乱谈计算化学领域的研究生就业问题

乱谈计算化学领域的研究生就业问题

文/Sobereva(3)   2014-Jul-13


有人在思想家公社群里贴出这个博文http://mariobarbatti.wordpress.com/2013/12/15/is-there-a-fair-future-for-computational-theoretical-chemistry/(需翻墙),博文标题为Is there a fair future for computational theoretical chemistry?。我看了一下,感觉很多地方写得很在理。我特别推荐打算要读计算化学的研究生看看,没准儿会对他们的前途有很大影响。对这个问题我也一直有很多看法,不吐不快,于是在这里就说说。这个博文我贴在文末了,其中两个比较值得一看的回复也给出了。

计算化学学完了能干嘛,毕业后能有什么出路,这是很多很多年前就经常被人提起到问题。目前来看,出路实在是太窄了。很就很久以前形势还算比较好,计算化学博士出来往往能找个还不错的青椒或助研岗位,继续搞研究,日子也过得安稳。但随着空位越来越稀缺,接近饱和,如今几年,进像样的高校的难度呈指数型增加,对于绝大多数搞计算的研究生来说(非常牛或Boss话语权很大者除外)这条路几乎快被封死了,留下的缝隙越来越窄。经常提到制药公司会招搞计算的人设计药物,有些计算化学软件代理公司或者计算中心会招这些人当工程师和客服,一些领域内的期刊会招编辑等等,但最终得到这些机会的人终究也只是很少数,大部分毕业了之后都是转行,干一些和计算化学几乎没有任何关系的行当,自身优势在求职中得不到利用,知识很快被荒废,是极度可惜也令人遗憾的,是计算化学界的悲哀。看了这篇博文,特别是最后F的回复,会感到这种现状,无论是国内还是国外,是相当残酷的。

我想告诉学化学的本科生的是,如果对计算化学没有兴趣,读研只是为了增加就业的砝码的话,绝对不要稀里糊涂地选计算化学当研究生的研究方向,有机、分析、材料等,什么都比这有前途。研究生不慎误选了计算化学也罢,如果还要读个计算化学博士,以为这样会使自己在从业上更有优势,那就大错特错了,这只会越陷越深,到最后发现悔之已晚。读个其它出路好的方向的博士,或者有好的机会的话去就业或创业,都是比这好得多的选择。

对于那些已经不慎误选了计算化学专业的人,也不要过早气馁,强烈建议多写写程序,一方面会使得研究工作效率高很多、增加研究深度。而且把编程练好了,出路会广阔得多。编程绝对没有很多人想象中的困难。而诸如那些博士几年当中只是一直没完没了地拿Gaussian找过渡态的人,我认为这人生中最宝贵的几年很大程度都被荒废了,没赚什么钱,枯燥地干了几年,弄了个如今一点也不稀罕的文凭,没学什么对自己有价值的知识,攒的经验在未来一点用也没有,还不如其它专业的硕士甚至本科吃香。

计算化学工作者的出路得自己去找,不要墨守成规,随波逐流,要早点结合自己的情况思考自己的未来。“不在沉默中爆发,就在沉默中灭亡”,这句话其实挺大程度上也挺适用于计算化学工作者的,要敢于折腾和冒险。而那些还没踏进计算化学领域的学生,就更要谨慎选择上不上这条船。如果你不愁生计问题,又喜欢计算化学,那么欢迎上船。如果养家糊口还是问题,在这方面又没才华又没兴趣,那算了吧。

目前计算化学领域的现状就是上述这样,虽然计算化学本身的特点在很大程度上导致了这种就业局面,但也不完全是计算化学本身的问题,在一定程度上也是因为计算化学实用化、市场化程度不够所致。如果适当地耕耘和开拓计算化学领域,着眼于解决这些问题,还是有可能有较大发展前景的。一方面使计算化学产生更大实际价值,而不是没事找事瞎算,另一方面也解决毕业生的出路,是互惠互利的大好事。在博文中作者也提供了一些思路,和我的想法也有类似之处。虽然国内也有很多软件代理公司,也算某种程度上开发了计算化学市场,但我认为他们只做了很小一部分,而且也往往太功利了,动机不对。

