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On the Continually Bleak Chemistry Job Market

You’ve probably seen the numbers.

On August 3rd, the July unemployment figures for the US were widely reported. Relatively stagnant, again, with an overall unemployment rate of 8.3%

Last month, here at C&EN, Rudy Baum presented his take on unemployment figures for ACS members, which fell from 4.6% in March 2011 to 4.2% for March 2012. He pointed out that this rate was still “well below” the national unemployment rate, which was at 8.2% in March 2012.

This was followed by a commentary by Madeleine Jacobs, CEO and Executive Director of the ACS.

She expressed concern for her membership by stating that “those unemployed chemists are no longer solving critical challenges and creating jobs to ensure sufficient energy, clean water, and food while protecting the environment and curing diseases. Unemployment has both a human and an economic face.”

She was prompted to speak out by Brian Vastag’s article in the Washington Post from July 7th, which covered the lack of available jobs in the sciences. Within that article, a chemist, displaced from her position at a pharmaceuticals company, was quoted as advising her high-school aged daughter to avoid pursuing a career in science. “I tell her, ‘Don’t go into science.’ I’ve made that very clear to her,” she said.

Ms. Jacobs was particularly disturbed by this advice, and felt compelled to call others to action. This is where her initial expression of concern morphed into something else:

“Many people became scientists to fulfill what they saw as their patriotic duty. Let’s not discourage our children who are passionate about chemistry and other sciences by pointing them to other fields.”

She then proceeded to quote, as support for her position, a biology undergraduate, who said, among other things:

“Anyone who would discourage a child who loves math and chemistry from pursuing a career in science because it might be difficult to find employment might not be a scientist for the right reasons.”

I guess there’s room enough for at least two on that particular high horse.

Okay, where to begin?

Among my coworkers, Madeleine Jacobs’ commentary was viewed with something best described as sputtering disbelief. Her rebuke smacks of “nothing worthwhile is ever easy,” or “hard work is its own reward.”

Gee, um, thanks, Mom.

That disbelief was wonderfully crystallized in a subsequent post by Chemjobber. He first pointed out that a straight comparison between the unemployment numbers of ACS members and those of the country at large was a bit misleading:

“Less than 30% of the United States has a college degree. The ACS membership in 2010 consists of 64% Ph.D.s, 18% M.S. holders and 18% bachelors’ degree holders.”

He offered a comparison that still isn’t perfect, but is much better, by limiting the comparison of unemployment numbers to ACS members and nonmembers with college degrees. To summarize—if you break it down by degree, ACS members have higher unemployment than the college educated public at large. Continue reading →

Website helps scientists learn about careers within Federal agencies

As an individual currently employed in the private sector, I must admit to a wide breadth of ignorance regarding what employment opportunities may exist for a scientist within a Federal government agency.

It would I appear that my own personal lack of knowledge regarding government science positions is shared by many others, and this has not gone unnoticed by the very Federal agencies who are in need of top scientists to fill these roles.

Seeking to bring attention to the variety of science and technology (S&T) opportunities available, a pilot website, INSPIREST (careers.science.gov) has been created.

The website was developed through a collaboration of six Federal agencies—the Department of Energy (DOE), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), Department of Labor (DOL), Department of State (DOS), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)—along with the Partnership for Public Service—and they would like your help in directing its mission to provide useful information to prospective employees at all stages of their careers.

Curious? And how!!

Learn about a variety of science and technology positions available within the Federal goverment. You won't be sorry.

INSPIREST was created in response to a perceived lack of general awareness and understanding of the opportunities in the Federal government for scientists and engineers, but this was not the only factor. Other challenges to nurturing a vital S&T workforce include: increased vacancies of key positions due to growing retirements within the “baby boomer” generation, and competition with the private sector for top talent.

The website’s creators also recognized that USAJOBS.gov—the primary avenue for applying to science and engineering positions for most Federal agencies—had a limited ability to communicate what jobs are available and what these jobs are really like.

I, for one, am grateful that a need was recognized to create a site like this. When I was going through my job search last year, government positions were definitely on my radar, and a few emerged from job search engine queries. I found that gathering information on and applying for these position were long, convoluted ordeals. INSPIREST seeks to demystify that process.

The INSPIREST website currently consists of three main sections. The Profiles section contains interviews with scientists, engineers, and technology specialists (actual people—including chemists and chemical engineers! Here, here and, yes, here) who currently have jobs “related to National priorities such as energy, discovery science, space exploration, national security, international diplomacy, and U.S. competitiveness in the 21st century,” according to the website.

