No matter what career you choose, you’ll always be a chemist.
“What is a chemistry job?” That evergreen question comes up often in the chemistry social media space, and I always struggle with how to respond. Are chemists only those who use the tools of chemistry in a laboratory? If so, how does this definition address the teacher of students of chemistry, or someone who uses a computer to further our understanding of chemistry? How about people who write about chemistry? Do they possess a writing job or a chemistry job?
In fact, there is no one right answer to the question of what a chemistry job is, and any attempts to draw lines or define boundaries will inevitably exclude groups of people that we know deep in our bones are part of our ever-expanding enterprise.
What we do know is that among those who study the physical sciences, only a small percentage go on to research-based roles. For example, the US Census Bureau published a study in 2012 indicating that, of all US workers who majored in the physical sciences, only 13% of them worked as either life or physical scientists.
What about PhD chemists? According to my analysis of data from the National Science Foundation’s Survey of Earned Doctorates, between 2010 and 2017, the percentage of new chemistry PhD graduates who selected a primary job function other than R&D or teaching has fluctuated between 11 and 16%. These percentages suggest that careers outside the lab may be more common than we tend to think.
We have evidence that career preferences begin shifting among graduate students well before their defense. This is documented in a survey of science PhDs conducted in the spring of 2010 by Henry Sauermann and Michael Roach (PLOS One 2012, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0036307). Among the 740 chemistry PhD students who participated in the survey, late-stage graduate students were much less interested than early-stage graduate students in traditional, research-oriented faculty positions. It’s not clear why late-stage students had this relative lack of interest (speculation abounds!), but students need to know that they are not alone in looking outside academia.
I often hear stories of graduate students or postdoctoral workers feeling odd or uncomfortable about potential interest in a position outside the laboratory. Their apprehensions are understandable; few people relish going to their research supervisor and saying, “I would like nothing to do with your life’s work.” However, these frank conversations are crucial to one’s long-term career path. It’s not the professor’s career; it’s yours! I also strongly believe that professors recognize that research careers are not the end goal for many people, and for the most part they want to help their advisees find positions and careers that they are truly passionate about.
In discussions of what people want to do next, a common refrain is the desire to “use my training in chemistry.” This is a mild version of the sunk-cost fallacy. In other words, rather than justifying a sunk cost (one’s time in school, which can never be recovered), one should consider, “What are the opportunities available to me now, and how can my training in chemistry help me best?” This reframing may allow a clear-eyed analysis of whether a postdoc (or a second one) is worth the time, or whether a change in career path will be worthwhile.
Perhaps the best example of how to define a chemistry job is the inclusive approach that the American Chemical Society has taken. Laboratory and research-oriented technical divisions like the Division of Organic Chemistry and the Division of Nuclear Chemistry and Technology work and collaborate alongside non-laboratory-focused divisions like Chemistry and the Law or the Division of Business Development and Management. The members represented by these and other ACS divisions make up the diversity of the chemical enterprise.
It’s up to us as a community to ensure that the next generation of chemical scientists, whatever they decide to do with their degrees, know they are appreciated and valued by our profession.
Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.
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