本人创立的北京科音自然科学研究中心(www.keinsci.com)可能以后会提供计算化学中介服务,比如水平很高的分子动力学博士毕业生又没找到像样的工作的话,可以在这边登记。比如有某某实验组需要做个动力学模拟来深入解释实验现象,就联络我们,并提出模拟的详细要求,价格视难度而定。然后研究中心会把项目转交给合适人选。研究中心提供这个信息平台,并且对研究结果的质量进行监控,从费用中收取一定提成。由于本研究中心以后也有可能销售服务器,所以正好计算条件也能提供。我想这种经营方式对于盘活计算化学就业市场,乃至计算化学整体的发展,都是有积极意义的。

不过这决不代表计算化学在科研领域没有独立的地位,而只能依附于实验工作。纯理论、方法的研究的意义依然重大,但有机会、有才能专门从事这方面研究的终究只是极少数,不适合干这方面的人不要去做这些,否则弄得身心俱疲也出不了什么成果。

上面提到的经营方式,某种程度上将计算化学变成了一项工作来做。实际上,即便不这样经营,如今的高校、研究所里的多数计算化学工作者实际上也是将科研当成工作来对待而已。科研本身是应该凭借兴趣而为之的,因此这样的现状是比较可悲的。不过,大多计算化学出身的人想把研究当成日常工作来做尚且没机会,如果能给他们提供这样的机会,用自己积累的知识和经验来获得相应的回报,换来安稳幸福的人生,必定是件好事。

我上面都是对那些想通过计算化学谋求生计的人说的,并不适合那些对计算化学或自然科学极度热忱,一心想做研究,以探寻真理和求知为最大乐趣,甚至为此不惜与世界为敌的人。这些人只要能有合适的机遇,肯定能做出很好的成就,造福于人类。但是,现状还是和前文提到的那样残酷,想继续搞科研却很难找到合适的职位。哪怕进了高校、研究所,但总是会被乱七八糟的事缠身,诸如讲课、应付考核、申请基金、处理人际关系等等,弄得难以专注。对于这些人,我如今十分建议搞一些其它的能够赚钱的副业(甚至作为主业来对待),不会将所有时间占满,或者只是占满前几年,由此获得稳定的生活环境,保证科研能够顺利进行,然后用剩下的时间做自己喜欢的研究。这种做法属于“民科”,但并不是如今贬义的那种低级民科,而是属于所谓的“专业民科”,研究者是有专业知识背景的。在如今科研环境日趋恶化的情况下,我相信专业民科会逐渐成为一支充满活力的新生力量(尽管必定很小众),做出不亚于甚至远胜于正统学术机构中所诞生的成果。肯定有人会说民科哪来的实验条件什么的,其实这一点,正是计算化学所不用担心的。只要不是跑那种计算量很大的任务(实际上,凡是需要拼计算量的研究,在我看来大多不会是什么会有深远意义的研究),自家的计算机足够用了。比如我就认识两个退休的曾经从事科研的老先生(都是Multiwfn的用户),他们都是退休后开始做计算化学,不花纳税人的一分钱,用自己的机子算,几年内发表了不少有意义的优秀文章。至于我上面所说的副业,类型很多,比如投资金融产品、淘宝开店,或者利用自己的特长做自由撰稿人、开培训什么的都可以。另外,假如以后真的把上面说的那种承接计算化学研究的服务市场做成熟,那么这些计算化学专业民科们做这方面也会十分适合,比如平均每天一半时间算别人的任务(毕竟也是自己的专长,总比干其它的工作明显更有兴趣和动力),一半时间搞自己的研究。

