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Category → alternative careers

2012: Looking forward to major transitions, fun adventures

A New Year for new adventures! Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, Ondrejk.

For the past four years, I’ve kicked off the New Year knowing more or less what the next year was going to hold: I’ll be in the lab, working on my project, hoping for good data that will lead to papers that will lead me one step closer to graduation.

But this year is different. My defense date is almost scheduled in March (waiting for one last professor to confirm), and in May, I will walk across a stage and receive my Ph.D. diploma.

While this makes me extremely excited, it’s also bittersweet.

It’s exciting, well, because the end of grad school means the start of something new—finally!

But it’s also a tiny bit sad because, as much as I’ve complained about it, I’ve enjoyed being a grad student and have made some really great friends who I’m going to miss.

I know those who are in the thick of grad school will beg to differ, but it’s a pretty sweet deal, being paid to get a degree and all. I’ve learned a ton, and although day to day I haven’t noticed it, I’ve grown a lot in five years.

It can also be a bit frightening, if I let it be. When several years of your life are spent doing one thing, and one thing only (or mostly), it’s a little unsettling to not know what you’ll be doing in five months time. Continue reading →

Flavor chemistry: The science of deliciousness

Meet Bethany Hausch: chemist, food scientist, and my good friend! Courtesy photo.

Profile: Bethany Hausch, chemist, food scientist and technologist at Kerry Ingredients and Flavours

We are quickly approaching the holidays and it only seems appropriate that I blog about food, since it’s such a crucial component of the season.

More specifically, this blog post is about food science, and about how a good friend of mine, Bethany Hausch, took her chemistry skills into the world of flavor science. We met when Bethany was studying at the University of Illinois, and I’m so happy that I get to blog about her journey!

Bethany is a technologist at Kerry Ingredients and Flavours in Beloit, WI. She works in the Analytical Lab at Kerry where she uses various instrumentation to analyze flavors and study the composition of foods.

“Each day is different and depends on the tests requested from R&D scientists,” Bethany says. “Most days I work on three or four projects.    This could include identifying the source of an off-flavor in rejected product or comparing the flavor of samples in a storage study.  I might also spend part of my day determining the sugar profile of anything from coffee syrups to baby cereal.”

In undergrad, Bethany majored in chemistry (B.S., 2008), but when she looked at the traditional career options available to chemists, none seemed to be the right fit. Food science seemed to have more direct applications to everyday life, so she went on to earn her Master’s degree in Food Science & Human Nutrition from the University of Illinois in 2010 and immediately landed her job at Kerry.

What Bethany loves most about her job is the element of discovery and the fact that she’s learning new things all the time. Since the Analytical Lab provides support to all divisions of the company, Bethany learns about a lot of different types of foods and about the compounds that give them their flavor.

“I enjoy this field because I see the beauty of science while working on projects that are practical and have direct consumer applications,” she says. Continue reading →

The light at the end of the tunnel

There's no greater feeling than finally seeing the light at the end of the grad school tunnel! Photo credit: flickr user SamBoyd Photography.

I’ve been a bit spotty with blogging recently, so I apologize. I’ve been pretty tied up with collecting and analyzing data for what will be the last (I repeat, last) chapter of my dissertation.

It is a wonderful feeling to be close to the end— I can’t overstate that!!

Anyone who has gone through grad school can probably relate to the feeling of utter elation you get when you realize that you will in fact graduate with your Ph.D. in the forseeable future. The end is near!

For those fledgling graduate students out there, you may be a bit jealous of this feeling I have. But I just have to say— stick it out and soon enough you too will know what it feels like to be almost done!

Wow, there are a lot of exclamation marks in this post. Not to be overly dramatic, but throughout the first several years of grad school, it often feels like it’s never going to end. There are ups and downs and more downs (see earlier post about how I fell out of love with research).

The thing about a Ph.D. program is it’s so nebulous when you will finish. It’s not like undergrad where you check off all the boxes, pass all your classes and walk across the stage to get your diploma. It’s hard to explain that to relatives who assume you’ll have a month-long Christmas break since you’re still a student. No, it doesn’t quite work like that actually…

So when it finally hits you that the end is near, it’s an incredible feeling. Especially, I feel, for someone like me, for whom the end of grad school is the end of research, once and for all, and the beginning of doing what I really love. Continue reading →

ACS Webinars: The Road Less Traveled– Nontraditional Careers for PhD Chemists, Part Two

As promised, here’s Part Two of my recap of Steven Carlo’s presentation with ACS Webinars entitled, The Road Less Traveled—Alternative Careers for PhD Chemists.

If you missed it, you can watch the video on the ACS Webinars YouTube channel or here.

