Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The David Challenge: which alternative career would you suggest?

An actual "CJ's Diner." Credit: PALMETT0
From a couple of weeks ago, an excellent question from a frequent commenter (David Formerly Known as a Chemist) at In the Pipeline,
And again I ask all of you, what alternative career paths would any of you encourage people to pursue? What other careers don't have high numbers of people complaining about how tough it is out there?
From the comments, a number of different suggestions:
  • Anon012820131032a: "Pharmacists, Dentists, Opticians, Engineers"
  • My 0.02: "It seems that there are endless positions for computer programmers."
  • Anon012820130852p: "Accountants, doctors, pharmacists, optometrists, dentists, nurses, chiropractors, computer programmers, market researchers, sales folks."
  • Regret: "Everyday of my life, I regret the decision to choose chemistry over computer science. Worst. Decision. Ever."
I'll be honest: none of those careers (or the other non-traditional chemistry careers -- keep scrolling) seem to me to have the same amount of tradition, art, craft, science, fun and money that I see in the field that I work in (chemical manufacturing). That said, I think that David has a really good question -- what alternative career path would I encourage?

Far be it from me to discourage anyone to do what many of the readers of this blog has done, which is to get a Ph.D. in chemistry -- even more narrowly, organic chemistry. But as I keep saying, I think it is terribly important to have a finely calibrated sense for where you stand compared to your peers nationwide and to have a clear-eyed expectation of what might lie ahead for you (salary, length of job search) if you do not snag a Big Pharma entry-level senior scientist post. So that's my first response to David's challenge: I would encourage those who plan on a career in chemistry to understand the tradeoffs for what might lie ahead.

For those who find a 7-year journey to $90,000/year job (to pick some round numbers that are likely too short and too much) to be too long for not enough money, I've always asserted that engineering and nursing must have the best returns on investment for schooling. 4 years, a decent wage, government support (nursing) and licensure all seem to be things that weigh in favor of these two fields. That said, they're not free of complaints, so that fails the second part of David's challenge.

(If time and family were no object, I would personally be very interested in becoming a physician. I like people enough that I think I could deal with them day-to-day (I think) and the balance between routine work and long-term problem-solving would be interesting. But again, there are plenty of complaints about medicine as a career, so it fails part 2 of the David challenge.

Some days, I fancy a career as a short-order cook at an old-style diner, but that's not exactly lucrative.) 

Finally, it seems to me that computer science has a relatively low barrier-to-learning and accepts informally-trained folks for jobs routinely. I plan to try to teach my kids the basics of coding as soon as practical; it sees like a fun computer-oriented activity and it seems to me that coding will be a basic skill for the future.

Readers, what would be your alternative career of choice? 

28 comments:

  1. Honestly? I'd become a sheep farmer/ artisan wool dyer. I regret not going to graduate school for textile engineering (I seriously considered it), though I'm doing my best to position myself for jobs in natural fiber composites.

    More realistically, I'm fairly qualified for programming positions, and IT management. I need to write more code in C or Fortran, but I'm not to shabby at coding. I could also just fall back on the bachelor's degree, and go back to metallurgy.

    Or I could raise wool sheep...

    ReplyDelete
  2. " Readers, what would be your alternative career of choice? "

    Trust fund hipster in Cobble Hill (not like those posers in Williamsburg.....).

    More seriously, I like my current career in finance, I'm just not sure how I would have gotten here except via a chemistry (or similar) PhD. I wasn't smart enough to get into med school (and would be a horrible physician), and everything else, except physics, seemed like bollocks.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree. Some of the best marketers that I've seen (Fortune 50 company) started in R&D then moved into marketing or financial analysis, and part of their success lies in identifying trends and looking at a problem holistically, attributes that most people pick up during a formal science training.

      Delete
  3. I love my alternative career in science writing. I get to learn all about chemistry without the frustration of actually having to do it.

    But that doesn't satisfy the second part of David's query either. Good science writer jobs are scarce.