The Resources section contains, not unexpectedly, resources. Okay, about what? Well, you can find information extolling the benefits of public service and the Federal employment experience. There is also key information and resources for finding Federal positions and applying for them.

There is also a section highlighting the six participating Federal agencies. Information is provided regarding the agencies’ respective missions, needs for a highly skilled S&T workforce, and direct links to current employment opportunities.

Uncle Sam can point you to a rewarding S&T career

...to fill out a quick survey...and learn about gov't science careers. That is all. Carry on.

I mentioned that the creators of INSPIRESTwould like your help. To guide the development of the website, they are requesting your feedback through the completion of a brief survey.

This beta site and the opportunity to provide feedback on this pilot will only be available through February 15, 2012. Links to the survey are liberally distributed through all sections of the INSPIREST site, or you can follow this link.

I have taken the survey – it is simple, straightforward and doesn’t take much time to complete. I would urge others to do the same, whether one is considering government S&T positions or not.

This is a chance to influence the creation of what could become a valuable resource for job-seekers. I commend the site’s creators for the transparency of this effort, and hope it continues as the site grows. So, remember, please try to complete the survey by February 15th!

Stay tuned to Just Another Electron Pusher as well over the next few days, as Christine has two upcoming posts, each about individuals with chemistry backgrounds, and who are now in science roles within the Federal government.

Chance favors only the prepared (and clear) mind

Last week, there was a terrific post here by Christine on the value of looking deep inside yourself to find what you truly love to do. This caught the notice of David Kroll, fellow blogger on Terra Sigillata here at GlobCasino.

There’s a connection here that’s relevant to me, and how I was able to keep my brain engaged while seeking my next position which I landed a few weeks ago.

Please bear with me as I explain, as I think there’s a shred of relevance here for anyone who’s currently unemployed.

My unemployment began in early January of this year. During my job search, I knew I needed to stay active mentally and physically, be focused, and expand my network.

Part of my strategy regarding networking was to use social media, including Twitter. I had an account for over a year, but tweeted seldom, with brilliant witticisms such as “Got new tires for my car today.” It’s a wonder my relatives followed me, let alone anyone else.

I got into it more seriously this time around, looking to establish a consistent personal brand, as advised by the social media mavens and jargonistas. I started following science-y folks, including science bloggers, like David Kroll.

Then, on February 3rd, I saw this:

Opportunity tweets but once. (Well, not counting retweets)

I answered each bit internally:

Hey you! Who, me?

Job-seeking in non-traditional chemistry careers? Why, yes, it so happens that I am, if you must pry.

Wanna blog with some killer writers? I’m not sure. Sounds dangerous. What or whom did they kill? Oh, wait, I get it. My answer is, um…..yes?

Contact @rachelpep http://bit.ly/eeRKOv

I checked out the link. I became better acquainted with this blog and the rest of GlobCasino. (Confession: I had visited the blogs here before. Once. I hereby throw myself upon the mercy of the court.)

I really enjoyed reading the past posts by Leigh Krietsch Boerner. There was a lot of useful info that really hit home—and funny at the same time.

This sounds challenging and fun, I thought. What the heck, give it a shot! So I did, and, well, here I am.

I could have dismissed this opportunity out of hand. But in it I saw a chance to get out of my comfort zone and keep my brain active. And, hey, you never know where things will lead.

Okay, this blogging opportunity didn’t directly lead to me securing my current position. But I have no doubt it made a difference. It definitely helped me keep a positive frame of mind. I was getting feedback, getting to meet new people, talk science—all good stuff.

So, when I scored a couple of interviews for chemistry positions, I was ready. I was psyched, not scared. I was able to interview without appearing desperate or downtrodden.

Okay, now for the broader relevance part.

The one facet of my job search strategy that I intentionally omitted above was giving myself a break when necessary.

That's right—cut yourself some slack once in a while. Photo credit: flickr user szlove

If you go at this 24/7, it’s easy to get burned out. In that fatigued frame of mind, it can be difficult to recognize opportunities and stay mentally engaged. Don’t forget to step away from the job search when you need to. And you will need to.

I don’t think it matters all that much what you do, within reason of course, as long as it makes you feel like you’re productive and making some sort of contribution, even towards your own edification.

You can do volunteer work, take a class, gain a certification—expanding the breadth of your transferable skills—to further (or change) your career. Do whatever makes you feel useful and that you’re advancing in some direction—even if you’re not completely sure what direction that is sometimes.

