Friday, July 13, 2012

Ask CJ: When is it time to hang 'em up?

Well, pardner, are you tired of
going to the lab?
(John Wayne, The Shootist
Regular reader Anon071020120836p asks:
...I would like to ask for advice from you or anybody else on this forum. How do you know when it's a good time to leave a laboratory research career? Anyway, thanks in advance from a regular reader.
Still being in the lab, and still within 10 years of getting my degree and leaving school, I don't really know the answer to that question. I found myself being frustrated by picayune stuff in the lab today (I'm out of acetone again!?!), but I know that isn't really a sign of time to leave the bench, it's time to get better about cleaning my glassware and time to get a better restocking routine for my laboratory.

But I would imagine that being emotionally exhausted by bench chemistry and not looking forward to new projects would be a very good sign that perhaps it would be time to hang 'em up. While I do tie an unhealthy amount of my wellbeing to the next darn peak on the HPLC, I've learned to give myself just a little bit of emotional distance. I see so many things to learn, and so little time to do it in -- I can't imagine leaving the bench (i.e. less than 60% in the lab) anytime soon.

Readers, your collective wisdom on this issue is much larger than mine. Your thoughts? 


  1. "How do you know when it's a good time to leave a laboratory research career?"

    When you find yourself asking that question.

  2. As soon as you have a job outside the lab...must better longevity.
    It doesn't matter whether you like being at the bench - you have to be able to feed yourself.

  3. Losing interest in reading the most relevant journals is a pretty good sign that what you do is no longer a passion, and that the end is near.

    But anon 4:24AM has it right - the best time is when you have a job offer in hand for a non-lab role.

    1. Actually, the sign for me was that I still loved reading relevant journals... but I preferred reading about what others were doing, rather than do things myself.

      Now I am away from the bench but I can still read journals. I'm much happier.

  4. Unfortunately, it's more likely that a career in the lab will leave you... When I first started my career as an MS chemist, there were a lot of older chemists still in the lab to look to when I thought about my future. It wasn't that unusual to see chemists in their 40's, 50's and beyond still working at the bench. But those chemists started to disappear as the waves of layoffs hit. "Coincidentally" those older chemists were the ones who didn't make it back to the lab. It gets harder and harder to find a lab job once you're over 40. Even if you're highly qualified, the image that hiring managers have in their mind is someone who is younger (and maybe they have the impression that if you're a "real" chemist, you'd leave the lab after a few years).

    This is a major reason I left the lab - I think I could have been happy working in the lab long term but the constant anxiety about layoffs and wondering whether I'd get hired again after a layoff once I was over 40 made me look for other types of work. I ended up with a government job and I really enjoy it, but I don't think I would have looked outside the lab if I hadn't been pushed.

  5. I have a list of questions I use with people who are struggling with that question. The first on is "Do you have to go to work, or do you get to go to work?" After 20 years in business, I still get to go to work.

    1. Most people have to go to work in order to pay the bills.

      Many people get to go to work because their employer hasn't laid them off.

      Many more people want to go to work, but can't because of the current job market.

      In the pharmaceutical industry, a large number of us feel lucky that we still have the opportunity to go to work, but not a day goes by that we don't worry about being pushed into another category.

    2. Unstable IsotopeJuly 13, 2012 at 4:00 PM

      Yes, it seems like a luxury if you have a career you love, rather than a job in this day & age. I'm lucky because I have a job I love but I'm not a bench chemist.

  6. @Lisa.
    Your question may be applicable to your work providing career services of those who have chemistry careers. The question is inapplicable to the issues at hand for a real bench chemist.

    Chemists in the bench only are able to "get to go to work" until they are laid off. You "get to go to work" because you profiting off of the plight of surplus of chemists. Desire to work has no impact on the availability of such work.

  7. I've only been an "young" companies - two near start-up, and one that went from 500 employees to >2000 employees in the last couple of years, so almost everyone I've been in a lab with has been 35 and under. The managers were older, but all still made it a point to get their hands dirty running experiments, because they all had a passion for chemistry. I'm aspiring to a job focused outside the lab, but want to maintain a presence there until such time as it doesn't excite me anymore (unlikely, but always possible).

    I count myself lucky that I really enjoy going to my job and get to challenge myself constantly. If I was somewhere that didn't have a growth upside for me, or evolving duties, I would take off (a QC analyst I am not...)

  8. "being emotionally exhausted by bench chemistry and not looking forward to new projects"

    In my experience it wasn't the bench work that killed me, it was the ever-increasing QA paperwork requirements and the fact there were no new projects to look forward to. QA has its place, but the (non-pharma, local government) organization I previously worked for was so eager to prove itself to a certifying body that the bench workers were tied up with redundant paperwork and other requirements, clerical in nature, that the scientists were expected to do. More paperwork, less science.

    The paperwork took away the discretionary time we used to have for reading journals, shadowing/training with other sections, and working on our own side projects. After a year of this I looked at my future, and all I saw was paperwork and no opportunity to advance. I also got some perspective from my mentor, who's near retirement. If he had said "It's a cycle" I might have toughed it out. But he told me some history and advised me to get out. I had been there 10 years, so I guess I'd call myself early-mid-career. Within 5 months I landed a new job with better pay and a wide-open career path. And yes, I realize how lucky I am. But I also took advantage of every professional development opportunity that came my way and even made a few of my own.

    So I guess my final answer to the question "how do you know when it's time to go?" is "when there's nothing worth staying for, professionally speaking."

    And to reiterate Anon 4:24 a.m.: don't jump until you have a place to land.

  9. "They're beautiful, aren't they?

    The stars.

    We never just look anymore..."


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