    I don't know how you'd get into it, but expertise in cyber security seems to be much in demand and potentially very exciting. But maybe that's just me thinking about a good spy novel.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Bethany, sorry if this is posted twice...silly phone...anyway, for a long time I have wanted to be a science writer. I have an undergrad degree in Chemistry. How did you get into your job?

      Delete
    2. Carina,

      Send me an email (you'll find the address if you click on my name) and we can arrange a chat.

      Beth

      Delete
  4. CJ,

    I don't see coding as being an important skill in the future for the general populace. It isn't now and the trend is moving away from it. Look at the what you can do in Wolfram Alpha with a few keystrokes in the entry box that would normally have taken a good day to program in FORTRAN. That said, I do applaud your interest and efforts in teaching it to your kids. It will help them understand that computers are not magic but follow a very exacting set of instructions. (And if the instructions are wrong, the computer will be wrong.)

    My son is in computer science, and in the most competitive field: gaming. Anyone who has ever played a computer game wants to get a job making them. That;'s basically all males from the ages of about 70 down to 3, and a very large fraction of their female counterparts - about 250 million in the US alone. There are 2 year "trade" schools that stick to the technical courses only (no general education) and that is a very affordable option.

    My advice to my son 5+ years ago was to double major in computers and biology - what we now call big data, but he wasn't interested. I still think its a great option for anyone to consider, as that field is now about to shrink anytime soon.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Regardless of where one chooses to steer young chemists, pray not steer them into pharmacy - they face a glut rivaling that of lawyers. Pharmacy schools feeding them hopes of high salaries and guaranteed employment is the same jilted promise fed to young undergraduate chemists about graduate school.

    http://www.healthecareers.com/article/pharmacists-face-challenges-of-oversupply-changing-roles/158435
    http://www.marketplace.org/topics/life/overdose-pharmacy-students

    ReplyDelete
  6. I'm not certain that there's any career other than chemistry for most chemists that's going to be satisfying. It seems like industry is cashing out of their businesses - whether out of short-sightedness, a belief that investments in business will be less lucrative because gov't will level higher taxation, because the boomers whose stock contains their retirement money need cash now, or something else, I don't know. Anything that depends on domestic research - which is what most people who got grad degrees wanted to do - is likely to fare poorly. Pharmacists and nurses seem to be saturating, and even if they weren't, hospitals and pharmacies would likely try to switch to cheaper workers and use fewer nurses or pharmacists. Becoming a doctor is a difficult path at 25, much less 40, and health care may not pay (we need it, but don't want/can't pay for it, and the market does not appear to regulate its costs well). Engineering is cool, but it requires a lot of education, still, and if chemical manufacturing leaves, it won't be secure, anyway. Consulting is closer to the chemistry people like, but requires a lot of overhead and is probably a lot of business. MBAs seem to work well, but at some point the market has to saturate, or if the vultures have picked the carcass clean, there won't be any more food. Finance could be interesting, but is a lot different from chemistry (though it can be applied towards it - investments in companies, etc.) If the general skills a hard science degree brings aren't valued (and since companies don't want to train anyone or can't see getting enough back in doing so, they aren't), then I don't know what random things will work. Most of the remaining jobs are niches, and probably not going to hold many people. If there were a gun to my head, I would probably try to be a consultant, but I'm not sure I could pull it off.

    In the end, the job market makes a big deal of flexibility, but it only applies to workers - there is no room for flexibility by employers, apparently. When industries died, the jobs went away and did not return (steel, cars), though the people who did them had skills that could have been carried to something else; at best, you can expect a job that nowhere near pays for your experience (if your experience isn't held against you). The opportunity for people to apply what they learned to something else seems oddly limited - if it can't make money now, then it is worth little.

    If you were starting from zero, maybe skilled trades that can't be outsourced (plumbing, welding, electricians) or engineering (I don't know if chemical would work - maybe mechanical engineering) would probably be secure. You may have to find a secure trade and do chemistry in off times, as a hobby. That allows for more flexibility in having a life elsewhere (family, etc.) but means that much of your time is spent doing things you may not want. Alternatively, you may have to do what you want and accept that no one will pay you much - you have a chance to do what you want, and although your desires might change, you do not work against your soul. Trying to do multiple things secures against the risk of your field disappearing, but might make it more likely that you can succeed at none of them (there aren't too many professional multisport athletes).

