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August 2001
Vol. 10, No. 08, p 7.
For Openers
The beauty of change

John K. Crum
Editor’s note: As part of the celebration of the 125th anniversary of the founding of the American Chemical Society, Today’s Chemist at Work asked ACS Executive Director John K Crum, a 39-year member of the Society, to give his view of where the ACS has been and what the future holds.
“Nothing is permanent except change.” That concise bit of wisdom can be traced back to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus (ca. 540–480 B.C.), yet it still describes a tenet of professional life in the 21st century. It is no surprise that Spencer Johnson’s book on coping with change in the workplace, Who Moved My Cheese?, has been on the New York Times bestseller list for more than two years.

Today’s workplace, from the chemist’s view, certainly has changed. I recall an often-repeated story about Arnold Beckman—chemist, philanthropist, and founder of Beckman Instruments—who is said to have hand-delivered each employee’s paycheck until his company grew so large in the 1950s that the task would have taken more than a day. Although these expressions of corporate loyalty are rare today, chemists have more professional opportunities than ever—a change for the better.

When I joined the American Chemical Society in 1964, working for Analytical Chemistry, we relied on what we now call “snail mail” to communicate with authors. Page layouts for the magazine were literally cut-and-pasted together each month. Our computers were dumb terminals tethered to a hulking mainframe that, for all its size, was far less powerful than the computer sitting on my desk today. The Internet had barely been imagined, much less invented. Today, by contrast, articles and research papers can be submitted online, reviewed and edited electronically, and published on the Web—sometimes making new research available weeks before it appears in print.

Once it was common for someone like me—a newly minted Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry from the University of Texas, Austin—to spend an entire career with one employer. By contrast, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that young people entering the job market today can expect to have seven to 10 jobs working for three to five different employers during their professional lifetimes. Today’s industrial chemists are no different; few plan to spend their careers working for one company, and doing so is even perceived by some as a disadvantage.

Even the way chemists look for jobs has changed. Forty years ago, the most common way for chemists to find jobs was through help wanted ads in trade publications like Chemical & Engineering News, headhunters, or the Society’s employment clearinghouse. Today’s job seekers continue to use the employment clearinghouse, which has arranged 48,000 interviews with employers in just the last decade. But they are also using resources such as JobSpectrum.org, the Society’s new online career and employment service that debuted in June, to search job listings, post their resumes, and research potential employers.

Perhaps most dramatic are changes in the scope of our work. Chemistry is considered a “mature” science, yet the number of ACS technical divisions has increased six times since they were established in the early 1900s. We can expect this evolution to continue as we find ourselves living in a global community, one that increasingly relies on science and technology to feed, clothe, and house its people.

To meet these demands, we will push the frontiers of discovery and embark on interdisciplinary journeys in biotechnology, green chemistry, and nanotechnology, to name a few. The Society is supporting chemists in these efforts by sponsoring specialized conferences, ACS ProSpectives, that explore emerging chemical sciences like nanotechnology and combinatorial chemistry, and launching new publications such as Crystal Growth & Design, Biomacromolecules, Nano Letters, and the upcoming Journal of Proteome Research.

The professional and intellectual lives of chemists have never been more promising, but to succeed in these changing times, we must embrace uncertainty and be prepared—by seeking new opportunities, enhancing our skills, and most importantly, remaining flexible. After all, as Albert Einstein once said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.”

John K Crum

John K Crum is the executive director of the American Chemical Society.

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