I think the key is in striving to keep an objective, open mind. If you can, avoid job search tunnel-vision. If an activity doesn’t appear directly related to your job search, it still might be well worth doing.

Yes, you need to find a job, but you’re only human. Breaking up your routine will help your mind stay clear. Searching for a job is a job. In any job, some time away every now and then is valuable and can improve your performance.

Many companies like to tout a focus on their employees’ “work-life balance.” When you’re unemployed, your work and your life can become almost inextricably intertwined. During your job search, you need to achieve some separation. If you can find something to do that gives you enjoyment, all the better.

So, if you’re dealing with the stresses of being unemployed, or feeling overworked while employed—please remember to give yourself a break now and then. You deserve it, and it will likely pay off.

And one more thing: Thanks, David. Thanks, Rachel. I owe you one.

In transition again, but in the best possible way

Well, it actually happened, and I can’t believe my good fortune.

I have a job! And not just any job, but one in medicinal chemistry, in a similar role to the one I had before my, um, involuntary hiatus.

Vegas, baby! No, wait, that's wrong. Baltimore, baby! Photo credit: flickr user Union-Square

I’ve recently begun work at my new position. I’m now a Senior Research Chemist at The Lieber Institute for Brain Development in Baltimore, adjacent to Johns Hopkins Hospital and School of Medicine. I’m very excited, and couldn’t be happier.

Yes, I know, there’s nothing about this job that’s “nontraditional” at all for a chemist. It is a big change going from industry—Big Pharma, no less—to what is primarily an academic setting.

It is, of course, an even more drastic change moving from the ranks of the unemployed to the un-unemployed.

The only downside, if there is any, about my new job is the commute. Comparatively, though, it is a very minor inconvenience—I mean, I get to go home every night and be with my family. Many of my former colleagues, although employed, are not so fortunate in that regard.

To say that I’m extremely lucky is a huge understatement, particularly in this economy. As many of you know all too well, chemistry jobs are few and far between these days. I fully expected to move to a career outside the lab, if not outside chemistry altogether. I had worked on professional development activities, such as project management training, to prepare myself for such a move.

Being able to blog about what I’ve been going through has been very therapeutic, no question. It’s forced me to work through my feelings about becoming unemployed in a supportive (and very public) environment. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to contribute this blog, and hope to continue doing so as long as the opportunity remains.

While I’m ecstatic about this turn of events, I also feel something bordering on survivor guilt.

It’s not that I feel undeserving—I am good at what I do. But many, many other people are, too. The fact that so many good chemists have had to leave the discipline hurts science as a whole.

To my former colleagues and other fellow chemists still trying to find a job—although I know all too well how difficult things are, try not to despair. There are positions out there—there’s just an insane amount of competition for each one.

I realize this is probably cold comfort to many of you who have been out of work far longer than I had been.

What can I offer in the way of advice? Looking back, I cannot understate the value of networking to help secure a position. Yes, this was a publicly posted position, but networking was instrumental in helping everything all come together.

As chemists, we often become immersed in our work, and as a result, our world becomes somewhat insular. Take some risk, and put yourself out there.

Networking is not as mysterious as some job search gurus would like to have you think. It’s simply talking, and more importantly, listening to people. Anyone you talk to, and I do mean anyone, has the potential of being only one or two degrees of separation away from a hiring manager. Even when not looking for a new position, it’s an opportunity to be a spokesperson for chemistry in general.

Hey, don't we all? Photo credit: flickr user hanjabanja

It also helps to find some way to accept the fact that your employer decided to let you go, whether it was a downsizing or a site closure. Move on, and don’t look back. Yes, you and your former colleagues were like family. You can, and should, still keep in touch and stay connected.

But you need to cut the tether to your former employer. If your drank heavily from the corporate kool-aid, purge yourself in some fashion—and realize that science is a separate entity.

It was a love of science that brought us all to where we now find ourselves, right? It wasn’t devotion to a corporation.

So, what can I do to earn what I now have?

I think it’s pretty simple, really. I will make a promise.

I pledge to not take this lightly in any way. Since chemistry positions are so scarce, I feel duty-bound to do my absolute best, do good science, keep learning, and enjoy every minute of it.

I would hope that all other chemists who currently find themselves employed feel a similar obligation.

Coping with the ups and downs of being in transition

In the months since my former employer and I parted ways due to the closure of the site where I worked, there have certainly been some highs and lows.

We knew this was the path that awaited us. Photo credit flickr user Sunnyswede.

