So is chemistry a marketable degree or not?


Last week I wrote about the conflicting signals that students must be receiving about what to major in, considering the fluctuating job market.

One of the surprising bits was that recent data shows chemistry is a clunker of a degree.

That flies in the face of all the STEM hype that we’ve been reading.

So I asked University of Minnesota chemistry professor Chris Cramer to give me his thoughts.

He brought up the (to me) surprising point of how off-shoring has eaten into the number of chemistry jobs, and that marketability often depends on what level of chemistry degree a student has.

Here’s the main part of what he e-mailed back:

My son is studying astrophysics, and I constantly badger him to think about biophysics, as I think the latter has a WHOLE lot more upside potential than the former. So, he gleefully sent me that WSJ article about 0% unemployment in astrophysics. I told him that journalists just didn’t realize that when you divide zero people by zero available jobs, the answer is undefined, NOT zero percent…

My guess is that the rap against Chemistry reflects job losses in the U.S. associated with Thomas Friedman’s flat Earth. That is, why would I pay a BS chemistry $45,000 per year to do routine analysis that I can have done in China by someone wiling to work for $6,000 per year? Many chemical industry jobs are much like manufacturing — easy to offshore.

There has also been incredibly stupid willingness on the part of most major companies to cut their investments in research/development in order to satisfy stockholders who want constant quarterly profits (the US pharmaceutical industry has a development pipeline that is alarmingly empty…), but that’s a different story.

Chemistry is sort of a funny degree. If you stop at the Bachelor’s level, the job market is so-so at best. At the Master’s level, there are LOTS of jobs, and at the doctoral level, things are quite a bit tighter but the upside potential is very strong for good people (like most of those graduating from R1 institutions). The Master’s degree is a sweet spot because the balance of training vs. market salary is right where industry is most happy.