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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 instructorcomedian, and screenwriter. Another law blog, Legal Nomads, has a series entitled Thrillable Hours with examples such as fashion entrepreneurmarketing 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 looking.

Chemistry graduate school and mental well-being

In case you’ve missed it, this week there’s currently a dialogue between Chemjobber and Vinylogous (of Not the Lab and a current chemistry graduate student) on the topic “Is graduate school in chemistry bad for your mental health?” This dialogue began with Chemjobber relating a personal vignette of a low point he remembered from grad school and then posing the premise:

Yes, graduate school in chemistry can be bad for your mental health. Science can lend itself to isolating workers from healthy habits, from friends and from family. For people who see themselves as competent and at least as good as their colleagues, bench research in chemistry can rub failure in their faces and deliver fierce blows to self-confidence. You can see yourself as falling behind, not pulling your own weight, never giving a good group meeting and just simply not up to snuff.

After setting the stage, Chemjobber then asked Vinylogous, “Is graduate school in chemistry (which you’re participating in right now) making you crazy?” Both Chemjobber and Vinylogous were/are, respectively, organic chemistry graduate students (as was I—well, organometallic), so there’s a shared perspective. Of course, this has an inherent danger of describing circumstances not germane to other chemistry disciplines, but that’s probably a minor point.

Vinylogous’ response is now up, and is the second post of what will become a five-part dialogue, alternating between the two blogs. This first response is very thorough, covering a number of aspects which may influence a graduate student’s behavior and their feelings of self-worth. After relating some personal experiences, Vinylogous arrives at a central theme:

I think a question worth exploring is this: what aspects of the system contribute to the inordinate amount of stress and threaten mental health? I’m going to spend some time discussing my observations, and I invite comment on them.

I found a lot of the observations very insightful. There’s a lot of pulling back the curtain going on here to expose activities and behaviors that usually go undiscussed. I particularly liked Vinylogous’ emphasis on the importance of work-life balance:

Overall, discussions of work/life balance are absent from chemistry programs; frankly, a student and PI should establish a mutual understanding of what this means, and it should be open to re-negotiation later on. In our departmental orientation, we were handed a list of university counseling centers in an almost embarrassed manner. But no discussion of how to step beyond the lab. Instead, our area head told us: “You should always have something running in your hood.”

Vinylogous then brings up other important considerations that are worth reading, so, please stay tuned as the rest of this dialogue unfolds in the coming days.

I’m glad to see this topic discussed so frankly. It’s particularly timely in light of last month’s ACS Presidential Commission report and C&EN coverage on the status of graduate school in the chemical sciences and Deirdre’s terrific ensuing guest post here.

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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.”

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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 all my food in pill form. I find it’s a good idea to eat light before flying in my rocket car, at least until my personal robot gets its pilot’s license.

Since many of these predictions have turned out later to be more-or-less fantasy, perhaps more reliable visions of our future in food are to be found in the world of fiction. So, below, I’ve compiled a small list of film, television and book titles—some are SF, some not, but all have a vision of the future or parallel present, dystopian or otherwise. In all these works, there is at least a moment where food plays a part. Please join me and scan the following menu:

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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.

Even a beer line at a poster session is never this grim.

Image: C&EN

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:

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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 did.

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 me. I couldn’t have planned it better if I had tried, but I just followed my interests (much as Christine wrote about last year), and it’s worked out well for me.

Finally, a unique, interesting, or funny anecdote about my career

As a startup nonprofit, we’ve received many generous donations of equipment and reagents (and scientists, it would seem—including myself) from Big Pharma as it downsizes and closes research sites. During week two in my new job, my boss and I rented a truck and went to the site of a recently-closed small biotech to pick up glassware we had purchased at auction. The chemistry lab had about twelve hoods or so, and there was glassware everywhere—some organized and sorted, some not. Many of the round-bottomed flasks still had notebook page numbers, tare weights and/or chemical structures written on them with a Sharpie. We packed up everything we could and left. I felt like a grave robber.

Well, now, that was a downer. Okay, time to regroup. On a lighter note, a bonus Brush with Greatness—one of my theatre arts advisors was Bill Pullman.

Happy Mole Day!

25 years of American Chemical Society goodness

As I arrived home from work last Friday, awaiting me was a small package from the ACS Membership Affairs Committee. What could it be, I wondered.

