Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Ask CJ: what does it take to get a B.S. synthetic chemistry position?

A reader we'll call "W.O." writes in to ask a few questions about getting a bachelor's-level position as a synthetic chemist:
1. What kind of skills are expected of an incoming B.S. chemist? What keywords are needed on one's resume?
2. What kind of skills will make a resume float to the top of the pile?
3. Do employers look at classes that you're taking or you're going to be taking?
4. Do I have to worry about competing with more experienced and/or more educated (M.S.) chemists?

Here are my answers:

1. I would expect a B.S. synthetic chemist to be able to competently synthesize, isolate, purify and characterize organic molecules. I would also like some ability to search the literature for reaction conditions.
2. Things that I would be impressed by:
 - Publications (no matter how humble) where the student was a participating author
 - Able to plan chemistry, troubleshoot reactions or identify alternate synthetic routes
 - Able to work with others (i.e. a recommendation from a mentor in the lab.)
3. No, I don't really think employers care about coursework. But maybe I'm wrong.
4. No, I don't think new B.S. chemists have to worry about competing with more senior chemists. You're going to be expected to be somewhat competent at the bench, be able to learn and follow directions and be able to work independently just a little. That's a different skill set than I'd expect out of a more experienced chemist. Assuming that the relevant job posting desires new B.S. chemists, that's what they're looking for.

Beloved readers, collectively you've got much, much, much more wisdom and experience than I do. What would you tell "W.O."?

4 comments:

  1. As a fresh B.S. chemist, your first job will be your first start into industry. Especially in this economy, apply for every job that you think you might be able to do. I was a M.S. synthetic chemist and started as an Analytical R & D chemist as my first job. You can always switch back over, but just get your foot in the proverbial door. That's my advice to you. By the way, analytical chemistry is a great skill-set to have in your repetoire, no matter what.

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  2. I'm an MS chemist and back when I was working in pharma, I attended quite a few BS chemist interviews. I would be prepared to give a short presentation. Some places will ask you to present and some may not, but it's good to be prepared (and even if you don't have to give one, it will help you focus on what's important in your work so you can talk about it). In your presentation, I would focus on how you solved a problem. Employers don't expect a BS chemist to have experience with a wide range of reactions, since you probably only worked on one project, but they want to see that you can think about a problem and come up with a solution (in conjunction with your supervisor).

    I would also list a few coursework highlights on your resume. Some employers won't care, but it can't hurt. I used to add a sentence something like, "Coursework included biochemistry, advanced organic chemistry, analytical chemistry and statistics". You don't have to give a complete list - just a few courses, particularly if you took courses that are beyond the standard chemistry requirements.

    I would also mention any work experience on your resume, even if it's not chemistry related. If you worked as a teaching or lab assistant, or even as a tutor, include that as well, even if it was unpaid. Also, list any instruments you used on your resume. Those are sometimes keywords that companies look for. (Don't worry if you're not an NMR or MS expert - they just want you to be familiar with them.) Good luck!

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  3. The ability to be perceived as someone who is not going to kill or annoy everyone in the lab comes pretty high up some lists, as does the ability to communicate interpersonally in ways close to human normals.

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  4. I agree with Brian. Analytical skills are key. A demonstrated ability in the use of HPLC, I would think, would be very important in getting a BS chemist a job.

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