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Web roundup: Nontraditional careers—they’re not just for chemists anymore

There are many reasons for a person to seek out a career that’s seen as nontraditional within their particular field of study. With the current state of the job market within chemistry, a lack of employment prospects has been one reason focused upon here. Another motivator may simply be choice, based on a change in personal values, a need to escape a career that has become stressful, or a desire to convert a lifelong avocation into a career…among other considerations.

For example, many chemists have left the bench after becoming disenchanted with laboratory work, and then seek something else, often because of a perceived lack of opportunities for career progression in a lab-based position.

And then there are those who are forced to seek a career change because their position, which may have been considered traditional, no longer exists, nor does any real prospect of future opportunities in their field.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve come across blog posts about people in other disciplines seeking alternatives to their “traditional” career options. This should come as no surprise—the circumstances described above for seeking a career change are by no means experienced by chemists alone.

A couple of random examples include a profile within the field of sports psychology and speculation on career possibilities for boxer Manny Pacquiao (okay, that latter example is pretty specific).

One career, in particular, seemed to stand out by its prevalence—Lawyers

 seeking nontraditional or alternative careers. Nontraditional careers are a recurring topic on the law blog Above the Law. Some recent examples include yoga instructor, comedian, and screenwriter. Another law blog, Legal Nomads, has a series entitled Thrillable Hours with examples such as fashion entrepreneur, marketing director, and wildlife journalist. The profiles describe reasons for career changes that are eerily similar to ones that have been described here.

An example:

It is simple really: I was just never cut out for a life of 9-5 traipsing into work every day and doing something I really didn’t care about. Unfortunately for me, legal work was something I really didn’t care about.

Not too different than a research chemist losing interest in research.

One reason why the notion of lawyers in nontraditional careers caught my attention is because, as you may remember, the law—specifically patent law—was highlighted as a nontraditional chemistry career option in a profile here a couple of years ago. The possibility seems somewhat unlikely, but I’m anxious to see if it comes full circle—are there examples of a lawyer (or someone from another career covered here) seeking out chemistry as their nontraditional career of choice? I’ll keep looking.

So many nontraditional chemistry careers…

A core topic covered here at Just Another Electron Pusher is careers that are deemed by some to be nontraditional for those with a degree in chemistry—away from the bench, generally speaking. I was thinking it would be appropriate, at this time, to list the various nontraditional (or alternative or whatever adjective you prefer) careers that have been covered by current, former and guest electron pushers since this blog’s inception over two years ago.

Pants would be a nice addition to your ensemble.

Wardrobe not to your liking? That’s okay. You can find something else that fits your style.

Yes, this is the blog equivalent of a sitcom clip show, where the characters sit around and reminisce, saying things like, “Remember when such-and-such happened to so-and-so…” Annnd cue the short segment from an earlier season.

“Ooh, I hate these clip shows!” you cry, and shake your fist at the TV. But you end up watching them anyway, don’t you? Admit it—they’re addictive, almost inescapable. That’s what I’m trying to do here—lure you in with the promise of nostalgia, which comforts like the aroma of freshly baked bread, until the trap is sprung. Excellent


And, in the spirit of altruism, I’m hoping this JAEP retrospective will provide a handy, and perhaps dandy, one-stop shop so you can browse through professions profiled and topics covered. This list will be updated regularly, and permalinked to the sidebar within the JAEP blogroll.

I’ve chosen to list these alphabetically, because, well…I’m a scientist, and we’re anal we prefer order. So, without further ado:

Actor profile
Book Editor / Publisher profile
Career Adviser profile
Cartoonist (Piled Higher & Deeper’s Jorge Cham) profile
Chemical Safety / Chemical Hygiene Officer profile
Chemical Software Marketer profile
Chemistry Librarian profile
Chemjobber profile
Congressional Legislative Assistant profile
Conservation Scientist profile
Cook part one, part two
Cosmetic Chemistry profile
Disney Imagineer profile
Flavor Chemistry profile
K-12 STEM Outreach profile one, profile two
Medical Sales (and Cheerleader!) profile
Medical Writing profile
Molecular Jewelry Designer profile
Optometrist profile
Patent Attorney profile
Project Manager profile
Regulatory Affairs profile
Science Artist / Illustrator profile
Science Policy and Communication profile one, profile two, profile three
Science Writing part one, part two
Scientific Journal Editor profile
Scientific Staffing profile
Technology Transfer profile
Winemaking profile
US Government Jobs overview
Video Producer profile
Web Entrepreneur (BenchFly’s Alan Marnett) profile

So, there you have it. I hope you’ve enjoyed this recap, and that you’ll revisit regularly.

