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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 →

ACS Webinars: The Road Less Traveled– Nontraditional Careers for PhD Chemists, Part Two

As promised, here’s Part Two of my recap of Steven Carlo’s presentation with ACS Webinars entitled, The Road Less Traveled—Alternative Careers for PhD Chemists.

If you missed it, you can watch the video on the ACS Webinars YouTube channel or here.

To PhD or not to PhD?—that is the question. And it varies among the different nontraditional career options. Photo courtesy: flickr user dan & emily.

In the last post, I compiled a list of both traditional and nontraditional career options for chemists, some of which Steven highlighted during the webinar. For your convenience, I’ve linked back to previous profile posts where we highlighted a person with that career.

Steven’s lecture was full of all kinds of career advice, ranging from how to prepare your resume to tips on networking. I’ve arranged his words of wisdom in a Q&A format and arranged the questions by topic:

General advice for job applicants

Q: The job market isn’t looking so hot. What advice do you have for job applicants to increase their chances of landing a job?

A: Right now the odds are against you to find a job. So, be sure to take advantage of the resources at your disposal: talk to your adviser, people who work in career services on your campus, peruse the internet.  Some recommended websites for finding job postings: ACS Careers, Monster.com, careerbuilder.com, chemistryjobs.com, USAjobs.com, Science.

Education and Experience

Q: Is a PhD required for all these jobs?

A: It varies. If you are someone who is considering a nontraditional career for yourself, part of your research on careers should involve talking to people who work in the field to find out what types of educational background are common for people in those fields. Conversations with people in the field, known as informational interviews, are a crucial component of networking, which we all have heard over and over is such an important part of your career advancement.

Q: Should I do a postdoc if I’m not sure what else to do?

A: Doing a postdoc probably isn’t necessary or helpful unless you’re serious about academia—then it’s essential that you find a postdoc adviser who will help train you and prepare you for an independent research career. Lots of publications and a big-name postdoc adviser is always good is you’re shooting for academia.

Q: How can people who are thinking about non-traditional careers and have little to no experience in those areas compete with those who do have experience in those fields?

A: If you lack formal educational training, go take a course at a community college, or find some other ways to get skills of experiences that will make you more qualified for the job. Consider if there are any skills that are transferrable from one field to another. You just need “some kind of hook that can get you in,” Steven said. If you’re a researcher wanting to get into, say, editing, you will have to justify it in your cover letter: “I’m interested in this type of career because…”  Continue reading →

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 →

Let there be sight: A chemist opens her eyes to the world of optometry


Karen G. Carrasquillo, Ph.D., O.D., FAAO, chemist and optometrist at Boston Foundation for Sight. Courtesy photo

Ever touch a hot pepper and then touch your eye? It hurt, didn’t it?! That’s capsaicin binding to the pain receptors on your eye, which has more pain receptors per area than any other organ in your body— fascinating, huh?

Karen G. Carrasquillo certainly thinks so— she’s an optometrist at Boston Foundation for Sight. She remembers always being intrigued with the eye.

She also had a thing for chemistry and earned her Ph.D. in chemistry (2001) from the University of Puerto Rico. Towards the end of her degree program, she decided to go for clinical research and did a postdoc at Harvard Medical School in conjunction with the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary.

During her postdoc years, she realized that her dream job would be one that let her pursue original research on the eye, teach younger scientists and interact with patients.

The first step towards this career goal was to complete a doctoral degree in Optometry (New England College of Optometry, 2005). Since she already had a Ph.D., she qualified for the accelerated academic program. This was followed by a residency in Cornea and Specialty Contact Lenses at the New England College of Optometry.

Now she is an optometrist who specializes in Cornea and Specialty Contact Lenses and works in a clinic, the Boston Foundation for Sight, treating patients that suffer from corneal diseases.

“My career path, although it may seem like a divergent one, it really isn’t,” Karen said. “One thing led me to the other almost seamlessly.”

She initially thought she would focus exclusively on research on vision and the eye, but a desire “to interact with patients and provide them with a more tangible solution and help” led her to pursue the path to becoming a clinician.

“I see patients that suffer from severe corneal disease every day,” Karen said. “It’s very satisfying to see patients for which our treatment is most of the times their last resort and seeing how we can change their lives – we give them their lives back.”

Karen said the experiences and skills she acquired at each stage of her career all built on each other: Writing peer-reviewed journal articles, collaborating in research and teaching are all skills in her tool box, and she uses most of them on a daily basis as an eye doctor.

In addition to meeting with patients, Karen has a managerial role, working with ophthalmic technicians and managing daily clinical operations. Continue reading →

Chemist-turned-marketing director in the computer software industry

Profile: Philip Skinner, Field Marketing Director for PerkinElmer, San Diego, CA

Electronic laboratory notebooks are the way of the future for scientific records, and Philip Skinner is helping pave the way for them.

Philip Skinner, Field Marketing Director for PerkinElmer, San Diego, CA. Courtesy photo.

Philip is a field marketing director for PerkinElmer, where his current focus is promoting E-Notebook products to companies and laboratories.

But he wasn’t always in the software industry. He is a trained synthetic organic chemist who received his Ph.D. at the University of Durham in the North East of England and did a postdoc at ETH Zurich before landing a job in med chem.