说来,曾经有个人硕士刚毕业的人,他思维很活跃,喜欢搞研究,考中科院博士没考上,但是据说是有不错创业的机会,问我怎么选择好。我毅然决然地说,甭考那个博士,创业吧,少年!考上了博士有什么用?也就是给人家干活,自己的思路没法充分施展。如果创业,赚了大钱,生活无忧,想研究什么研究什么,可以不受制约地尽情钻研,还可以自己开个研究所当Boss,招一批人给自己干活,从不用看上级的脸色,人生岂不快哉?而博士读完了,说不定最佳创业机会也丧失了,反倒可能以后没什么发展了。其实我搞科研当初是十分鄙视钱的,即便到现在也认为“金钱=粪土”,不过在万恶的三次元,钱是科研的物质基础,所以靠副业或者做其它的主业来合理、合法、凭良心地敛财,和高尚的科研精神、科学家的至高理想是完全不冲突的。不过,切勿被金钱冲昏了头脑,而最终忘掉了科学成了商人。钱赚到一定程度,达到无后顾之忧程度时,就应该把精力转移回钟爱的科研了。

总之,计算化学就业,是计算化学领域当下最大的问题之一,应该在业界予以广泛的关注。建议在开各种计算化学大会的时候,也别总是讨论那些有的没的的主题,说一堆陈词滥调,互相忽悠工作,真应该留下一些时间,让那些在领域内已经很有影响力的专家教授、政府和相关企业人士,以及正身处求职或者在读状态的计算化学研究生们一起好好交流探讨这个问题,这是影响计算化学领域未来发展的一件关键性的大事,这个问题已经日趋严峻,不能再被忽视了。

最后顺便提还想说一下,我总看很多人抱怨这抱怨那。比如埋怨高校工资低,难以养活一家。这有什么好埋怨的,高校就是那样,嫌待遇低,或者呆得不爽,那不去不就完了,非要图个安稳,那就只能是这待遇;还有的埋怨世道不好,不尊重知识,好不容易读了博士出来也找不到好工作。这在我来看也没什么值得埋怨的,自己所掌握的计算化学知识在别人那里就是带来不了什么经济效益,人家不是慈善家,就是不需要这样的人员,怪只能怪自己,当初没做长远打算,或者缺乏主见和判断能力,而且自己又没习得其它一技之长。

以上说的这些,语气强硬,必定有些地方偏激,肯定会招致很多人不悦,所以标题是“乱谈”。但不管怎么说,我希望看到此文的打算搞计算化学的本科生或者已经从事计算化学的研究生们,能尽早考虑自己的后路和未来,免得到时候像博文当中名叫F那个人一样落魄。



Is there a fair future for computational theoretical chemistry?


Computational theoretical chemistry is amazing, but it is a career dead-end. Today, hordes of grad students are in the field doing technical work with little scientific innovation. They will earn a doctor title and then move to a completely different field. The system needs them to keep up to the high-production demands, but is it fair? Maybe the future of CompChem is in outsourcing.


I am a professional in computational theoretical chemistry (although my background is in physics). Many people have never heard of this field, which consists of investigating chemical processes through computational simulations; and developing methods and computer programs to do such simulations.

Maybe the field will become a bit more sexy now that the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2013 was awarded to three scientists in it. But for the chemistry community, computational theoretical chemistry, with its branches into fields as far apart as molecular biology and material sciences, has been part of the scientific routine for decades.

(Just for curiosity, a couple of illustrious names who once contributed to the field are Peter ‘Boson’ Higgs and – serious – the German chancellor Angela Merkel.)

There is an elephant in the room, anybody wants to talk about it

The problem with computational theoretical chemistry is that it is a career dead-end. After earning a doctorate in the field, the young researcher will find out that the job market is saturated. If he is clever enough, he will quickly move to a completely different area (like Merkel did), otherwise he risks haunting chemistry departments for years, jumping between precarious temporary contracts.

