Highlights from Pittcon 2012 Chemistry Careers Networking Session, Part II

As promised, here’s the second blog post with more of the highlights from the Pittcon 2012 networking session I organized titled Chemistry Careers Beyond the Bench. Part I can be found here. After panelist introductions, we dove straight into the Q&A portion. Panelists were seated at the front of the room, and the rest of the attendees took seats around the room, which was organized in a U-shape to help facilitate conversation. Here are some highlights from the Q&A: Q: Did you choose a nontraditional career from the get-go, or did you end up in one by default (i.e., lost your job, etc.)? A: Joanne Thomson looked for jobs outside of pharma for more stability, and found the Royal Society of Chemistry graduate development programme that helped her see what day-to-day life in the publishing world is like and that led to her current job as Deputy Editor. Richard Skubish left the bench because he didn’t love the job anymore, and discovered the world of sales and marketing, where he is happy to still be a part of advancing science without being the one doing the science. Celia Arnaud said she always thought she’d like to write for C&EN, but still tried the grad school research thing only to find out she didn’t like it. “I knew I was in it for the long haul [as a science writer] because I wasn’t bored out of my mind by the end of the first year,” she explained.

To be competitive for jobs, it helps to demonstrate a unique skill set that sets you apart from the crowd. Photo credit: flickr user TheColorBee.

Q: Any advice for international students who are interested in nontraditional chemistry careers? A: Joseph Jolson, who owns his own consulting business, Custom Client Solutions, tackled this question. Many international students have circumstances that work against them when it comes to landing a job (i.e. language difficulties, different social expectations, visa problems). To get around these problems his advice is: “Come up with skills sets that will create a demand for you.” In other words, international students will need to make themselves stand out from other job candidates. Richard added on to Joseph’s answer by saying that many companies have gone global, and having foreign language skills can make job candidates more marketable to these companies. Q: What kind of work-life balance does your job allow you? A: Merlin and Joanne, who both work for the Royal Society of Chemistry, said the RSC requirement is 35 hours/week, although occasionally extra hours are required to get everything done. Celia said she works from 7 am to 4 pm, if all goes well. But her days can go much longer than that especially when she has multiple deadlines for assignments. Richard, who has three kids, said he has had to force himself to make some non-negotiable rules about the line between his work life and home life to make that he stays involved in his kids’ lives. He said it was easy at first but then got harder as additional responsibilities got added onto his plate. But he says you have to be careful about how you got about doing this because a good work-life balance “is respected in some circles, but not in others.” Joseph said one of the best and worst things about his job is that he can work anytime and from anywhere in the world. This is fantastic because of the flexibility, but it can also make it difficult to turn off when the work day is over.

When asked, "Do you ever miss working at the bench?" responses from panelists ranged from "Somtimes" to "Never." Photo credit: flickr user Valencia College.

Q: You each got into chemistry because you enjoyed it—has it be hard to adjust to not doing [bench] chemistry anymore? A: Merlin said he does still miss the lab sometimes. It can get especially hard when he visits an author and gets a tour of their lab facilities. Joanne said while she was good at bench research, she doesn’t miss it at all. Celia resonated with Joanne’s statement—she was also good at science, but her deeper interests in college were in English and history. “If I ever thought I could make a living off English and history, I would’ve done that,” she said. Q: How hard is it to break into your field, and what advice do you have for chemists who want to make that jump? A: Celia explained that although science writing has been “the poster child of alternative science careers,” it is a crowded field. “As much as I love my job, it’s not exactly a growth industry,” she said. She broke into the field “at a really good time” and landed a staff job, but staff positions are becoming more rare, and while freelancing is always an option, it doesn’t pay nearly as well. Additional advice: consider science writing jobs at universities, or other public relations positions, which are more common than journalism jobs. Joanne said that many journals and publishers hire science grad students straight out of their degree programs, but it varies from publisher to publisher. To make yourself marketable, get experience in science communication and in social media—i.e., be active on Twitter, become a blogger—and these things will help you stand out as a job candidate. Merlin added onto Joanne’s comment by saying that it’s not just knowledge and experience, but having a good network that is crucial to landing a job. Also, to help yourself stand out, you need to show that you have both the hard skills that all chemists have, as well as soft skills, such as people skills, leadership and organizational skills, time management, and the ability to see opportunities and pursue them. In the book industry, you also need a thick skin because you have about a one in ten hit rate, books don’t always do as well as you’d like, and sometimes you’ll see a review with bad comments. Richard said that in sales and marketing, it’s crucial to understand what is the mission of the company. Also, you need to remember that as much as your job is to help scientists find solutions to their problems, which is one of the most rewarding aspects of the job, at the end of the day, businesses are about making money. Joseph explained that although consulting can bring in lots of money, it can be difficult to be successful at it. “Ten consultants fail for every one success… don’t expect to make as much consulting as in a traditional chemistry career,” he said. Some of the challenges include: finding clients and collecting the money. You need an advanced degree and 20 years of accomplishments, and it’s a good idea to start consulting on the side while you still have your regular job. Concluding Thoughts If I could change things for next time... I'd try to find panelists from additional nontraditional career paths (perhaps a chemistry entrepreneur, a chemist in science policy, and a chemist from the FBI or other government agency). I'd also include more opportunities for informal discussions, and perhaps an activity that promoted self-reflection for those attendees who are still trying to figure out what they want to do. This was my first time organizing a networking session, and I was pleasantly surprised with how smoothly it went. Thanks again to each of the panelists for offering their time to participate!

Author: Christine Herman

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