Issue Date: November 5, 2012
Carving Out A New Path: Unemployed Chemists Apply Their Skills And Expertise To Nontraditional Careers
These days, with seemingly more job seekers than there are jobs in chemistry, nontraditional careers are less an option than a necessity.
“You’re going to have to be flexible,” says Lisa M. Balbes, an ACS career consultant and author of the book, “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists: New Formulas in Chemistry.” With fewer jobs to choose from, she adds, “you have to widen the kind of work you’re willing to do and where you’re willing to do it.”
C&EN spoke with four chemists who, after being laid off, applied their skills to other industries and carved out a new path for themselves. They asked to remain anonymous to protect future job prospects.
After “Mark,” 49, was laid off from Pfizer in 2010, he debated whether to look for a position at another pharmaceutical company or leave the industry altogether. “I wasn’t confident that the industry is strong enough to support people in midcareer like it used to be,” he says. “I thought that if I got another job, I’d be looking for another one in five years, and then I’d be worse off. Maybe I’d be too old to start doing something new.”
Following his passion for education, Mark decided to pursue a career teaching at the high school level. “Right away, I started taking classes and signed up for the exams that I needed to get my high school teaching certification,” he says. He also gained some teaching experience as an adjunct professor at William Paterson University, in New Jersey.
Six months after he was laid off, he started a new position as a chemistry teacher at Bergen County Academies, a magnet school in Hackensack, N.J. Although his teaching salary is less than half what he was making at Pfizer, he says he’s “more than twice as happy.”
“It was a hard and easy decision,” he says. “I loved my job at Pfizer; I just didn’t like what was going on within the industry,” Mark says. “I knew I had to do something different.”
“Alice,” 52, a Ph.D. chemist who was laid off from Pharmacopeia in 2008 and later from Merck & Co. in 2010, is also grateful for a chance at a new career. In July, she started working as a patent examiner at the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office in Alexandria, Va. She is in the one-year training period for new employees, and if she is accepted into a permanent position, she will eventually become eligible to telework from her home in New Jersey.
Currently, she is renting an apartment in the Washington, D.C., area while her husband and 12-year-old daughter remain in New Jersey. She considers the sacrifice she is making an investment for her family’s future. “I work in Virginia until Fridays, and then on weekends I’m at home,” she says. “It’s very difficult because I used to be the one who takes care of our daughter. Now, my husband has to juggle his job and pick up and drop off our daughter, so it’s really difficult for him.
“We’re getting back into a more stable situation, but right now because my job is in a questionable state, I’m just taking it day by day, trying to not think about it too much, and learning as much as I can,” she says.
After being laid off from Kémia in 2008, “Scott,” 43, a Ph.D. chemist in San Diego, also searched for a new path in life. He tried consulting, and selling insurance. His wife, who had been working part-time, got a full-time job to help pay the bills. Meanwhile, Scott became a stay-at-home dad for their two young children.
On the advice of a friend, Scott looked into writing positions and took some classes in technical writing. He also tailored his résumé to emphasize his communication and writing skills. In 2010, he landed a position as a medical writer for a medical education company. But joy turned to sorrow when, shortly after Scott was hired, his wife died of cancer.
Although Scott continues to grieve, he is grateful to have a job and a large support network of friends. “I’m continually thankful,” he says. Like Alice, he says, “I just take things day by day.”
“Richard,” 58, was laid off from Albemarle in 2003 and spent the next four years working as a customer service representative for AT&T. He longed to get back into chemistry, but unable to find a job in the industry, Richard launched his own business selling a cream he formulated for psoriasis and other skin conditions. Although his company is not yet making a profit, he says his sales have helped him pay the bills and given him the satisfaction of doing what he loves.
William F. Carroll Jr., chair of the ACS Board of Directors, says that it’s critical for chemists to identify their strengths so they can market their skills to employers with a specific need. “You have to understand what you do well and how you can help a company, and it’s particularly true when you’re a seasoned chemist,” he says. “With all your experience, you should have a skills box that is chock-full. Take an inventory of what’s in there.” If you learn how to market your skills to the right employers, he adds, you stand a better chance at rising above the competition.
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