The reason the job market is so bad is a basic population ecology problem: too many people for too little resources. Any research group to survive must recruit hordes of graduate students to produce loads of scientific papers. This is just normal in hard sciences, and it is not generally a problem for most of chemistry fields because industry will absorb those young professionals. The particular problem with theoretical computational chemistry is that positions out of the academy are rare, creating a great surplus of people with a useless doctorate title.

From a cold population analysis, every established professor should be educating in average not more than the number of professionals that the job market will be able to absorb. In a field like catalysis, where professionals are largely required by industry, this may allow a professor to award few doctorates a year. In a field like computational theoretical chemistry, however, this may allow to award only a few doctorate titles during the whole professor’s career.

Right now, the situation edges the ridiculous: professors in the field often have half-dozen simultaneous students. I have colleagues who, even without tenure, have already few doctorate students. (And in a couple of years they will be competing with their pupils for a position!)

There is nothing that those senior researchers can do, as they need the students to keep the projects running, but I cannot avoid asking: Is it fair to let students specialize for years in a field that they will most probably have to completely abandon? Is it the better use of scholarship resources investing them in people who will not act in the field?

My two cents to move the elephant out


Research on computational theoretical chemistry should be deeply reformulated.

First of all, the number of graduate students in theoretical computational chemistry needs to be strongly reduced. To compensate the shortage of people, most activities in computational theoretical chemistry should be outsourced to technical departments and companies.

Much of the work in the field are technical and routine activities. If the research group needs simulations of the thermochemistry or a benchmark of vertical excitations for a new compound, this could be perfectly done by a technical staff. This data should be requested to a technical department in the same way we request NMR measurements.

If the group needs maintenance of their computer cluster, they should call the local IT department or have budget prediction to hire a company to do the service.

If the group needs to compute a property that standard commercial softwares can still not provide, their budget should allow to call their favorite CompChem company and hire them to implement it. In fact, if the group is developing a robust software in the field, it should be stimulated to spin-off from academy, as Gaussian or Turbomole successfully did.

Right now, armies of graduate students are buried into doing DFT, MD, CC, CI, MP2 simulations (make up a random acronym, probably it is already in use), writing codes, administrating computer systems. They think they are doing science. No, they are doing technical well-stablished routine work with little scientific innovation. The science happens afterwards, when those data flowing out of the computers clusters are taken, analysed and used to model reactions, discover new processes and understand nature.

Outsourcing is the key for a fair future for computational theoretical chemistry, where professionals have real working contracts and career perspectives; where studentship fundings are not wasted to educate people who will ending up working on a completely disconnected field.

MB

 

 

 

Gregg says: May 1, 2014 at 6:47 am
I think this article is very very true. I was active in this field since early nineties and have gone through a number of temporary contracts that forced me to drag my family through various places around the world.

Dear readers, please be warned that commercial spin-off can also prove to be a career trap, as it happened in my case: the company, after investing many-million funding into combined, experimental and theoretical study, filed for bankruptcy before concluding the research, the management drove off with their brand-new Porsches and I, among other former employees, was left with the feeling of disgust and yet another gap in my CV. I then tried REALLY hard to change my career track. My goal is a career in IT, but it is not as easy as some people might think. Contrary to computational chemistry, job interviews tend to be hard, and you are always confronted with the questions like ‘are you going to go back to the academia?’ or ‘all the time you did this computation stuff, why this sudden career change?

I’m not writing this to discourage people to try their luck in spin-offs or start-ups, but just want to stress that this path has been walked before, and it is precarious one, too. Computational chemists, especially after turning 40, need stability (they are normal people after all!), and my opinion is that choosing to change one’s career path at a more ‘advanced’ age will most probably be final and decisive for the rest of the professional life. It might be better to look for opportunities where there are more jobs overall, but more applicants. Today’s science is governed by economy, global financial factors are influencing country’s state budgets. And pure research is financed from taxpayer money. On the other hand, investors, whether business angels, venture capital, or banks, have skilled analysts who will no doubt determine if there is market for computational chemistry services, before deciding on the funding (and this is this very funding which is going to pay your rent or electricity bills or your kids’ school). I’ve faced investors before and believe me, it is not an easy task to convince them your research is going to bring revenue, and they don’t care about the Schrodinger equation!