While working in med chem, Philip helped asses E-Notebooks for his company. This experience helped him develop professional partnerships within the computer software industry. Little did he know that the time and effort invested would eventually develop into a full-time job just when he needed it.

In 2009, the pharmaceutical company where Philip had worked for eight years cut 40 percent of its staff and Philip was left unemployed. He spent nine months actively exploring other career options, including project management and consulting. Finally, the software company developing E-Notebooks decided to expand their sales team, and they offered Philip a job. Shortly after, he moved up in the company into a marketing position and is now a director of field marketing.

Philip said he would not have been so lucky had he not had the training and connections with the folks in the software industry.

“I met a lot of people networking, but I got this job from contacts I had made and nurtured for many years, and people I had actually worked in partnership with,” he said.

For the most part, he works from home, where he spends his time preparing for product demonstrations, participating in conference calls and talking with customers.

“One of my main roles is essentially a translator,” Philip said. “As an experienced lab scientist, I understand the way at least the drug discovery world works. I can speak with the scientists we are working with, but also to our software people.”

Will traditional lab notebooks soon be replaced with electronic lab notebooks? Photo credit: flickr user proteinbiochemist

To expand the company’s client base, Philip demo’s the products at trade shows and visits companies all over the country– so there is a good deal of travel with his job.

Philip said the best and worst part of his job is working from home since he said it makes it very difficult to maintain work/life separation. But he said he is very happy with his career move.

“I enjoy the work, I like the people, it gives me a lot of freedom,” he said. “I feel valued and useful… and I feel that I have somewhere I can actually grow.”

For chemists who may be interested in breaking into the software industry, Philip suggests doing research on both the companies and products, making connections with people in the field, and determining which entry positions into the company are a good place to start. Continue reading →

Book editing and publishing: A scientific book worm’s dream job

There is no such thing as a typical day for Merlin Fox, books commissioning editor for the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC). His primary responsibilities include finding authors and editors to write new academic books and book series, managing the portfolio of already published works and seeking out opportunities for new publishing products.

I met Merlin at PittCon 2011 this past March, where he was scoping out potential new book opportunities, and I soon found out he was a chemist-turned-book editor. Fascinating, I thought to myself, tell me more!

Merlin Fox, books commissioning editor for the Royal Society of Chemistry. Courtesy photo.

Merlin’s background is in biology (B.Sc.), applied environmental science (M.Sc.), and agricultural sciences (Ph.D.). His graduate research and ensuing post-doctoral work were focused on environmental/analytical chemistry and biogeochemistry.

So, how did the transition into publishing happen? Well, after his post-doc, Merlin landed a spot in the RSC graduate programme, where his job was to handle the peer review process for journal articles. After 18 months in that position, an opportunity to work in books came along and he took it.

Since he was always interested in books and had research experience, he felt the two viable career paths for him after his Ph.D. were publishing or working in a lab. He chose the former and says he doesn’t regret that decision.

Although the graduate and post-graduate work weren’t required to get into publishing, he said he is glad to have gotten the additional training in teamwork, keeping to budgets, and working on a set timeframe– all transferable skills that he carries on with him as he pursues his non-traditional science career path.

“A book can take two years to write and needs dedication and focus – much like a long project or Ph.D., so yes, I think having a Ph.D. lends some empathy to what authors are doing – as well as a better understanding of what academic life is like,” he said.

What Merlin likes most about his job is being able to travel and meet new people, as well as having the security of a permanent job. But he occasionally misses being in the lab, especially when he visits a chemistry department.

Merlin’s environmental and biogeochemistry graduate work was largely composed of fieldwork in the great outdoors. While he doesn’t do this type of research anymore, he finds other ways to satisfy his craving to explore nature.

“I grow vegetables at home and do voluntary conservation work most weekends, so I’m still getting outdoors,” he said.

Merlin said it is satisfying to see a book he worked on finally come out in print and to see it on the shelf at a bookstore. He also loves learning about all kinds of science and meeting interesting and clever people in science, including Nobel Laureates.

The most challenging part is when a book project gets cancelled—but fortunately that doesn’t happen often.

For chemists and others out there interested in publishing, Merlin says: “Get talking to publishers! They are usually at conferences.”

Merlin says one of the highlights of his job is seeing a book he worked on for years finally make it onto the shelf in a bookstore. Photo credit: flickr user boopsie.daisy.

So, next time you’re at a conference, scope out the booths at the Expo’s, the huge area where companies come out and set up their booths and demo their new products. Book publishers can often be found there, and with a little bit of investigative work, you should be able to find them.

As far as getting jobs in the book publishing industry, Merlin said there is certainly some tough competition, especially for the more senior jobs, but it helps to develop a good network with other publishers.

Regarding the whole ongoing transition of books from print to electronic, he said it may not be such a terrible thing for those in publishing.

“The recession is beginning to impact publishers as library budgets begin to feel the pinch, but the growth of electronic publishing, and broader acceptance of eBooks, means there are exciting times ahead,” he said.

So is Merlin happy with his decision to pursue this career path?

“Oh yes, I love science and have always loved books and reading,” he said. “It’s great to be part of communicating science.”

Find out more about the graduate programme offered by the RSC online.

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 →