Career Advice

How to Market Your Chemistry Degree in Another Field

Lisa M. Balbes

As you think about the end of your graduate school career or postdoc position, your thoughts naturally turn to where you are going to go next. In years past, it was simply assumed you would become a faculty member or work in an industrial lab.

Times have changed though, and your career options have expanded enormously, not to mention that people change jobs almost twice as much as they used to. In addition, the stigma formerly attached to changing employers is virtually gone. So even if you initially follow a traditional path, at some point in your life you may find yourself veering off in another direction.

Maybe you already know that you want to change directions. You tried something different or unexpected during your graduate career that really excited you, and now you want to turn that into the new focus of your career. So how do you move your career in a new direction and market yourself in a completely different field from the one you’re in now? First, convince yourself that you can do it. Then you can start convincing other people.

Let’s look at a specific example to give you an idea of how to start thinking about marketing your skills, no matter what your individual interest may be. For example, let’s say the thing that has most excited you is talking to other scientists about their scientific problems and helping them find the tools and technologies to solve them. You think nothing of spending hours in the library (or on the Internet) researching just the right HPLC column, enzyme, or reagent to perform a particular task. You come to the conversation armed with the advantages and disadvantages of each possible solution. Your greatest sense of accomplishment comes when someone asks if you know how to do something—and you say no, but you’ll find out. And then you do.

If this sounds like you, you might think about a career where you would bring scientists together with the equipment and knowledge to solve their technical problems. As a result of identifying these specific activities that you enjoy and excel at, you might decide to consider a career in technical sales. Working with potential customers to understand and solve their problems, along with building relationships with them over time, could be your dream career.

“But wait!” you say in our scenario. “ I don’t have any experience in sales!” Or do you?

As you would for any new career direction, consider times when you might have used closely related skills in another context. In this case, think back over your entire professional life. Was there a time you had to sell your adviser on an idea? For instance, maybe you convinced her or him to send you to a conference? What about the time you researched the possibilities, then convinced your adviser to purchase the more expensive HPLC system because it better fit the lab’s needs? And then there was that time you convinced your dissertation committee that you really were ready to defend…. You may not have specifically sold a technical product, but you ought to be able to recall many examples of times when you evaluated options or convinced someone to do something. (If not, maybe sales isn’t a natural career for you, after all.)

When you set out to find a match between what you love to do and a career where you will get to do it, begin by reading as many job descriptions as you can and making notes of the specific skills they are soliciting. Going back to our example, the field of technical sales calls for technical expertise to understand the products, persuasive skills, interpersonal skills, and so on. Make a list of the skills needed for a field or job you aspire to. Then start writing down times when you did each thing, or something close to it. Potential employers won’t care whether you got paid to do it or not; they simply want to know that you’ve developed the skill.

While you’re searching job descriptions, make sure to study other positions you come across that feature similar responsibilities. (And remember that the ACS ChemIDPTM) contains a large database of career ideas cross-referenced to specific skills.) For instance, an “application scientist” might maintain relationships with key opinion leaders (KOLs) to understand customer problems and expectations, to develop new product applications and solutions, and to train both internal staff and external customers in proper product applications and use. Meanwhile, a “presales application scientist” might spend more time conducting demonstrations and technical seminars for both external potential customers and the company’s sales force.

Job titles vary tremendously among companies and industries, so don’t get stuck on them. Especially early in your research, focus on the kinds of tasks you want to do—and the kinds of things you do not want to do. Use job titles as a way to start your research, but then branch out.

If you don’t understand some of the duties listed for a specific job or career, find out what they are. Revisiting our technical sales example, you might see that salespeople often have to use “CRM.” A quick search can show you that CRM stands for “customer relationship management software,” and a little more research can reveal which are the top products in that market. You can now see that CRM wouldn’t really pose much of an obstacle for you. You could even download a free demo and spend some time learning how it works, so in an interview you could prove that you are serious about moving your career in the direction of sales, and you could also talk about CRM intelligently.

Once you have a good idea of where you want to move, translate your documents into the new language of that field. (For our sales example, you would want to make sure you mention CRM.) Your resume (or CV), LinkedIn profile, elevator speech, and all the other pieces of your marketing portfolio should reflect your new direction and tell a coherent story.

Make sure that you list experiences directly relating to your new path earlier in your documents. Also, be sure you give them more physical space than other items. Consider a scenario where you are seeking a traditional position in an industrial laboratory doing basic research. In that situation, you might describe your graduate work as:

Research Assistant, Impressive Big University, Large City, State                                         Aug 2014–present

  • Synthesized and purified 14 natural product analogs to 95% purity over seven steps
  • Analyzed dozens of products by HPLC and 2D NMR to confirm identity
  •  Identified impurities by mass spectrometry (MS)
  • Managed chemical inventory and enforced safety regulations
  • Supervised two undergraduate students
  • Presented posters at three conferences

However, if you want to move into a technical sales position with significant travel, you might reorganize that section to read something more like this:

Research Assistant, Impressive Big University, Large City, State                                         Aug 2014–present

  • Sourced all supplies for laboratory with annual budget of $100,000, building relationships with suppliers and reducing costs by 15%
  • Trained an average of five students per semester in proper use of HPLC, NMR, and MS instrumentation 
  • Investigated and solved problem with HPLC equilibration, resulting in doubling sample throughput
  • Traveled to three national conferences and communicated research results
  • Synthesized 14 new natural product analogs in high purity for use in biological assays

It’s basically the same information, just ordered and highlighted differently. Find specific, relevant examples from your professional history that relate to your new direction, and quantify achievements when possible. As you rework your resume, make sure you use the language of your new field. Seek out ACS divisions or other professional societies that cover the new discipline, and read their “getting started in this field” information to learn what terms they use.

Don’t forget to make the same changes as those on your resume in your LinkedIn profile, and remember to start using them in your elevator speech as well. You’re no longer an analytical chemist who can work with people; instead, you’re someone who loves to solve problems for people using your background in analytical chemistry.

If you don’t have enough experience for your new field, get some. Take a class (at your current educational institution or online) and read books and articles on the subject. Create a project for yourself that will force you to exercise the needed skills. For our sales example, maybe start a business on the side selling something so you can get practical experience in salesmanship. Specific examples of times you have actually done something provide the best means of convincing a potential employer that you can do it again for them. (And if you realized that marketing yourself could be a great example of your marketing skills, you are on the right track.)

Seek out professionals in your new field and talk to them. Ask them what that area is really like, what skills and experiences are valuable, and what they wish they had known when they were trying to break into the field, as well as where they see things going in the near future. If you develop a good relationship with them, you can ask them to candidly assess your chances of moving into the field. Maybe there is a lower-level position you need to take first to build your credibility and bridge the gap into your long-term career.

Depending on the field you’ve chosen to move into and how closely it relates to what you’re doing now, you can either use your own network and market yourself or work with a recruiter who will use his or her connections to market you. If you are truly an outsider, and there is a recruiter who specializes in the field you want to enter, it can be worthwhile to get a professional opinion on your marketability in that field and where you might fit in. As a job seeker you should never pay a recruiter, and remember that a recruiter’s job is to fill positions for employers, not to get you a job.

Job searching is a job in itself, even more so when you’re moving in a new and unexplored direction. But putting in more work will bring you more rewards, so start getting to what you want. True introspection takes time; start your self-evaluation now, blocking out time on your calendar for it if necessary. Set SMART* goals and deadlines, follow through on them, and before you know it you will be moving into your ideal career path.