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ACS Webinars: The Road Less Traveled—Alternative Careers for PhD Chemists, Part One

If you're exploring nontraditional chemistry careers, be prepared for life on the road less traveled. Photo credit: flickr user Horia Varlan.

A few weeks ago, ACS Webinars hosted Steven Carlo, a PhD physical chemist who worked for more than 10 years in R&D, consulting and technology transfer before taking on his current job as a technical manager for the federal government.

The topic: Alternative careers for PhD chemists.

If that’s not a topic appropriate for this blog, I don’t know what is! If you missed it, you can watch the video on the ACS Webinars YouTube channel or here.

You may recognize Steven from previous ACS Webinars, such as this one about the science behind paper money. Neat stuff!

In the first half of the webinar, Steven presented an overview of the various career paths that are available to PhD chemists, touching on both traditional careers as well as careers beyond the bench.

Steven identified and briefly described the four common career paths for PhD chemists, which include:

  • Academia: Become a chemistry professor at a university or college. As a professor, your starting pay is going to be less than if you went into industry and you have to write grant proposals to acquire funding for your research ideas. However, professors can work on whatever research they want, assuming they can convince agencies to provide the funds.
  • Industry: Work for a large company or for a start-up where you can learn about entrepreneurship. In industry, you make a decent salary and don’t have to worry about grants, but you may not have the freedom to decide what you work on, since those choices are made by higher-ups in the company.
  • Government: Work for a national lab or a federally funded R&D center (FFRDC). Many government agencies hire contractors whose employment is contingent on the continuation of the contract. Federal employees receive a competitive salary, and pension and benefits that are comparable to industry. You are a civil servant and there’s a lot of bureaucracy.
  • Consulting: “Can be absolutely awesome only when the dollars are flowing,” Steven says. Consultants work to provide solutions to problems or validate client observations. A huge variety of projects are possible, and you can work for a company or for yourself.

Other less-common “nontraditional” career options available to PhD chemists (with links to previous blog posts that highlight such careers, where applicable) include: Continue reading →

What are you for Halloween? …um, a chemist

When you think of a chemist, what comes to mind?

This is what the general public thinks chemists do all day. Photo credit: flickr user gnotalex.

It’s Halloween, and you may see a mad scientist or two roaming the streets.

It reminds me of how when I tell people I’m a chemist, I can often see the wheels turning in their head as they wonder if I play with oozing chemicals all day long, mixing them and seeing what explodes.

Then I tell them what I actually do. Here’s how it goes:

So, what have you been doing in the lab for the past four years?

That’s a good question! I use chemistry to make photoactive glass surfaces and then shine a laser on the surface to attach proteins that are involved in inflammation. Then I flow white blood cells (ya-know, the cells of your immune system) over the protein-coated surface and study how they interact with the proteins.

Huh, interesting…. So, are you curing a disease?

Well, no. But my research will lead to a better understanding of how inflammation works, which could one day lead to the development of better anti-inflammatory drugs.

Hmmm… that’s cool.

Speaking of Halloween and dressing up…

…sometimes I feel like I’m dressing up every day. Here’s what I mean:

As a grad student by day and blogger/freelancer by night, I often feel like I’m a researcher masquerading as a science writer, or vice versa.

I’m doing experiments, analyzing my data, writing it up for my dissertation… then I’m blogging, interviewing scientists and writing stories about their research. I’m happy to be involved in such a diversity of activities, but I’m looking forward to graduating, moving on from the bench chemistry phase of my life– and not having an identity crisis anymore!

Now back to the topic of the public perception of chemists…

While some chemists play with oozing chemicals, I’d say the majority of chemists do things that are less flashy day to day, and consequently, they’re not portrayed in the media.

What chemists actually do Continue reading →

Scientific staffing: Connecting employers with job candidates

Profile: Lynn Sullivan, Chemist (B.S., 1999), Account Manager for Aerotek, Inc.

Lynn Sullivan brought seven years of industry experience to her current job as account manager for Aerotek, which provides recruiting and staffing services. Courtesy photo.

