Career Paths

Strategic Side Gigs: How to Complement Your Chemistry

Melissa McCartney

If you want to be a chemist, you ought to single-mindedly focus on chemistry and only chemistry until you reach the highest level of your profession, right? Wrong!

There are dozens of ways you can become a chemist and hundreds of ways a chemist can contribute to society and the scientific enterprise. As you move through your education, training, and career, your definition of a chemist and the ways you serve as a chemist are bound to evolve. Because of all this, it is virtually impossible for graduate and postdoctoral programs to keep their career development information relevant, timely, and applicable. Therefore, because you are a young chemist looking for ways to build knowledge, skills, and connections, a strategic side gig might be right for you.

You might be thinking, “Why side gigs?” when you are likely already active in building knowledge, skills, and connections by attending scientific conferences and networking events or engaging with your professional society. Taking these steps is a proactive way to expand your chemistry presence. However, the point of a side gig is to expand your knowledge and profile beyond chemistry.

Side gigs represent an opportunity for meaningful engagement outside of your current chemistry “bubble.” They give you a way to meet different people, experience professional life through a new lens, and develop a new perspective on sharing your chemistry. When you choose a side gig strategically, the knowledge, skills, and connections it brings you will be synergistic with your current career path. Think of a Venn diagram with “growing as a chemist” centered in the middle, with one circle for the knowledge, skills, and connections you develop through traditional scientific opportunities, and the other circle for your side gig, with the knowledge, skills, and connections it brings that will surround and complement your growth.

With this vision in mind, I hope it is clear that strategic side gigs are not intended to take you away from chemistry or to interrupt or interfere with your lab work. Instead, a carefully selected side gig will enhance your science, allow you to bring more of yourself to your professional work, and help you develop into a more well-rounded chemist.

Don’t think about how your own side gig possibilities might compete with your current training. Instead, think about how they will complement, enhance, and diversify your training and professional growth.

Some Highlights of My Own Side Gigs

I stumbled into my first side gig as a young graduate student who saw a flyer that said, “Algebra tutors wanted.” I had really loved math in high school but had drifted away from it while completing undergraduate requirements and graduate school electives. I was excited to get back into math, and, as a bonus, the pay was great.

What I initially saw as an opportunity to return to familiar math problems turned out to be so much more. This was my first real experience in teaching, and teaching math to students who are struggling, uninterested, or both was certainly a challenge. I was forced to take a step back and learn to see my familiar math through a different lens and develop tips and tricks for sharing my algebra enthusiasm with others.

I found myself searching the Internet for teaching advice, and I taught myself some (extremely) basic pedagogy. My communication skills improved as I learned to speak to my students, their parents, and—on several occasions—their teachers, and my time management skills improved as I figured out ways to develop practice questions while my gels were running.

As a postdoc, I had a better sense of how I wanted to diversify my knowledge and skills and pursue complementary interests, which led me to the Association for Women in Science (AWIS). AWIS is science-based yet grounded in the larger diversity and policy discussions I kept finding myself engaged in.

I started small in AWIS by attending monthly meetings of my local chapter, but soon I found myself writing feature articles for AWIS Magazine. I learned how to identify and research a topic that would be of interest to all scientists, pitch the idea to the editor, and communicate my ideas to a general audience.

I experienced a completely new way of looking at science; I was reminded about the diversity of scientific disciplines outside of my neuroscience bubble and simultaneously realized that scientists of all disciplines faced the same empirical issues. What started as a communication experience ultimately became a policy experience, which completely altered my perspective of the larger scientific enterprise.

Writing for AWIS Magazine brought long-term benefits I didn’t expect. Because I was an active member, I was tapped to run for a leadership position with my local AWIS chapter. I served several terms, including two as chapter president, and I developed a mentoring circles program that still runs today.

The skills I learned through these experiences were invaluable and are still prominent on my resume. I collectively describe these skills as “volunteer management,” as the governing board I led and the mentoring program I developed were all volunteer-based. I learned these skills on the fly and outside of the lab, yet I continue to implement them almost on a daily basis when I manage my current undergraduate volunteers in my lab.

A bonus from this time in my life was the colleagues I worked with. They came from different scientific backgrounds, including physics, ecology, biomedical research, and environmental science. They have all gone on to their own amazing careers as Silicon Valley program managers, science diplomats for the U.S. State Department, environmental consultants, and entrepreneurs. The result? Quite the impressive network for me that extends far beyond my own interests. Side gigs really do open you up to new worlds!

To summarize, I am a neuroscientist who became a science policy fellow, became a nonprofit professional, and became a biology education researcher with a current side gig with the American Chemical Society. There was no way a graduate school curriculum could have prepared me for this unique career path, but my side gigs did. My AWIS side gig helped me secure a policy fellowship after my postdoc ended. My tutoring side gig got my foot in the door of science education. My communication side gigs, including learning how to pitch feature articles, led to my current side gig of writing this column for ACS. Side gigs beget side gigs!

What Side Gig Is Right for You?

How should you go about strategically seeking out your own side gig? My best advice is to step outside of your comfort zone and see what is missing from your current experiences. Keeping in mind that these don’t have to be science-based, ask yourself what knowledge, skills, and connections are missing from your professional portfolio? How can your side gig complement the skills you already have? Here are some ideas to consider:

  1. Writing skills. Being a strong writer is one of the skills most wanted by employers in all sectors, and chances are you are already a talented scientific writer. But have you written about science for a general audience? Have you written about a nonscientific topic that you are passionate about? Think about how you can best challenge yourself with a new style of writing or a new audience to write for while contributing to a group whose mission you support.
  2. Membership on boards. Don’t be intimidated! In the wake of recent institutional reforms and diversity and inclusion initiatives, many boards are starting to see the value of including graduate students and postdocs as members. Being a board member allows you to support projects you believe in, STEM-related or not, as you develop management and leadership skills (which all future employers are looking for). You can start small by joining the board of a local chapter of an association you support (like I did) and see where it takes you from there.
  3. Teaching. This skill never goes out of style and is always valuable. As scientists, we teach every day, whether we realize it or not. Why not make it official with a side gig? Challenge yourself to teach a new topic or teach a different population of students. Plus, as most academic positions require some level of teaching, learning whether or not you want to spend part of your time teaching can help you make more strategic career choices later on.
  4. Outreach. Share your scientific knowledge and expertise with others. Think about how you can do this in a setting you haven’t experienced before. Think about a new population you can reach. Can you integrate your science outreach with a completely separate interest of yours?

Is a Side Gig Worth Your Time?

Identifying the right side gig opportunity for yourself is critical. Your time is valuable; don’t waste it at a side gig that does little to promote your personal growth. Here are a few things to consider when selecting an opportunity:

  1. Will you have a mentor?
  2. Will you have a chance to grow your network?
  3. Will you have a chance to learn a new skill?
  4. Will you have a chance to increase your self-confidence?

If the answer to these questions is yes, you are on your way to a new side gig. Congratulations! Best wishes on your road to new knowledge, skills, and connections, and may this open the door to many other opportunities.