Thursday, October 20, 2011

Alternative careers in chemistry: high school chemistry teacher

In this week's chapter of "Nontraditional Careers in Chemistry"*, we're covering chemical education. While this is certainly a traditional path for chemists, Dr. Balbes covers the less well-known areas of high school and community college teaching. As she says about high school education:
High school teaching is both a career and a lifestyle, not to be entered into lightly. In order to be successful, you must enjoy the work and truly love hormone-laden teenagers. This career provides daily interactions with young people who are developing their own understanding of important scientific concepts and big ideas. Effective science teachers possess not only a though understanding of the subject matter but also a background in pedagogy and mastery of creative teaching methods that convey both the ideas and enthusiasm for the subject a hand. 
She interviews Bob, a high school teacher with a B.A. in chemistry. After Yale, he was a student teacher in New Haven and other places in Connecticut. Moving to another state, it seems, requires a bit of navigating of the teaching certification system:
Bob taught in Connecticut  for six years and then decided to move back to Missouri, where he and his wife could be close to family and afford to buy a house. But even though he was certified to tech in Connecticut and had taught there successfully for six years, he was not even provisionally certifiable to teach in Missouri. He recalls, "As it turned out, Missouri didn't care that I was certified in Connecticut. I had to go back and take some completely ridiculous classes to get my Missouri certification. I decided to take a year off from teaching, take care of my newborn daughter, and finish my master's degree in chemistry while I was at it. The next year, I had no trouble getting work, since lots of schools were hiring." Bob has been teaching at his current school for 14 years and has no plans to change careers.  
On a typical day, Bob interacts mostly with students but also with other teachers, counselors, secretaries, maintenance staff, substitute teachers, student teachers (interns) and parents. Typically tasks include lots of paperwork -- writing and revising labs, worksheets, quizzes, tests and note sheets and sending them off to the copy center; filling out forms and progress reports; and always grading, grading, grading. 
I don't think I want to be a high school teacher: too much hassle and not enough money. Interacting with students and parents doesn't seem to be a fun way to spend my day. But I'm not everyone.

The positives? Really, you get to change and grown young minds, you get to be a role model and you can actually have an impact on people. I remember my high school science teachers and you do too, I'll bet.

*As always, CJ's copy of the book helpfully provided by the author, Dr. Lisa Balbes. 


  1. I think that many people would be surprised at what a PhD high school chemistry teacher can make -- given the right school and the right school district. Not a bad gig for a 9 month job.
    True, there are the headaches of dealing with teenagers. But, as CJ sez, you can really influence young lives with this type of interaction.

    1. Not a nine-month job. Kids go for 9 months, but we have professional development for a lot of that time. And during the school year, plan for ten-hour days that involve planning and grading before and after school. I started teaching when my nest was almost empty. I have no idea how younger teachers with families do it.

  2. Yeah, I think in the right place, you could probably make a decent amount. (75k?) But...

  3. I hate the 9 month job argument, if there was ever a more malicious smoke screen. It's really more of a ten month job when you factor in the pre and post year planning and wrap up. Depending on the state, the money is horrible (I am so sorry you had to leave CT for Missouri). If you were so willing to work for those extra two and a half months in between years, who would hire you? I doubt you could even be hired for seasonal construction with such little available time.

  4. CJ, my son's third grade teacher gets 90+, so are most science teachers at our high school (district info suggests that a teacher with a masters degree will top out at 119k) director of science department there (a Ph.D) has a base salary of 127k. On the other hand - good luck getting a teaching job in our district.

  5. I considered HS teaching, but the thought of having to chaperone the Christmas dance was really unappealing to me.

  6. I know that Dr. Balbes frequents this site, and I think there is an appreciation for this subject, but her book was written in 2006 before the financial world went kablooie. I really feel that many of these alternate career paths we've discussed really don't exist, not like they used to, not with the economy in the tank and jobs in both the public and private sector being scarce.

    School districts are struggling right now and teachers are taking a good share of the 'public sector' animosity that seems to be spreading in this country. I guess having to pay folks teaching children now counts as a drain on our shrinking state budgets more than the actual noble profession that it is.