This list contains only a small fraction of the careers those with chemistry degrees currently enjoy. I’d like to think there are many others, who have a degree in chemistry, but are currently employed in a profession not typically associated with chemistry. Perhaps they’re applying chemistry knowledge and skills in a unique way. If  either description fits you or someone you know, and you or they are also willing to be profiled by Just Another Electron Pusher, please contact me via Twitter (@electron_pusher) or email (geernst AT gmail DOT com).


Chemists in Career Services

Profile: Alexis Thompson, Ph.D. (Chemistry, 2007), Director of Postdoctoral Affairs at the University of Illinois

Alexis Thompson made the jump from physical chemistry research into career services-- and she loves her job! Courtesy photo.


When Alexis Thompson was in grad school studying physical chemistry, she discovered that her passion was helping other people discover their passions.

After she got her Ph.D., she landed her first job as a career adviser– more specifically, as the assistant director of career services in the Graduate College at the University of Illinois.

As a career adviser, Alexis spent her time meeting with students to answer questions, help them prepare job applications and perform mock interviews. She also created and hosted professional development programs that addressed students’ needs.

Side note: What’s cool is I actually met Alexis in the first year of my Ph.D. program, right around when she was wrapping up her degree. In my first year, I attended one of her career workshops and got to hear about her nontraditional career path. I’m pretty sure this is what first got me thinking about how a Ph.D. qualifies you for more than just academia or industry.

Not surprisingly, most university career advisers don’t have doctorates in chemistry. Many come from a background in education or counseling.

But Alexis’s background in science makes her uniquely suited for her current position. If you’ve been through grad school, you have tasted and seen the academic world from the inside and can relate to the struggles that science students are going through, in a way that non-science people can’t.­

And though it’s not always apparent, many of the skills you acquire through toiling in the lab and facing research ups and downs—well, they can carry over into your seemingly unrelated career.

Alexis can certainly attest to the power of transferable skills. She had quite a learning curve when she started her first job in career services. But she felt confident diving into an entirely new field, thanks to her Ph.D. training.

So, how exactly did Alexis take her chemistry Ph.D. and break into career services? Continue reading →

Project management as a bridge between roles in science and business

Project Manager: Becky Urbanek, Global Compliance Resource & Project Sr. Manager, AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals

Most chemists, whether in industry, government, academia, or some other setting, have worked on a research project at some point. So, who starts the project, who leads it, and who is responsible for its outcome?

In academia, it’s likely to be your advisor. In industry, it turns out, there’s a separate discipline devoted to formulating and sharing best practices in the management of projects. Not unexpectedly, this discipline is called project management, and the people who oversee the day-to-day management of the projects are…(drumroll, please)…project managers.

Try a quick search of “project manager” or a closely related query on any job search engine. The results suggest that project managers can be found across a variety of industries: construction, information technology, advertising, and many others. Project management of scientific projects is but a small piece of the larger project management pie. (Mmmm…pie) That said, managing a scientific project is the most common way a chemist is likely to transition into such a role.

Becky Urbanek, Ph.D., Global Compliance Resource & Project Sr. Manager. Courtesy Photo

With enough experience and, yes, street cred, chemists—with their vast array of transferable skills—are often called upon to be research project managers. Such an opportunity was presented to Becky Urbanek, whose chemistry background [B.S., chemistry, Ohio Northern U., 1993; Ph.D., organic chemistry (natural product total synthesis), Univ. of Minnesota, 1998] led to her recent role as a Principal Scientist and medicinal chemist* at AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals.

It became evident that management of projects afforded her some additional transferability. Last year, an announcement was made that all drug discovery activities would cease at her site. Becky was able to transition to another role on the business side of the organization, and is now Global Compliance Resource & Project Sr. Manager.

“I had been a project manager for drug discovery projects for several years and really loved that role,” Becky said.  “I didn’t fully appreciate that project management was a developed profession on its own until the announcement of our site closing and I began to plan for what would come next.”

Becky’s contacts in other parts of the company were a valuable asset.

“I spoke with other project managers that I knew within AstraZeneca and beyond and they recommended courses and that I join the PMI (the Project Management Institute) to further explore project management as a career path,” she said.  “I found out about my current job by watching the internal job postings and then networking within the company to learn more about it.”

Before proceeding, let’s pause to define what a project is and is not.

The definition comes from the PMI, mentioned above, a professional association for project management and globally recognized as one of its leading authorities. A project is defined as “a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result.” The key word here is temporary—a project always has an end, or handoff of some kind. Projects are distinct from operations, which are the ongoing efforts an organization must undertake to sustain its core business.

