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ACS Webinars: Academic Jobs Outlook

You may be wondering why I’m blogging about academic careers on a blog which is supposed to be all about nontraditional careers for chemists.

Well, I attended the ACS Webinar titled “Academic Jobs Outlook” that was videostreamed live from the ACS National Meeting in Denver last week. If you missed it, you can still sign up and view it here.

While watching, it dawned on me that many chemists get turned off from academia because they realize that they wouldn’t want their PI’s job.

But there’s more to academia than R1, and that’s what I hope to highlight in this post.

The webinar hosted a panel of three faculty members who shared about their experiences at three different types of academic institutions: an R1 institution, a primarily undergraduate institution (PUI) and a community college.

Meet the members of the panel (modified from the ACS Webinars website):

Here is a table that summarizes the topics that were discussed by the panelists, highlighting the differences between the three types of academic positions. Continue reading →

Networking: Getting connected is not such a scary thing

My first impression of networking, gleaned from a workshop in college, was: “Get to know people so that you can use them to advance your career.” It came across as very… selfish, sleazy almost. Schmooze with people in high places, then leverage those relationships to reap benefits for yourself.

I could never take that approach, I thought to myself.

But that’s not

what networking is all about. Professional networking is about getting to know people and having people get to know you. Yes, it may lead to job offers (in fact, an estimated 80% of jobs are landed through networking), but that’s not the ultimate motivation or even the end goal. The goal is to gather information by talking to people who have a wealth of knowledge about your field and can help you break into the field.

There are so many people out there to be found, you’ve just got to take the initiative connect with them. Image credit: flickr user ricki888c.

For non-traditional science careers, you’re taking the road less traveled, so networking is particularly important. If you’re in grad school, there are a plethora of resources out there to help you break into academia or industry. But what if you want to do something your adviser or career counselor has never heard of before, like be a science writer, science librarian, or get into publishing, or molecular jewelry making? You’re a bit more on your own in navigating those paths, so getting to know other people who have gone ahead of you is all the more vital to your success.

Here are a few of the networking basics I have gathered through reading about networking and trying it out myself. I link to lots of very useful articles that delve into each topic in much more detail than I could cover here.

Take initiative.

Networking isn’t something that just happens. If you don’t send that email, make that phone call, set up that in-person meeting, you will not get to know people who are in your field (see: Networking: how to get a good connection). If you prefer email, that’s fine for the opener. Introduce yourself and ask if you can set up a time to talk on the phone, or in person if they live in the same city.

Be curious and ask honest questions.

When preparing for that first conversation or informational interview (see: Tooling up: the informational interview), don’t think about what you’re going to say as much as what you’re going to ask. What do you want to know? (See this list of sample questions for an informational interview). They’ll want to know about you as well, so have that elevator speech prepared and tell them why you wanted to talk to them and what career options you’re exploring. If you run out of things to say about yourself, ask them another question. Remember, people love talking about themselves. :)

If a professional you’d like to get to know lives in your area, ask if you can meet over coffee for a chat. Photo credit: flickr user sweetpeabicycles.

DO gather information, DON’T ask for a job.

Informational interviews and networking is for the purpose of getting you connected with people in your field, which could very well lead to job opportunities down the road. But it is not intended to be for job hunting. Do the work of building relationships, find out about what opportunities are available in the field, but don’t flat out ask someone you’re getting to know for a job.

Follow up.

At a minimum, send a simple email thanking the person for taking the time to meet/talk with you. Better yet, take advantage of online networking websites (see: Five tips for better online networking) connect with them on LinkedIn and follow up every now and then to keep the connection going. For example, if you’ll be attending a professional conference, email that person and find out if they’ll be there and if they’d be available to meet with you.

Make the most of every opportunity.

Don’t go to a professional meeting and then just hang out with the people you know from your lab. Meet new people! Mingle at poster sessions and social events and stick around to chat with presenters after lectures. Do your research before the conference to find out who you might want to meet, and then schedule a time to get coffee during one of the breaks. Talk, chit-chat, schmooze (see: Schmoozing 101), or whatever you want to call it— the point is: be willing to step outside your comfort zone. 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.

ACS Career Fair

Just a quick note to remind you that next week, Aug 22-26 is the ACS fall meeting in Boston. The ACS Career Fair is Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. If you’re planning on participating, here’s a pdf list of the workshops being held. Some of the grad students in my department have attended a few of these before, and say that the preparing a resume and  mock interview sessions were the most helpful.

I personally have never been to an ACS Career Fair, but I will be attending this one. So I’m going to try to cover a few of these too, and give you the run-down. Look for that next week.

