Friday, March 11, 2016

Ask CJ readers: where is the best place for a mildly autistic synthetic chemist to work?

Inspired by the discussion about the homeless medicinal chemist, a longtime reader of the blog has a question, regarding good places for a mildly autistic person to practice synthetic chemistry. They believe they function best where:
  • Social stress is low
  • Boss talks straight (good is good, bad is bad, politics is explained)
  • Hours can be flexible (I work >40h always, but autism comes with minor health issues)
  • Quality > quantity
They note "there is amazingly little knowledge how to job-stabilize and help mildly autistic and otherwise productive adults." I don't know the field, but this wouldn't surprise me. 

I don't really know where this might be, but I would think that one of the academic research institutes might be a good choice. Certainly a CRO would be a bad choice. Large pharma? Probably not the best idea. Readers, your thoughts? 

21 comments:

  1. They really need to switch to the tech industry. They'll be right at home and the job prospects are much better. Pay is better, retirement plans, health plans, bonus, etc. Oh, signing bonus...

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    1. Stack ranking? Google uses it, and I'd imagine others do too. I don't know if everyone lies about it, like Microsoft did, but even if they don't, it seems like a good idea for creating knife fights in the bathrooms and cafeteria. For facile social interaction and honest management (or actual productivity), not so much.

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    2. All large companies are going to use some type of ranking system. My SO is at amazon and they use rankings, but they don't find it bad. Then again, when my SO has to rank someone as the worst in their dev group--see stacked ranking--they can defend this employ and why they should be given a raise, etc. In other words, you can be considered the worse of a strong group and still be fine professionally. I don't think Microsoft had that when all the bad reports came out.

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    3. Tech industry can be good, or very bad -- in my experience it varies a lot even within the same company.

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    4. I have an autistic formerly-chemist friend who actually did this. His love was synthetic organic chemistry, but the people there were not... supportive to him (what a surprise). He's doing a lot better in tech.

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  2. Just the right academic lab may be the right place for you. Most of the time, there is no requirement to socialize (in my brief position in industry there was a requirement to socialize), and I think academia is more accepting of "different" people whose shmoozing skills are not so good. Also good if your boss is hands off.

    If a xenophobic sexist (me, he-he!) can manage in an academic lab, I think an high function autistic one can....

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    1. NMH, the subject of this post (the mildly autistic person) would like to talk to you. I would be willing to serve as an intermediary in this case. E-mail me at chemjobber@gmail.com if you are interested (free free to create new anonymous Gmail address if so desired.)

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  3. aren't most chemists mildly autistic?

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    1. And there's the issue.... In the 1980s 1 in 2000 children had autism (per CDC), 30 yrs later it's 1 in 150.....at this rate everyone will soon be autistic. Or maybe people display unsocial traits from time to time?

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    2. Having two sons diagnosed with Aspergers I do wonder if both my older brother (Engineer) and myself (chemist) would have been classified as such if criteria was as widely known 30-40 years ago.

      I think milkshake has it backwards in that while many chemists can often share similar traits with autistic individuals the majority would not formally fall in autistic spectrum. At the same time I suppose there is a bit of a natural comfort that the truly autistic may find in chemistry or other scientific fields they fit in better so would increase the proportion in those careers over general population.

      As to the original question, where think almost all people would relish such environments not only those with autism, while may be tough to find do observe a small company or government positions are more likely to accept and integrate more "odd ducks" rather than in larger organizations (who seem to promote deeper homogeny in their staff). The drawback is increased risks for layoffs, although no one safe these days, and harder to get a new job since may not always interview well so need have to network well with people who know first hand what that person can actually do verses the normal check off boxes in a hiring process.

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    3. Reminds me of this comic!

      http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?id=4033

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    4. The spectrum is exactly that - a full range of individual capabilities for social interactions. In this definition everyone is somewhere on the spectrum and most are in the more satisfying higher part.

      The DSM decides below which point we define a deficiency requiring a medical or social intervention. This changes with time and with progress in testing. Whether there is any shift in distribution on the spectrum is still an open question.

      Also, appearance of ASD in children is very often unrelated to where the parents are on the spectrum.

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  4. The bullet points listed sound ideal to me as well. As far as I know I'm not on the spectrum.

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  5. You could talk with a counselor at the county/state division of vocational rehab. They might not have industry contacts but they can help you with how to communicate your needs in the corporate world. Good luck!