With such a broad definition, projects can be found within any business or function (or in the home—wallpapering a bedroom is a project…and good way to enhance your profanity repertoire). Whether formal project management methods are used is completely up to the individual company. Project management provides a framework for analyzing and planning a project’s lifecycle.

Project management formally divides project activities into categories and more easily managed bits, referred to as processes. The PMI and other professional associations are there to provide guidance, not mandate how projects must be run. It’s somewhat like a menu—choose what works best depending on the project and the people actually doing the work.

Becky’s role involves establishing a project management office (or PMO) to oversee a portfolio of related projects involving compliance with US and foreign government regulations as well as internal practices. The regulations cover diverse areas such as anti-bribery/corruption, data protection and patient privacy.

Not the PMBOK guide – but only slightly scarier, and a tad more bitey. From Flickr user kk99

A useful project management reference can be found the PMI’s main publication, A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, or PMBOK Guide. The guide’s goal is to document and standardize generally accepted project management information and practices.

Knowledge of project management processes can also be quite helpful while working within a project, even if you aren’t its manager. It gives you an appreciation of the complexity of managing a project, and can help you understand the context behind certain project-related decisions.

A common adage within the field is that communication takes up 90% of a project manager’s time.

Becky says that much of her day is spent “talking with the various project leaders of the projects in our portfolio to understand their projects—their resource needs, interdependencies with other projects, status of deliverable timelines and budget situation.”

“I also develop or help identify the tools necessary to track the portfolio of projects, resourcing demand, and such—my skills with Excel from my previous career help with that, she said. “A lot of time spent on the phone, since it’s a global role, and the computer.”

Becky says she has no regrets about leaving the bench.

“I had made the decision many years ago to exit the lab, but I do miss being involved in discovery research projects,” she said. “There was such excitement in drug discovery teams when you were making good progress and you believed that you really could positively impact patients’ lives.”

The impending site closure was undoubtedly an impetus to seek a new position internally, but Becky was also attracted to the role because “it sounded interesting!”

“It was a great opportunity to move within AstraZeneca in to another function that I knew nothing about, and also give me visibility across other areas of the business,” she said. “It would give me experience as a project/portfolio manager outside of Pharma R&D, making me more marketable. I believe that project management is a growth area as it spans many sectors.”

*And in the spirit of full disclosure, my former colleague.

A chemist’s journey through academia, government, industry, and into medical writing

You may have been told at some point in your life that if you want to get a steady job in the future you should go into science, because that’s where the money is.

With this line of thinking, Kelly Keating, who was just as interested in creative writing as she was science and math, opted for the “sure thing” in college and chose to major in chemistry.

Kelly Keating, Ph.D., Editor and Medical Writer. Courtesy Photo.

After a B.S., Ph.D., and several jobs that took her through academia, government and industry, she is now an Editor and Medical Writer for the Pharmaceutical Research Institute (PRI), a non-profit organization within the Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in Albany, NY.

Go figure, huh?

While you couldn’t call Kelly’s path into medical writing “traditional”, I think all the twists and turns along the way make her story so interesting.

And it turns out that it wasn’t a waste to have taken the long windy road to where she has ended up, because along the way she was picking up all kinds of skills, the transferrable kind I wrote about in my last post.

Some people know what they want to do from the get-go and go after that. But most of us, I think, navigate and jump around from one thing to another until we figure out what we want. And that’s perfectly okay.

So, as I was saying, Kelly’s story just goes to show that there’s no one way to break into a non-traditional science career.

In a nutshell, here’s her career path leading up to medical writing:

  • B.S. in chemistry (U.W. Madison, 1983)
  • A few years of basic research
  • Ph.D. in chemistry (U.C. Davis, 1991)
  • Post-doc in NMR spectroscopy
  • One year at small biotech company
  • Visiting Scientist in an NMR group at a national lab
  • NMR spectroscopist and lab manager for a larger pharmaceutical company

Then, when she and her husband moved to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) for his job, she started a freelance medical writing business and taught part-time at a local college.

The toughest thing for Kelly initially was having no medical writing experience. It’s one of those Catch-22 things: you can’t get hired if you don’t have experience, but you can’t get experience if you never get a job!

By being willing to be flexible, Kelly got the experience she needed by doing some freelance grant and manuscript editing for the science departments at UIUC.

When her husband received a great job opportunity in Albany, NY, they moved. Shortly after, she landed her current medical writing job.

“And simply by luck the month we moved here the job I have now was advertised,” she said. “I had planned on freelancing until I found a fulltime job, but this opportunity was too good to pass up!”

At her current job, her daily tasks include: assisting graduate students with writing review articles and assisting the PRI staff researchers with their manuscript writing and editing.

