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January 27, 2003
Volume 81, Number 4
CENEAR 81 4 p. 62
ISSN 0009-2347



What is a professional chemist? Webster's dictionary defines a profession as "a calling requiring a specialized knowledge and often long and intensive academic preparation" and a professional as "one that engages in a pursuit or activity professionally." I think we would all agree that chemistry could thus be defined as a profession, and the person who practices the science of chemistry is a professional. The American Chemical Society is the scientific, educational, and professional society for chemists and thus strives to serve all chemists. But do our demographics reflect this?

Although we have a remarkable retention rate, during the past 15 years we have lost almost as many members as we have today.
One benefit of running for a national office in ACS is receiving many letters from members. A recent letter asked me to give my position regarding the B.S. chemist. What services does ACS provide for the B.S. chemist, and why should the B.S. chemist join ACS? Although our universities graduate approximately 10,000 bachelor's-level chemists each year, only a small percentage join ACS and continue to renew their memberships after five years. A 1999 National Science Foundation report, "Occupational Characteristics of U.S. Scientists and Engineers," reported that the proportion of chemists holding bachelor's degrees as their highest degree was 63% of the total workforce in chemistry. But according to ACS, 33% of our members are at the bachelor's degree level.

What reasons can we offer bachelor's-level chemists to join ACS and to retain their memberships? The obvious answer to this question is the same reasons any chemist should join our society. A hundred years ago, ACS membership was uniform: academic Ph.D.s. Publications, meetings, and fellowship with other chemists were sufficient reasons to attract new members to the society. Today, when only 42% of our members are Ph.D.s, the answer is complicated.

The ACS website states: "Becoming a member of ACS means becoming a part of the world's largest scientific society, an organization that's more than 163,000 members strong. ACS provides a multitude of informational, educational, financial, technical, and professional opportunities for its members. The society's 33 technical divisions cover the entire spectrum of the chemical world, and the 189 local sections allow you to participate in local events and meetings throughout the year." Technical benefits include reduced rates on subscriptions to 40 journals and magazines, and information about Chemical Abstracts Service, a division of ACS, which produces the world's largest and most comprehensive databases of chemical information. Nontechnical benefits are listed as participation in the society's insurance and credit card programs.

Based on this, could we use the following reasons to recruit a B.S. chemist as a new ACS member? You can receive discounts on journals. You may attend meetings. You may participate in insurance programs. You may use job placement services. And you will have the opportunity to interact and network with colleagues.

When I try to use these reasons to encourage students or bench chemists to join, a common response is, "I can read the journals if I need to at the library, and my company has an insurance plan." While ACS Career Services will entice chemists just starting out to join for a year, generally they will drop their membership once they have a job. The opportunity to attend two national meetings a year is nice, but how many bench chemists are willing to spend the money required to attend unless their companies will support them? Not many will. Short courses and seminars at the meetings are excellent, but how many B.S. chemists can afford the fees?

Although we have a remarkable retention rate, during the past 15 years we have lost almost as many members as we have today. Most resign after a few years of membership. Some leave chemistry, but many drop out because they do not recognize an immediate benefit. Many ask, "What's in it for me?"

Some 20 years ago, I looked at other professional societies to determine what services they provide in an effort to identify additional services that ACS might provide to its members. I was especially impressed with a number of services that the Royal Society of Chemistry provides to its members to enhance their professional status. RSC awards members the status of Chartered Chemist and publishes a Register of Eligible Qualified Persons, a Register of Analytical Chemists, and a Directory of Consulting Practices, in addition to other outstanding career services.

Should ACS be doing more to enhance the professional status of its members? Would it be helpful to ACS members to provide them with the opportunity to become licensed or certified as professional chemists? I often hear from my former students (especially those who work in the environmental arena) that they are very discouraged by the fact that a Certified Professional Engineer is required to sign off on their reports because they are not certified or licensed.

I would be interested in your thoughts. Talk to your colleagues who are not members. Ask them what ACS activity or service would attract them to join ACS. What carrot can we dangle before B.S. and other chemists to entice them to become members? Should we enter into a program of licensure for chemists?

I am concerned about the future professional status of the chemist, and as I have said so many times, I believe the public perception of chemistry and the chemical profession hinges on how chemists are perceived as professionals. Please let me know your thoughts. Send e-mail to


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