Web roundup: Nontraditional careers—they’re not just for chemists anymore

There are many reasons for a person to seek out a career that’s seen as nontraditional within their particular field of study. With the current state of the job market within chemistry, a lack of employment prospects has been one reason focused upon here. Another motivator may simply be choice, based on a change in personal values, a need to escape a career that has become stressful, or a desire to convert a lifelong avocation into a career…among other considerations. For example, many chemists have left the bench after becoming disenchanted with laboratory work, and then seek something else, often because of a perceived lack of opportunities for career progression in a lab-based position. And then there are those who are forced to seek a career change because their position, which may have been considered traditional, no longer exists, nor does any real prospect of future opportunities in their field. Over the past few weeks, I’ve come across blog posts about people in other disciplines seeking alternatives to their “traditional” career options. This should come as no surprise—the circumstances described above for seeking a career change are by no means experienced by chemists alone. A couple of random examples include a profile within the field of sports psychology and speculation on career possibilities for boxer Manny Pacquiao (okay, that latter example is pretty specific). One career, in particular, seemed to stand out by its prevalence—Lawyers seeking nontraditional or alternative careers. Nontraditional careers are a recurring topic on the law blog Above the Law. Some recent examples include yoga instructor, comedian, and screenwriter. Another law blog, Legal Nomads, has a series entitled Thrillable Hours with examples such as fashion entrepreneur, marketing director, and wildlife journalist. The profiles describe reasons for career changes that are eerily similar to ones that have been described here. An example: It is simple really: I was just never cut out for a life of 9-5 traipsing into work every day and doing something I really didn’t care about. Unfortunately for me, legal work was something I really didn’t care about. Not too different than a research chemist losing interest in research. One reason why the notion of lawyers in nontraditional careers caught my attention is because, as you may remember, the law—specifically patent law—was highlighted as a nontraditional chemistry career option in a profile here a couple of years ago. The possibility seems somewhat unlikely, but I’m anxious to see if it comes full circle—are there examples of a lawyer (or someone from another career covered here) seeking out chemistry as their nontraditional career of choice? I’ll keep...

Read More

How long does it take to make a chemist?

This guest post was written by Deirdre Lockwood, a chemical oceanography graduate student at the University of Washington, who recently completed an internship with C&EN: Out in the middle of the ocean, deep in the clanging engine room of a Chinese container ship, I found—broken in two—the PVC joint that connected my sampling hose to the bilge pump. Salt water and heat had done a number on the fitting. I was riding the ship to survey the chemistry of the North Pacific for my Ph.D. in chemical oceanography. The broken joint meant for the moment that I had no way of draining my experimental apparatus, and that meant no data. Of course, as a seagoing scientist, I had packed backups. I was sure I had, until I rummaged around in the action packer that held my supplies and found joints of all shapes and sizes, but none like the one that had broken. After a few minutes of banging my head against the hull and wishing for a mid-Pacific Home Depot, I started constructing a labyrinthine patch with the fittings and pieces of tubing I had on hand. It was a fearsome looking thing, and I knew the NOAA engineer who had helped me plumb the system would disapprove. But the thing drained, and I was back in business. I thought of this moment—and other, more scientifically thorny experiences in graduate school—when I saw the recent ACS Presidential Commission report “Advancing Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences” (and C&EN’s coverage here). They’ve done well to call out the elephant in the room: US graduate students who spend years toiling through chemistry Ph.D.s are finding it increasingly hard to find work as chemists when they finish. And they’ve made several recommendations for how to make things better. Some of them would help, I think: making sure programs don’t take on more students than there will be opportunities for after graduation, and creating a grant system that would fund graduate students directly rather than through their advisors. But the recommendation that jumped out at me involves limiting the time for finishing a Ph.D. “Five, six, seven, or more years is far too long for completion of a Ph.D.,” commission member Gary Calabrese said. “Four years should be the target, with the departmental median being absolutely no more than five years.” In the NSF’s survey of Ph.D. recipients in 2003, the median time to the degree in chemistry in the US was six years. In fact, chemists beat out Ph.D.s in math, physics and astronomy, and biological science, who had a median of seven years to completion. It would be wonderful, of course, both for students and for...

