Uncertain job prospects for chemists and chemical engineers in 2002

November 11, 2001

Although many employers are still planning to increase their chemical workforce, there are likely to be fewer jobs available for the class of 2002 than there were for 2001, according to a special report in the November 12 edition of Chemical & Engineering News that examines the issues affecting the employment outlook for chemists and chemical engineers. C&EN is the weekly newsmagazine of the American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society.

The uncertain new business climate has put pharmaceutical, basic chemical, and petrochemical companies on edge, and many are limiting their recruitment for the 2002 season. They are still hiring selectively, though, especially synthetic organic chemists who are involved in drug discovery and development. Of the chemical-based industries, only the consumer products business still seems to have a bright future.

The shrinking number of openings combined with popular online applications mean recruiters are free to screen out all but the very best applicants.

"This year, the bar has been raised significantly higher than before. We are now looking for the best candidates, when before we would have taken very good to excellent ones," said John McKinnon, manager of Dow Chemical's R&D recruiting in North America.

Forensic chemistry is one field virtually guaranteed to escape the current recession unscathed. With a huge backlog of DNA samples from crime scenes and prosecutors demanding ever more genetic studies, experts predict that 10,000 new forensic scientists will be needed over the next ten years. Chemists and biologists at every degree level will be hired to tackle the job, and most of the new openings are likely to be in the private sector.

The situation is also still bright for those hoping to enter academia. A survey by the Council for Chemical Research found that 69 chemistry, biochemistry, and chemical engineering departments were seeking 89 new junior faculty members, and the C&EN job pages have carried about 50 openings for assistant professors in tenure-track positions every week.

Those chemists who are already employed caught up to the economic boom just as it ended. As of March 2001, the chemistry unemployment rate was at its lowest level in a decade. Established chemists reported salaries rising faster than inflation, and new graduates' starting salaries rose for the fourth consecutive year.

This meant that chemists were earning about the same as physicists and life scientists, except for those life scientists who work in medical schools.

Physicists with doctorate degrees earn a median salary of $78,000 while Ph.D. chemists earn $79,000. At the master's level, chemists earn $62,000 and physicists earn $63,000. Bachelor's degree physicists make $60,000, while chemists at the same degree level earn $53,100, according to studies done by the American Institute of Physics and the American Chemical Society.

Life scientists in academic medicine earned $145,000, while those in nonacademic work averaged $140,000. For microbiologists in academia, the average salary was $70,000 and nonacademic microbiologists earned $83,000. Academic cell biologists earned $68,000 and those employed outside the university made $85,000, according to a survey commissioned by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In comparison, the median academic salary for chemists was $63,000 and nonacademic salary was $88,000.

American Chemical Society

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