Also if you’re going, be sure to participate in the C&E News blog t-shirt contest thing. You could win a $50 VISA gift card for wearing your nifty shirt in the exhibit hall next Monday and Tuesday. Plus after the meeting, you can wear it out hiking in the woods and not be shot by hunters! It’s a win-win.

I already posted my key word (coughcoughRIGHTHEREcough), so that leaves you with only five more to find. Happy word-searching!

All the jobs that are fit to be analyzed

Chemjobber: getting down and dirty in the chemical job market. Image by flickr user artbandito.

If you’re in the chemistry job market, I really hope you’ve heard of Chemjobber. Yin to my yang, he blogs about the job outlook for industry and academic jobs in chemistry, basically all the stuff that this blog skips. He does quite a bit of analysis of the positions that show up in the back of C&E News, as well as charting and discussing long-term trends in the market. So the well-informed job seeker would do well to follow his activity, even if it’s to watch what you’re missing by not going into one of these more well-worn careers.

CJ personally is from the dark side (industry). He’s a synthetic organic chemist at a small company, with a wife and kids at home. So what really made me curious was, he’s not looking for a job himself, and he definitely has a full life of his own—so why the heck does he blog about chemistry jobs?

“I think the real reason is that I don’t quite understand the chemistry job market, where the supply is and where the demand is. I figure that if I do enough of an amateur sleuthing job and reach out to enough people, I might be able to come up with some statistics to show where we have been, where we are and where we might be headed,” he said.

CJ compared the chemistry job market to the NFL draft, which was somewhat lost on me, but apparently he’s a big Colts fan so there you are.

In the draft, “there are 32 teams; they each have a 53 player roster. Usually, there are about five to ten positions in each team that they’re looking to replace. What are the odds that any one graduating senior college football player is going to get a job in the NFL through the draft? Not high, but at least he knows the odds. Furthermore, we know the general statistics about life in the NFL. You can be cut at any time, the average career is about three years right now, and after 30 years old the typical running back can’t do their job anymore.”

Not Chemjobber's family. They're probably way cuter.

Sadly, he said we don’t have a similar idea about the statistics for the chemistry job market. “We’re all playing a game of musical chairs (to switch metaphors) where we have no idea to the number of chairs, the number of players and the length of time the music plays. That’s not good for anyone,” CJ said.

He also just enjoys the chemical blogosphere, and has been reading and commenting since finding Derek Lowe’s site, around 2002 or so. He tried his own fingers at the blogging thing and started two others of his own. His current blog is the only one that had some staying power, though.

“I love contributing and being part of an online community, it makes me happy when I learn things I didn’t know about chemistry (like the Kilomentor blog — it’s great!), and I really like applying statistical and economic thinking to an area of chemistry that could really use some.”

It’s a hobby he said, but apparently one that sucks him in from time to time. “I try to remind myself that I’m a husband and a father and a chemist before I’m a blogger. Some days, it’s easier than others.”

CJ can be found at his blog, and also at the Chemistry Blog.

Thoughts on leaving the bench

There is a career out there that exactly suits you. But which one? Image by flickr user Timothy K. Hamilton.

I think, when trying to decide what you want to do when you grow up (aka finish your PhD), the most important choice to make is whether or not you want to stay in the lab. It’s something that I think about a lot. Do I want to say adieu to the bench just because my project is really hard/I’m tired of it/I need a change of scenery? Or is it something beyond that? Do I really want to leave because I just don’t enjoy doing research? For me, I’m fairly certain it’s the latter. But I have this little twinge as I get ready to graduate and get the heck outta here. Will I rue the day I walked out of the lab?

This is enough on my mind that I always ask my profile subjects if they miss lab work. Of the people I’ve talked to so far, Ben Owens said he doesn’t, because he’s still sort of in the lab. And staying in a lab environment is one of the reasons he went with EH&S, because “there are opportunities to conduct original research and work on applied projects in the area of environmental health and safety, and I have done some of this.”

Raven Hanna said she does miss it a bit, especially growing bacteria, and is contemplating setting up some Petri dishes in her fridge.

I think part of it is the fear of the big dark open pit of uncertainty. We know what lab work is like. But we don’t know what life sans glassware is. Is it a screaming pile of awesome? Or is it a walk through Satan’s armpit? Couldn’t tell you.

But I did find some people that can, or at least give their own takes on it. Hopefully, it may help you at least narrow down the types of career options you want to look at.

Image by flickr user law_keven.

Nature Networks blogger Craig Rowell fesses up that he left the bench four months ago, and why.

The Bean Chronicles writer Bean-Mom talks about how she doesn’t miss the lab, and how that kind of surprised her.

Another Nature Networks blogger, Noah Gray this time, discusses the stigma (or lack-thereof) of taking an alternative career, and how it’s not considered ‘leaving science’ anymore.

