Having interviewed numerous bachelors degree job candidates recently, I’m beginning to question some fundamental assumptions about the value of a BA/BS chemistry degree to industry.  Let me say from the outset that I wasn’t interested in hiring an analyst. There are plenty of analysts out there in the market, especially in the temp agencies. I’d been looking for someone to do synthesis. Both organic and inorganic.

Just to be clear, the slot has been filled, so don’t send your resume to me. Sorry.

I had the experience of interviewing a fresh BS chemist from a good- dare I say “elite”- school this week.  He had fulfilled the requirements for graduation and was sitting there at the table beaming at me with great confidence.  This fellow fared poorly on our application chemistry test, but was undeterred.

When asked as to the length and breadth of his organic synthetic experience in school, he admitted that it was limited to that obtained in sophomore organic chemistry.  He did have a trifle of inorganic synthesis experience- he made ferrocene once.  That being said, his interpretation of the NMR spectrum on the test was wrong, his understanding of carbocation stability trends was wrong, and he couldn’t calculate his way out of a paper bag.

This is not so unsual.

So here is what I have observed in the past 6 or 7 years interviewing BS chemists. Precious few of them had any demonstrable interest in organic chemistry or synthesis. It is not because they were lacking ability- they had not had the opportunity to practice the art. They might have been involved in some kind of research in their senior year, but very often it is involved in some highly specialized work with a very narrow scope. OK. That is the nature of research. It’s specialized.  I believe the college chemistry curriculum and the shifting interests of faculty to ultra specialized research are failing students.

I’m glad to hear that students at the local university have experience in operating a tunneling microscope or picosecond  laser equipment. But what about experience in basic synthetic transformations in actual glassware? How about a reduction of an ester or an amide with LAH? What about a catalytic hydrogenation or running a reaction with a Grignard reagent?  Are students limited to the microscale experience? Do chem majors get to handle greater than 100 mg of reagents? Do they learn to handle hazardous materials in a smart way, other than just learning tofear them?

This graduate that I interviewed had experience in some kind of nanoscience, but couldn’t say much at all about basic synthesis. When asked about Grignard reagents, he could not recall having heard of it.  What the hell good did the professor do for this kid?? The kid burned up his senior year doing deep-niche chemistry with skills of questionable transferability. He should have been doing distillations and crystallizations until he could coax pure subtsances out of a mixture that he/she made. That is what an undergrad should be doing.  An undergrad should be refining basic manipulation skills and accumulation experience in running diverse reactions.  Experience is proportional to the number of experiments run.

I have no reason to believe other than undergraduate chemistry education is failing to prepare bachelors students for the practice of the synthetic arts.  It has been my experience- perhaps yours is different- that students with an interest in synthesis go to grad school.  The problem with that is that it immediately doubles the cost of doing synthetic chemistry per unit chemist in society at large.

So, who is best served today in undergraduate education? The students or the institutions? Chemistry departments are faced with rising costs and diminishing funding, especially in public institutions. Faculty do what they know how to do. They promulgate scholarship. That is the comfort zone. And they develop strong opinions about who should join their ranks- people of like mind for the most part.

The pressure to minimize waste streams in undergraduate labs enabled the transition to microscale lab equipment. The development of computer technology has enabled the accumulation and treatment of data by semi-automated data collection tools and spreadsheets. Some of this is good- drudgery for its own sake is dumb. But we are removing students from contact with the very materials they study.  This is not how to accumulate expertise. This is expertise in automation and not automatically in chemistry. 

These graduates move into important roles in industry. Industry, contrary to a popular academic sentiment, isn’t merely a big sack of tedious details. It is a colossal part of our culture. We’re tool users and chemistry is one of the things that tool-using citizens do to improve our lot in life.  The synthetic arts in the USA are somewhat in decline as industry continues to outsource manufacturing and R&D (!!?) to India and China. The USA needs affordable labor to do synthetic chemistry. Continuing to stamp out PhD’s is not the answer. PhD’s are very expensive to have around, and while perhaps they do most of the critical discovery work, the costs are prohibitive. Just look around.

The USA needs a new cultural paradigm. We need a chemistry labor pool that consists of workers of high and medium skill to bring affordable and competitive products to market. Unless we figure this out we are headed for that realm of self-satisfied mediocrity that some of our neighbors across the Atlantic find themselves in. There are many examples of fallen empire around the world and the US is slouching in that direction.