When your job description cannot be “remote optional.”
Some thoughts on being a polymer chemist in 2021 and beyond.
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It should be no surprise that as a polymer chemist I spend a significant time in a laboratory. Throughout the pandemic I’ve actually been working in person for the majority of the time while wearing additional layers of personal protective equipment with my existing layers of personal protective equipment. My job requires both physically dependent skills and specialized knowledge.
I would categorize myself and other industrial chemists and scientists as both highly skilled and highly knowledgeable. Our physical skills are the actual execution of experiments, operation of specialized equipment (manual shimming an NMR anyone?), handling of hazardous chemicals, visual observations and note taking of results. Our knowledge is the design of experiments, knowing which direction to pursue with ambiguous information or non-specific project requirements, understanding the process of developing not only a patentable technology, but being able to turn it into a product to name a few. The profession of physical sciences is one where being physically present is required much like construction, manufacturing, and healthcare.
I was very fortunate in that I lived very close to where my lab was located in North Cambridge, Massachusetts whereas my coworkers often have anywhere between 30-60 minutes of commuting one way. We just finished packing up our labs to be moved to a different location about a 30 minute drive north of where I live now so once those labs reopen I’ll have to drive like the majority of other people.
For all intensive purposes this is a pay cut for me with the requirement to drive to work. The true cost of commuting has been calculated previously by others and Anne Helen Peterson recently wrote about commuting in her newsletter and she wrote:
With that said: the pandemic has underlined that most people working office jobs do not, in fact, need to be in their offices every day — and millions of people working those jobs were wasting unpaid hours of their day getting into those offices. If your presence is not necessary to do your job, daily commutes are a waste. Full stop.
But for scientists and engineers that work with things in the physical world then being in-person is a requirement. Having a commute is a requirement if you want to build something that you can touch and feel. Chemists are in a sense sculptors, but on a very small scale and their building blocks are molecules. This in-person requirement does a few things in terms of career potential for chemists, but the primary one is location dependence.
Dror Poleg has written extensively about real estate, the dispersion of the workforce due to Covid-19 and the internet, and he has an excellent article in the New York Times about the future of work. This paragraph stuck out to me:
It seems safe to say that total demand for offices will diminish to a moderate degree. The bigger changes will be in how total demand is reshuffled and what office providers will have to do to remain competitive. Most office activity will not move to homes or to the cloud. Instead, it is likely to be redistributed within and between cities, with a variety of new employment areas popping up and saving many people the trouble of simultaneous commuting to a central business district.
Dror has an interesting take on real estate, cities, and the future of work. One main thesis of his is that cities became popular places to live and work because being able to recruit the best talent for specific jobs requires a large skilled workforce. When I first moved to New York City for graduate school I was at a bar that had free pizza when you bought drinks and someone asked me, “did you move here for opportunities?” So, location has always been important for scientists and engineers and it will continue to be during the next pandemic.
Laboratory work is unlike office work in that the buildings are often very specific, have high energy consumption, and are held to different standards with respect to safety and outgoing materials such as hazardous waste. Laboratory space is also not widely available, it costs significantly more than typical office space to construct and retrofit, and it’s not something that can occupy floors 45-47 of a skyscraper. Thus, if you wanted to start a company in the physical sciences space it would require at a minimum access to a laboratory, which can be hard to find if you are not incubating or starting a company at a university.
Cities that have a significant investment into laboratory space that is occupied will most likely stay that way. Essentially, the great dispersion that people are writing about when it comes to Covid-19 doesn’t apply to the majority of physical scientists and engineers.
Location Dependent Salaries and The Cost Of Living
In my current job I had a coworker who moved to the Boston area during a pandemic after she graduated to be better positioned to get a job. We were coworkers for about 10 months until she found a new job that utilized the skillset she wanted to develop and here is a surprise--it paid more. The average rent for an apartment in Cambridge, MA is about $3200/month. If we go with the old recommendation that your housing costs should be a quarter to a third of a monthly wage then on average the workforce should be making $115000-$153,000 a year to live in Cambridge.
This is why my coworkers have anywhere from 30-60 minutes of commute time going one direction. So, let’s look further abroad for lower cost places to live in Massachusetts or even say Kittery, Maine (yes, you would have to cross ANOTHER STATE to get to Massachusetts). Average rent in Kittery is $1900 a month, it’s actually increased by ~60% since late 2019, so living in Kittery you would be comfortable at $64800-$8600 a year, but if we throw in a 60 mile commute at $0.56/mile (IRS) that is about $67 a day in additional costs to the worker, which is about $16,400 for a 49 week working year (assuming 3 weeks time off).