    I guess I hope to do useful things. If chemistry is no longer one of them, I will have to do something else. I don't know if anything will be as good for me as chemistry, but I hope that I can find something else. My financial worth and utility depend on who wants what I do, but my self-worth does not (or should not). That we have done useful things and learned things that might be useful to others is not worthless, whatever lots of people may think.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. There are actually very few jobs that cannot be outsourced or offshored. Nothing more local than picking fruit in the local farm? -- try to find a farm not using Mexicans, they've even gone north across the border into Canada. Nothing more local than washing dishing in the local restaurant? -- try to find one not using Mexicans. Nothing more local than fixing your plumbing? -- search the UK papers for "Polish plumber".

      Anything that can be done, can be done by a migratory worker. And done cheaper because they are not trying to keep up with the local Joneses. But a PhD makes you the rarest of migratory workers -- the ones that can pull in $100k pa. For those that don't like H1Bs? If you can read this then you speak the world's global language and the world is your oyster -- go where the work is.

      Delete
    2. "For those that don't like H1Bs? If you can read this then you speak the world's global language and the world is your oyster -- go where the work is."

      Where is the work at?

      Delete
    3. Best bet these days is probably Pacific Rim -- Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan, Japan, China & India in roughly that order for a WAG. I personally went to the old world, but apart from maybe the Mittelstand, the eurozone is de-industriallising too fast to give a blanket recommendation in favour of it.

      As for where is the work found, engineering follows the factory so the production line can be fixed in one shift with no 5pm-here-9am-there conference calls; development follows engineering so that the pilot plant works; research follows development so as to work on the right projects with the right technologies.

      And the factories go where there are raw material brokers, tool suppliers, wholesalers to take the finished products, transportation hubs to move all this stuff, warehouses to hold the stuff, banks which issue letters of credit so stuff can be shipped long distances and sources of sufficiently-skilled labour. No one factory can support all this, so there is a critical mass needed. NIMBY and disdain for blue-collar work have almost, but not quite, brought the US below this critical mass (but they are working on it); the EU is in my opinion just below critical mass now. But the Pacific Rim is still indutriallising.

      This blog and in-the-pipeline being what they are, there is no doubt furious sputtering and spitting now over 'what is this manufacturing you speak of, we in pharma don't make filthy products like mere common chemists; but only the purest of clinical failures'. However, making things is where the jobs have always been. Don't just look at your company's competitors for new jobs, but up and down their entire sup[ply chain.

      Living in my fourth country now, people whining about moving to a different city looks quite pathetic.

      Delete
    4. I work in chemical manufacturing. I welcome your informed comments, but I invite you to leave your condescension elsewhere.

      Delete
    5. "Living in my fourth country now, people whining about moving to a different city looks quite pathetic."

      Four countries must be quite an adventure, hopefully you're enjoying this.

      Nothing "whiny" or pathetic about being unhappy of uprooting one's life (and that of one's family) due to the economic consequences of lawyers (or similar) trying to run "drug" companies (better erection cream/indigestion pills, YAH for us!). I get that there are almost no promises in life, but if I had to move I'd be pissed off.

      Delete
    6. Once again, I must apologise to the owner of this blog. May as well stop posting I guess.

      Being a professional ex-pat is a mixed bag; paid to see the world but always yet more immigration forms to fill out and another silly local name for bread-with-a-slice-of-cheese-in-the-middle. But it does beat collecting UI benefits. And this is nothing new, the dust bowl sent some large fraction of the midwest to california in the '30s, and they were only in the midwest to start with because Scandinavia ran out of land in the 18th century.

      My guess is that the R&D jobs will be mostly gone from the west within a generation or two. Both for the above factory reasons and why pay chinese-born ivy-leauge grad students US wages when they can live better in china on half the salary? You can already see the conglomerates building up their Asian labs while the Western ones are allowed to shrink through attrition. If this comes true, everyone gets a choice of chemistry or staying home.

