How are Careers in Chemistry Changing?

In the 2011 Nature article Let's get practical authors George Whitesides and John Deutch describes academic chemistry as increasingly incurious and risk-averse compared to the field in its infancy, when basic concepts regarding chemical bonding, kinetics, and thermodynamics were still being developed. Academia, industry, and government are described as the three legs upon which chemistry stands, with academia being the least profit driven and unconcerned with political agenda.

Chemist

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The drive for short-term profits in industry has dissuaded heavy investment in long-term research projects, favoring more reliable but slower incremental advancement regarding the adoption of new techniques and ideas. The allocation of funding by governments is also strongly driven by political policy and agenda, and while purportedly representing and prioritizing the most important societal issues, this policy may inhibit the generation of innovative science.

Further, the lack of impressive and ground-breaking discoveries in the eyes of investors and the public, who are ultimately responsible for allocating public spending and governmental policy towards research, erodes hope of future discoveries and limits investment in the field (Whitesides & Deutch, 2011). Lack of cohesion between these legs further sows separation and promotes difficulties; for example, Salzer (2012) notes that taught academic courses tend to emphasize synthetic chemistry, while the demands of industry call for a much greater proportion of formulation chemists.

As a demographic, chemists are an aging population, with most workers aged around 50 and an average age of 41, according to Zippia employment analysts (accessed 3rd May 2022). Participation in lifelong learning decreases after the age of 34, making the prospect of respecializing less likely with age. Most chemists obtained their highest degree in traditional chemistry disciplines such as organic (24%), physical (10%), or inorganic (10%), despite these specific fields representing 10%, 4%, and 3% of jobs, respectively. Similarly, but in reverse, only around 11% of chemists obtain their highest degree in the broad field of analytical science, while 15% of jobs are in this field (Salzer, 2012).

Are traditional chemistry disciplines still useful?

As the central science, many of the most serious problems to humanity and interesting questions remaining in science belong to the field of chemistry, from the solution to global carbon dioxide management to describing the origin of life. The authors of Let's get practical suggest that the most established universities are falling behind in this regard, standing by already well-explored fields such as synthetic organic chemistry rather than investing in newly emerging major fields such as environmental and life sciences.

In a sense, the function of a chemical has become a more significant area of investigation than the structure of said chemical, with analytical techniques having advanced sufficiently to describe chemistry and chemical reactions in great detail. Regarding the life sciences, general society considers it more important that medicine is efficacious and safe than to understand the intricacies of molecular structure.

The authors also suggest that academic chemistry is overpopulated, and scarcity of funding encourages a protective peer-review system that favors already established fields. Further, scientists have become increasingly specialized in their particular fields over the last century, and chemists are no exception. As a result, published work becomes more narrow in scope since work outside of the direct specialty of the researcher or research group becomes increasingly complex and costly in terms of collaboration with researchers of differing specialism (Whitesides & Deutch, 2011). Interdisciplinary research centers that bring together research groups of differing specializations to one location or alternatively integrate researchers of varying specialisms into one project team have proven successful in some cases, though potentially still restrict researchers to out-of-date specialization.

Whitesides & Deutch suggest totally doing away with traditional disciplinary structures in chemistry and re-aligning them with today's key issues: functional materials, energy, health, environment, and sustainability, etc., and to further encourage professors to allow graduate students greater leeway when designing and executing benchwork outside of traditional departmental roles. Soft and entrepreneurial skills have also been a stronger focus of well-rounded chemistry qualifications in recent years, particularly at the bachelors and masters level, for which a greater number of "generalist" chemistry jobs are available and don't require the extreme academic specialization of a PhD.

In the life sciences, computation, and automation have done away with many of the previously most populated jobs, with software constantly generating many times more lead drug compounds than would be possible by human chemists and industrial benchwork now performed by machinery on a scale unrealizable using human workers. A report by Alejandra Palermo of the Royal Society of Chemistry (2018) explores the future of the discipline of chemistry, noting the increased adoption of interdisciplinary studies that reflect the changing needs of academia and industry.

The author also highlights the role of the free market in the future direction of chemistry and its related fields, where public funding is increasingly being cut worldwide, and researchers must rely on funding from businesses. This has the additional implication of lessened "blue sky" research, with instead most science focusing on less risky project-focused work.

Chemists

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Last Updated: Feb 24, 2023

Michael Greenwood

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Michael Greenwood

Michael graduated from the University of Salford with a Ph.D. in Biochemistry in 2023, and has keen research interests towards nanotechnology and its application to biological systems. Michael has written on a wide range of science communication and news topics within the life sciences and related fields since 2019, and engages extensively with current developments in journal publications.  

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