Preparing to Enter the Global Chemistry Enterprise

By Dr. Joseph Francisco, ACS President, 2010

“When you start in science, you are brainwashed into believing how careful you must be, and how difficult it is to discover things. There's something that might be called the ‘graduate student syndrome;’ graduate students hardly believe they can make a discovery.”

—Francis Henry Compton Crick (1916–2004)

I regret that I never got to meet Francis Crick. By the time I arrived at Cambridge as a research fellow in 1983, Professor Crick had already relocated to the Salk Institute in California. Still, his collaboration with Chicago native James Watson, which led to the discovery of the structure of DNA, epitomizes the international and interdisciplinary nature of research. It is this global approach to science that is the emphasis of my term as ACS president.

Rigor and Innovation

First, let me give you my take on Dr. Crick’s quote. As a professor at Purdue University, I certainly emphasize the need for thoroughness and thoughtfulness to all my students, especially those at the graduate and post-doctoral level. There is no substitute for being careful in research. However, I hope my expectations for a meticulous approach to research have not added to the “graduate student syndrome” described by Dr. Crick. Instead, I believe careful attention to detail and analysis can eventually lead to innovations and discoveries that will benefit all of us, much as did the research of Watson and Crick.

Purdue’s graduate program in chemistry has pretty much the same goal as other schools—“to provide an environment for individuals to develop the skills to become leaders in scientific research and education, capable of making original contributions to the advancement of chemistry and related disciplines.”

Global Thinking

In today’s ever-expanding global chemistry enterprise, that means developing skill sets that will make you competitive with your peers in other parts of the world. As I emphasized in my Journal of Chemical Education statement,1 “The bottom line is: Global skills are important in getting the job, keeping the job, and getting ahead in the job.”

So what are some of those skills? Perhaps they include learning another language, taking part in an international research project, or becoming familiar with the intricacies of how our international colleagues approach science. An ACS working group is already recruiting key leaders from industry, academia, and government to help identify the specific skills that our students need to acquire in order to be competitive in the global chemical enterprise. Once the skills are outlined, then the objective will be to incorporate appropriate training into the university chemistry curricula. This type of international training is becoming ever more critical for our chemistry graduates. It is not unusual, for example, for a person to earn his or her doctorate, be hired by an international company, and then in a few months, be transferred to another country to work with an interdisciplinary research group that includes scientists from all over the world. I believe we have an obligation to our students to prepare them for that sort of scenario. We need to start by asking employers to tell us the skills they look for when recruiting new employees. Then we need to give our students the means to acquire those skills and meet the expectations of employers.

Another working group is exploring the creation of an ACS International Center that would be chemistry-centric. The center would foster the exchange of U.S. chemistry students with students and scientists from other countries. At present, we have no centralized place for such an undertaking. There are a few isolated agencies working toward similar goals, but no one specific focal point. The aim of the ACS International Center would be to give our domestic chemistry students the opportunity to work with their international counterparts and learn about new innovations from researchers around the world as a way to keep the flow of ideas moving and our chemistry pipeline populated.

Domestic Diversity

It is important that our pipeline be more representative of the demographics of American society. At present, underrepresented minorities account for only 5.2% of the doctoral candidates in chemistry, according to the Spring 2008 Survey of Ph.D. Programs in Chemistry, published by the ACS Committee on Professional Training. The breakdown of underrepresented minorities in the report is 2.5% Hispanic, 2.4% African American, and 0.3% Native American. Women are also underrepresented in chemistry Ph.D. programs, according to the survey, accounting for just 27.4% of the students. By comparison, the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2008 estimates for these demographic groups as part of our country’s total population are: Hispanic, 15.4%; African American, 12.8%; Native American, 1%; and women, 50.7%. Clearly, we have our work cut out for us if we ever hope to be more representative of our national demographics.

