, they have poached their desired candidate from another company and just have to go through the motions of posting a job online, again to comply with employment law. That's why job listings will often look like they were written for one person specifically...because often, they are. Or, they are written that way because...

3) ...It's such a buyer's market that companies are more than happy to sit back and take their time waiting for that one perfect candidate to fall into their lap. It's analogous to trawling a fishing line with no bait on the hook waiting for that one fish in the entire ocean to bite. This goes hand in hand with point #1 that I made above: because it's a buyer's marker and there are more people looking for jobs than there are open positions, companies don't have to fill them right away...they can wait until the person who fits their job description to a T applies. That's why you see such detailed and technical listings: rather than saying "we are looking for a synthetic chemist with experience in nitrogen-containing compounds," you'll see an ad that says "we are looking for a synthetic chemist who has experience preparing N-substituted hetereocycles that contain 5- to 7-membered rings that also happen to have ester groups in the 3-position and which are solids with melting points between 100 and 155 oC. Must have 7.5 years experience with these molecules." I may be exaggerating a bit, but not by much. Believe me, if you've ever seen the same job listed month after month (or in some cases, year after year), it's either because of point #2 above, or it's because of this.

As you see, there is a lot of overlap between the three reasons I've listed above, but having had experienced all of that firsthand over the years, I am confident that what I've written is true. The takeaway message is that those doing the hiring are firmly in the driver's seat at the moment. It's the age-old example of supply and demand, and in the case of science PhDs, the supply far outweighs the demand. It had been trending this way over the last decade and this has been the status quo since 2008 and shows no signs of abating, especially with groups like the ACS and the federal government pushing for more STEM graduates to flood the market for jobs that simply aren't there right now. Of course there are exceptions to all of this, but based on personal experience and observations, this seems to be the norm by far. I've personally experienced how hard it can be to find a new position, and I've been in the fortunate position of looking for a new job while I had a job. There is an old saying that it's easier to find a job when you have a job; conversely, it's said that it's much harder to find one when you're unemployed. Fair or not, this is the truth and with so many PhD scientists of varying experience levels either trying to enter the workforce with no experience or numerous PhD scientists out of work and looking to re-enter it, it doesn't show any signs of changing.

Obviously, it's hard for me to say that because the job market is bad that one shouldn't get a science PhD and try to get a job doing science, especially if that is what one's true passion is. However, the fact that the input/output ratio is not skewed in your favor during the best of times, and the fact that these are far from the best of times, makes it hard to say that it would be a good career path to head down for someone just starting out. Yes, things like this are cyclical and have a way of self-correcting, but not always, and the short-term prognosis is not good. Again, it's down to personal preference and I don't want to definitively say yes or no because it's not up to me to decide what is best for each individual...that's up to them to decide. I hope that I have at least given you food for thought, and I would welcome any discussions about your experiences in the science job market in the comments section below.


  1. Dear Drew,

    I read both posts in this series and kudos to you for writing this. I wish those thinking of doing Ph.D could read this before starting their journey. You have touched all aspects of this with perfect balance.

    20's is such part of life where you have lots of energy ( not that you lose it completely afterwards), enthusiasm, hope and dreams. You were lucky to have it all wrapped up and get a job in 8 years. The average, now a days, seems to be ten years. Which means the best decade of your life goes, working in an environment which is very stressful (mentally, financially and personally if you have plans to get married and start a family at a decent age in life as you have elaborated in your posts).

    The question is about satisfaction at the end of this journey. I think people who are determined to go to academia have no choice but to go through it come what may. But if you like to work in a lab and add to science, I think doing a masters and moving on an industry job and rising through the ranks quickly through hard work is a better option. It would keep you getting somewhat decent salary and health benefits and that could be more satisfying than working for a decade hardly making your ends meet and then ending up with a big struggle to get a job.

    Though your posts are flawless (except for a typo in post one- Radio for ratio when you are talking about input output), one caution that may be added is that unlike the bachelors (typically 4 to 4.5 years) or masters (2-3 years), Ph.D could very easily go from 3-9 years in science. There is absolutely no way of knowing how much is 'enough' to complete your degree and at the end of the day you are at your advisor's mercy to give it a closure. All committees/mechanisms to help you out in the situation of finding how much work is 'enough' is farce in most of the cases. This could lead one to be very depressed and angered for good few years ( if you are graduating past six years).

    But overall, brilliantly written. Here is round of applause from me.

    Hope all is well.


    1. Nihar, great to hear from you! How are you doing? I hope things are going well for you!

      Thanks for the kinds words (and for catching that typo...I fixed it! :-). I agree with you, it is not all about money and status as far as the career goes...satisfaction, as you say, is one of the most important parts of the entire journey. I know that, for me, I'm very happy being in industry and working in the lab and being in the "real world" as opposed to academia where it is a never-ending struggle for funding, tenure, publications...I know some people love that, but it's not for me.

      Your point about a PhD being open-ended, especially in recent years, is a good one...I somewhat had that experience where I had to gently sway my advisor just a little bit that I was ready to finish when I was, but I've known other people who were doing PhD or postdoc (not in my groups) who were wholly at the mercy of their advisors, and it was tough for them to have to delay moving on to the next stage of their life because they didn't know if they would have a job, how much their income would be, etc. There is an excellent series of articles about this (and the mental health/depression aspect you touched upon) on ChemJobber's site, I recommend it as it's well worth reading.

      If you don't mind me asking, what are you up to? Where are you working? Enjoying it? Hope everything is going well!

  2. Thanks Drew for suggesting Chemjobber's site. I already checked couple of articles there and liked them. I am doing good good. Finished graduate school in early 2012 and then moved on to my Ph.D PI's start-up company since then. Liking so many good things happening research wise and otherwise. I have started doing poetry in Hindi in my free time since 2012. Had few poems published in a book with some other poets and now getting ready to publish my solo book. So, these days when it is not science, it is poetry :).

  3. That's great! I hear you, it's good to have a creative outlet and it seems that we chemists seem to be very creative outside of the laboratory as well as inside it. Congratulations on your book! I've published two books myself so I know how much work (and how rewarding!) it is.
    Are you still living/working in the Clemson area then? I was living and working back home in Boston until about 6 months ago when I took a new job in PA. I'm still adjusting to living here, but I love my job!


Post a Comment