Read More
Visions of a fictional #foodchem future
Nov14

Visions of a fictional #foodchem future

As Thanksgiving approaches, I know I’m not alone in having an intensely nostalgic view of food. Certain foods will always be strongly associated with memories of my childhood and inextricably linked to my family as my children grow. Or rather, now that they are grown. As I look fondly to the past, I also wonder what the future of food will look like. It is certain that chemistry will play some role here, because, food, like everything else, is made of chemicals. When I was a young boy, all technology, including chemistry (!), was chic and modern, or, rather, mod. The food industry was creating product after product that, to me, seemed cool as cool could be, and I literally ate them up. My experience of this era mirrors that of Michael Pollan, writer of “books and articles about the places where nature and culture intersect: on our plates, in our farms and gardens, and in the built environment.” In a 2003 New York Times Magazine article entitled “The Futures of Food,” he wrote: “all signs pointed to a single outcome: the meal in a pill, washed down, perhaps, with next-generation Tang. The general consensus seemed to be that “food”—a word that was already beginning to sound old-fashioned—was destined to break its surly bonds to Nature, float free of agriculture and hitch its future to Technology.” Sadly, this love fest with technofood was short-lived: “What none of us could have imagined back in 1965 was that within five short years, the synthetic food future would be overthrown in advance of its arrival. The counterculture seized upon processed food, of all things, as a symbol of everything wrong with industrial civilization.” Over forty years later, although food technology has continued to proceeded, the concept of synthetic food has not regained any luster. The opinion that processed food is to be avoided has transcended the counterculture, and has been embraced by the popular culture and medical establishment. Whole, natural, fresh foods are the healthy dietary high road for you to travel. There has been much controversy in particular regarding genetically-modified organisms (GMO) contained in our food products. Any discussion of the future of food would have to include this. But having just opened that particular can of worms, I’m going to attempt to reseal it and approach the subject of food’s future from another tack, taking a very sharp turn toward a lighter, fluffier view. Like a soufflé. Hopefully it won’t collapse. We are now well into the 21st Century. So, how did those 1960s predictions of our Food Future turn out? I don’t know about you, but I certainly enjoy...

Read More
Now it’s official—it’s not a pretty picture out there
Nov08

Now it’s official—it’s not a pretty picture out there

Well, no doubt you’ve had at least a cursory look at the excellent C&EN cover story regarding the 2012 Employment Outlook for chemists. The cover shows a long queue of labcoat-wearing chemists, all presumably in line for the one available position. Cheery. This story is in contrast to some previous commentary suggesting a recovery may be around some invisible corner, and, as chemists, we can get through it with grim determination. Following that, we’ll be somehow rewarded at the end of the ordeal. All we need to do is say “entrepreneurship” three times, click our heels together, and we’ll all be given a cushy new job in Kansas with all relocation expenses reimbursed. If you’ve been through layoffs and site closures, as I have, and are, in turn, still connected to former colleagues facing a similar fate—again—or are still unemployed after a protracted period of time, this insistence that things aren’t so bad can be, well, annoying. It suggests the problem is you. A few months ago, my personal annoyance meter pegged out, and I took ACS CEO and Executive Director Madeleine Jacobs to task for portraying the chemistry job market as rosier than I saw it, and for scolding a mother, a scientist who had gone through a downsizing, for urging her daughter to “not go into science.” Well, although I’m sure my post had little if anything to do with it, a similar message has gotten through. Facts are presented, and they are cold and hard. Okay. If you haven’t already, you need to read this cover story in greater detail. It’s broken up into several articles, with titles shown below. Under the heading of each title, I’ve followed with a few of my thoughts upon reading each one. There’s much more information within each article than referred to with my superficial observations. You’ll be doing yourself a disservice if you don’t read each article in their entirety, regardless of where you are in your career journey. Overall, the full story was a struggle for me to get through—not because of how it’s reported (which is excellent), but because it rings so true. I’ve been there. Others still are there. It’s no fun revisiting. Anyway, here we go: For Hire Here, the stage is set with a big picture view of the Great Recession and current global economic factors. The promise is to drill down, in the accompanying articles, to the impact on employment for chemists, now and into the future. Tepid Recovery Curtails Hiring From the outset, no punches are pulled: “Not that long ago, chemists regarded their education as a guarantee of lifelong employment. That’s...

