Chemistry can be a hazardous occupation. One of the main risks used to be unemployment. Recently, however, the German job market for young chemists has improved dramatically. According to the new job market survey of the German Chemical Society (GDCh), employment opportunities in the chemical industry have expanded while the number of chemistry graduates applying to them has plummeted. Factor in an increasing number of alternative careers and you have a very promising situation for chemists without a Ph.D. in and outside the chemical industry.

After years of substantial structural changes in Germany's chemical industry, the number of job offers has grown considerably in the last 2 years, propelled by the branch's current annual R&D investment of more than 12 billion DM. On the other hand, as a reaction to the job market saturation at the end of the '80s and early '90s, the number of new chemistry students decreased from 6500 in 1990 to 2800 in 1995. After a delay of 5 to 8 years to complete their degrees, this hole in the chemistry employment pipeline is now hitting the chemical industry. As a result of both effects, "the job market will have a clearly different profile after 2003, characterized by a lack of qualified graduates with Ph.D.," the GDCh-survey says.

This hole will have to be filled with chemists who don't have a Ph.D. Traditionally, the Ph.D. degree plays an important role for a chemist's career, because it qualifies the degree holder for R&D positions, careers as consultants, and of course academic careers. Especially for industry jobs, the Ph.D. used to be an absolute requirement. But now, chemists without a Ph.D. have growing chances in the fields of marketing, sales, communication, and environmental protection, especially if they are trained at analytical, technical, or polymer chemistry, the GDCh's survey says. Seen from the employer's side, applicants without a Ph.D. also have a particular advantage: They are usually younger and get lower salaries.

The value of the Ph.D. is being questioned throughout the German system. Earlier this year, Germany's Science Council had recommended introducing bachelor's and master's degrees at German universities to make the studies shorter and more praxis oriented ( see Next Wave report). "Due to the current redesign of the chemistry study there will be a considerably greater variety of courses and degrees, offering more options for specialization," GDCh's Karin Schmitz says.

The addition of the two degrees reflects a belief that there will be a growing demand for chemists with additional practical qualifications. In 1996, universities, industries, and chemical associations and societies jointly developed a model that allow students to combine the study of chemistry and a second subject, such as economics, law, or informatics. The so-called Würzburger Modell has since been adopted at several universities, among them Kaiserslautern and Düsseldorf. Says Schmitz: "This study will open completely new career perspectives for chemists outside the chemical industry."

With such a variety of options open to them, German chemistry students now face a new challenge: choosing the program that fits them the best. "I recommend collecting information about the different fields of employment already during the time at the university and seriously to reflect the necessity of a Ph.D. for the personal planning of career and life," Karin Schmitz tells Next Wave.