Friday, November 18, 2011

Wrestling with the problem of alternative careers

Getting on or off the chemistry train? Credit: bakersfieldqdc
Anon1117110916a has a really fair point regarding alternative careers:
It drives me batty when people suggest that the true value of a scientific education is critical thinking and problem solving. If that were so, why do we waste billions of dollars and man-years on equipment and specialized training when we just need a "Ph.D. in Problem-Solving" program with work done with paper and pencil. Was it all just a mental exercise? 
Put another way...The first paragraph could apply to anyone...physicists, engineers, biologists, physicians, real-estate agents, plumbers...they all solve problems and use the scientific method to some degree. I was under the impression that the discipline of chemistry is valuable because it is specialized. Apparently, I could have saved a lot of time and money becoming a plumber. 
I appreciate that Dr. Balbes is helping folks escape a train that's coming off the tracks. But let's be honest here: Most of us like riding that train. There's a lot of inertia keeping us on...and it's a helluva ride! 
I think Anon has a good point in that if you know what you really want to do, you should go do it. Right now. Without delay. Quit doing that thing you're doing right now (chemistry?) and go do something else that you like better.

But that's not how life works. Most of the time, it takes a while to figure out what you like (and what you don't like.) It takes exposure to jobs that you like better than the one that you have now, or the prodding of the market that tells you (sadly) that your degree is now worth 5% less in annual income than it was ten years ago. Or the market tells you that your skills aren't what they need to be to be hired and/or keep a job -- that's a terrifying possibility (to me, anyway).

But I think the problem solving/critical thinking thing is signaling; it tells future non-chemistry employers that you understand a difficult subject, that you've mastered that difficult subject and actually found something new to say about it. It typically means that you're intelligent enough to communicate that difficult subject to the layperson, and you might be able to do it with other equally difficult subjects. Hopefully, a chemistry degree (or an advanced degree) is a better signaling mechanism that that of a real-estate agent or a plumber, even though I believe there's no guarantee that chemists are smarter than plumbers.

All of this to say that alternative careers aren't typically the goal that's directly in front of the chemistry train -- it's a different, equally interesting and (hopefully) equally honorable track.


  1. It is all well and good to learn these skills, but at what price and to what end? Upwards of 14 years of advanced, highly specialized schooling for these tools which are of questionable value in the marketplace seems a little too a high price to pay. No employer pays much of a premium to rookies at a job unrelated to their specialty especially those who are 30 years old and just out of school. Sorry the world does not work that way. Frankly I would rather hire some bright, smiling gung-ho 20 year old ready to get going in life than some narrow hard bitten cynical PhD chemist just out of school with a degree from some a-hole prof and resenting years wasted getting that degree. With the former I get a great go-fer who I can bring up right, not the highly intelligent management problem the latter is likely to bring my way.

    The whole line of thought that says get a PhD in chemistry so you go off and do something pretty much unrelated to your craft is advising a very stupid thing to do. The lost years of earnings, career development, skill development and life sacrificed should cause anyone with that plan in mind to seek professional help, and I do not mean from the morons at the ACS. Unless you view grad school/post doc time as just some fun way of killing off the best years of your life, don’t do it.

    I wanted to be a chemist from age ten and in those days you could have a back yard lab with all the fix’ins and none of legal problems. I was extremely lucky to have a 40 year medchemist career in the pharma industry, something I see as nearly impossible today. Not many people are so fortunate as to can claim their job was also their hobby.

    Everyone who considers a chemistry degree-based career these days must look very, very deeply at their personal psychological need to take their life in that direction, because it could all end before it even gets started. Today I would seriously have to reassess my love for what my wife call my mistress, chemistry, if I were starting off now. Being an unemployed chemist longing for a chemistry job does not pay the bills. I am sure I could compromise and find something satisfactory that does.

    If possible, I also advise everyone to follow your dreams but remember wanting to be an actor or artist has real life issues and limitations. The same now applies to chemistry. If one thinks the rigors of chemistry education helps in getting a law or medical degree or even being a good business person, plumber or financial analyst then go for it. Get that BS degree in chemistry, don’t join the ACS and get started in your next exciting life endeavor. That is as much chemistry as will be necessary to get hired in that starting position requiring problem solving and critical thinking.

