Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Towards a data-driven definition of the term "non-traditional career"

Also in this week's issue of Chemical and Engineering News, an interesting article by Natalie A. LaFranzo, the chair of the Younger Chemists' Committee:
...So if the scientific workforce, the chemical workforce, and younger members of ACS are predominantly employed outside academia, with many of them in nonlaboratory positions, why are these career paths still referred to as “nontraditional”? I’ll admit, I’m guilty of using this term myself. As an accomplished bench-trained chemist who has actively pursued a career at the interface of science and business, I’ve chosen not to work in a laboratory setting since the completion of my graduate education. I still very much consider myself a chemist, despite having caught myself on occasion telling others that I have followed a “nontraditional path.” 
Some of this mind-set is perpetuated by what seems to be misinterpretation of the data. The ChemCensus data* I cited above were preceded by the following statement: “The increasing rate of doctorate degree holders in the chemistry workforce appears to be fueled by the growth of employment opportunities in the academic sector.” 
In my opinion, that is flat-out wrong. The reality is that few academic positions are available each year, and institutions train more scientists than there are faculty positions and grant funding to support. The more likely explanation for the numbers seen in the ChemCensus is that chemists who pursue these “nontraditional paths” may (incorrectly) see less value in ACS membership. This may be fueled in part by a sense of nonbelonging—the idea that these nonlaboratory chemists are seen as less of a chemist than their academic counterparts through their continued branding as “nontraditional.”
I really liked this piece, in that it struggles with the difficult question of "why does non-academic participation in the American Chemical Society keep dropping?" I'm not sure the 'non-traditional' branding is the reason why, but I think Dr. LaFranzo has a good point, in that ACS feels like an "academia-first" society, especially when ACS has its larg-ish gatherings like National Meetings. But that's just my perception.

But here's my question: if you don't want to call non-academic careers "non-traditional", what would you call them? "Alternative" is similarly pejorative, and most of the rest of the possible terms ('non-bench', 'non-research', careers outside the laboratory, etc) are clunky and expressed in a negative (not this, non-that.) What positive term could be developed? I have no idea, so I'd like to stick to "traditional" and "non-traditional."

So. Here's my pitch. Let's get some data (the ACS Salary Survey should do) for the time period between, say, 1945-1995. We'll categorize the careers that make up 90% of the members as "traditional" and those that are less than 10% of membership "non-traditional."  Then, we can compare that to the 'modern' era (1996 until now), and then we can decide what is 'traditional' and 'non-traditional.'

I don't really know what to do about this, especially since 1) people like to categorize themselves and 2) no one wants to look up the data and 3) if myself or someone like myself totted up all the data, no one would pay attention. But it seems to me to be a logical approach to defining What is Traditional.


*"Similarly, results from the 2015 American Chemical Society ChemCensus survey of the chemical workforce showed that 40.4% of respondents reported working in the academic sector." 


  1. I'd be curious to know how many people enthusiastically chose "alternative" careers, and how many just prioritized mortgages, their kids' college tuitions, etc over their own job satisfaction. I don't think anyone aspires to write MSDS's all day long or do Six Sigma all day long or something like that.

  2. If the purpose of classification is just to clarify what is actually traditional, ok. However, this will do nothing to change my view on ACS membership, which quickly soured once I finished grad school. I didn't leave because of improper classification; I left because once I was out from under the umbrella of needing to go to conferences to pad my resume I didn't need the ACS at all. I now go to more focused conferences in disease areas that I work in and being a member of the ACS does nothing for your resume. Whether my career path is defined as traditional or non-traditional doesn't change any of that, nor has it ever bothered me to be in the non-traditional category.

    1. This, absolutely. I fall in the traditional category and still see very little point in ACS membership. I only join up when I plan on going to a conference.

    2. The fact that we get 50 free articles alone justifies it to my employer, and the previous one. They pay my dues.

  3. There's a simple reason we can't come up with a good alternative term for "alternative" or "nontraditional" careers. The term has to capture a massive breadth of types & sectors of work, so broad that any term borders on meaningless.

    Even the term "academic" careers has some issues. We pinned the term for a sector to a fairly narrow range of positions. "Academic" generally means faculty and often context is tenure track with at least some research. In some circles, as you listen to conversations, it becomes clear that they mean an even narrower definition of "primarily research".

    There are several gigs in academia that we don't count as "academic". And there are some that look a fair bit like "academic" jobs that sit outside academia.

    Two bins aren't enough to meaningfully capture what's happening with science careers. Which is why some folks have worked on developing a careers taxonomy to better capture what scientists are actually doing:

    1. Hey, belle:

      First, that taxonomy is awesome. If we were to all get there, then yeah, I think I would be willing to abandon the traditional/non-traditional framework.

      Second, I think the two bin 'traditional'/'non-traditional' framework is all we need, I feel, assuming that we have sufficient data. "Is this career path similar to those taken in the past, or not?" is the basic question.

      Finally, I will capitulate a bit and say that "What is Traditional in Science Careers?" is likely especially hard to define for the life sciences, where I suspect that the post-Great Recession career paths are fundamentally different than those, say, before the Great Recession.

  4. A. I disagree with the author; the ACS is, in my opinion, nearly 100% useless.

    B. In response to KT, I think a majority of people I know who left the lab for what I like to call keyboard-jockeying is that they did not like the overly high stress placed on the bench scientists, namely when discovered that there is moderately less stress and more pay in said keyboard-jockey careers.

    1. I too have very little interaction with the ACS (I am neither in academia nor in the USA, which takes me out of two of their target markets) but do find C&EN very useful, and actually keep up my membership just to get it.

