On the Lack of Scientists

The Higher Education bubble is a persistent theme over at Instapundit, and I thought an observation he made about the constant yammering about the need for scientists among politicians is pretty spot on:

I was talking with someone the other day who advanced the proposition that there are probably only 50 really first-rate scientific minds produced in the United States every year. And then came the question: Does the current system of training and funding scientists encourage those 50 to stay in the game, or to find something else to do?

Original post here. At my previous small pharma company that went under a year ago, I was one of the highest paid employees that wasn’t in executive management. The typical person in my field has a bachelors degree, or usually at most a master’s degree. I hold a B.S. in Computer Engineering. Many of the people making less than me held a Ph.D. in Chemistry or Biology. If we were truly short on this skill, the market would pay these people more. As it is, the pharmaceutical industry has a glut of scientists. Many of the people I’ve worked with have not found new permanent employment, and those that have took pay cuts.

The problem is, as Professor Reynolds mentions, that many scientists just have the wrong skills. Just because you have a Ph.D. doesn’t make you any more immune to marketplace changes than anyone else. The fact is that bench chemistry is something easily outsourced to places like China and India, where labs can be run for a fraction of the cost they can be run here. Also, not all bench chemistry requires an advanced degree. The people I know who are still employed, and who improved their lot in terms of career, were experienced medicinal chemists who were very good at analyzing data, and understanding what the data was telling them about where to go in their design process for a potential drug.

The fact is, the market right now is absolutely saying we need fewer, but better scientists. Anything politicians are telling you about a shortage, at least in the fields of Chemistry and Biology, is a load of bunk.

22 Responses to “On the Lack of Scientists”

  1. Publius says:

    You’re telling me. I am a chemist with a master’s degree from a top-drawer school, and three additional years of graduate education (the Ph.D. wasn’t in the cards, I guess), and I’ve been looking for work without success since the end of February. If there really were a shortage, I would have had multiple job offers as soon as I made it known that I was looking. Instead I’ve applied to hundreds of places, gotten a single interview for a lowly position paying 2/3 the supposed going rate for people with my qualifications, and apparently didn’t even get that even though the interview seemed to go all right.

  2. Harold says:

    There’s been a glut of biologists since at least the ’80s, even before the NSF in that decade started its pump priming wage suppression campaign.

  3. SDN says:

    Wonder how that demand would be affected if fewer H1B visas were handed out?

    • Sebastian says:

      I don’t think H1B visas are the problem. Most bench synthesis is heading overseas, and it isn’t going to be coming back.

    • Ian Argent says:

      H1B visa holders have to live in the same country we do – if they’re driving wages down, they’re going to drive down prices as well.

      In my field, the demand seems to be for people who can solve problems without handholding; at least, that’s who gets the big bucks.

    • Publius says:

      That’s not what annoys me. What annoys me is the foreigners who come here for the free grad school (most chem and physics grad students are funded by the taxpayers through grants & teaching assistantships) then go back to their home countries rather than staying here & contributing to our economy. It’s like we’re paying them to achieve skills which are then used to take jobs away from us.

      • Alpheus says:

        As someone who has a PhD in math, I wouldn’t say that the grad school is free: there are papers to grade, people to teach and tutor, and in the case of STE, experiments to run.

        To further complicate the problem, I don’t know what fraction of people who come here on H1A visas, end up going back home because they can’t get work visas to stay here…immigration law is really aweful. It could use a great simplification!

        • Alpheus says:

          Oh, and I forgot to add: stipends don’t always cover your living expenses. About 70% of the student loans I currently cannot pay off were acquired while I was a grad student.

          • Andy B. says:

            I’d add, that I’m not so sure all those foreign students are attending “free” or on the taxpayers’ dime, in some way.

            When I was in (engineering) graduate school 35 years ago it was teeming with Iranian students — most of them paid for by the Shah. The Universities loved it.

            Just sayin’ — don’t assume everyone without a visible means of support, is automatically supported by you.

            • Publius says:

              Most are. We have one guy now who has money from China, but if they are on TA they are getting paid by the school and if they are on RA it’s funded out of a grant. Almost all the grants in chemistry are funded by the DOE, the NSF, the NIH, or occasionally some organization under the umbrella of the DOD (all Federal monies).

        • Publius says:

          We get better stipends than math typically does. Still not much, but enough to pay rent, buy gas & groceries, and occasionally go out for brewskis. Agreed on the grading papers crapola–between that & everything else I easily put in 80 hours a week. Not even close to making minimum wage… I had to take out loans one semester because I got myself into trouble with the department, but those don’t amount to much so if i can find employment I’ll be fine.