To PhD or not to PhD?—that is the question. And it varies among the different nontraditional career options. Photo courtesy: flickr user dan & emily.

In the last post, I compiled a list of both traditional and nontraditional career options for chemists, some of which Steven highlighted during the webinar. For your convenience, I’ve linked back to previous profile posts where we highlighted a person with that career.

Steven’s lecture was full of all kinds of career advice, ranging from how to prepare your resume to tips on networking. I’ve arranged his words of wisdom in a Q&A format and arranged the questions by topic:

General advice for job applicants

Q: The job market isn’t looking so hot. What advice do you have for job applicants to increase their chances of landing a job?

A: Right now the odds are against you to find a job. So, be sure to take advantage of the resources at your disposal: talk to your adviser, people who work in career services on your campus, peruse the internet.  Some recommended websites for finding job postings: ACS Careers, Monster.com, careerbuilder.com, chemistryjobs.com, USAjobs.com, Science.

Education and Experience

Q: Is a PhD required for all these jobs?

A: It varies. If you are someone who is considering a nontraditional career for yourself, part of your research on careers should involve talking to people who work in the field to find out what types of educational background are common for people in those fields. Conversations with people in the field, known as informational interviews, are a crucial component of networking, which we all have heard over and over is such an important part of your career advancement.

Q: Should I do a postdoc if I’m not sure what else to do?

A: Doing a postdoc probably isn’t necessary or helpful unless you’re serious about academia—then it’s essential that you find a postdoc adviser who will help train you and prepare you for an independent research career. Lots of publications and a big-name postdoc adviser is always good is you’re shooting for academia.

Q: How can people who are thinking about non-traditional careers and have little to no experience in those areas compete with those who do have experience in those fields?

A: If you lack formal educational training, go take a course at a community college, or find some other ways to get skills of experiences that will make you more qualified for the job. Consider if there are any skills that are transferrable from one field to another. You just need “some kind of hook that can get you in,” Steven said. If you’re a researcher wanting to get into, say, editing, you will have to justify it in your cover letter: “I’m interested in this type of career because…”  Continue reading →

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 →

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.”

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 →

The Science of Beauty: Cosmetic Chemistry

Many young children love playing with dolls, especially ones with long hair that you can brush and style. I certainly did.

This little girl's love for dolls could be the beginning a cosmetic chemistry career. Photo credit: flickr user valerie haslett

It’s easy to see how a child’s fascination with dolls could lead into a career as a hair stylist. But a chemist? That one took me a little bit by surprise.

According to the bio on her website, Cassandra Celestin’s career in chemistry all started with her love of dolls. She is now a hair stylist and makeup artist also known as “The Hair Chemist.”

Cassandra received a B.S. in Chemistry and a Masters degree in cosmetic chemistry from Farleigh Dickinson University. She has since worked for several different companies developing formulations for hair color products.

As a licensed cosmetologist, her work has been featured in magazines and on her very own YouTube channel. Check out a video she made about how volcanic sand can be made into foot scrub by mixing it in with surfactants, silicone and aloe oil.

Being a chemist can indeed help your hair styling and cosmetology career— Cassandra is just one of many examples. There’s actually an entire society of cosmetic chemists out there, in case you’d like to meet more chemically inclined hair and makeup people.

It makes sense, really. People who work with hair have to know what’s in the stuff they put in people’s hair. They also need to know how different hair types will respond to various treatments, such as coloring, perms, relaxers, you name it.

I, for one, have been the victim of poorly executed blonde highlights. In college, I wanted dirty blonde highlights to blend in with my dark brown hair. The result? Really tacky bleach-blonde chunks. Just awful. There will be no pictures to illustrate this point here. Maybe my stylist should have paid more attention during chemistry class!

So many chemicals, so many colors. Photo credit: flickr user San Diego Shooter

So, what does it take to become a cosmetic chemist like Cassandra? You can find gobs of useful information at the Chemists Cornerthe self-proclaimed resource site for cosmetic chemists. Here’s a link to an article they wrote, titled “How to Become a Cosmetic Chemist“, and another I found on eHow.com.

Here are the main pieces of advice I gleaned from those articles:

  • Get a science degree
  • Consider getting an advanced degree in cosmetic science– a list of training programs can be found here
  • Research companies you’d like to work for
  • Get lab experience in formulations
  • Network with other cosmetic chemists

When it all boils down, beauty (the Hollywood definition) is both an art and a science—and chemists have a role to play in the world of glitz and glamour.

Want to know more about the chemistry behind cosmetics? Check out this cool website.

Also, stay tuned for my “favorite chemical reaction” blog post, which will be part of the Chemistry Blog Carnival hosted by CENtral Science’s Rachel Pepling. Hint: It will have something to do with hair!