“Dear Mr. Ernst,”
Oh, ACS, you’re too formal. Just call me Glen.

I excitedly opened the box. Inside was an even smaller box, and a letter addressed to me. The letter began:

“It is my great privilege to congratulate you on your 25th anniversary as a member of the American Chemical Society.”

They remembered! Well, I am embarrassed. I didn’t get them anything….except 25 years of dues.

Another excerpt:

“In the past several years, we have significantly enhanced your member benefits to offer a wide range of programs designed to enrich your personal and professional life. … For a full picture of all that ACS offers, please visit our interactive website www.acs.org/memberhandbook.”

In the spirit of full disclosure—and partial irony—I must admit I haven’t browsed through the full breadth of available ACS online content. The online version of the Member Handbook is nicely done and easy to navigate, facilitating access to important areas such as ACS Career Programs.

Further on, the letter read:

“As a special token of our gratitude, and in celebration of your 25 years of membership in the Society, please accept this engraved pen. May it serve as a reminder of your contributions and achievements with ACS!”

I mean it. Thank you.

I opened the small box. It was a pen. A shiny, sturdy, blue pen. A pen that cries, Behold, all ye mighty, I am a pen to be reckoned with. Yes, that sort of pen. And as promised, it is indeed engraved—twice. The engravings state, “AMERICAN CHEMICAL SOCIETY” and “25 YEARS OF SERVICE.” Bonus—the pen works!

Time to dial down the snarkiness. (Snark is my baseline setting.) It is a nice pen. I will use it. It’s not a 25th anniversary coffee mug depicting the entry for manganese from the periodic table, but, hey, I like it.

My recent criticisms aside, I’m proud to have been a member of this organization for the last 25 years, and look forward to continuing into the future.

The letter concluded:

“Because of your long-term participation in the ACS, we’ve become a richer, more influential organization, providing the highest levels of excellence in our programs and services. Again, congratulations on reaching this membership milestone!”

My contributions and achievements. Flattering, but to be honest, I haven’t done much beyond doing science as honestly as I know how. Regarding the ACS, I don’t feel I’ve really contributed—I’ve consumed. I do vote regularly in ACS elections, broadly, locally and within the divisions of which I am a member. Beyond that, the most I’ve given back has been through some of what I’ve written here at JAEP.

Can a pen cause shame?

So many nontraditional chemistry careers…

A core topic covered here at Just Another Electron Pusher is careers that are deemed by some to be nontraditional for those with a degree in chemistry—away from the bench, generally speaking. I was thinking it would be appropriate, at this time, to list the various nontraditional (or alternative or whatever adjective you prefer) careers that have been covered by current, former and guest electron pushers since this blog’s inception over two years ago.

Pants would be a nice addition to your ensemble.

Wardrobe not to your liking? That’s okay. You can find something else that fits your style.

Yes, this is the blog equivalent of a sitcom clip show, where the characters sit around and reminisce, saying things like, “Remember when such-and-such happened to so-and-so…” Annnd cue the short segment from an earlier season.

“Ooh, I hate these clip shows!” you cry, and shake your fist at the TV. But you end up watching them anyway, don’t you? Admit it—they’re addictive, almost inescapable. That’s what I’m trying to do here—lure you in with the promise of nostalgia, which comforts like the aroma of freshly baked bread, until the trap is sprung. Excellent.

And, in the spirit of altruism, I’m hoping this JAEP retrospective will provide a handy, and perhaps dandy, one-stop shop so you can browse through professions profiled and topics covered. This list will be updated regularly, and permalinked to the sidebar within the JAEP blogroll.

I’ve chosen to list these alphabetically, because, well…I’m a scientist, and we’re anal we prefer order. So, without further ado:

Actor profile
Book Editor / Publisher profile
Career Adviser profile
Cartoonist (Piled Higher & Deeper’s Jorge Cham) profile
Chemical Safety / Chemical Hygiene Officer profile
Chemical Software Marketer profile
Chemistry Librarian profile
Chemjobber profile
Congressional Legislative Assistant profile
Conservation Scientist profile
Cook part one, part two
Cosmetic Chemistry profile
Disney Imagineer profile
Flavor Chemistry profile
K-12 STEM Outreach profile one, profile two
Medical Sales (and Cheerleader!) profile
Medical Writing profile
Molecular Jewelry Designer profile
Optometrist profile
Patent Attorney profile
Project Manager profile
Regulatory Affairs profile
Science Artist / Illustrator profile
Science Policy and Communication profile one, profile two, profile three
Science Writing part one, part two
Scientific Journal Editor profile
Scientific Staffing profile
Technology Transfer profile
Winemaking profile
US Government Jobs overview
Video Producer profile
Web Entrepreneur (BenchFly’s Alan Marnett) profile

So, there you have it. I hope you’ve enjoyed this recap, and that you’ll revisit regularly.

