Monday, April 8, 2013

Great story, good advice, but what policy?

From this week's Chemical and Engineering News, an interesting story about the chief chemist of a mine near the Arctic Circle by editor-in-chief Maureen Rouhi:
Headrick’s passion has taken him near the top of the world. Just outside the Arctic Circle, in the Canadian province of Newfoundland & Labrador, Voisey’s Bay is reachable only by air or sea. Summer nights never get totally dark, Headrick says, and winter days can have only six hours of light... 
When Headrick was considering the job, he recalls, his wife’s reaction was, “I didn’t marry you to live away from you.” Weeks later, Headrick says, his wife concluded that she would see more of him with this job, because the two weeks off really are days off. However, it is difficult to be away when you have small kids, says Headrick, whose children were five and nine years old when he started this job in 2005. And because of the site’s remoteness, he says, you may not get home in time during emergencies. [snip] 
...Headrick has a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry, but he also studied geology and had always wanted to work in the mining industry. When he began job hunting, mining companies were not hiring. So he worked for the Canadian federal public service and then joined academia. It was during his stint as a teaching lab manager at the University of Alberta that he decided to quit so he could pursue his dream job full-time. It wasn’t easy; it took him a year. 
“The first thing I did was to consult an ACS career consultant,” Headrick says. “I had to build a network, and that takes time and effort. Eventually, I got referred to the chief chemist for Vale in Sudbury, Ontario, who was retiring and looking for someone to replace him. ” From that referral, he learned of the job at Voisey’s Bay. 
Shortly after landing his dream job, Headrick volunteered to be an ACS career consultant. “When you learn chemistry, they don’t teach you how to market yourself. You don’t learn about how to find a job,” he explains. “I learned a lot, and I would like to give back.” He does career consulting during his two weeks off. He is now helping ACS members in the U.S. and China. 
His advice: Think of nontraditional ways to use your knowledge. Build your network. Be involved with ACS to make contacts and get new ideas. Do informational interviews; summarize your strengths, and ask people what places could use them. Use temporary staffing agencies to get a foot in the door. Be flexible; if you’re not willing to relocate, you’re significantly limiting your options. 
That’s believable advice from someone who went to extremes to follow his dreams.
For what it's worth, I have great admiration for Dr. Headrick -- he knew what he wanted and figured out a way to get it. That sort of determination and career savvy is terribly important for a chemist to learn. It's also great of Dr. Rouhi to highlight the role that the ACS and its career consultants played in helping Dr. Headrick get where he wanted to go.

My problem with these comments and editorials about networking and being 'flexible' is that it doesn't speak to where we, as a society of industrial chemists, might be going. When I read about "temporary staffing agencies", it reminds me that those positions are quite often have lower wages and benefits (and obviously) much less job security. There isn't much data to suggest that once your foot is in the door, that the door will actually be opened to you. Also, is there any unwillingness to relocate for chemists, mid-career or otherwise? In her excellent article on the issue, Susan Ainsworth demonstrated very high willingness on the part of chemists to move away from family.

Dr. Rouhi's tenure as C&EN editor-in-chief hasn't been long enough to explore the full scope of the #chemjobs issue, so I can wait patiently and with interest. I look forward to Dr. Rouhi exploring the policy implications that while the balance between employers and employees tips further and further towards the former, member salaries have been relatively stagnant for the last decade.


  1. By the end of next year, I will have moved 21 times in the 21 years since I finished high school, 12 times since I finished undergrad, and 6 times since I earned my PhD. My longest stint in any one residence will have been a bit over three years, during grad school. Such is the life of a modern chemist.

    1. I think if it's within the same city it's fine and expected from anyone. I changed a lot of apartments in undergrad. If a lot of those times are relocating to different cities for jobs, then if one had to guess, they would probably guess that you don't have children and a wife/partner.

      Anyways, some societies are pretty flexible on being away from children/family for long periods of time. Such as the Anglo-Saxon world. My traditional society... not so much. They put a lot of emphasis on staying in the same city as your parents (never mind the wife even!) and you're seen as a bit of a traitor if you leave. So far I've been able to convince them by saying that 'this is the life of a modern chemist' and if you didn't like it, you should have stayed back in the old country, or told me not to go to university.

    2. Three continents, three countries, two states, and nine metro regions. And no, my wife isn't completely happy about moving for the third time in three years (next month) and fourth time in four (next summer).

      The real crux for us is housing. We have the money to buy, but will we stay put long enough to make it worth it? You need 3-5 years to recoup the transaction costs and realtor fees, even with a pretty hefty difference between the rent vs mortgage and taxes.

  2. In my personal experience, I've been shocked at how unwilling people have been to relocate for positions. Some I understand, such as having children enrolled in schools. Others I don't, such as "I don't like X/I really like it here in Y." Interestingly, it's been the people who are married with children who are more willing to move. I suppose having a family to support will make you less stubborn to working in your ideal geography. It's the younger chemists I know that seem to be willing to hang out in a long postdoc or extending their stay in grad school until they can find their ideal position. Youthful optimism still abounds.

    1. "Others I don't, such as "I don't like X/I really like it here in Y."

      For me, I think that's a valid reason: from my experience in the US, there are some really ugly places (not just geographically). I empathize with Chad Brick.

      " Youthful optimism still abounds."

      Couple of years in the workaday world will fix that.....

  3. CJ, thanks for highlighting Dr. Headrick. I knew that the chemistry world was small. The name was really familiar. That was my first year chemistry TA.


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20