Tuesday, November 16, 2010

How long can a bench chemist be away from the bench?

From zazzle.com
I've heard it said that your job skills begin to deteriorate about six months after a layoff. If so, one imagines that it could be a terrifying ticking clock for a bench chemist.

Let's start from the outlandish numbers. Is ten years away from the bench too long? Yes, probably. Would you hire someone to be a bench chemist if they've been away for 5 years? Unlikely -- if they had a really impressive run beforehand, absolutely, I'd might take a shot. How about 2 years? What were they doing during those 2 years? If they were just one level above (supervisor/manager/junior project manager, whatever), yeah, sure, they're in the running for a bench chemist position.

For those of us (myself included) who could not imagine life that doesn't involve standing in front of a loud, boxy vacuum, these numbers are a little bit stressful. Considering current job searches seem to take the better part of a year (for the lucky ones), it might be interesting to take stock of the different ways that a person could attempt to remedy the loss of time in the laboratory. Readers?


  1. If I hadn't experienced it myself, I would have said that 2 years was way too long. The truth is that you need to believe that you will get a job in the end and perseverance will go a long way. With the large number of people out of work, what can you do ? Give up or stay and fight. This is my second time out of work in a relatively short amount of time and I still believe I will find something and so will others. Hang in there, Champ !!

  2. I remember having a discussion with my prof upon entering grad school. We talked about the work I was to start doing, and I asked him to show me a technique in the lab....needless to say, he had lost his "lab hands" (only about 5 years!) and I had to be shown by an older student

  3. Maybe a different way to ask the question is, "At what point in your supervisor's career would it scare you that he/she has suddenly decided to start working at the bench again?"

    1-2 years in - no problem
    4-5 years - amusing
    10+ years - amusing and frightening

  4. The limited shelf life is why I recommend transitioning away from bench science by mid-career.

  5. 10:33am

    I agree with your sentiment.

    Chemjobber, what about an older chemist who never left the bench, but was hit by a massive layoff? I think age 40 is where it gets iffy for finding new work for a BS/MS synthetic chemist & around age 50 for a PhD synthetic chemist. Is this what others are seeing, or am I nuts? I think there is an inherent expiration date no matter if you have left the bench or not. At some point you become too expensive or too set in your ways for you to be an attractive candidate for a new employer. Illegal ageism? Yes, but I suspect it is out there.

  6. make drugs at home? the pay is pretty damn good i hear, ever see breaking bad?

  7. I'm an analytical Chemist with a Masters in my mid 50's.

    I had been managing an R&D analytical development and support group for 10 years before the small pharma I worked for ran out of money, and I (along with just about everybody else) got laid off.

    Then I was out of work for a 1.5 years and thought my career was over... and has no clue what else i could do and was getting very afraid.

    But luckily out of the blue, a month ago I got a job back at the bench at a startup in a different industry working with a VERY different class of compounds.

    Intellectually the job is not an issue for me... I can handle that part just fine...

    But I am finding that my physical skills are rusty and learning the details of the new equipment models and software is really slowing me down too.

    But it is coming back, and I think in another 1-3 months I'll be fully 'back' as bench chemist.

    I do worry about what will happen when/if this job ends...

    At my age (and older) decent bench jobs are hard to get and being away from management so long (and without QC management or bench experience - mine was all R&D), as well as having moved down, I may find myself unemployable as chemist.

    I may have to learn to flip burgers next...


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