    2. Your comment is misguided in the fact that many companies hire PhDs then immediately put them into roles to guide research, direct projects, or manage people - i.e. keyboard jockeying. I know many of my colleagues, myself included, enjoy when we get to split our time executing research at the bench instead of sitting in meetings or behind a computer all day. The comment regarding "high stressed" should be looked at through the lens of having better or a more meaningful work/life balance. There is still stress when it's your butt that has to deliver every year on project outcomes; and to some extent you are tied to the performance of your larger team which is out of your control. Yes the the stress can be less because there may not be an A-hole PI chaining you to the hood 6-7 days/week; but, now it's answering emails or working from home at night or on vacation.

  5. 1) I went away from the bench because it fit what I could do and I've been able to do it (someone has existed to pay me).

    2) I think having some idea of what the long-term modal outcome of a degree is helpful (most people end up doing a postdoc, but if there is no "next", that would be good to know, at least for students and maybe mentors).

    3) Retraining may be a problem - Ph.D. are supposed to be able to prosecute research, given some level of acclimatization, but if employers want lots of specific knowledge (which I've assumed is the case, but, you know...) then there will be a substantial time dependence to your career and not a long-term. This would be helpful to know.

  6. This is interesting stuff. I think the declining non-academic participation in ACS is an important issue, but I don't see it related to the use of the word "traditional". In fact, you could argue that the academic career path is called "traditional" not because it's the usual or most popular option for Ph.D. graduates (when was that last true), but because the entire structure and purpose of Ph.D. degree programs has "traditionally" been to train scholars and teachers. (That's why we're called "doctors" after all.) If you take that view, then before you can stop calling the academic route "traditional", then you have to restructure or at least rename the degree programs that people are graduating from. And that might be a more important change anyway.

  7. I left the bench, and I can say that the notion expressed above (and shared by many other chemists) that a non-bench job is akin to "keyboard jockeying", "writing MSDS' all day long" or some kind of low-stress cop-out is a very narrow minded assessment of what amounts to a vast number of satisfying, intellectually stimulating, and often stressful career paths. This pervasive sentiment, which in my opinion comes from a place of thinly veiled insecurity, does not serve any benefit to chemists faced with the fact that scientist positions are increasingly harder to find, and often times end at the whim of executive decisions or luck. It would serve you all better to embrace the fact that leaving the bench can be a ticket out of being a "an HPLC jockey", a warm body for a labcoat, or whatever derogatory term you might like to apply in reverse.

  8. I think the majority of chemistry graduates can be classified as either Bench or Non-Bench. We should use the fact of them actually being in a laboratory setting as a differentiator.

    Many of the non-bench roles (i.e. non-traditional) are similar in that they deal with softer skills learned in a graduate or undergraduate program such as basic modeling, business, writing, literature review, presenting results, or assessing something that is somewhat related to science. These roles may encompass the following areas of employment within a chemical, chemical related, or non-chemical area:

    Marketing (i.e. a marking manager or someone who knows everything about one particular niche field like wood glue)
    Intellectual Property (lawyers, patent agents, paralegal)
    Product Management (Managing a product portfolio of coatings for someone like PPG)
    Analyst (Oil, downstream oil products,
    Environmental Safety and Health
    Product Stewardship (regulatory roles)
    Scientific Writers and Editors (Managing Editor for an ACS Journal)
    Consultant, Banking, or some other business oriented role (BCG, Bain, VC firm, etc)

    The last 3 here are often considered "traditional," but I would argue that once you go there it's hard to go back to the bench.
    Scientific Manager (Manage a group of bench scientists)
    Tenured Professor (Most tenured professors never enter the lab to do actual lab work)
    Lecturer or Teacher (K-12, Community College, University, etc)

    A bench role is something that we often consider to be "traditional" and this will typically involve working in a laboratory setting such as:
    Product Development Scientist
    Scientist I/II/II
    Technical Service Specialist
    Chemical Operator
    Analytical Scientist

    The bench roles sometimes require a Ph.D. and often do not require a Ph.D. and are often lower paying that the non-Bench or "non-traditional" roles that I wrote about earlier. From what I can tell there is often a motivation to make it out of the lab because the pay is often lower than non-Bench roles and it's also less dangerous. The reason why non-traditional careers or "non-bench" roles are so prevalent is because there are just more of them.

    I think once a person has made the switch from bench to non-bench it's a one-way street. If you haven't worked in a hazardous environment of a lab for 3-4 years and you suddenly want to go back it can often be quite dangerous and many will consider your "skills" to have lapsed.

    I think working a non-bench role is often harder and more challenging than doing synthetic chemistry or something technical because the solutions to your problems are often difficult to assess if they are correct. In the lab you either made the molecule or you did not. The HPLC indicates 80% or 99% purity. The peptide grafted correctly or it did not.

    In something like Intellectual Property you might have a great patent in the United States and Europe, and then the Chinese judge does not allow a large portion of your patent and your competitor is able to work around you in China and Japan. As a product steward the EPA says one thing today and something completely different the next and what was polymer exempt in Europe is a substance in the United States. To succeed in a non-Bench role I think is harder because what is defined as success is not easy to define.

    1. What about those of us who no longer work at the bench but in the plant? I would consider myself a non-lab scientist now, if only because most of my experiments are on the pilot line. That feels pretty traditional though.

    2. I disagree that you can't go back to the bench... though it's easier if you don't have a PhD and speciality matters.

      Before the Great Recession, I was at the Director level for R&D analytical at a small drug delivery firm... After I got laid off I had to go back to the bench (founding/building the analytical lab at a biotech startup). That was 8 years ago. ... Now while I head the department I am still at the bench most of the time there... (small company)

      But I only have a masters... though with a lot of years of experience.


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