Pursuing a Ph.D. in Chemistry

What can you do to make yourself competitive in the job market?

Maybe you have gained admission to a PhD program or maybe you are starting your first year. Either way the concept of what you will do after a successful defense is going to be on your mind throughout school. You are investing 4–6 years of your life at minimum wage to get this Diploma.

This is a story in my PhD in Chemistry series. Check out my other stories such as What is it like to be a Chemist?

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Photo by Duangphorn Wiriya on Unsplash

Here are a few things to consider:

  1. There are too many PhD chemists in the US for the amount of jobs available utilizing their chemistry skills. This is why there is an abundance of literature on “alternative careers” or “non-traditional careers
  2. The world needs a huge amount of skilled cheap labor to conduct basic research for next to nothing so there are plenty of openings for a new PhD students
  3. 25–30% of your classmates will likely not finish their PhD
  4. The major jobs for PhD holders in chemistry will be in R&D positions for companies that deal with polymers or pharmaceuticals
  5. R&D budgets are shrinking, but workload is increasing — only the efficient survive
  6. You need to beat out all of the unemployed experienced chemists to get a job and you need to beat out all of your peers and you need to be willing to relocate to some weird places
  7. You need to be exceptional

Still want to keep pursuing your PhD? If so then my advice is relatively simple for being competitive:

  • Do phenomenal work in polymer chemistry and materials science and gain as much application experience as you can (coatings, composites, adhesives, elastomers, etc)
  • Do phenomenal work in drug delivery of existing drugs (typically will involve polymer chemistry) or formulation of existing drugs to become more potent
  • Do phenomenal work in energy storage or materials that can generate energy (somewhere between chemsitry, materials science, and physics).
  • Publish early, publish often, and give yourself 6–8 months to find a job before you defend your thesis, which means all of your work needs to be done in about 2–3 years (don’t stay longer than 5 years).
  • If you can squeeze in enough work for two PhDs (i.e. the skills of two disciplines that would be great).

Still not believe me about needing to know polymer chemistry? I’ve met multiple medicinal chemists and biochemistry focused chemists who did post-docs in polymer chemistry so they could be competitive in finding jobs. Imagine that — spend 4–6 years getting a PhD and then finding out that getting a job is near impossible for you.

I have a classmate who was the same year as me and he managed to learn two computer languages and then got a job at Google… while doing his PhD. He successfully defended his PhD in chemistry as well (not related to programming). If he continues on his path successfully then his quality of life will likely be quite good, likely better than mine if I stay in chemicals.

When I meet PhD chemists outside of work functions they are often not working in chemistry. The labor market is scary for PhD chemists and it will only get more difficult with commodification and reduced margins of all products including pharmaceuticals year over year.

Forget about academia as a path forward. You’ll be 40, broke, and desperately applying to professor positions as either a super post-doc or lecturer.

I originally wrote this answer on Quora, but decided it was worth a re-post here. There are some slight edits.

Thank you for reading and hope you will consider following me: Anthony Maiorana

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Writer of The Polymerist newsletter. Talk to me about chemistry, polymers, plastics, sustainability, climate change, and the future of how we live.

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