I’m writing about this because I think wages for scientists and engineers should increase, especially in places where there is a higher cost of living. Gathering wage data for scientists and engineers is tricky, but based on my network and the people I’ve talked to there is not a lot of location dependent wages. If anything, I am observing the inverse of what is prevalent in technology. I see high salaries in places like Ohio or Michigan compared to job postings that I’ll see in higher cost of living cities such as Boston or the District of Columbia/Maryland/Virginia (DMV) area. I suspect higher salaries in the Midwest is because it is harder to lure talent away from the coasts. Further, because some of these in-person jobs might be co-located with a manufacturing operation there are not a lot of job opportunities down the street in the event you get laid off.
Getting laid off is a real possibility and many jobs never get posted. I once helped a customer of mine fill a chemist role that was never advertised or posted anywhere. Networks matter. When I was an early career chemist looking for my first job post-PhD it felt impossible. The longer I spend in the chemical industry the more recruiters reach out to me for jobs that are often not relevant. A good recruiter could be the person to lead you to that next level job where your salary goes up significantly, you get stock, the location is one you've always wanted, or all of the above. Check out Task Force Talent if you are looking for a job or looking to hire for a key position.
Where I Think Science Jobs Are Headed In The Short Term
I think there is an explosion of investment right now in synthetic biology companies and this might even be the decade that these investments pay off. The scientists that work at these companies are sort of like software developers, but they are all going to be highly location dependent and it will require more work to scale a company from the lab to a larger batch or continuous reactor. Cities that have companies capable of installing and converting laboratory infrastructure will be well positioned to capture the rents that these companies will need to pay to develop their products. The cities that come to mind right now are as follows in no particular order:
Boston Area (where I am)
Bay Area Cities
Greater New York Area
Location matters and this list includes some of the most expensive metropolitan areas in the country. If you want to be a scientist these are some of the cities that I think will be good places to move to if you are seeking new opportunities and have the monetary funds required to do so. If you are a broke graduate student don’t worry too much. If you are talented, companies will gladly import your talent from wherever you are to where they need you. In the event you work in one of these cities there is a sort of “available jobs” safety net of being able to find employment elsewhere if required. A coworker of mine once commented that being a polymer chemist in Houston was awesome because there was always someone willing to pay you more. Another coworker of mine who lacked a PhD told me that being a PhD scientist in Boston is like being a professional sports player in free agency.
The Future Of Synthetic Chemistry Might Be Biology Or Enzyme Driven.
My thesis adviser has been expounding on the benefits of chemoenzymatic synthesis of enzymatic polymer degradation for decades now. We might be getting to the point where start-ups are once again seeking to disrupt the chemical industry. The primary method I hear about these days is synthetic biology. It’s easier for me to point to failures right now than it is success in the start-up world, but Evonik has been successful and so has DSM.
Synthetic biology is interesting for numerous reasons, but the chemicals and materials coming out of a cell or a chemoenzymatic reactor are still going to need scientists and engineers to turn them into products unless the goal is to produce commodity chemicals. If you are a synthetic biology company trying to produce commodity chemicals I tip my hat to your audacity and gumption. These companies will need a talented sales force, marketing support, quality control, and process engineers just like everyone else. Plenty of the people reading this newsletter can definitely work in these spaces either directly or in supporting them (i.e. Cytiva).
If I were to categorize the 1990s-2020s I would say that these were the decades where being in “tech” as we call it now was super lucrative. I think that beyond the 2020s being “in science” will be super lucrative (I hope).
The Future Of Commercial Real Estate Is Lab Space.
This means that real estate needs are going to change. New jobs might become remote, but for people like me location dependence is everything. The future of commercial real estate right in the cities I wrote about above will be in laboratory space. I wrote that it’s hard to convert floors in a skyscraper to laboratory space, but why is this?
Typically, labs need a lot of ventilation in the form of fume hoods and other engineering controls where HVAC plays a big role. Even getting this stuff installed in a retrofit might take forever due to a lack of HVAC contractors. Labs also have a lot of equipment so the buildings that were once designed to hold cubicles and people named Milton with red staplers might be required to hold more weight per square foot.
I’m writing this to you all now at home because my company sold our campus in North Cambridge to IQHQ, a life sciences laboratory real estate developer. The place where I used to walk to work will become Alewife Park and most of the buildings will be knocked down to make way for completely new laboratories. The trend of more life science laboratory space received national attention in Bloomberg from Patrick Sisson who wrote about it for CityLab:
While the sector is booming, office-to-lab conversions aren’t ever going to be big enough to buoy entire commercial districts suffering from the office slowdown. “There isn’t a massive trend where you’re going to see, like, 10% of all office space get converted,” says John Cunningham, a broker with JLL and co-chair of the firm’s Life Sciences Advisory Council. “But in a market where there’s high demand, it can be a niche situation that makes sense.”.
After having gone from having a lab and a desk in my company’s building to just having a desk in my apartment is a big change. I look forward to going back once our new lab is outfitted with the right stuff.