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  6. As someone who can be socially inept at times, a smaller company is your best bet - people are more understanding of this kind of thing if they know how you are. A plant setting is ideal, as they're a lot less PC than a cubicle farm or corporate R&D campus.

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  7. I think the self awareness part has to be highlighted. Realizing what you are good and not so good at helps everyone, not just those with health issues. And when you are deciding on a career that needs to be one of the reflections, and facing the ugly side is probably much harder for those with lower social skills.

    I guess the coworker's input on how the individual is doing would help too. I am a senior grad student in a small organic synthesis group in Canada. I have endured some abuse from an undergraduate diagnosed with Asperger's. My boss is super hands off and leaves it up to us to deal with internal conflict. The undergrad regularly gets his work pulled and given to me by the boss, I agree that this is really shitty but then again he does not let me just help. The boss has instructed him to ask me questions, get my help but he downright refuses my input. When I first told him an important reaction worked for me after I was given it to try, he dismissed it. When the boss confirmed it, he went to try it on his own because he doesn't believe it. I wish I could go to my boss to say that he is problematic but I don't know if it would go well. I just try to not engage unless my boss insists I must.
    All I am saying is that certain people can be HR nightmare... And they may not realize it until they enter the job market. I think the undergrad could go to get a PhD in chemistry, push and shove attitude is almost loved by certain PIs. But then he may hit a wall come interview time, or perhaps in the first month of work, if his behaviour does not change. I do feel so incredibly for Gene because maybe his past employer probably did not do enough for him, and mental health resources are few.

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    1. I am very sorry for your experience. A hands-off boss who dumps handling a high-functioning ASD individual on untrained students/employees sets both side up for failure.

      In these situations two things happen with near certainty:
      - the otherwise successful student-in-charge becomes upset at the extra "job", resents the person with ASD (and by projection all of "them") and, feeling burdened, either quits/fails or has to spend extra years in school;
      - the very specifically talented student with ASD becomes upset at the extra "job" of maintaining a difficult relationship with a secondary boss, resents the neurotypical student-in-charge (and by projection all of "them") and, feeling rejected, either quits/fails or has to spend extra years in school.

      Bad management by the PI leads to waste of time and sets up future conflicts by both students. The student with ASD may be in over his head. Or, maybe not. Successful management can be done and is not that different from good management practices.

      To get more info for both sides you can run a search for "managing employees with asperger's" or "employment with asperger's". DuckDuckGo seems to return better results than Google.

      As to (putative) changes in Gene's behavior - I am almost certain his behavior was changing all the time. Stressors led to withdrawal and lower productivity. Positive interactions led to opening up and higher productivity. The good/bad interactions are not much different from those for neurotypical employees. The difference is in Gene's (putative) higher sensitivity to them and lower capacity for handling complexity (keywords are "working memory").

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  8. I think the self awareness part has to be highlighted. Realizing what you are good and not so good at helps everyone, not just those with health issues. And when you are deciding on a career that needs to be one of the reflections, and facing the ugly side is probably much harder for those with lower social skills.

    I guess the coworker's input on how the individual is doing would help too. I am a senior grad student in a small organic synthesis group in Canada. I have endured some abuse from an undergraduate diagnosed with Asperger's. My boss is super hands off and leaves it up to us to deal with internal conflict. The undergrad regularly gets his work pulled and given to me by the boss, I agree that this is really shitty but then again he does not let me just help. The boss has instructed him to ask me questions, get my help but he downright refuses my input. When I first told him an important reaction worked for me after I was given it to try, he dismissed it. When the boss confirmed it, he went to try it on his own because he doesn't believe it. I wish I could go to my boss to say that he is problematic but I don't know if it would go well. I just try to not engage unless my boss insists I must.
    All I am saying is that certain people can be HR nightmare... And they may not realize it until they enter the job market. I think the undergrad could go to get a PhD in chemistry, push and shove attitude is almost loved by certain PIs. But then he may hit a wall come interview time, or perhaps in the first month of work, if his behaviour does not change. I do feel so incredibly for Gene because maybe his past employer probably did not do enough for him, and mental health resources are few.

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  9. Boss talks straight, good is good, bad is bad, please my sides are hurting from laughing so hard, this is some kind of a satire for sure

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    1. Yes that does not seem to be the norm doesn't it. Its bad enough when dealing with business/sales type managers but when your boss is/was a scientist I found it even much harder to accept their brown nose lying.

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