Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Reddit Chemistry Jobs FAQ, part 1: Alternative careers

A long time ago, I volunteered to write a chemistry jobs "frequently asked questions" section for the Chemistry Reddit. It's about darn time for me to do so, so I'm starting today. Since Tuesday is my "academic" day, I'll basically be devoting a post most Tuesdays to working on this FAQ. I've asked for questions on Reddit and as of this morning, the most upvoted question was on alternative careers for chemistry:
Avoidingbadsubs: What other non-traditional jobs are there out there for those with a chemistry degree?
That's a great question and one that gets asked a lot -- what can I do with my chemistry degree, other than chemistry? I really dislike answers that start with "Anything!" because it's too vague. Noting that Jerry Buss (the late owner of the Los Angeles Lakers) and Angela Merkel (current chancellor of Germany) were Ph.D. chemists isn't particularly useful, especially since Dr. Buss left chemistry to become a wildly successful real estate investor and Dr. Merkel happened to get involved in the founding of political parties in the newly democratic and newly reunited Germany.*

It is probable that just a bare minimum of B.S. chemistry degree holders end up doing chemistry after they graduate. The best statistical data is referenced in this report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce; they find that, of every 19 STEM degree holders, only 10 will hold jobs related to their degree early in their career. (Granted, this statistic came from the 1993-2003 time period, a time that was very different than our own.) After 10 years, of those 10 STEM degree holders, only 8 will be still working in STEM. So I think that it is reasonable and potentially even prudent to be thinking about fields outside of traditional bench-oriented chemistry.

I think the question should be answered thusly: Where have people with chemistry degrees gone? Unfortunately, there is not clear statistical tracking as to where chemists have gone, so we're left with the world of anecdotal evidence, for which there is a ton.

The best collection of those anecdotes (in my opinion) is Dr. Lisa Balbes' book "Non-traditional Careers in Chemistry"; I've summarized a lot of these chapters on my blog and you can see the table of contents of the book here. The typical alternative careers are covered: teaching, writing, working with computers, the legal and regulatory fields in great detail with in-depth interviews. (Here's another list of potential careers Dr. Balbes' compiled; here's a helpful set of questions to ask yourself about alternative careers that she wrote up.) Another great resource is the Just Another Electron Pusher blog, which has profiled many different people with very different careers in chemistry. My favorite were the flavor chemist and the actor, but there are a lot of "practical" careers there as well. Finally, I was not aware until today of the blog "The Road Less Traveled" about alternative careers in chemistry; there's 81 entries over there as well.

In 2010, noted chemistry blogger Derek Lowe asked his very experienced pharma-oriented readership about what they did after if they had left chemistry. The result was a 196-comment thread; I summarized 160 of those comments with the 35 different career transfers from chemistry to something else as follows:
Computer-related work (computational science, programming, etc.): 9 (26%)
Other: 8 (23%)
Business (MBA, business development): 4 (11%)
Intellectual property law (patent attorney, agent): 4 (11%)
Regulatory affairs: 4 (11%)
Pharmacy-related stuff: 3 (9%)
Teaching (high school, tutoring): 3 (9%)
After looking at all these piles of anecdotes, alternative careers in chemistry seem to fall under a few general categories:
  • Non-traditional teaching (high school, tutoring)
  • Working with computers somehow
  • Being a writer/editor
  • Working on the business side of chemistry (legal, regulatory, sales, marketing, etc.) 
  • Something else that's not easily defined
I hope that I've managed to practically express the breadth and depth of available resources on this important question. As with all careers, you have to start somewhere; there's likely a path to follow (with attendant grunt work and learning curve) and there are people who have blazed a trail in front of you. And even then, there's nothing stopping you from blazing a trail of your own.

My very best wishes to you all -- talk to you next Tuesday and beyond.

*So all you need to do with your Ph.D. in chemistry to become a national leader is have a historical collapse of a decades-old undemocratic state! 


  1. to split hairs and nitpick, Angela Merkel is actually physic major and holds Diploma in Physics. Her second thesis work (something between PhD and postdoc) done at the Central Institute of Physical Chemistry is in quantum chemistry calculations. So she is not quite a proper chemist but rather a physicist who ended up working on chemistry-related quantum calculations. Her current husband Joachim Sauer is chemistry major (physical chemistry, originally surface chemistry), he later also became active in quantum chemistry.
    One person who definitely qualified as a research chemist is Margaret

  2. The "you can do anything!" type of answer reminded me of this clip from Key and Peele.


    I think we need that guy to give a chemjobs/altchemjobs pep talk.

  3. Hello there,
    Thanx for sharing this. useful to readers..nice to b part this conversation..

  4. Also, too:
    Environmental Health & Safety - Private sector industrial hygienists probably have the best payscale, but State/Federal EPA and OSHA, environmental consulting firms, the healthcare industry, academic labs, etc. are interested in people with chemical backgrounds who are willing to apply that knowledge to water/air/soil quality, chemical hygiene, laboratory safety, etc.

  5. Thanks for this chemjobber, I certainly appreciate it.