          • Harold says:

            Not even close to making minimum wage…

            Which points out something to think about: opportunity cost:

            Opportunity cost is the cost of any activity measured in terms of the value of the next best alternative forgone (that is not chosen). It is the sacrifice related to the second best choice available to someone, or group, who has picked among several mutually exclusive choices. The opportunity cost is also the “cost” (as a lost benefit) of the forgone products after making a choice. Opportunity cost is a key concept in economics, and has been described as expressing “the basic relationship between scarcity and choice”. The notion of opportunity cost plays a crucial part in ensuring that scarce resources are used efficiently. Thus, opportunity costs are not restricted to monetary or financial costs: the real cost of output forgone, lost time, pleasure or any other benefit that provides utility should also be considered opportunity costs.

            For some of us it doesn’t particularly matter; I knew from first grade that science was my calling.

            • Publius says:

              I knew the stakes, placed my bets, and lost. I should have taken a job right out of college–there actually were jobs out there back then–but I didn’t want to do any job in chemistry that only required a BS.

              As far as field, it was either chemistry (I did theoretical/physical) or one of the following: history, English, classics, or foreign languages for me. I would have enjoyed any and all of the others 10 times better, but long-term job & financial prospects seemed better with the first one so off I went.

        • Ian Argent says:

          This – I know far too many people who are trying to give it a go legally. And you should hear what they have to say about line jumpers…

  4. Alpheus says:

    What, there is a demand for STEM majors?!? Anyone need a mathematician? I have a PhD, and I’ve been miserable these past four years or so, because I’ve been working full-time, just barely scraping out a living as a computer programmer. I could use a job where I can get back to mathematical thinking!

  5. Andy B. says:

    Maybe a couple points can be made from the following story, even if it is a bit dated:

    When I was in graduate school, supported by a corporation, back in the ’70s, I got an annual review in which my managers concluded that “Even though Andy almost has his PhD, he is still capable of doing outstanding work. . .”

    Definitely a message was being sent, but what was its broader meaning? Do managers in the trenches still have the same attitudes today? Is our love for higher education a myth, and do we as a society only pay lip-service to it?

  6. Acme Rocket says:

    I’m in a similar situation to Publius. A recent MS graduate in organic chemistry. I was lucky to find a job as a temporary contractor with a big company. Virtually every other job being advertised are only looking for PhD chemists with previous industrial experience.

    Hang in there Publius. Don’t worry about taking the position that pays shit. A year working in industry looks a hell of a lot better on a resume than recent graduate with several papers to your name.

    To some degree, efficient bench chemistry REQUIRES an advanced degree. Most BS chemists can follow a simple procedure and maybe do some optimization. However, graduate level education/training is absolutely necessary to acquire the skills needed to be independent and proficient at the bench.

    • Andy B. says:

      A year working in industry looks a hell of a lot better on a resume than recent graduate with several papers to your name.

      When I was about to receive my BS from an Ivy League University, a very highly regarded Professor Emeritus held (by popular demand) a get-together for the students of our department, for us to ask questions about our directions for the future. At the time the university was changing the titles of our degrees, but our class still had the option of retaining the old (and arguably more descriptive) title, if we chose. Of course, someone asked him about that. His answer was “There is little that is less important — remember that the day you accept your first job, your education becomes ancient history.”

      That phrase certainly deserves some qualification, but in general it is true. Once you have gone to work you are known by your reputation and work experience, and virtually nothing else.

      I will qualify that myself, as being true for professions where you are expected to produce something tangible. I’ve never been certain that it’s true for BS professions.

      • Ian Argent says:

        It’s sort of true in the IT field. HR tends to use degrees as a filtering mechanism, but the actual managers don’t seem to care as much; especially once you have a few years of experience under your belt.

  7. Overthetop says:

    I’ve got the same credentials as Publius, BS/MS in Organic Chemistry from good schools. I was fortunate enough to land a bench chemistry job in big pharma right out of grad school, but a lots as happened in my few years of working. Half my fellow chemists have been let go, and most have had to switch fields and take pay cuts. Many of these were very good chemists- when your company keeps slashing jobs, eventually you aren’t cutting the bottom 20%…you are cutting quality workers. As for me, I’m attending an evening law school program locally and have moved away from the bench and into the patent law arena. The moral of my experience is that we need more scientists like we need more Chevy Volts….

  8. Felix says:

    There’s another factor. The more specialized your education, the more your paint yourself into a niche which may pay very well, but ONLY if you can get a job which requires that specialty. Not only does it make it harder to find that specialty job, it makes prospective employers allergic to you — they wonder if you are only applying out of desperation, and whether you will jump ship in six months if the niche does become available.