Monday, September 30, 2013

Chemistry salaries and the ACS Survey

So I woke up this morning to two emails from chemical industry-related reporters asking me my thoughts about the salaries of chemists. Why me? I really had no clue, until about an hour later, when I realized that a throw-away comment I made at the popular chemistry blog Chemjobber last week had turned into a full post by its anonymous author.

So what was my point? Basically I was mildly critiquing the annual salary survey of the American Chemical Society. ACS is a great organization, which I have been a member of since I was an undergrad, and I have filled out their survey every year I can remember. However, I have always felt it was biased a bit high for industrial chemists, for several reasons.

1: Chemists who choose to be members of ACS are not random. It is not uncommon for companies, especially larger corporate ones, to pay membership dues for their workers. This, of course, is more likely for better paid or higher ranking employees.

2: For chemists who don't work for such generous companies, those with higher level jobs, better connections to academia (which is the bread and butter of ACS), and higher pay are more likely to choose to pay their dues out-of-pocket

3: There is likely to be some non-random factors in the response rate as well. With only a quarter or so members responding, there is ample chance for bias to creep in. Perhaps better paid workers like to brag a bit, even if it is anonymous? Or exaggeration?

Overall, I have the feeling, based on my personal experience with several companies, that ACS is biased 5-10% high with respect to industrial pay as a result of these cumulative errors. As I mentioned over at Chemjobber, those interested in chemical industry pay may want to look at the data at salary.com, which is more HR-centric and in my opinion a little more accurate. Roughly,

Chemist I = Senior technicians
Chemist II = BS/BA
Chemist III = Master's
Chemist IV = PhD
Chemist V = Front-line manager, team leader, or senior individual contributors with strong track records

Of course, individual mileage varies a lot, and people might start one slot lower and can finish anywhere if they are good (I've seen former technicians rise all the way to management), but I think that looking at both the ACS data and the salary.com data is a prudent thing to do when trying to figure out if chemistry is the career for you, or if you are trying to benchmark your pay relative your peers. The two data sets are nicely complementary, with salary.com showing distributions, while ACS doing demographic breakdowns based on age, geography, etc, giving you more opportunities for understanding than either data set alone.

Update: I was quoted by Chemistry World on an article related to this topic.