Career Paths

15 Myths About Nontraditional Careers in Chemistry And the Realities Behind Them

Lisa M. Balbes

As you prepare to move into the next phase of your profes­sional life, you are probably weighing your options—be­coming a professor, moving into industry. If you are really adventurous you may have considered starting your own company or working for the government.

At this point, you probably know a significant amount about careers in academia. You have spent years watching your professors, so you know how they spend their time. But unless you’ve worked in industry, you probably don’t know nearly as much about that sector. And even worse, many of the things you think you know are not actually so. There are a lot of well-meaning people passing along advice that has not kept up with the changing employment landscape, and in ad­dition they have different interests, values, and skills.

Below are some of the most common myths about non­traditional (and traditional) careers in chemistry, along with current realities.

1. Myth. There are no jobs for chemists. 

Reality. The vast majority of all chemists are employed. In fact, as of the 2014 ACS Salary Survey1 of March 2014, only 2.9% of all chemists surveyed were unemployed and seeking employment—meaning 97.1% had a job. The ACS Starting Salaries2 survey of 2013 graduates in C&EN showed that unemployment rates were 7%, 19%, and 20% respectively for new doctoral, master’s, and bachelor’s degree chemists. Of course, that still means that 93%, 81%, and 80% of these graduates are finding jobs or pursuing advanced education (with a handful in each group not seeking employment), so the odds are still in your favor. (Please see http://cen.acs.org/ articles/92/i22/Starting-Salaries.html.) For Ph.D. chemists overall, the employment number is even better—only 2.2% are unemployed and looking for a job. There are jobs out there, though they may not be as plentiful as they were in the past. Opportunities are available in many new and emerging fields, including analytical testing and professional services related to science, engineering, and the law. We are also see­ing increases in hiring in agricultural and food chemistry, specialty and fine chemicals, and chemical coatings, paints, and inks. The types of places where Ph.D. chemists work have become more diverse, more spread out, and consequently harder to summarize than when the vast majority of all chem­ists worked in a few large industries.

2. Myth. Few Ph.D. chemists pursue nontraditional careers. 

Reality. To answer this, we need to define what a “tradi­tional” career is. If it’s tenured university professor, they have always been in the minority. If it’s any position where you work at a lab bench (which would rule out many professors), those are also a minority. What about careers in regulatory af­fairs or patent law, where you’re talking, writing, and thinking about science, but not working at a bench? Do you stop being a chemist when you move away from the bench? I think not— your chemistry education teaches you a way of thinking, of analyzing problems, and it provides a background in scientific principles and techniques that you will continue to use, no matter what your job title is. In that case, most chemists are in nontraditional careers! 

3. Myth. Most chemists work in academia, as tenured uni­versity professors. 

Reality. The majority of chemists (52.3%) worked in in­dustry in 2014. Many students think most people work in academia, because that is what they have seen and are familiar with. Although the percentage of chemists who are working in academia has been increasing (it reached 38.9% in 2014), that includes postdocs and other non–tenure track positions. In fact, according to the Washington Post,3 current estimates are that at least 50% of all professors are now adjuncts, and many of those are part-time. 

4. Myth. You are a failure if you don’t become a tenured uni­versity professor at a research-intensive institution. 

Reality. While you may have talked to many professors who are very happy with their chosen career path, there is no single path that is right for everyone. Professors must enjoy and excel at both teaching and directing a research group, two very different skill sets. You are a success if you find a career that you enjoy and are good at, no matter what others say. 

5. Myth. Nontraditional careers are a new thing. 

Reality. Nope, sorry. ACS has been promoting nontradi­tional careers going as far back as 1963 and describing the wide variety of careers chemists are prepared for. As long as there have been chemists (or alchemists), there have been those who blaze their own trail. 

6. Myth. I can do anything. 

Reality. While you perhaps can do lots of things, do you really want to? And are you outstanding at them, or just ad­equate? You will be much more successful if you identify the skills you have that others do not, as well as the skills you re­ally enjoy, then find a career path that will let you do just that. 

