Changing Career Pathways for College of Chemistry Graduates:
The Effect of Biotech and Silicon Valley

by Yvette Delahoussaye

The job market for chemists and chemical engineers is changing: jobs are advertised on the Internet, with companies posting jobs and mining websites for resumes to supplement the traditional recruiting done at on-campus meetings, in the back pages of journals, even by your next-door neighbors or former classmates.

"Chemists and chemical engineers are in high demand because they have received a very fundamental education," explains James Wong (B.S. Chem. '77, Ph.D. '81), senior engineering manager at IBM. "The skills and knowledge they learn through classes and projects can be applied to numerous industries."

The demand for chemists and chemical engineers today is coming from many sectors, with nontraditional industries such as biotech and electronic materials attracting more students than ever before and even luring scientists away from other fields.

This new job market is reflected in the makeup of the companies that court new Berkeley graduates. "The majority of companies attending our recruiting events in 2000 were pharmaceutical and biotech companies," according to Dexter Stewart, graduate recruiting coordinator for the Department of Chemistry. "There were a few of the big chemical companies, but they were really outnumbered by the pharmaceuticals. And the pharmaceutical and biotech companies generated a lot of interest among the students."

It is not only the biotech and pharmaceutical industries that are competing with chemical companies for graduate students. Gabor Somorjai, a professor of chemistry who studies the applications of surface chemistry on a molecular level, has companies such as IBM, Intel and Applied Materials vying for his students. Twenty years ago, he notes, half of his graduate students went on to academic posts and the other half went to the chemical and petrochemical industry. About ten years ago, this began to change. The same numbers still go on to academic positions, but most of his graduate students who enter industry now go to high-tech companies, Somorjai observes.

Additional support for a changing job outlook for chemists and chemical engineers comes from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which predicts that by 2008, the number of chemists employed in the pharmaceutical industry will be up 13 percent compared to 1998, while the number of chemists working in the chemical and petrochemical industries will fall slightly (~1 percent). At the same time, enrollment in graduate programs in chemistry and chemical engineering is declining, according to data from the National Science Foundation.

In other words, the demand for chemists and chemical engineers is strong, according to the NSF. And this can only mean that opportunities in industries across the board are going to continue to open up. However, these new jobs are not necessarily going to be in the traditional job markets or in the traditionally most desirable geographic locations. Future chemists and chemical engineers are going to have to be creative when it comes time to plan their careers.

Even professional organizations are weighing in with suggestions on how to prepare students for the changing market for science. For example, the Association of Science Professionals suggests that schools provide more opportunities for students to interact with individuals outside of the academic setting, including scientists in industry as well as in other careers, to allow students a wider range of experience to draw from when choosing their first job.