Friday, April 8, 2011

A happy post?

Yesterday's interview with MQ was, well, a bit depressing. So I thought I would try to focus a little on the positive by answering the questions posted by the about.com comment poll on "working as a chemist." (If you read through the comments, they're quite negative (which is probably understandable.)) But I think that my core answers would actually sound somewhat optimistic. Thanks to Anon040720110148p for the idea.

What type of chemist are you?

I'm a synthetic organic chemist. I mostly make difficult-to-find-or-make carbon-based molecules from easily-found-or-purchased carbon-based molecules.

What do you do as a chemist?

Well, there is the above. I have an interest in process chemistry -- I try to find better ways of making kilogram (or more) quantity amounts of desired molecules in a practical and efficient manner. I also test my molecules for their purity.

What is the best/worst part of your job?

The best part of my job is the making. There's nothing quite like looking at a flask or a tray (or a bag or a bucket) of compound, and thinking "I made that."

The worst part of my job? I enjoy almost everything about my job, which is why I am still a chemist. Many tough things about being a chemist don't have to do with the chemicals, it has to do with the people that you work with. But if you're blessed (and I am), you have colleagues that you enjoy being around and a supervisor who gives you clear goals and gets out of your way with a pat on the back.

Also, some chemists like working with instrumentation and machines and trying to keep them maintained and operational. I find this pretty frustrating, actually. But if you like tinkering (I don't, really), that part of the job is for you.

What training did you need? Was it easy/difficult to find a job as a chemist?

I got a Ph.D. and I also did a two-year stint as a postdoctoral fellow; all in all, a lot of school and a lot of training. Getting your doctorate is a traditional way of getting some level of independence in your work (hopefully -- it's not always the case.)

It was incredibly easy to find my first 'real' job as a bachelor's-level chemist; I showed up for my campus interview, demonstrated that I understood what I was doing for my research project, enjoyed the heck out of my on-site interview and was offered my job and a signing bonus (CJ readers: remember those?) and worked for a year as a formulator and an analytical chemist.

It was pretty difficult to find my first 'real' job as a doctoral-level chemist; it took about 8 months of intensive daily searching, e-mailing, letter writing and phone calls. But there was also the economy, which was in pretty tough shape at the time. I actually attempted to sign up in the Air Force to be an officer and a chemist (which I don't think you can do, actually.) I took a job for pay that was a lot lower than I expected to have, even with my reality-calibrated expectations.

Are you happy being a chemist? Why?

Yes, I am happy being a chemist. I enjoy knowing things about the physical world; I like the fact that I work with 'real stuff' on a day-to-day basis and that I am more-or-less a molecular architect, carpenter or blacksmith. It can be incredibly frustrating and some of the problems that I deal with on a regular basis with make your hair curl. But in the end, when someone asks me what I do for a living, I'm proud to say, "I'm a chemist."

It's tough, of course, to try to find and keep a job as a chemist these days. It seems that the modern industrialized global economy does not value the products of chemists (and chemistry) as much as they used to -- maybe that's an illusion, maybe (most likely?) it's not. That's a very real and very difficult part of being a chemist; it's also something that can cast a pall over your everyday work.

So I'm happy being a chemist. But I also have a non-typical view of the word "happy" -- I don't value happiness perhaps as highly as other people. (Maybe that's how I made it through grad school.)

What advice would you give someone interested in chemistry?

Go to school and study hard?
 
My advice: take a lab course in a community college or 4-year setting. Like it? Great. Try working for a summer as an intern in a research lab. Like it? Then you might enjoy a life in chemistry. If you don't enjoy it, then you might want to think elsewhere.
 
But my final advice is this: have a very real and up-to-date expectation of the employment prospects and salary levels of chemists at your level of expertise (and your general rank amongst your educational peer group). If life at $44,000 a year as a bachelor's-level chemist doesn't sound good (and you'd get angry that one of your college classmates that worked a lot less hard to get his/her business degree is making 68k), then you either need to find a different field, get a better job or recalibrate your expectations. If you could not handle the seeming instability of the chemical/pharmaceutical/biotech industry for the long-term, then perhaps this isn't for you.
 