Chemists on the job market may be all too familiar with the process by which staffing companies work with recruiters to connect employers with job candidates.

But has it crossed your mind that it takes someone who has firsthand experience in the chemical industry to know who will be a good fit for the job?

Lynn Sullivan serves as an account manager for Aerotek, which provides recruiting and staffing services in the Atlanta metro area. Prior to her account management role with Aerotek, Lynn worked as a chemist for seven years. For more than four years now, Lynn has been working to help the scientific and healthcare industries find hiring solutions.

Although she started off as a biology/pre-med major at Delta State University, she decided that wasn’t the career path that she wanted and made the switch, receiving her bachelor’s degree in chemistry. After graduation, she landed an industry job, where she worked in quality control and eventually moved into R&D.

While working as a manager in an R&D department, Lynn was responsible for hiring technicians to work in the lab. She used a staffing company to help her identify job candidates, which led her to consider a career switch into the field.

“I thought it would be a great fit for me because I could stay in the sciences but work more with people,” Lynn explained.

Day to day, you can find Lynn calling companies, meeting with customers and working with recruiters to identify candidates for the companies’ needs. One of her favorite parts of the job is building relationships with people in a variety of scientific fields.

Lynn strongly believes that her degree and prior experience in the scientific industry helped prepare her current role. She doesn’t miss working in a lab—after seven years at the bench, she realized it wasn’t her passion. But her current job requires her to visit labs often and learn about the research at various companies—so she still feels very connected with the scientific world.

For those interested in a career like Lynn’s, she said there’s no industry-specific experience required. However, it’s important to make sure you don’t want to work in a lab environment and are willing to go into more of a sales position within the science community.

Lynn said working for a staffing company requires an interest in sales because “we are selling our staffing solutions to employers, whether it’s to meet a temporary, cyclical or more permanent solution.”

The obvious question to ask a person who works in scientific staffing is: What advice to you have to chemists on the job market today? Here’s what Lynn had to say:

Lynn's advice to chemists on the job market is: network well and have a clean, professional resume. Photo credit: flickr user washtenawcc.

“Two things that are important for chemists looking for jobs:  networking and their resume.  Networking is key to helping people find employment.  When networking, you want to make sure you have a clean, professional resume.  Chemists often forget to include laboratory skills, and that’s what will catch the eye of an employer or recruiter.

“For new graduates in Chemistry, it’s important to not only include any undergraduate research or internships, but to speak specifically about what your role was in the laboratory, and what equipment or techniques you utilized.”

In her spare time, Lynn is an active member of the American Chemical Society, and is currently the Chair Elect for the Georgia Local Section. In the past, Lynn served as committee chair of the Women’s Chemist Committee for the local chapter.

When asked why she has chosen to be involved in ACS, Lynn said she initially got plugged in for networking purposes and to meet new people in her area with a chemistry background.

“Organizations like ACS allow you the chance to meet chemists with a variety of backgrounds and to stay current with new research and industry trends,” Lynn said. “It also gives me the chance to volunteer by educating and promoting the field of chemistry to others.”

Successful women chemists and the importance of role models

After last week’s post on why women leave science, I thought it would be appropriate to follow up with a more positive message about the women who do stay in science and have successful careers.

The stories of 26 successful women chemists compiled into a single book, published by the American Chemical Society.

A quick internet search on “successful women in chemistry” led to my discovery of a book with that exact title. No kidding. I checked it out of the library immediately.

Successful Women in Chemistry is published by the American Chemical Society (ACS) and contains the stories of 26 women in mid- to upper-level positions in a plethora of fields, including industry, business, patent law, and even human resources.

Each of the chapters was originally written for a 2003 newsletter series put out by the ACS Women’s Chemists Committee (WCC). The writers are themselves women chemists and active members of the WCC.

As mentioned in my previous post, some women who leave behind their scientific careers report a lack of mentors as one of the deterrents. This book is aimed at taking one step toward correcting that, by introducing up-and-coming women chemists to those who have gone ahead.

The goal of this book is to create a resource where women can find a role model, someone with whom they can relate. Profiling women with a wide diversity of experiences and career opportunities allows the reader to find a common connection.