And two articles, one from Nature Jobs, one from The Chronicle of Higher Education, that talk to a bunch of different people about their decisions to leave bench science.

Contemplate away.

2009 ACS salary survey

So, the results are in from the 2009 ACS salary survey, and they can be summarized in one word: ouch. Median salaries for all chemists fell 3.2%, and the unemployment rate jumped to 3.9%, the highest rate for chemists in 20 years.

Image by flickr user sea turtle

Hemlock, anyone?

Okay, so things aren’t that bad. The overall unemployment rate for the same time was 8.6%, according to the report and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. So at least chemists had it better than the general population. But keep in mind that the numbers in the salary survey are from March 2009, and things may have gotten better (unlikely) or worse (probably) since then. For June 2010, the national unemployment rate was 9.5%. So use that to normalize your thinking as you read it. Also note that this survey focuses on the Big Three* types of employers: academia, industry, and government. But even if you don’t want to go into one of those areas, I do suggest you go read it, as well as C&EN editor-in-chief Rudy Baum’s take on it. I’m just talking highs and lows here.

Continue reading →

Working for The Man


It sounds a little scary, doesn’t it? After all, THE GOVERNMENT is who tells you what to do and takes your money once a year. But they do good stuff too, like that whole, you know, constitution and bill of rights thing. Plus they employ a whole lot of chemists.

Some of the government's money could be yours! Image by flickr user Alex E. Proimos.

Surprised? I kind of was. I was tooling around on USAJOBS.gov the other day, and just did a quick search for ‘chemist.’ And great googly moogly! There were A TON.

And I just want to clarify that these aren’t jobs in government labs like PNNL or Brookhaven–that’s something totally different. This is a job list for government agencies, and these were just some of the ones I saw:

The Army
The Navy
The Air Force
(sadly did not see any for the Marines)
Agricultural Research Service
Homeland Security

Most of these jobs listed are research jobs, so if you want to avoid industry or academia but want to stay in the lab, this may be the course for you.

Image 1942, Library of Congress.

I should also add that many government jobs require that you be a US citizen (not necessarily born here, but naturalized). And pass a background check. And….anything else? Since I’ve never held a government job, I asked my friend John Spencer who’s a project manager for Crane Naval Surface Warfare Center in southern Indiana, part of the Department of Defense. Hi, John!

John says hi.

He also said that his application was a little different than most, since he started out as a contractor for Crane. But yes, expect a background check. A lengthy one. His was about a 30-page document that asked for information including every place he’s lived for the past seven years, all his employers in that time, all the schools he attended in that time, any foreign travel and foreign contacts, his family relationships and their nationalities, et cetera, et cetera. What you’ll get asked also depends on the level of security of the job you’re applying for. I’m assuming that the check for the FBI might be a titch different than the one for the USDA, but we know what happens when we assume…

John likes working for the government. Like any other job, it’s got its perks and disadvantages. File under perks: the pay is good (generally somewhere between academia and industry pay), and the people tend to be intelligent. Plus if you like variety, it’s easy to move around, John said. He’s had three different jobs in the three years he’s worked at Crane. Job security is another benefit of government work. Once you get hired, it’s a bit hard to get fired. “Sort of like tenure in academia,” John said. But it does also have its downside. “The job security tends to make people a bit lazier,” he said. You can get fired of course, if you’re doing something unsafe or illegal. But just not working that hard? That would probably get you shunted to another department. (Yay, government?)

I have you now. Image by flickr user Laura Padgett.

So it’s definitely something to think about, especially since more typical industrial or academic sectors are not so happy right now. I know, tell you something you don’t know. But actual numbers saying things are bad are useful. This week’s C&EN cover story is about the decline of jobs in industry, while The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a story Tuesday about how tenure in academic jobs is going bye-bye.

So, yeah. Hello, Uncle Sam?


ETA: As a reader commented below, apparently the Air Force and Navy are not actively hiring at this time (7/16/10), they’re just accepting resumes. But I guess this brings up the need to point something out.

The goal of this blog is to inform people who are searching for alternative careers in chemistry as to what other options are out there. It doesn’t mean you will find employment in one of these options, although I hope you do if that’s what you want. Although I do try to indicate the availability of these jobs, I leave the actual jobseeking to you. Also please note that details posted today may not be applicable a month, six months, or several years down the road.

I am also not responsible if someone pursues a career they learn about here, gets a job and a) doesn’t like it, b) hates their boss, c) doesn’t get paid as much as they want to, d) trips and fall on the sidewalk one day on their way to work, breaks their wrist and has to go through expensive physical therapy and even with that, their tennis game is never the same again, or e) pretty much every scenario possible.