      Delete
    7. Apology accepted. Your perspective, opinions and comments are valued.

      Delete
    8. ...and please, feel free to keep posting.

      Delete
    9. The trouble with moving to the 'Pacific Rim', is that you're always going to be less valuable than someone who grew up there for about 10 years and can speak Mandarin more or less fluently. This may not be the case now, but it is surely going to be a big negative for many five years from now. The Chinese speaking places should have enough talent to choose from by then, to not have to pay a premium for training some Westerner at probably a higher salary.

      Delete
  7. A pattern that is emerging among more successful careers right now is that they deal with loss adversion. Society continues to spend irrational amounts on healthcare because we are attempting to advert a loss of health that will come anyways. Much money has been spent on accountants and financiers trying to pick safe ways to invest or just hold on to cash longer, not necessarily to take big risks. We also spend enormous amounts on military to prevent things that are unlikely. The U.S. also has a the highest per-capita prison population, presumably to prevent all those people from inflicting more damage in society. So career recommendations:

    1. Medicine - Doctors may be in deep debt, but they never worry about being unemployed. Careers related to it will probably fair well. As long as people are convinced they can spend huge amounts of money to live months longer...
    2. Accounting - Always seemed stable, just boring.
    3. Defense - Find a way to make a career in that area, probably get a pension. Soldier, medic, technician, air traffic controller....
    4. Corrections - Some of the strongest unions are in corrections, correctional officers make lots of money and can retire early with a pension. Police, prison guards, private security?

    ReplyDelete
  8. Patents, publishing and technical writing are the traditional paths for non-lab chemists, and there is still growth in these fields.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Retired baby boomer? No, none of us are bitter.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Technical sales is a good one - I always ignored these kind of posts when I was hunting for chemist jobs, and having been laid off from a large company where other people made the purchasing decisions, I seldom interacted with salesmen and didn't have a good idea of what they did. Now that I'm at a small company where salesmen call on me all the time, I see they have a pretty good gig - there's a lot of science involved even though they don't do benchwork, plus they get to travel and eat at fancy restaurants on expense accounts.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Technical sales is a very difficult industry. With fewer and fewer honest to goodness research actually going on, you find that you are competing with 15-20 competitors for the same scraps time and time again. Each company that I've worked for has unrealistic sales targets that have no real basis other than what their board would like to see achieved and frustration sets in by mid-March when it's painfully obvious there is no way to achieve your sales quota already.

      Delete
  11. ACS exec? - lifetime employment, nice travel, expense account and big pay for doing nothing for chemists.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's what I'm shooting for.

      Delete
  12. I think this line of thinking is great for people under the age of 35. When you start pushing into your 40s and beyond, it becomes much harder to transition into an alternate career, from both ends. Employers are going to be much less willing to take on a 45 year old with no experience. The adage about "It's easier to find a job when you have one" is also true as well. HR and/or hiring managers might not admit it, but there is a bias towards hiring people who already have jobs...

    50 and older it becomes more of 'what will I settle for' or 'what can I do to help make some money to pay the bills'. Unfortunately, I know several people who ended up in that boat, cobbling together small teaching gigs earning less than $25K total.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Another place to look is grant agencies. Almost all research is funded by grants of some kind and all those grant proposals have to be read by someone before they sent out for peer review. Likewise think-tanks and other sources of analysts tend to collect those burntout on benchwork.

    ReplyDelete
  14. For fresh BS chemists who want a job connected to chemistry (and I know there's going to be a lot of negative attitudes toward this) they should look into the military. Talk with a military recruiter and see what offers they have for you. I've seen several former military go into grad school (both supported by the military and independently) and then find jobs quickly afterward (again, both in the military and not).

    Training opportunities in the service are available and good quality as well, and you can get training outside of chemistry (computers, engineering, and the like). I have found that a lot of engineers find their way into the military, but scientists tend to avoid it.

    ReplyDelete