Pessimism isn't a perfect tool for life, but having realistic expectations (or a lot of personal steady-state contentment) helps in keeping you sane.

9 comments:

  1. hi there. I wonder whether I could translate this post into Chinese and post it on my blog with the traceback? You know blogger has been blocked in China. I wish my friends could read these ideas and got to know more about chemisry.

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  2. There are a lot of negative comments on that post, but it also doesn't appear as though there are many PhDs posting on there either. I can say that I do enjoy being a chemist. Granted, I did get a little burned out during graduate school, but now that I am a professor (in a professional program) my passion for chemistry is starting to rekindle. It's like falling in love all over again...well maybe not exactly, but it is close.

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  3. I've got a PhD and did a postdoc, and I'm a synthetic organic chemist as well, working in carbon-based nanomaterials R&D. I should qualify that I love the science of chemistry, but I really hate the business of chemistry (and science in general). I don't necessarily have regrets that I chose the career path that I did, but when I have friends who were making as much 10 years ago with a BS in computers or business that I'm making now after all that school and training (and of course, they're making even more now), it *is* disheartening. The ratio of rewards to education is definitely not skewed in favor of chemists (or most scientists) so you have to make sure you REALLY love it and want to commit to it.

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  4. Ummm ... I love synthetic organic chemistry but the reality is that 99% of synthetic organic chemistry is the conversion of pure "easily-found-or-purchase(d) carbon-based molecules" into toxic waste. You could say that about all the synthetic sub-disciplines. We love our crystalline products (I still get a kick out of precipitating salt crystals) but most of our work is destined for the sewer or a third tier journal. There is the sense though, that in chemistry, at least doing something (even if it is derivative) for the first time will make us eternal. If you are the first to make Obscuran-2-ol from Obscurane whenever someone works on the system they will have to read and value your work ... forever. I just had to reference a Speed Marvel JACS paper from 1937 on the catalytic removal of an impurity using NEt3. How cool is that?

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  5. I, too, am proud to call myself a synthetic organic chemist, even though most of my family still can't figure out what that means. Most of them just say "he makes drugs", which I'd put at maybe 70% accurate (5% CI).

    I would say that chemistry, and especially synthetic or medicinal chemistry, is not exactly the sexy field it was when I first got into this gig. I'm proud to have a PhD, but it hasn't exactly been the boon to further prospects I once believed.

    However, I'd like to echo Chemjobber's sentiments: I like most of the folks I work with, and it's good to come to work most mornings. I also believe (as does CJ) that a little bit of elbow grease and extra journal reading will pay off someday, even if not in the short term.

    Overall, not a terrible life. Perspective is key.

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  6. I agree with Chemjobber's answer to that last question. Chemistry is not going to make anyone very wealthy or secure. It's a tumultuousness profession that requires a huge amount of dedication. It's more of a religion than a career anymore. It takes a lot of faith and sacrifice to keep going even when everyone is saying the JOBS just don't exist.

    I know people that are in their 20's making >$100K. They have job security, stable incomes and can live where they want. Many had to make the decision to study science or something that would offer a more stable living. They like science, but know they weren't cut out for the tradeoffs and devotion.

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  7. Seems to be a lot of pessimism around Pharma/Organic/Biotech. I'm graduating with a graduate degree in p chem... feelings from anyone out there about that side of the industry?

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  8. Dear all, and thank you MQ andCJ.This is rather a hopeful post. I am finishing MS and wondering what life would be after graduate school.

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  9. As a theoretical/ physical chemist, I do not look in flasks and worry about yields and safety goggles. However the Eureka factor is the same. It is also good to have supportive colleagues and motivated students, but what happens when you divert from the "party line" in your research? You quickly find yourself isolated.

    I love what I do too, wouldn't change for anything, but if you buck the trend or find something that undermines the work of others, you soon find that collegiality suffers.

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