Read More

The ACS provides a variety of career information for you

Periodically, we’ve pointed out some of the available resources and information provided by the ACS Careers to help you with career decisions. Well, that crisp autumn chill in the air reminds me that it’s time to do it again. Recently, the ACS Careers Blog has profiled two categories of nontraditional chemistry careers. First is science and technical writers, a topic also covered by JAEP in past posts (here, here and here). Another is supply-chain manager and contract manager, (with some similarities to a project manager). For those of you interested in more traditional chemistry careers (depending on what “traditional” means to you), many profiles have been compiled by ACS Careers and can be found here. These are provided as part of ACS Careers Programs, accessible through the online ACS Member Handbook, or via the ACS portal. Remember, too, that overviews of career opportunities and discussions of factors affecting the broader employment outlook are available through the ACS Webinars Careers Channel. Check out this page for a list of past webinars covered by JAEP. Upcoming: Next week, there will be a webinar with the provocative title of Doctoral Glut Dilemma: Are There Solutions? This webinar will broadcast next Thursday, November 8th at 2:00 PM EST. This one promises to provide all the controversy you can stand. I’m afraid, however, that you’ll have to supply your own popcorn. And, don’t forget, all ACS webinars are available for viewing through their archives (under the Past Webinars tab) or via the acswebinars YouTube channel. View a webinar from The Past! What were ACS members’ concerns years ago? How has chemistry fashion has changed over time? (Admittedly a trick question—fashion doesn’t exist for chemists, let alone change). The archives only go so far back, though. So there’s no footage of a grad student being reduced to tears by the steely gaze of R.B. Woodward. And if your attention span can’t endure a full-length webinar, there are even webinets! What do you mean, that’s not a word? The ACS says it is, so there. The webinets are given the overarching theme of “2 Minutes to a Smarter Scientist.” Well, count me in. I would also like to be smarterer. Here’s a sample webinet to give you a taste:   Irresistible, right? So do yourself a favor, and give this bounty of information a thorough perusal. You’ll be glad you...

Read More

Pushing electrons over to the #ChemCoach Carnival

As you’re now no doubt well aware, after Carmen Drahl’s post, chemistry blogger See Arr Oh of Just Like Cooking (and frequent guest blogger with The Haystack) has challenged the chemistry blognoscienti to a #ChemCoach Chemistry Carnival, in honor of the 25th National Chemistry Week, which happens to coincide with my 25th anniversary as an ACS member. (Coincidence—or conspiracy…?) My current job. I’m a medicinal chemist at the Lieber Institute for Brain Development in Baltimore, MD. We’re a nonprofit entity doing drug discovery, basic science and much else. We’re have an association with Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and are located adjacent to the campus. Naturally, as a medicinal chemist, I’m part of the drug discovery division, designing and synthesizing small molecules as potential therapies for central nervous system disorders, such as schizophrenia. Before working here, I was employed in Big Pharma for the majority of my career, working on similar targets, as it happens. What I do in a standard “work day.” There’s no such thing. The institute is small, and just getting off the ground, so we all wear a number of different hats in a given day. Most of my time is spent designing and making compounds and then analyzing the data those compounds generate to inform further design modifications. Classic med chem. But I’m also partly responsible for ordering supplies, some equipment maintenance, and I serve as Chemical Hygiene Officer for the institute—in this last role I have a fair amount of responsibility regarding safety, which I take seriously. What kind of schooling / training / experience helped me get there? I have a master’s in organic chemistry and bachelor’s degrees in both chemical engineering and theatre arts. What do you mean, I was unfocused? It was all according to plan—a circuitous, inscrutable plan. After grad school, I went right to a synthetic organic position at a pharmaceuticals company. I had originally planned on working in industry for a few years, then going back to grad school and working toward a PhD. Life happened, and I never looked back. Even though I don’t have a doctorate, I was incredibly fortunate, and given a rare opportunity to move to a team leader position while working in Big Pharma. How does chemistry inform my work? Chemistry is central to everything I do, but medicinal chemistry requires having a level of understanding of biological mechanisms (which is still chemistry—that’ll be our little secret). Training, formal and informal, in areas like biology, pharmacology, toxicology, et. al. was undertaken while in industry. I’ve always had a broad base of interests (see educational background above), so medicinal chemistry is a good fit for...

Read More