My then-colleagues and I were all forewarned of the impending emotional rollercoaster when the fate of our site was announced. Counseling was made available to us, and we’ve supported each other in various ways ever since. Still, it’s been a toll on our collective psyches, unquestionably.

The worst part, for me, has been the knowledge that I’m competing with former colleagues for positions. I guess this is really nothing new—we’re always competing against our coworkers. This is especially true around performance review time, and further amplified if there’s a forced distribution for ratings.

Now, however, the stakes are particularly high. There’s no perfect outcome, it seems. If they get the job, you’re left in the cold. If you get the job, you’re happy, but there’s still some associated survivor guilt. But maybe that’s just me.

We were all put in the same boat. I prefer to think that we’re all wishing the best for everyone, including ourselves. I don’t believe anyone would deliberately sabotage a former colleague’s chance of success to secure their next position. Okay, don’t get me wrong. I’m no Pollyanna—although I do bear a striking resemblance to Hayley Mills (…he said, exposing his age demographic—and a need for some form of corrective eyewear).

Luckily, none of us has had to resort to cannibalism—yet.

The best part has been the ability to reflect and decompress—to recharge my batteries while trying to decide what I want to do next.

I’ve been engaged in professional development activities (like project management training), networking meetings of various kinds, and working with an outplacement agency.

I’m just trying to stay active—physically and mentally. I’m having a great time contributing to this blog. As a result, I’ve been able to get to know some terrific and talented people that I likely wouldn’t have met otherwise.

If you find yourself in a similar period of transition, I really feel for you. If you have the luxury, some time for self-reflection can be very valuable. Take a mental inventory of what you want to find or avoid in your next position. I hope you’ll rediscover, as I have, that you have an abundance of transferable skills, and you can envision a fulfilling position in many fields.

The chorus of advice for people in transition is to use this time to find your dream job. Well, my last job was a dream job. But, really, that’s not a problem.

You see, I believe I have more than one dream…and I hope you’ll find that you do, too.

Making a Case for the Overqualified

You think I’m qualified for the job? I’m delighted you think so! When do I start? What’s that? You said overqualified? Really, now, that’s quite a compliment. You’re making me blush. I’m sorry – am I missing something? You say “overqualified” like it’s a bad thing. Oh…I see. I’ll just show myself out, then.

It sounds like a compliment...and it should be. Photo credit: flickr user o5com

In my current combined job search and self-discovery vision quest, I’ve been met on different fronts with the recurring theme that a wealth of experience may, in fact, be a detriment. There is no shortage of “expert” advice, online or otherwise, suggesting that you should hide or neglect to mention years of education and/or employment. If your light is too bright  or its spectrum contains too many wavelengths for the position, hide it under the nearest bushel. Okay, honestly, I do get it – target your resume and cover letter toward a specific position. Focus I understand. However, I can’t completely evade the feeling that this gamesmanship of playing hide-and-seek and cherry-picking facts seems disingenuous at best, dishonest at worst. It’s somewhat against the grain of how one is trained to think as a scientist.

Even if one hasn’t been met with this particular o-word per se, it lies not too far beneath concerns that are more openly stated.

Prospective employers are worried that so-called overqualified candidates might jump ship at the first opportunity for a better position elsewhere. They’re concerned that after going through the interview process, they won’t be able to seal the deal because their budget can’t meet the candidate’s salary requirements. They fear their new hire may soon be bored. This sort of thinking is, well, a bit risk-averse, shall we say.

A recent post by Amy Gallo on the Harvard Business Review blog makes a case for taking such a risk. A challenge is posed:

“When making hiring decisions, visionary leaders don’t just focus on the current needs, but on the future.”

So, will the final hiring decision for the position you desire be made by such a visionary leader? Does the future lurch and loom darkly before them, or will they embrace the challenges ahead? I think it’s safe to say that most people would prefer to work for someone in the latter category. A perceived benefit for a hiring manager to adopt this mindset is driven home:

“Hiring overqualified candidates can help you achieve much higher productivity, grow, and achieve opportunities that you may not even be thinking about pursuing right now.” There are other less obvious benefits too: these employees can mentor others, challenge peers to exceed current expectations, and bring in areas of expertise that are not represented at the company.

