Career Advice

ChemIDP: Because It’s Important To Think About Career Planning Before Panic Mode Sets In

In response to an ACS task force’s research into the job market for chemists, as well as a growing need for students to explore career opportunities and create a plan to reach them, ACS is introducing the ChemIDP. We are very excited about offering you this new interactive tool and invite you to learn more about it. —Nancy Bakowski, Assistant Director, Higher Education at ACS

It’s a question you might have been about, probably a gazillion... about a gazillion times: “So, what are you going to do with your chemistry Ph.D.?” Ten years ago, that answer would have come easily—and with confi­dence. A tenure-track faculty job, or something in “industry.” These days, though, you’ve got to stop and think.

The fact is, the number of chem­istry jobs is projected to grow only 3% from 2014 to 2024, according to a report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That’s slower than the average for all other occupations. And in 2011, then– American Chemical Society President Bassam Z. Shakhashiri appointed a task force to delve into the climate for jobs for chemists. Among their findings was an unfortunate fact: The number of Ph.D.s entering the job market out­stripped the number of jobs available.

“It’s a shifting job market for chem­ists,” says Wayne Jones, professor and chair of the Department of Chemistry at Binghamton University. “There’s more globalization and more fluctuation in the demographic of chemistry graduate students and postdocs.”

“You have to think carefully,” Jones continues, citing the findings from the ACS task force. “If there are more Ph.D.s on the market, how do your skills match up?”

Enter the IDP. That stands for Individual Development Plan. Your department might have one. Your grad school or PI might require it. Or, chances are, you might have never even heard of it. The last possibility is something that ACS wants to change.

Jodi Wesemann is the assistant director for education research at ACS. She was heavily involved in the creation of ChemIDP, an online tool that provides career plan­ning assistance to chemistry graduate students and postdocs. ChemIDP launched in late 2015, and was built based on interviews with students, feedback from professors, guid­ance from the ACS task force report, and input from graduate schools.

“There’s been that constant drumbeat that we really do a better job preparing people for careers,” says Wesemann, in talk­ing about the necessity of ChemIDP. “The reality is that the employment market for chemists is not as robust as it used to be.”

Even so, there is good news. Employment opportunity can be more diverse than many might assume it to be. “The landscape of where you can get employed is actually broader than people think,” says Steve Corcelli, associate professor and associate chair of the Department of Chemistry and Bio­chemistry at the University of Notre Dame. Corcelli has seen students in his research group go on to careers in intellectual property, government, private industry, and nonprofits. “One of the things that is important about ChemIDP, or IDPs in general, is that it introduces students to career paths they might not have been familiar with.”

ChemIDP has four primary parts:

Self-Assessment, which addresses technical and professional skills, as well as your own personal values;

Skill-Strengthening, which explores how to strengthen your skills and enables you to choose which skills you want to improve;

Goal-Setting, which provides a kind of worksheet where you can add and track your goals; and

Careers, a section that gets into the nitty-gritty about specific career paths ranging from the familiar (like basic research) to the I-didn’t-know-that-was-a-thing jobs (like the section on social impact and activism). In the Careers section, users can read profiles of people with a chemistry education. Profiles delve into areas like a typical day on the job, work environment, and special talents or traits that make the individuals successful.

Throughout the self-assessment portion of the ChemIDP Web site, questions employ a 1–5 scale for rating yourself. Helpful hints appear in sidebars on many pages to give you advice about how to go about creating your IDP. You can also skip around from one section to another.

Wasiu Adedapo Lawal, a doctoral student at the Univer­sity of Texas at Arlington, is studying environmental chem­istry and intends to pursue a career in industry. He says one part of the appeal of ChemIDP is how the skills assessment connects to the information about potential careers. He points out, “It’s one thing to know what your skills are, and it’s an­other thing to know how your skills could apply to a specific career and to read about other people who are doing those things.”

Lawal points out another practical benefit of seeing ex­amples of the actual careers available in his area of expertise. “There might be 100 jobs posted at a time, and knowing what keyword to use when you’re searching for a job is important.” He adds that the specific job titles help him know what to type in a search field.

ChemIDP is not the only online IDP tool, but so far, it is the only chemistry-specific one. myIDP is another online tool, which was created by the American Association for the Advancement of Science; it went live in 2012. Intended for life science students, this tool takes the user through the same kind of skills assessments, career path options, and goal-set­ting exercises that ChemIDP offers to chemists.

One of the things both IDPs emphasize is a crucial step: using the IDP to enrich the relationship with your mentor or adviser. “I don’t think you can ever replace that mentoring re­lationship between the students and their advisers,” says Notre Dame’s Corcelli. “But the IDP helps create a framework for those conversations.”

Steve Ramsey, a Ph.D. student at Lehman College in the Bronx, New York, has used both myIDP and ChemIDP. He mentions that his experience has led him to have more conversations with his adviser regarding what he wants to do and how he can get there. Ramsey says not only are those conversations useful to refine your thinking; they can lead to networking opportunities or connections in your chosen field.

Ramsey also finds benefit in the act of self-assessment. “Turning the focus back on yourself about what you want is important,” he says. “[Without an IDP] I don’t know if I would have spent enough time thinking about what my ideal posi­tion would be.”

Brianna O’Neill, a fourth-year Ph.D. student at Stony Brook University on Long Island, concurs. “When you’re doing your Ph.D., it’s hard to see the forest for the trees,” she says. “You don’t realize how much you know and how many skills you actually have.”

Gaining the skills necessary to succeed in your career is obviously an essential part of the graduate and postdoc fabric.

But it doesn’t hurt to put a finer point on which skills, particularly, should be built, and to distinguish between the things you need to be a good researcher and the things you need to be a good employee. “I think right now, in most grad programs, there’s a great concern that there’s too much focus on academic research and not enough emphasis on skill building,” Binghamton’s Jones says.

The skills Jones is talking about run the gamut from the highly technical, such as running experiments and ana­lyzing data, to the not-so-technical, in­cluding communication skills, writing, the ability to work in a team, and the ability to work with different disciplines. Of the latter group, Jones says, “All of these skill sets are really the foundation upon which the technical skills have to sit if you’re going to get a job.”

When you do take stock of your strengths and weaknesses, make sure you leave the rose-colored glasses at the door. An honest assessment means an honest comparison can be made between you and other people are who are in the careers you want. ACS’s We­semann thinks that’s one of the places where ChemIDP provides additional value. She acknowledges the possibility that some students might be at institu­tions where self-assessments are looked at and reviewed by others. “We wanted to give people a safe space in which to do [the assessment],” she says. Having a tool available that is housed by a third-party maintains that safe space.

Determining which of your skills are strong and which are weak is the first step. Once you do that, though, re­sist the temptation to establish equilibri­um, advises Nancy Goroff, interim dean of the graduate school and professor of chemistry at Stony Brook University. “Sometimes the skills you’re good at are the skills you should be improving. If you’re already a good communicator, then look for more writing opportuni­ties,” she offered as an example. Carving out a niche can make you a more unique and marketable job candidate.

It’s important to think about career planning before panic mode sets in. An IDP can be used at any time in your education, but Goroff suggests students start around year three. “If you suddenly need to build your CV in certain ways and you’re trying to look for jobs at the same time, it’s difficult,” she says.

Stony Brook’s O’Neill is close to wrapping up her program and has found the IDP to be useful in her process. Now, she encourages other students to start planning. “I just keep trying to get the message out,” O’Neill says. “It doesn’t take very long, and this is your future. For me, it’s a priority be­cause my career in itself is a priority. Do you want to be in your fifth year and not know what the next step is?”