    That said, teaching jobs aren't exactly easy to come by with school districts mostly paring back staff to adjust to the budget shortfalls.

    As for community colleges, many have gone the route of simply hiring temp instructors on a quarter to quarter basis, basically for peanuts. The couple in my area never have openings for full-time, permanent positions, only temp. instructors.

    Maybe I've just grown way too cynical lately, but I don't necessarily see either of these as truly viable alternate career options for a large segment of the unemployed scientists, at least not anymore.

  7. One of my co-workers got a job teaching HS chemistry after he got laid off. The certification was not too hard, he had to pass a test. He got hired at a private school and I think the money was decent. He's no longer doing that job, I think after 30 years in the business world it was tough to deal with teenagers and their parents.

  8. @You're Pfizered

    1. You are exactly right - my understanding is that the going rate at community colleges and 3rd ties state schools is as low as 35k. Not only it is not a living wage, it is demeaning.

    2. Another issue and it applies mostly to PhD's is that there is a significant number of people who weren't any good at the bench, or did not like it in the first place. They are the ones who took these alternative careers right out school, and now they are patent agents, teachers, consultants and safety specialists. They have 5-10-15-20 years of experience on us, and competing with them on their turf is awfully hard.

  9. @You're Pfizered
    While any ONE of Dr. Balbes' suggestions is not going to solve EVERYONE's problems, she lists a large enough number of them that different people with different interests can either follow directly or use as a starting point for their own transitions into something they would be happy with, except they haven't thought of it or had someone tell them such a thing even exists.

    Teaching is one of the largest professions in the country, and something many PhD's could do if they didn't think it 'beneath' them.

    Sitting around hoping synthetic jobs exactly like your grad school research? That's what doesn't exist.

  10. @Anon 12:31

    Yup. That seems about right to me.
    I saw a tweet being passed around the other day that 80% of scientific jobs are all of the "alternative careers" that we talk about. Granted, I don't have the data to back that up, and I can't seem to find the original anymore. But, I think it is telling. The bench jobs, unfortunately, seem to be very few and far between in comparison to the "alternative".

  11. @Anonymous, 8:48 AM:
    "I hate the 9 month job argument, if there was ever a more malicious smoke screen. It's really more of a ten month job when you factor in the pre and post year planning and wrap up."

    Don't think you are making the job sound any tougher saying it's really a 10-month job versus 9-months. Yes it's tough, but there is not going to be any sympathy around this website giving what we've all gone through the get an advanced degree and working in the industry.

  12. Unfortunately, I think the new "normal" the past few years has been to accept any job that keeps food on your table and a roof over your head, no matter what it does for your career prospects or how much you dislike it. Having a good job that you enjoy and pays well is the new "alternative career."

  13. I know this is a serious career-minded discussion, but I can't believe "High School Chemistry Teacher" came up, and no one in the comments referenced Breaking Bad.

    Just sayin'

  14. @See Arr Oh
    CJ doesn't allow any sort of cooking discussions in his comments section ;)

  15. I agree with You're Pfizered and Anon 12:22 - the book was published 5 years ago, probably based on research down 5-7 years ago. The current economic landscape has made these alternatives not quite as viable as they once were, particularly teaching in public schools. Not with state and local budgets stretched to the max. Perhaps private schools are a more likely option.

    Matt - if 80% of scientific careers are now in 'alternatives' as compared to actually doing scientific research or development of some sort or another, then there is little to no point in pursuing a scientific career in the first place (as many have stated before in other threads and on other blogs). A person would be better off considering other fields. If an alternative career is what a person with a science degree is aiming for, it would be better if they stopped at a BS or MS, and not get a Ph.D. I know, I've got a Ph.D., and have just barely been able to switch gears into another type of career.

  16. Many of the alternate careers mentioned in the book are options for folks either coming right out of school (BS for most of the entry level jobs like QA) or people who work in large corporations that do many different things. Regulatory Affairs and Program Management are two big ones for people that I know who have moved into those alternate careers. The rub is, they already had jobs when they moved into those areas.