Yummy knowledge! Save some for me! Photo credit: flickr user Christian Haugen

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Honestly, though, don’t most people’s jobs change over time? There are new developments in technology, best practices, knowledge within your discipline, business needs, what have you, that necessitate modifying some aspect of what you do. If you’re adamantly resistant to change, you’ll be left behind. Successful people aren’t usually like that, though. They have amassed their supply of deep, diverse experience because they want to learn all the time – that’s what has driven them from day one. They don’t wait for knowledge to be fed to them; they seek it out like it’s a special treat, and then devour it – nom nom nom nom. They evolve; curiosity and a hunger for knowledge feed their evolution. To behave otherwise invites negative consequences. The philosopher and writer of social commentary Eric Hoffer put it best: “In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.”  This preferred path of continuous learning will reap benefits whether you’re an experienced professional, a new chemistry graduate, or anywhere in between.

Okay, prospective employers, here’s my mission statement. While I’m in your employ, you will have my full attention. I will give my all and strive to grow in the position. All I ask is a chance to do what I do best every day. I will reward your courage with my efforts to contribute and make a difference. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

When Your Employer Wants to Break Off the Relationship

Last week, Christine posted a very heartfelt assessment of her struggle to continue on with graduate research although she has lost the fuzzy feelings she once had for it. She convincingly described her relationship with her graduate research project as being similar to one with a person, and how she felt she may be falling out of love with research.

Well, what if you’re on the receiving end? It occurred to me that what I and my (now former) colleagues have experienced is more akin to having someone, or rather, something, fall out of love with you. The situation was handled very professionally, and some of us have ended up in better roles (i.e., relationships) as a result. Yes, it’s business, not personal, but you can’t completely avoid the feeling that you’ve been dumped. Not the most positive emotional state to be in when you begin your job search. You need to let go of that, and quick. Don’t cry into your beer. (That’ll just dilute your beer. You’re a scientist, remember? Hello!) If it requires some sort of ritual ceremony to purge yourself of these negative feelings – do it.

It is here that I, much as Christine did, feel compelled to point out that this analogy in no way reflects my own relationship status. To illustrate, I will now go into game show contestant mode: “Hi Alex, I’d like to say hi to my beautiful wife of twenty-three years, and my two awesome children, my terrific son and my outstanding daughter, not to mention our three phenomenal cats. Hi everyone, I love you!!” There, I made nice.

Okay, I don’t know how valuable my advice might be currently, since I am still “in transition” and have yet to “land” in my next position, but I’m confident that it will all pay off in the end. So, here are things, drawn from various resources and my own thoughts, which keep me sane. Okay, sane-ish.

Continue reading →

ACS Webinar Series a Useful Resource for Chemistry Job Seekers

Are you a chemistry student about to embark on a new career? Perhaps you’re an experienced professional seeking the next step (whether voluntary or otherwise) in your career development? You have to appreciate the career resources, in all their awesomeness, which are available to you as an ACS member.

But ACS membership is not a prerequisite for many resources. Currently, in advance of this month’s ACS National Meeting in Anaheim, there is a series of ACS Webinars entitled “Your Career GPS” designed to help you in your chemistry career journey. The first of these, “Today’s Job Search Strategies,” was recently webcast on March 1st.  Did you miss it? Not to worry, you won’t be punished for your dedication to that experiment or project meeting. ACS Webinars can be attended by anyone. Webinars are routinely made available soon after the scheduled webcast for your viewing pleasure, whether on the ACS Webinars website or on YouTube, and the slides are also made available as a downloadable resource. An archive of past webinars (dating back to the fall of 2008) is available here.

This most recent webinar is particularly appropriate for the theme of Just Another Electron Pusher. The presenter, Lisa Balbes, is a consultant and the author of Nontraditional Careers for Chemists: New Formulas in Chemistry.  Lisa and her book were highlighted here last summer in an overview of available resources, well worth revisiting, for those considering – wait for it – nontraditional careers in chemistry.

If you’ve never attended an ACS Webinar, you’re missing out. The topics are diverse and relevant, and the sessions are very well organized. The webinars typically last an hour, with roughly 30-40 minutes of presentation and the remaining time devoted to answering attendee’s questions. What’s more, questions can be submitted during the webinar in two formats – there’s a side panel that allows text entry, and you can also ask questions via Twitter by including the hashtag #acswebinars. By golly, the ACS is riding the crest of the social media wave.

The second webinar in the series, “Resume Writing for Scientists,” is scheduled for Tuesday, March 8th at 2:00 PM Eastern Time, and you can preregister here. But, as was mentioned before, if you can’t make it, don’t sweat it. You can catch it later, take copious notes, and rest easy knowing the ACS has your back.