7. Myth. I have no transferable skills. 

Reality. Everyone has skills; you just need to identify the ones that you want to use. You are used to thinking about your laboratory skills in organic synthesis, NMR, and materials characterization. However, you also have experience with technical writing, negotiating, and developing new proce­dures, as well as domain expertise in regulatory areas, health and safety, and much more. Reviewing your most significant professional accomplishments, and the skills you used to achieve them, can provide valuable insight into your profes­sional assets. 

There are a lot of well-meaning people passing along advice that has not kept up with the changing employment landscape...

8. Myth. If I want to make a lot of money, I should get an MBA. 

Reality. Only an MBA from a top school, earned early in your career, will pay for itself financially. The real benefits are connections made with people in the business world and learning to speak the language of business. 

9. Myth. I have a Ph.D. in chemistry; I can become a consul­tant and make millions! 

Reality. A successful career as a consultant requires more than just expertise in a particular subject. There must be a demonstrated need for that expertise, which is not filled by in-house professionals. You must have a well-developed network of peers who will vouch for your expertise in this field, and who will think of recommending you to others who need your services. Very few recent graduates have the well-developed professional network that is required to become a successful consultant, let alone the skills to manage their own business. 

10. Myth. I have to go back to school to move into another career.

Reality. In most cases, this is not true. Hands-on experi­ence will hold much more weight than any certificate. Some­times it’s as simple as describing what you have done in differ­ent words, in other cases you may want to seek out extra tasks to get specific experience.

11. Myth. After X years, it’s too late to switch careers.

Reality. It’s never too late. Your current job is different from what it was a year or two ago—you have taken on new responsibilities and let go of others. Changing careers is really no more than changing from a job that emphasizes one part of your skill set to one that emphasizes a different part.

12. Myth. I will join a startup and make a ton of money!

Reality. The vast majority of start-up companies fail. While working in a new company can be a great education in how to run (or not run) a business, you should enter with realistic expectations and a backup plan.

13. Myth. There is a single perfect job out there for me, and I will be unhappy unless I find it.

Reality. You are a multifaceted individual, interested in a number of different things. There are many different career paths that you could take, and only by carefully examining your own skills, interests, and values can you find the direc­tion that is best for you. In addition, your values and priorities will change throughout your life—what is ideal for you now may not be in the future, so you need to constantly reevaluate.

14. Myth. My adviser, uncle, or mother can tell me what career to choose.

Reality. While it is advisable to talk to as many people as possible, keep in mind that their experiences and back­grounds will color their advice. Your graduate adviser may never have worked in industry, so she or he can’t tell you what that’s really like. Your uncle may work in chemistry, but if he’s outgoing and you are reserved, his career path may not fit your personality. Ask everybody what they do and what they like and don’t like about their own current jobs, but review that information in light of how these individuals are different from, or similar to, you.

15. Myth. Choosing a new career is easy.

Reality. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it. You are optimizing an equation with an almost infinite number of variables. No two people have exactly the same background, experience, and interests. There is no single source to get a list of all possible jobs (not even Wikipedia), so figuring out what you want to do, then finding out whether there is a paying job that will let you do that, will take time and effort. However, it will all be worth it in the long run, when you find the career that is more than a job, it is so deeply satisfying that you wonder how you could possibly have ever thought to do anything else. ■

Notes

1. 2014 ACS Salary Survey, C&EN, [online] 2014, 92 (35, Sept 1), 68–71. http://cen.acs.org/articles/92/i35/2014-Salaries-Employment.html (accessed June 13, 2019).

2. Starting Salaries, C&EN, [online] 2014, 92 (22, Jun 2), 28–30. http://cen.acs.org/articles/92/i22/Starting-Salaries.html (accessed June 13, 2019).

3. McCarthy, C. Adjunct Professors Fight for Crumbs on Campus. Washington Post, [online] 2014 (Aug 22) http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/adjunct-professors-fight-for-crumbs-on-campus/2014/08/22/ca92eb38-28b1-11e4-8593-da634b334390_story.html (accessed June 13, 2019).