Thursday, November 4, 2010

How long is long enough at the bench?

You could share my lab bench, pardner
(Photo credit:
A recent conversation brought this question up: Not counting graduate school, what is the minimum amount of time required to gain 'enough' experience in the working world of chemistry? It's only a select few chemists that get to spend a lifetime working at the bench; most chemists, for one reason or another, seem to end up somewhere else (in front of a computer, usually, these days.)

One or two years is not enough, in my opinion. A year isn't enough to experience the ups and downs, the changes in procedures, the successes and failures, the "hey, we used to store that over here" and the changes in coworkers and supervisors. I expect that 20+ years identifies you as a grizzled bench veteran. Given this range, I suspect the tipping point between "bench newbie" and "bench Clint Eastwood / Sarah Connor" is somewhere between 7 and 15 years (again, not counting graduate school).

Readers, what do you think? If you're the bench equivalent of Julio Franco, when did it happen for you?


  1. I felt that after a year in an intense lab the learning curve was starting to flatten out, but it still took another 2-3 years to become more efficient, make a critical mass of mistakes, and obtain a sense of perspective about it.

  2. There that adage (almost an urban legend) floating around the internets that you need 10,000 hours of practice to obtain mastery. For people in a "normal" 40/week job, that means they work about 2000 hours/year, although meetings can reduce bench time by 50% or more, so figure 5 - 10 years. Grad students of course, reach that number in about 3 years.

    "grizzled bench veteran"? Anytime I am working in the lab, I feel young. I hope that feeling never disappears.

  3. One thing is for certain: if your hair is not grey, you're not a grizzled anything.

  4. I think it takes 3-5 years. But it really depends on what you're doing in the lab. When I first started in the lab, I was working on a project involving carbohydrate chemistry and large natural products. I gained a lot of experience in those types of reactions, but because those reactions aren't typical reactions, it didn't carry over to my other work. When I moved to another project 3 years later, I was a newbie again. If you are working on a project that allows a wider range of reaction types, you get more experience faster.

    There are also career considerations. I'm an MS chemist so I was expected to be at the bench, but I saw many PhD chemists get pigeonholed into certain jobs. If you spend too much time at the bench, it may become harder to move into team leader positions because people see you as a "lab person". That's unfair, but I've seen it happen at several different companies. If your goal is to become a team leader, you have to think about that early on and demonstrate you can move out of the lab - even if you would be better served scientifically by spending a few years focused on bench work first. (I don't know if this has changed since the downsizings - maybe with smaller workforces there's less office politics, but I wouldn't count on it.)

  5. I think a true grizzled organiker can only be a process chemist.

    I had a process colleague who had $20,000 worth of Fremy salt solid self-destructing violently in a reactor in a column of brown smoke. Before that, he witnessed aftermath of an over-pressurised drum of hexamethyl disilazane popping up and spraying the whole plant floor - and every man fleeing the scene was standing on the lawn outside and scratching the itchy balls because the heavier-than-air vapors kept close to the ground and hence attacked the crotch first...

  6. @John: 10,000 hours to achieve mastery? Hmmm. I guess that places me in a weird category. I'm still under 30, but, thanks to ugrad lab, internships, grad school, postdoc, and professional work, I've been at the bench for 10 years now.

    And yet, in spite of my age - or because of it - older lab coworkers insist on treating me like I've never before set up a reaction, "teaching" me "hints" like "Don't forget to tare your flasks", "cool the high vac trap", and "always use dry solvents". Maybe true veteran status at the bench comes after much longer nowadays...our "grizzled vet" is coming in on his 30th year at the bench!

  7. @anon 11:37PM:
    Guess I'm not the only one who feels like their is some ageism in the lab. I'm under 30, and been in the lab for 10years as well. I didn't get the PhD, but have a bit more professional experience. Little consolation to hear that its not a no-PhD thing but an age thing. (In my case perhaps it's a bit of both). I wonder when it will ever stop?

  8. @Anon 4:40....Hey, me again (the previous poster) - I think it only stops when you are hired somewhere in a management role. I think, in general, that labs are such structured, ordered places that once you're the "young guy" that label sticks artificially long. Even as a postdoc, I was the only one who wasn't married w/kids, so I was instantly the young one there, too!