I think one has to stay realistic, but some optimism will not hurt. Fingers crossed for all the hard working computational chemists.

 

 

 

F says: July 9, 2014 at 1:05 pm
How I wish I’d read this article six years ago, before writing three theses (B. Sc., M. Sc., Ph. D., where I come from) in Computational Chemistry. The future really does look bleak for our kind.

I have literally lost count of the number of cover letters and CV’s I have sent out. First I tried to look for placement in my own field (Computational Materials Chemistry), regardless of whether a position was being advertised or not. I wasn’t picky: Europe, USA, Canada, world class institutions like MIT and Oxford and obscure little Universities in towns I’d never even heard of, as long as they did something vaguely similar to what I’d been working on, they were all fair game. Many never even bothered to reply, some were kind enough to let me know that they had no vacancies, one even shortlisted me for an interview, but competition was stiff and I didn’t pass. After a while I became discouraged, and as my Ph.D. approached its conclusion and the prospect of unemployment drew nearer, I started sending out applications to any company that happened to be looking for a chemist: I tried many different fields, including but not limited to oil, renewable energies, paper, paint, cosmetics, food. No one showed the slightest bit of interest: understandably, they were only looking for people with lab-experience, preferably in their specific sector.

Eventually, after reading through the 1000th-or-so job posting list, I took the hint and realized that pharmaceutical companies are practically the only ones outside of Academia that hire people with a background similar to my own (more or less). So when one slow Sunday afternoon I saw a position being advertised for MD modelling of proteins at a respectable University I applied right away: I was interviewed less than two weeks later and I was able to land a three year contract.

Which is nice, all things considered, but I still have the distinct feeling that I have only postponed the problem: by making myself marketable to Big Pharma, my chances at finding a job have increased slightly, but what if they don’t take me? I guess what really scares me is that in this career there doesn’t seem to be room for any Plan Bs: if worse comes to worst, experimental chemists can always swallow their pride and recycle themselves as lab technicians, scrubbing beakers and running tests on the local product to make sure it meets the quality standards. Computational chemists don’t have that option: unless you manage to become a professor or a researcher at a big company, you (and your spouse and children) are doomed to a nomadic life of one-to-three year post doc contracts at different cities, countries, even continents, unable to make any sort of long term planning and with the fear of unemployment constantly looming over your life. Like Gregg, I have also considered the IT path, but so far I only know Python, and then, I’ve never coded anything longer than a few hundred lines. I was thinking of taking programming classes and maybe pick up another language, but after reading Gregg’s post, I’m not so sure it would be worth the effort any more.

I wish I’d not had to learn all this the hard way. Science is my vocation in life and even if I could go back, I would still choose to be a scientist and take a Ph.D. But if someone had warned me, I would have taken a different route and opted for something perhaps not as intellectually titillating as DFT or CASSCF, but with more career options and a better chance to provide some stability for my family. I never expected to become rich working in Science, but this feels downright unfair.

I also wish someone had told me this: “They think they are doing science. No, they are doing technical well-stablished routine work with little scientific innovation”. That pretty much sums up the entirety of my Ph.D. work. And now that I have finished writing this comment, I feel even more robbed.

已有 2 条评论

  1. 忍者神龟

    受教了

  2. 爆炸君

    感觉确实需要理性考虑一下自己的未来了,或许成为“民科”真的是我为数不多的出路之一了,毕竟我自己清楚我的水平,但又放不下科研。。。谢谢sob老师的文章,写的很中肯。

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