Biomedical Opportunities Seen As Rare Bright Spot On Chemistry Job Horizon

Chemistry Job Horizon Author: MARCIA CLEMMITT, p.1 Especially for inorganic chemists, the employment picture for the discipline is said to be the grimmest it has been in decades A recent survey reveals that chemists currently face one of the worst job markets in the past 20 years in their discipline. Yet many of them believe that their field's growing importance to other research areas, especially biomedicine, will put chemists in a better position than many other science professionals

Aug 23, 1993
Marcia Clemmitt

Chemistry Job Horizon Author: MARCIA CLEMMITT, p.1

Especially for inorganic chemists, the employment picture for the discipline is said to be the grimmest it has been in decades

A recent survey reveals that chemists currently face one of the worst job markets in the past 20 years in their discipline. Yet many of them believe that their field's growing importance to other research areas, especially biomedicine, will put chemists in a better position than many other science professionals to benefit from any future economic upturn.

"The Ph.D.'s we produce are getting jobs, in part because the pharmaceutical industry has remained healthy," says Craig Hill, a professor of chemistry at Emory University in Atlanta. Emory's chemistry program is largely oriented toward biology and medicine, Hill says, and he attributes much of his graduates' success in the job market to that fact. "But there's no question the employment market is tough," he says, "especially in areas of chemistry less relevant to medical applications. Jobs for formal inorganic chemists, for example, are clearly limited."

The most recent annual employment survey conducted by the American Chemical Society (ACS), revealed that, as of March 1, 1993, 2 percent of chemists surveyed described themselves as unemployed and looking for work. While that number may seem insignificant compared with unemployment figures for the population as a whole, ACS statisticians report that it reflects the highest percentage of unemployment among chemists since 1983. (United States Department of Labor statistics for March showed overall unemployment at 7.3 percent, unemployment in the chemical and allied products industry at 5.6 percent, and unemployment among managerial and professional workers at 3 percent.) The survey results are likely to be a significant topic of discussion at ACS's annual meeting, being held August 22-27 in Chicago.

According to Joan Burrelli, ACS senior research analyst, who directed the survey, and Michael Heylin, editor of ACS's Chemical and Engineering News, who reported on the data in the publication's July 12 edition (71[28]:7-12, 1993), additional survey data show chemists' job prospects to be even dimmer, compared to the employment prosperity they have traditionally enjoyed. According to the survey, 7.2 percent of chemists currently work in what Heylin calls "unsatisfactory employment situations," including part-time jobs and postdoctoral and fellowship positions. That number is up from 6.5 percent a year ago and is the highest percentage in the last 20 years.

Both ACS and the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) sponsor job banks and other employment services for their members. Both groups say employer participation in job clearinghouses and job-listing services has generally declined over the past few years, while the number of individuals seeking positions has risen.

According to Anjalika Silva, a staff associate in ACS's office of employment services, both the number of "employer organizations attending ACS National Employment Clearing Houses, and interviews generated [at those meetings] have declined." But Silva says the downturn in attendance and interviewing is not a direct gauge of decline in the job market. Instead, Silva says, it's a measure of employers' more cautious and carefully targeted hiring practices. "A larger number of positions available are not publicly advertised to job seekers," Silva says. More employers are now specifically targeting job candidates to interview instead of making general job announcements.

In the past, established chemists and chemical engineers have been hired in large numbers by the major chemical, fuel, and consumer products industries. But employment service professionals and scientific recruiters say that picture has now changed, with smaller companies making up a higher percentage of the job market, more interviews targeted to specific skills and specific candidates, and significantly better job prospects for younger scientists, who can be paid less and may be more flexible.

For example, a spokesman for AIChE reports that while large companies still employ the greatest percentage of that organization's membership, the past few years have seen big increases in chemical engineers hired by environmental engineering firms and the materials, biotechnology, and electronics industries, all sectors largely dominated by smaller, younger companies. The reason for this, industry experts say, is that the larger companies have curtailed hiring, while other industries are discovering an enhanced need for more chemists.

Jeffrey Weiss, assistant general manager of the Los Angeles-based scientific recruiting firm Search West, says most of the biotech and biomedical firms he deals with are targeting chemists with specific skills, such as protein purification and polymer chemistry. These chemists are being incorporated into small, focused research teams working on particular projects or products, as opposed to the practice of maintaining a large, more generalized scientific work force. In addition, Weiss says, such firms often "seem to be looking for people two or three years out of the postdoc, perhaps because they're seen as young enough to change with the times," and pursue avenues outside of their established research interests.

ACS's most recent employment clearinghouse found chemists with six to 10 years of experience receiving the greatest number of interviews, with the next largest number going to those with zero to five years of experience, according to ACS employment specialist Silva. Meanwhile, chemists with 16 to 30 years' experience fared worst, with only half of that group receiving interviews.

According to ACS data and many scientific recruiters and individual chemists, several fields, notably analytical chemistry, synthetic organic chemistry, and polymer chemistry, head the list of subspecialties currently most in demand by industry.