Kelly said the best part of her job is “not being dependent on when an experiment finishes to determine when I leave for the day.”

Continue reading →

Show me the money: How a Ph.D. chemist is helping corporate America team up with K-12 STEM education programs

We hope this blog is making it abundantly clear that a chemistry degree qualifies you for a lot more than you might think. I mean, who knew a chemist could land a job at a Disney theme park where he could use his chemical knowledge to help make, for example, a more corrosion-resistant artificial skin?

It seems, therefore, that a reasonable approach to discovering your chemistry dream job is this: Figure out what you’re passionate about and what gets you out of bed in the morning. Then find a job that lets you do that. (Word of caution: Not every job you can dream up will be able to pay the rent, so that’s something important to keep in mind).

Zakiah Pierre, Ph.D. chemist, is a research associate for "Change the Equation", an organization whose goal is to improve the state of K-12 STEM teaching in the U.S. Courtesy photo.

This seems to be the approach Zakiah Pierre is taking in pursuing her career. Although she started grad school thinking she’d go into forensic science, along the way she discovered she was really passionate about “mentoring and paving the way for our future engineers and scientists.”

The more she got more involved in mentoring students, the more she became convinced that a science career that allowed her to have an immediate impact on students was the right path for her.

That line of thinking has led her to where she is today with Change the Equation, an organization focused on improving science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education for every child, with a particular focus on girls and students of color.

One of the ways CTEq strives to accomplish its goals is by identifying innovative programs to advance STEM literary in the United States, measuring the success of these programs through research and analysis and replicating them in communities that need them most.

This is where Zakiah comes in. As a research associate, she gathers data regarding the condition of STEM learning state-by-state and nationwide and assesses the impact of STEM learning programs that receive corporate support.

By evaluating the success of various programs, she helps CTEq make a solid case for why companies should continue funding them—and expanding them to new, underserved sites.

She also writes reports that let their partners know about the needs in STEM learning, with the hope that changes in policy will be made to address those needs.

In addition to research and writing reports, Zakiah also blogs about science education news and programs and occasionally represents the organization at meetings around D.C. on a variety of STEM education topics.

In the future, Zakiah hopes to expand her role to writing short briefs for peer-reviewed journals on current issues in K-12 STEM learning.

It may be apparent by now that Zakiah has had to expand her knowledge base and skill set. The beauty of it all is that the diverse skill set she acquired through grad school provides her with a good foundation for taking on this job.

So while a Ph.D. is not necessarily required for the job she has now, Zakiah said there are so many skills that one acquires in the process that are transferrable to other jobs.

“You also learn how to network, learn all those ways of communication, time management, things to learn that you wouldn’t get working somewhere,” Zakiah said.

Ahh, the beauty of transferable skills…

A little more about CTEq, in case you’re interested:

The 110 companies that are part of CTEq have pledged “to connect and align their work to transform STEM learning in the United States by shining a light on progress and problems; advocating and influencing; leading by example; and acting as catalysts for change.” Continue reading →

Profile: Alfredo M. Ayala Jr., Disney Imagineer

Posted on behalf of Carmen Drahl

Alfredo M. Ayala Jr. majored in chemistry in college, but these days he dabbles in a very special kind of alchemy. He’s been with Walt Disney Imagineering Research and Development for over 15 years, where his job is to create new illusions and experiences for Disney park guests. And as he explained Sunday at the ACS national meeting in Anaheim, it was organic chemistry that got his foot in the door.

Photo of Ayala credit: Drahl/C&EN

Ayala said he fell in love with science as a boy when he saw “Antimatter”, an animated look at the atomic world by Carlos Gutierrez, a UCLA film major turned chemistry major and organic chemistry professor. As it so happened, Gutierrez became Ayala’s mentor when the young Ayala came to Cal State L.A., through Gutierrez’s program for engaging junior high and high school students interested in biomedical sciences. At Cal State L.A., Ayala followed his interests in chemistry and in computers, taking engineering coursework in addition to chemistry. He was an undergraduate researcher in Gutierrez’s organic chemistry lab when he applied for an internship with the Disney company.

Disney asked its prospective interns to write a paragraph about why they wanted the gig. But instead of just gushing about how cool it would be to work with the company, Ayala took a different tack. He knew Imagineers were looking to reformulate the skin material for the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction, which at the time contained chromium, a non-chlorine scavenger, as a heat stabilizer. By not having a chlorine scavenger, hydrochloric acid was being produced in reactions with water, which in turn corroded parts that would need to be replaced periodically.