- Oxford University Press book description

As I flipped through the chapters, I discovered that the writers discuss both the successes as well as the challenges these women faced along the way. Also, instead of focusing exclusively on their professional lives, they also discuss their personal lives, including how they have handled the matter of work/life balance throughout their careers.

Some of the women highlighted in the book worked for a single company their entire careers, moving from one position to another. Others moved into part-time positions in order to focus on raising a family for a period of time before returning to work full-time. Still others moved around into many different positions.

The diversity of career paths reminded me that it is a unique minority of scientists out there who set out on their careers sticking to the one thing they’ve always wanted to do. It seems like more often than not people jump around— and that’s okay!

More resources for women in science Continue reading →

Why women leave science (and what’s being done about it)

Women in their mid-thirties with careers in science, engineering and technology are twice as likely to quit their jobs as men– and studies on women and work-life balance suggest that it will take more than surface-level changes to put a dent in this statistic.

Even though it's not 1923 anymore, women in STEM careers still report that they struggle to thrive in a male-dominated workplace culture. Photo credit: flickr user Meaghan Courtney

In 2008, the Harvard Business Review wrote about a research study that explored the reasons why women leave behind STEM careers:

“The Center for Work-Life Policy, a nonprofit organization that studies women and work, recently reported that women in science, engineering, and technology fields are likely to leave their positions, in large part ‘because the hostility of the workplace culture drives them out. If machismo is on the run in the United States, then this [science, engineering, and technology fields] is its Alamo– a last holdout of redoubled intensity.’”

-Quote from p. 50 of Glass Ceilings & 100-Hour Couples

The researchers found five reasons why women leave science:

  1. The hostility of the workplace culture
  2. A sense of isolation in a male-dominated workplace
  3. Disconnect between women’s preferred work rhythms and the types of behaviors rewarded in male-dominated fields
  4. Long work weeks and travel combined with household management becomes too much to handle
  5. Bemoaned by the “mystery” surrounding career advancement and lack of mentors

It’s easy to see how it can become a downward spiral: Women drop out because there aren’t many other women who they can relate to—which serves to worsen the situation.

But it’s not just that there aren’t more women around. The pressure of juggling responsibilities of work and home, as well as a plethora of other factors, contribute to why more educated women are quitting their jobs recently than ever before.

The results of a research study on why women opt out of their careers are chronicled in a book titled Glass Ceilings and 100-Hour Couples: What the Opt-Out Phenomenon Can Teach Us About Work and Family. Continue reading →

What it takes to be a chemistry entrepreneur

If you’re a chemist with a great idea, it just might be that some entrepreneurial training and business savvy is all you need to start up a company that could lead to new jobs, according to Harvard University professor George Whitesideds.

George Whitesides, professor at Harvard University, talked about what it takes to start up a small company. If you missed the ACS Webinar, check it out here: http://acswebinars.org/vcf2011-innovation

A few weeks back, Whitesides, along with ACS Immediate Past President Joseph Francisco, co-hosted an ACS Webinar titled “Entrepreneurship + Innovation = Jobs.” If you missed it, you can view the recorded webinar here.

The option of taking your idea and starting up a company is something that’s not talked about in much depth in the circles I run in, i.e. in grad school.

Whitesides said he believes this is a problem. Students are coming out with advanced chemistry degrees but without the entrepreneurial know-how to turn their ideas into profits for the benefit of themselves and the economy.

During the webinar, Whitesides shared his thoughts on this issue and also offered suggestions to the ACS regarding what they can do to help create more jobs for chemists.

Read the entire report from the ACS Task Force here.

What’s the problem?

Whitesides had a thing or two to say about what it will take to get chemists back in the game.

To begin, the Task Force asked the question, What is causing the decline in employment for chemists? Is it a problem of declining need for chemists, or chemists’ decline in innovation?

The Task Force’s conclusion was that “there’s no loss in innovation, but there are problems in getting the ideas that are emerging in chemistry into a state where they are recognizable in creating large numbers of jobs,” Whitesides said.