This list contains only a small fraction of the careers those with chemistry degrees currently enjoy. I’d like to think there are many others, who have a degree in chemistry, but are currently employed in a profession not typically associated with chemistry. Perhaps they’re applying chemistry knowledge and skills in a unique way. If  either description fits you or someone you know, and you or they are also willing to be profiled by Just Another Electron Pusher, please contact me via Twitter (@electron_pusher) or email (geernst AT gmail DOT com).


Awarding nontraditional chemistry

As has been reported at C&EN and elsewhere, the anxiously awaited 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded Wednesday to Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka for their work characterizing the structure and function of G-protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs).

Here at CENtral Science, giddy Nobel fan boy David Kroll has followed up with two terrific posts (and promises yet another) about this year’s award, and Carmen Drahl, in the context of discussing a researcher’s two “families,” conducted an insightful interview with author Cheryl Renée Herbsman, daughter of Robert Lefkowitz.

The impact of this research cannot be overstated. GPCRs are huge, no question. Easily half the projects I’ve worked on in my career as a medicinal chemist have targeted GPCRs, and many of those that did not still contained one upstream or down in a broader signalling cascade.

In spite of the importance of this research, there has been some complaining about this year’s chemistry Nobel, and others given in recent years. The injured parties argue that the chemistry award is being somehow sullied by including work that isn’t really chemistry—by an overly strict definition. Last year’s award, which was for discovery of quasicrystals by Dan Shechtman, was also criticized by some because it didn’t go to a “real chemist.” This attitude even caught the attention of Nobel laureate Roald Hoffmann, who viewed the Nobel Committee’s recent decisions “as a call to our profession to embrace the far and influential reach of chemistry.”

In the chemistry blogosphere, there were several calls to abandon this chemistry-purist attitude, including a very nice rebuke by Derek Lowe, who succinctly stated, “Biology isn’t invading chemistry – biology is turning into chemistry.” Derek went on:

And that’s the story of molecular biology for you, right there. As it lives up to its name, its practitioners have had to start thinking of their tools and targets as real, distinct molecules. They have shapes, they have functional groups, they have stereochemistry and localized charges and conformations. They’re chemicals.

In his blog, Chemjobber granted this argument, but is still uncomfortable with the notion. He wrote, “My main complaint against this trend of biology/biologists winning recent chemistry Nobel prizes is that it is beginning to distract from the non-life-sciences aspects of chemistry.”

I mention all this grumbling about the Nobel Prize in Chemistry because a topic covered by this blog is so-called nontraditional careers in chemistry. So far be it from me to criticize the awarding of a Nobel Prize in Chemistry to chemistry research that some may view as nontraditional.

The beta-2 adrenergic receptor—a GPCR.

WARNING: Your body contains chemicals. Lots of them.
Credit – Wikimedia Commons

Breakthrough scientific research often occurs at the boundaries of disciplines. A key insight can be made by someone skilled in another field of science as they view an intractable problem from a previously unappreciated perspective.

Those of us who get worked up over media hysteria regarding things containing chemicals (the horror!) and are deeply critical of consumer products described as “chemical free” have long maintained that everything is made of chemicals. True enough. If so, then we can hardly complain if a Nobel Prize in chemistry is awarded for work in biology, because—repeat after me—biology is chemistry. And as David Kroll rightly pointed out, the tools necessary for elucidating the function of the earliest-understood GPCRs were chemical tools.

This is really nothing new. I’ve heard many times in my career that “all biology is chemistry, and all chemistry is physics.” So…maybe there’s some room in the physics Nobel for some chemistry research? If that happens, will physicists grumble that their Nobel didn’t go to a “real physicist?”

From The CENtral Science Blogs