Ayala sent Disney three proposals for alternative skin formulas, based on some chemistry he had done forming precursors to analogs of 18-crown-6 ethers in the Gutierrez group. In this 1995 Tet. Lett. paper the group begins with some tin-containing acetals and forms two different crown ether precursors depending on whether they add 1,2-dibromoethane or 2-chloroethanol. “Note we were scavenging chlorine and bromine- this is how I got the idea,” Ayala says.

His ingenuity on the application paid off in the form of an interview. “That was what got me in,” he says. He’s been with Disney ever since. Continue reading →

Profile: Congressional Legislative Assistant

Will O’Neal is, in no particular order, a PhD chemist, a former ACS Congressional fellow, and a Congressional Legislative Assistant for Representative Rush Holt.

Will O'Neal, courtesy photo.

“Basically,” O’Neal said, “I am a policy advisor for anything that relates to energy policy, science, research and development, nuclear security, and foreign affairs.”

As a Legislative Assistant O’Neal’s work is highly varied, but heavy on the research and writing, usually involving current events. And it’s mostly, as you might guess, advising.

“I keep the Congressman informed about policy developments or news that affects my legislative portfolio. I write talking points and background materials on upcoming bills and for legislative hearings or floor action in the House. I prepare the Congressman for public events and staff him at meetings. I develop policy proposals and draft legislation. I meet with interest groups and constituents,” O’Neal said.

And as you also might imagine, a lot of this work is short deadline and highly depends on the news of the day. So it’s a pretty far cry from doing research in a lab. But even so, that doctoral training comes in pretty handy.

“The skills you learn in science – how to think skeptically about the world, do research, and write – are universal,” O’Neal said. “I have to do really fast research on a daily basis, and I have to be able to pick out what is reliable information and what isn’t. Then I have to be able to summarize it quickly in a way that anyone can understand.”

O’Neal is happy with his chosen career, although working in Congress can be both rewarding and frustrating, he said.

“This job offered the chance to learn new things everyday on an array of different topics and to share that work in a way has a direct impact on our society,” O’Neal said. “But I think overall, the most important thing that is missing in my job is the time to really dig into a topic and gain some depth and expertise. I think if I had more opportunity to delve deeper into certain subjects I could be a better asset to my boss.”

O’Neal never was really interested in industry, and although he liked teaching, didn’t think he’d make a good academic. He learned of careers in public policy by seeing a poster in his grad school hallway advertising the AAAS Policy Fellowship program. While still in grad school, O’Neal got involved in the Rockefeller Center for Public Policy. After finishing his PhD, he taught for a year at the Center and managed the Policy Research Shop, “which is a great program that allows undergraduate students to do policy research projects for the New Hampshire and Vermont state legislatures,” he said.

After that, O’Neal was awarded the ACS Congressional fellowship, which is part of the AAAS program. He was placed with Rep. Holt, and hired on after his fellowship was up. He’s worked there a total of two and a half years.

Capitol Hill, photo by flickr user VinothChandar.

For scientists interested in going into policy, O’Neal highly suggests getting some kind of experience in politics before moving forward.

“You will be disappointed if you come to the Hill expecting that scientific arguments win the day,” he said. “Politics is about weighing competing interests, and there may be very legitimate reasons for doing the exact opposite of what ‘science tells you to do.’ It’s very important to understand and respect that part of the job.”

He recommends the AAAS program as a way to figure out if policy is what you want to do, but suggests getting some experience even before you do that.

“Go volunteer on a political campaign or at your representative’s local office,” he said. “You might be surprised at what you see and you’ll be doing a good thing.”

Like most other jobs right now, O’Neal said that employment on Capitol Hill is hard to get.

“It’s tough to find a job on the Hill, but Members and committees are always looking for talented professionals with special expertise. The real difficulty for scientists is that offices like to hire people that have Hill experience. Many staffers get experience by starting off as interns and working their way up.”

This sounds kind of painful for someone who just slogged through 5 years of a PhD, which is why O’Neal recommends the AAAS program. But I’ve heard from a few people that’s getting extraordinarily competitive as well. Remember that program isn’t just for recent grads–anyone with a PhD can apply, which means the applicant pool is potentially huge. The deadline for next year has already passed (December 5), but I found a huge list of policy fellowships at Sheril Kirshenbaum’s blog at Discover. She started it last year, but it looks like she’s been updating as she finds new ones. I haven’t clicked through to find out if they’re all still active, so caveat emptor.

There’s a lot of information about science policy out on the interwebs, but I recommend starting at Science Career Magazine. Good luck!

UPDATE (1/6/11): Leigh passed on a lovely note from Alison Gershen from the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships staff. They also have an extensive list of resources on their site for those interested in policy work. — Rachel