Monday, October 8, 2012

Sales as an option for unemployed chemists?

After reading this story on a struggling swimming pool salesman in The Washington Post, I have no real desire to become a salesperson. That said, it's a desperately important position for any private company (I've never begrudged the sales folks their commission -- my personal motto? "If they eat well, we eat well.").

So it's with some level of interest and amusement to read this letter in this week's C&EN:
A recurring topic in the letters section is the angst of losing gainful employment in our beloved science. When I held my last lab position in 1989, I was always aware that in business parlance, R&D is a cost center, while sales and marketing are profit centers. Cost centers are expendable, underfunded, and typically have pay ceilings well below profit centers. Being fluent in math, we should all realize the importance of this equation and react accordingly. 
My career plans changed when my company was bought out by a larger player in our market. We were promised that our great little lab and production facility would remain untouched, but it appeared to me that would not be the case. My fight-or-flight sense kicked in, and I left for a career in chemical sales before the inevitable closing of our beloved facility. 
I had never worked in sales before, and it was a scary move. As scientists we have technical expertise that one typically doesn’t find in business majors. I found that I was an invaluable asset to my customers, and I had the opportunity to practice my craft in a wide variety of industries. 
I was learning and teaching while getting paid better than any chemist. It was a lucrative symbiosis for all parties. I know it’s a trite expression but it’s true: Everyone is in sales. When you apply for a job, you’re selling yourself. When you’re pushing to get funding, you’re selling your idea. 
And yes, rejection is part of the territory but it’s a big territory and there are other starfish in the sea. On a personal level, sales has pushed me through my many “oh nos” and “I can’ts.” So, to all the many downsized professionals out there (and there seem to be more and more every day), I advise you to consider furthering your talents through sales. You might be surprised by what awaits you in the vast unknown. 
And yes, we should still encourage students to pursue degrees in the sciences lest we contribute to the growing and dangerous pool of science illiteracy. Look around you and notice how many of us are working in fields different from our B.S. or M.S. degrees. 
There is hope and opportunity just as there are lemons and lemonade. 
By Mark D. Ryan
Gotta say, I'm not convinced by Dr./Mr. Ryan's reasoning on why more people need science degrees (they should get a science degree because we have science illiteracy. Why not make them take "physics for poets"-type survey courses? Does how many students will be forced into P-chem so that we will have a more educated polity? Is it worth it?)

All of that said, it is true that some of us (myself included?) should be less nervous about talking to customers and perhaps getting them to buy some of our stuff. It wouldn't hurt too much.


  1. That's a phenomena that exists in Mexico for quite sometime. Truth is R&D barely exists here... only big corporations like Pepsi, Coke, Herdez and maybe another one. The others really have R&D for what we call "tropicalization" take european shampoo and add avocado so it's mexican.... no comments

    So specially in Chemical ENgineering there's been an increasing number of chemcial related careers working as sales people and administrative positions...

    Also people that are QFB (mmm farmaceutical biological chemists I guess???) are getting all analytical related works instead of pure chemists

  2. It also wouldn't hurt too much to fix your link to Lowe's blog.

    1. It's actually the link from his blog, I think. It's why you can't get to his blog from Google Reader, for example. You can get to specific posts, but not the main page.

      ...strangely, his numbers are not affected!

  3. I'm not concerned about his numbers, all I know is your link to his site does not work. Can't you fix it? Or is there something about maintaining a blog list that I don't understand? Thanks-

    1. Yes, the particular widget that I'm using pulls the code from the other site, not what I input. Make sense?

      (I need to switch widgets is what I need to do...)

    2. understood--thanks!

  4. I like the comment that we are all sales people. I often comment that "if no one is willing to pay for it, it's worthless" with regards to chemistry work in general. My academic friends usually get immediately defensive about such a statement. They seem to appreciate it when I reframe it for them as "we have different customers", they with their funding agencies, and me with my...well..customers.

  5. I regret that I didn't consider technical sales jobs during my year-long job hunt a few years ago. I had worked for a large company where scientists and cubicle-dwellers worked at separate sites and interacted with each other very little, so I never knew much about what our salespeople did. Purchasing was its own department, so I seldom had much interaction with our suppliers either. I always thought of myself as a scientist, and thought sales jobs were for people who had washed out of lab positions. As I researched potential employers in my area, discovering that a "chemical company" was really a distributor was always a big disappointment.

    Now that I'm at a much smaller company where I interact quite a bit with both our salesmen and those of our suppliers, I've seen that salespeople actually have a pretty good gig - they get to travel and go to trade shows, and they need to know a good deal of chemistry to solve customers' problems. I'm happy in the lab and plan to stick with it, but I regret relegating these kinds of jobs to the background noise when I was looking, and suspect a lot of my fellow big-company layoff victims are probably making the same mistake.