  2. " It typically means that you're intelligent enough to communicate that difficult subject to the layperson, and you might be able to do it with other equally difficult subjects"

    For 99% of employers a masters degree will suffice. You seem to be oblivious to the fact that to most employers, a PhD is as useful as a week old turd. It probably indicates you will not be satisfied with a lesser position and are likely autistic. Even a masters is overkill.

    This blog is emblematic of the excellent job grad schools do in brainwashing their best and brightest into believing a worthless piece of paper is worth the best years of their lives.

  3. I bow to your superior certitude.

  4. Thanks for your series on alternative careers. I'm a mid-30's medicinal chemist, with about 10 years in industry. While I enjoyed chemistry while a student, I left school during the time of when the annual layoffs and sharp increases in outsourcing/increased desire of companies to build sites to capture the (large!) Chinese marketplace has become commonplace. The situation for chemists in EU/US is getting quite bleak, but that does not stop the arrogance, or possibly naive behavior fueled by advisors (mainly for self-benefit!), of the next generation of students to go into chemistry.

    I *may* be in a situation to be able to explore other options, due to some circumstances at my current employer (and, undoubtedly, requiring alot of luck and cooperation from others!) I would be frustrated if I am prevented from looking at other options due to a manager who is looking out more for my student - who I was forced into taking and is only here for a few more months - than myself, but unfortunately I could see this happening. Of course, at this stage, continued employment is the main goal and happiness is secondary (think about that kids!-this could be your situation in a few years).

    I intend to learn as much as I can about the other options during this time, to try to get some transferrable skills if (WHEN!) the ship finally goes down for good. Your blog and the comments have been helpful to translate what some of these areas entail, especially since they are not things which we are typically exposed to as students.

    It does not seem that learning process chemistry is any safer from talking with those guys, albeit would be very interesting. I remember that you are in process - is this also your take on the situation?

  5. Anon 12:28,
    Where were you 6 long, disheartening years ago?

  6. anon 1:13

    I was writing letters like crazy to the ACS leadership pointing out this problem was coming down the tracks a mile a minute, but they kept calling for more training money and ever more imported foreign talent. I started regularly writing them in the early 90s about this coming disaster. Finally I did the one thing I could do, I quite the ACS after 35 years and threw them the bone. I was also holding on to my job by my fingertips, until I retired. I had worked for 4 multibillion dollar pharmaceutical companies in my career and watched helplessly as each and every one was gobbled up and then shuttered. It did not take a rocket scientist to know how badly this was going to turn out for chemists, especially after the ACS stated that the pharma industry was hiring more chemists than the chemical industry. The chemical industry had been downsizing and shipping jobs off shore since 1980. I saw it first hand back then.

    All I can do from my retirement couch is point out the obvious as I did above and try in no uncertain terms to warn the next generation. Pay attention to my couseling or ignore it, it is your lives to live, my time is over.

    Go look at a copy of November 1971 Look magazine, parting shots to see what my generation faced.

  7. Hi Chemjobber,
    I am a long-time reader of this blog and have found the posts about alternative careers interesting. Particularly the comments.
    I too read the quoted comment, above, and had it stuck in my mind since. I feel like some of the posts in this case are a little off the mark. I think that for someone to suggest that someone pursue a PhD in chemistry in the hope of landing an 'alternative career' is ludicrous. As you elude to there have always been people who get to near the end of their PhD and cannot stand looking/touching/thinking about another RBF, and as we are all now familiar with there are plenty of chemists who have unfortunately lost their jobs and rather than look for another pharma job are considering careers elsewhere. For my part I was a PhD chemist who worked in med chem for one year when I realised that it wasn't for me. I have now moved into a new career in patents, which I am grateful, still engages the scientific side of my brain often.

    The discussion of 'alternative careers' is an interesting one. It's just unfortunate that the 'main' career for org chemists is shrinking.

  8. A lot of employers are very skeptical when you say you have transferable, critical thinking, or problem solving skills. They only consider hiring people with proven track records, years of on the job experience and employers are unwilling to train. It is very hard to get an alternative career unless you are willing to work entry level jobs that pay minimum wage.

    Spent 10y to get a PhD in chemistry and then having to take minimum-wage jobs for alternative careers is a terrible waste of time.