ACS programs such as Project SEED, the ACS Scholars Program, and our recently launched Diversity Partner Program are great initiatives that reflect ACS’ staunch support for increasing the representation and participation of all segments of our society in the chemical sciences. But it takes more than institutional programs to bring about change and progress. It takes individual commitment. It means each of us taking the time to be a mentor, an advocate, or both. I urge you to be proactive in these areas as you progress through your professional career.

My first active contributing role in ACS, beyond simply being a member, was as vice chair of the ACS Board Task Force on Minorities in Academia. I had the honor of serving with Professor Stan Israel, for whom the Stanley C. Israel Regional Award for Advancing Diversity in the Chemical Sciences is named. As a result of the work of that task force, ACS launched three major workshops that culminated in recommendations from academic leaders in the African American, Hispanic, and Native American communities. ACS Immediate Past President Tom Lane and I have set up a presidential task force that is charged with taking those recommendations and developing a road map for how ACS can respond to the challenges and needs of these groups and the full demographics of the Society.

Discovering the Future

For many students, the decision to go to graduate school is preceded with a lot of questions and self-assessment: What school should I attend? Do I have the stamina and willpower to commit several more years to my education? Will the payoff be worth the investment? It’s this last question that many struggle with. I believe the long-term potential benefits of a graduate degree are well worth the time and effort required, even when you consider the wages you would have earned if you had been employed full-time rather than continuing your education. The 2008 ACS Salary Survey, for example, showed that the median annual pay for all full-time employed chemists ranged from $73,000 for those with a bachelor’s degree to $82,000 for those holding a master’s degree to $101,000 for those with a Ph.D. Salaries typically were higher among industry chemists, lower for those in academia. On top of that, employment in the chemical field is better than for many other professions. The 2008 unemployment rate for chemists was 2.3%, the lowest since 2001. To give a bit of perspective, the overall U.S. unemployment rate in December 2008 was 7.1%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In addition to the personal financial gains and employment opportunities for chemists with advanced degrees, there are benefits to our country. Graduate Education and the Public Good, a report issued in 2008 by the Council of Graduate Schools, showcases the specific contributions of more than 300 people and demonstrates how graduate education helps create the U.S. workforce for the new global economy, facilitates technology transfer, and develops innovators and entrepreneurs.

One of my goals as ACS president is to promote innovation and entrepreneurship in the chemical sciences. These two areas are keys to your success as new scientists and to our country’s success as a world leader in science and technology. To facilitate this initiative, I propose establishing networks of experienced industry leaders who can serve as advisers for new entrepreneurs and creating workshops that can help people learn how to start their own businesses. I also recommend that new awards be introduced to specifically recognize people who make significant discoveries and those who successfully start new chemical enterprises. I believe these actions will lead to new employment opportunities, stimulate fresh ideas and technologies, and attract more students into chemistry.

It is reassuring to know that our leaders in Washington, DC have put a renewed emphasis on the importance of research. In his campaign, Presidential-hopeful Barack Obama said, “Ensuring that the U.S. continues to lead the world in science and technology will be a central priority for my administration.” Less than a year later, Congress enacted and President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which commits billions of federal dollars to science and technology and has been called a strategic and significant investment in our country’s future. One of the purposes outlined in the Act is “to provide investments needed to increase economic efficiency by spurring technological advances in science and health.” I believe this infusion of new federal funding and support creates an opportune time for us in the chemical sciences.

The chemistry workplace is evolving. As you complete your work toward your degree and prepare to enter the global chemistry enterprise, I encourage you to be flexible. Some of the old jobs and old ways of doing things will no doubt gradually change; some may disappear. Either way, new opportunities will unfold. Be creative in your approach to the job market. Look beyond the traditional. Above all, think globally! That’s the future.

Dr. Joseph Francisco is the William E. Moore Distinguished Professor of Physical Chemistry at Purdue University and the President of the American Chemical Society, 2010. He earned his Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1983. He has served as a member of the ACS Committee on Professional Training and a Member of the ACS Graduate Education Advisory Board.


1. Francisco, J. J.Chem. Educ., 2008, 85, 1338.

(Peter Cutts Photography)