One of my department manager duties is to review resumes sent to colleagues in other departments. HR gets them and records them and distributes them for review. Earlier in the 1st quarter we had to review a large stack of resumes from well qualified people. Perhaps 4/5 of them were from people in industry who had been let go. For the most part the applicants were chemists from the pharma field. Most had quite impressive backgrounds with lots of publications, patents, and responsibilities. More than a few could have been my boss. It was a sobering experience to see so many good professionals on the street.

I have been in such a position in the past. It is disorienting and deeply distressing to be let go. It is not unlike a death in the family. When you are a highly educated specialist, your ego is unavoidably tied into your career. Your career is who you are. No professional job, no value. No worth.  Even more maddening, it is difficult to stay connected with the profession when you are unemployed. You are off the train and standing there looking at it while it rolls into the distance. And chemistry is not a field of endeavor for the unaffiliated.

I still think of my lowest point between chemistry jobs.  I was working in construction and had spent the day in a  dirt crawl space pulling wire for a remodel job. It was up high in the mountains in the winter and it was very cold.  At the end of the day I drove down the canyon into Boulder and stopped at a pharmacy to pick up some cold medicine for my kid. I had to ask the pharmacist a question, so I stood there in dirty coveralls and muddy boots and asked about the dosing of the cold med for a 2 year old.

The pharmacist seemed exasperated for a moment, but then composed herself and spoke to me slowly while enunciating her words clearly. Her, the supermarket pharmacist, standing there on the raised platform in her white smock. Speaking slowly, so I’d understand. Simple words so I wouldn’t be confused. Me, standing there in Osh-Kosh coveralls and a filthy insulated work shirt draped over my aching body after a long day of labor in the dirt. I was a 40 year old apprentice electrician with a chemistry PhD who had hit the bottom of the ego pit. Or, so I thought.

I accepted her advice politely. I paid for the med and walked out to my pickup truck. What resonated so deeply was the realization of how it is that we judge people by their appearance. My grubby appearance had caused someone to presume that I was slow witted and in need of being patronized.

I had supposed that after this dose of humility there was no where else to go but up.  But I guessed wrong. There was much more to come.  When your ego has been roughed up, it can become inflamed and hypersensitive. Your sense of proportion can be lost.

Being discharged from your place of employment is one of lifes big shit sandwiches. While most people will learn and improve from it, it will always remain a sensitive spot in your psyche. You never forget the circumstances. Being called to a conference room only to find HR there with a table full of handouts and forms to sign. The metallic tang in your mouth as it dawns on you what is happening. The grim warning that your termination “package” is valid only if you agree not to sue or publically criticize your ex-employer.  But you sit there with tunnel vision and listening impairment. You’re nervous system is electrically charged with panic and the instant, crushing worry about how you’re going to keep your family fed and in shelter. As you take the last drive home you’re mind is numb.

Behind most every resume I read is a story of long term success and a recent setback. For those freshly out of work, the contrast between the emotional high and low is staggering.  I understand somewhat of the plight and angst they are feeling. But, like someone once said, the only way out is through. You have to be willing to start over down the pecking order to recover your career. Sometimes further down than you want. The cherished notion of seniority is one that will have to be reconsidered.

I am starting to believe that this chemical unemployment wave is different. I think that we are seeing a phase change in how the chemical industry does business. The acceptability of outsourcing R&D is the reason for my pessimistic view. It has become axiomatic in many organizations now that R&D must be outsourced to countries where the overhead rate is substantially lower. And the outsourcing of R&D can only be bad for US chemists.