    The adage that it's easier to find a job when you've got one has never been truer. Several articles have been written about the bias that companies now seem to have for folks who have been out of work for a longer period of time, typically a year or longer. Talk about the double screw. I've known a couple chemists who moved into different jobs and got laid off there as well. Alternate careers aren't any more stable than the one you may be in...

    Moving into an alternate career like Regulatory is even tougher if you're a 10-15 year chemist who is unemployed. Most companies won't even look at you, mainly because there are so many people out there with that type of actual experience looking for jobs. Too experienced for an entry level job and not enough experience for a higher level job. Employers are incredibly picky right now, as they were 4 years ago when I was laid off from my company. Had it not been for a huge connection, I probably wouldn't have landed the job I did (it was not in synthetic chemistry).

    The book is a good resource, but I really think that the times we live in now are much different than when that book was written and researched. Many 'alternate careers' are scarce with people with actual experience in those specific job types looking for work. Few companies want to train people, not when they can hire someone with that experience already.

    I'm not sure if there are alternate careers for many of the the unemployed scientists, especially in pharma. There are alternate 'jobs', and not a lot of those either.

    It's cold out there and getting colder, for all of us.

  17. @1:33

    Much of the animosity towards teachers comes from the fact that they "only work 9 months a year" Regardless of the fact that most are willing and able to work a full year, especially considering their meager salary (mostly depending on state and district). By crassly saying, "what do you expect teachers, you only work for 9 months a year." Kind of rubs salt in the wounds. Many of these teachers, especially these days, only took those jobs because it is what was available. It is no wonder teachers have a ridiculously high turnover, with most burning out in their first three years. It has nothing to do the wheel of pain that is chemistry and chemical training.

    For me personally, it has nothing to do with ego, it has to do with money. My grandfather quit teaching High School English over 65 years ago to find a higher paying job GE. Personally, I would probably have to be in dire straights before I took a job teaching for virtually the same reason (or my wife would have to make the money.)

  18. We laughed at this post in group meeting the other day. Pray tell where are the states hiring High school teachers? There's nothing but massive layoffs.

    If you don't have a relative in the Profession, I wouldn't bother. It's nepotism central.

    No wonder the author can only work as a blogger.

  19. Anon 2:34:

    According to:

    Chemjobber has a job, though it took 8 months to find one back in 2007-2008?. Who knows how long it takes to find a chemistry job now, maybe we will see after those Amgen and Merck layoffs are done...

  20. A2:34:

    So glad I could provide your group with levity. So sorry that you think poorly of myself or Dr. Balbes. (sigh)

  21. @A2:34

    I'm not exactly sure where to start off on your uninformed comments. CJ certainly doesn't need to be defended from the likes of you. His service to the chemistry community and his status as an EMPLOYED chemist stand on their own.

    I will, however, directly reply to this:

    "We laughed at this post in group meeting the other day. Pray tell where are the states hiring High school teachers? There's nothing but massive layoffs."

    You can easily replace "states" and "high school teachers" with "chemical industry" and "chemists". The point is that finding a job right now is overly difficult for most of us, and you need to look in new places. Teaching is one of those places we CAN look to.
    Unfortunately, as @Pfizered notes, its not as easy to get a teaching job as it used to be. Meaning, if I am laid off from my current job, chances are good that I'm not going to be able to show up at my local HS and ask if they are looking for a new teacher. This happened long ago. Getting a job these days requires extreme flexibility in both the job you are searching for and the location where you are willing to work.

    Good luck to you and your friends sitting in the "comfort" of your group meeting.

  22. As I was prepping for a job change ~10 years ago, it was suggested that I could substitute teach if I needed something to fill my time as I searched for a job. I was told that school systems would love someone technical who could fill in and teach math, chemistry, or physics while the teacher was out. Perhaps this would be an entry into a school system. Also, it's not the best one, as students typically think that substitutes are there for the hazing.


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