At ACS's March 1993 employment clearinghouse, for example, job seekers registered as polymer chemists and organic chemists received the highest percentage of interviews, with analytical chemists receiving only slightly fewer. Inorganic chemists garnered few interviews, while physical chemists fared worst among the major chemical subfields, with only a little more than one half the candidates receiving interviews. Of available job openings posted by employers before the clearinghouse, the largest number were for analytical chemists, the second largest number for organic chemists.

Chemists say their discipline is rapidly becoming of central importance to research in biology and physics because of the increasing significance of molecular expertise in both disciplines--imaging in biology and condensed-matter research in physics, for example.

Pharmaceutical companies--long an employer of chemists--are finding even more uses for some chemical specialties as they try to design drugs based on new understandings of very large molecules. Biotechnology companies and companies trying to develop medical diagnostic tools have also begun to hire chemists.

"Today much of biochemistry has been handed over to chemists," says University of Chicago chemistry department chairman Jeremy Burdett. "Chemists used to regard large [biological molecules] as blobs. But new imaging techniques [such as spectroscopy, X-ray crystallography, and multidimensional nuclear magnetic resonance imaging] have allowed us to see them as simply molecules. Chemists know how to deal with molecules."

That training in understanding molecules means "chemists can move easily into the biosciences, in a way that biologists simply `can't move into chemistry," says Koji Nakanishi, Centennial Professor of Chemistry at Columbia University. Nakanishi says some students from his organic chemistry lab now work as biochemists "and even immunologists."

Young chemists who hone the time-honored skills of isolation and purification of compounds, molecular structure determination, and molecular synthesis, and also become familiar with the language of the biosciences, should find increasing opportunities in biomedicine, Nakanishi and others say.

In particular, "a lot of biotech companies are realizing they can't operate without organic chemists," says Rice University chemistry professor Marco Ciufolini. Further evidence of a growing chemistry/ biotech connection can be seen in data from ACS's most recent employment clearinghouse, in which biotechnology jobs made up the third-highest category of available positions posted before the event.

Clinical chemists, who develop methods of monitoring enzymes, drugs, and other chemicals in human patients and supervise the application of those methods, represent another biomedicine- related chemistry specialty that may be of growing interest to employers. Medical centers, medical testing laboratories, and pharmaceutical companies have been the largest employers of clinical chemists. But as more firms try to develop instruments for diagnosis and patient monitoring, "a lot of clinical chemists are now going into industry," says Barbara Goldsmith, director of clinical chemistry at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children in Philadelphia.

Chemical engineers also seem increasingly able to transfer their skills into some newly expanding areas, notably environmental engineering, according to human resources experts and AIChE. "Chemical engineering is an excellent intellectual base for dealing with environmental contaminants, and there's certain to be more demand for that," says Fred Schulz, a chemical engineer and principal officer of ESOF Co., a technical marketing and human resources firm in Cincinnati.

Much current chemistry research involves chemistry's interface with physics, particularly in the creation of new materials with novel physical properties. But while such studies form a large part of the academic research agenda, some chemists caution that real industrial development of such materials--and concomitant job creation for chemists--may be many years and scientific discoveries down the line.

"The materials science area is wide open. There are opportunities for dramatic discoveries from inorganic and organic chemists," says the Chicago's Burdett. "But you can't just cook something up, dump wide open. There are opportunities for dramatic discoveries from inorganic and organic chemists," says Chicago's Burdett. "But you can't just cook something up, dump it on a cold surface, and call it a new material. The challenge is: Given the elements, predict the structure, then predict the material's properties."

Without being able to make such predictions, creation of new materials is essentially random, Burdett says. Even the tiniest changes in chemical composition or in the process by which a compound is made can make an enormous difference in a material's properties, and so far scientists have only the barest understanding of the rules that govern such changes.

While most industrial chemistry labs focus on more traditional applications than do the academic labs where young chemists train, university chemists say that this shouldn't prevent young scientists from obtaining jobs.

"Industry cries out for polymer chemists, but there's damn little polymer research going on in academia," whose chemists tend to opt for more cutting-edge studies, says Emory's Hill. However, say Hill and others, organic chemists can remake themselves as polymer chemists in industry.

Robert Curl, a physical chemist who is chairman of the chemistry department at Rice, says that "the job situation is tight. But people do get jobs eventually. Physical chemists tend to become analytical chemists, where their skills in instrumentation [such as spectroscopy] are highly valued."

Despite the current slump, chemists seem optimistic that the versatility of their science means their long-term job prospects are good. "Our civilization puts a high value on the ability to make molecules, so my feeling is the future is very bright," says Rice's Ciufolini.

"The chemical industry is in a state of change now, the way the textile industry was in the 19th century. But in the future, chemists--especially synthetic organic chemists--should still be in the forefront, making high-value-added compounds, such as pharmaceuticals and compounds that are environmentally friendly."

Marcia Clemmitt is a freelance science writer based in Washington, D.C.