In other words, the problem is not that there’s nothing left for chemists to contribute. In fact, the biggest problems facing society now are problems that require chemistry– so the opportunities are, in principle, unlimited, he said.

Okay, it’s not that chemists aren’t needed in society. They are. So, the problems lie more in the arena of turning brilliant ideas into marketable products.

But starting up a company is not as simple as we’d like to think. Continue reading →

Chemists in Career Services

Profile: Alexis Thompson, Ph.D. (Chemistry, 2007), Director of Postdoctoral Affairs at the University of Illinois

Alexis Thompson made the jump from physical chemistry research into career services-- and she loves her job! Courtesy photo.


When Alexis Thompson was in grad school studying physical chemistry, she discovered that her passion was helping other people discover their passions.

After she got her Ph.D., she landed her first job as a career adviser– more specifically, as the assistant director of career services in the Graduate College at the University of Illinois.

As a career adviser, Alexis spent her time meeting with students to answer questions, help them prepare job applications and perform mock interviews. She also created and hosted professional development programs that addressed students’ needs.

Side note: What’s cool is I actually met Alexis in the first year of my Ph.D. program, right around when she was wrapping up her degree. In my first year, I attended one of her career workshops and got to hear about her nontraditional career path. I’m pretty sure this is what first got me thinking about how a Ph.D. qualifies you for more than just academia or industry.

Not surprisingly, most university career advisers don’t have doctorates in chemistry. Many come from a background in education or counseling.

But Alexis’s background in science makes her uniquely suited for her current position. If you’ve been through grad school, you have tasted and seen the academic world from the inside and can relate to the struggles that science students are going through, in a way that non-science people can’t.­

And though it’s not always apparent, many of the skills you acquire through toiling in the lab and facing research ups and downs—well, they can carry over into your seemingly unrelated career.

Alexis can certainly attest to the power of transferable skills. She had quite a learning curve when she started her first job in career services. But she felt confident diving into an entirely new field, thanks to her Ph.D. training.

So, how exactly did Alexis take her chemistry Ph.D. and break into career services? Continue reading →

Making waves: The chemistry of hair perms

I hope my previous post about cosmetic chemistry whet your appetite to know more about the mechanisms underlying the chemical processes that take place in the salon.

If it did, then I have just the thing for you.

It’s the International Year of Chemistry, and in honor of that, the chief of the CENtral Science bloggers, Rachel Pepling, has called all blogging chemists to write about their favorite chemical reaction.

If this is news to you, it’s not too late! You have until Monday, September 26th to submit your entry. Check out all the details here.

A bit of background

If you were like me, you had no idea that all those silly looking blobs inside the cell were just really big molecules. Photo credit: flickr user aubsglamola

Before I dive into my reaction, I need to set the stage a little.

Organic chemistry was my first chemistry love. Oh, the mechanisms, the reactions, the… electron pushing!

But what really sealed the deal between me and chemistry was my first biochemistry class. I had an “Aha!” moment when my professor threw a transparency up that showed how proteins are just really stinking big molecules.

So, you mean all those colorful blobs with strange names like “Golgi apparatus” and “mitochondria” that I memorized in high school biology— those were just molecules all along?

Yup. I discovered that so many everyday occurences all boiled down to chemistry. Everything is made of chemicals. That’s right, I said it. There’s no such thing as chemical-free!

My biochem professor was great at building in examples of how science intersects with everyday life. One day we learned about the structure of hair. It’s made of keratin, a fibrous structural protein that is also found in skin and nails. Disulfide bonds between polypeptide chains in keratin molecules are what give your hair strength and rigidity.

The chemistry of perms

If you have straight hair, I know there are days when you’ve looked in the mirror and wished it was wavy. And vice-versa for the curly haired folks out there.

A century ago, you might have resorted to putting 24 pounds of heated brass rods in your hair and topped it off with a solution of cow urine and water to set the wave in place. That’s quite a price to pay for wavy hair.

But now, thanks to modern chemistry, a couple simple solutions— of ammonium thioglycolate and hydrogen peroxide— are all you need. Continue reading →