Opportunities For B.S. and M.S. Chemists | January 2, 2006 Issue - Vol. 84 Issue 1 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 84 Issue 1 | pp. 35-38 | Career Tools
Issue Date: January 2, 2006

Opportunities For B.S. and M.S. Chemists

Companies in a variety of areas are looking to hire in traditional and nontraditional areas
Department: Career & Employment
Ohio State University Professor Susan Olesik instructs a class of undergraduate students at the Olentangy River Wetland Research Park.
Credit: Ohio State University Photo
Ohio State University Professor Susan Olesik instructs a class of undergraduate students at the Olentangy River Wetland Research Park.
Credit: Ohio State University Photo

Chemists–especially those who plan to lookfor a job in industry in the coming months–may be ringing in the new year with some trepidation.

Many of their potential employers are still trying to catch their balance after being dealt a number of painful blows in 2005–from unprecedented disruptions caused by hurricanes to astronomical petroleum and feedstock costs–all within the context of prolonged economic uncertainty.

In particular, pharmaceutical firms–the largest employer of chemists–continue to be antagonized by a number of lingering controversies and challenges, including patent expirations on key drugs, late-stage disappointments for products in the development pipeline, and more stringent drug approval processes.

These factors are likely to have a dampening effect on the job market for chemists in 2006. Just over a month ago, for example, drug giant Merck announced that it would eliminate 7,000 positions, or 11% of its workforce, by the end of 2008 (C&EN, Dec. 5, 2005, page 9). The move comes on the heels of the company's recent withdrawal of Vioxx, its big-ticket arthritis and acute pain medication, from the market.

Still, some say the outlook for B.S.- and M.S.-level chemists, in particular, may not be all that grim. As 2006 unfolds, well-qualified B.S.- and M.S.-level chemists–freshly minted, as well as experienced–should be able to find many doors of opportunity on which to knock across a range of industries.

On-campus recruiting of job-seeking B.S. and M.S. chemists–one indicator of that market–has picked up, compared with a year ago, according to some schools. "The climate has improved this year," says Jane Scheiber, assistant dean for college relations in the College of Chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley. "We have a few more companies recruiting, and there are more interview slots per company," she reports, noting that about one-third of UC Berkeley's B.S. chemists typically go into industry, and the rest go on to graduate school or professional schools. At the same time, she says, "companies are showing considerable interest" in hiring interns.

The companies that are scouting undergraduate-degreed chemists at UC Berkeley are diverse and include those from the chemical, high-tech, aerospace, consulting, medical devices, petroleum, and biotech industries, Scheiber observes. Although the large pharmaceutical companies are recruiting as well, they tend to "focus more on our doctoral and postdoctoral students," she says.

To be sure, more than a few companies–including some in the biotechnology arena–say their recruiting of B.S.- and M.S.-level chemists is on the upswing. In particular, some biopharmaceutical firms are expanding their staffs in the wake of a number of recent regulatory approvals or successful product launches.

For example, Gilead Sciences, which has been awarded Food & Drug Administration approval for four drugs in less than three years, plans to hire more scientists in 2006. The move fits with a company effort to step up R&D spending, which has not kept pace with its rapid revenue growth, according to Norbert W. Bischofberger, the company's executive vice president for R&D. Still a growing company, "we should probably be spending a lot more than a big pharmaceutical company such as Pfizer, but right now, we are spending less," he says.

As part of that effort, "our interest in hiring B.S.- and M.S.-level chemists is certainly up right now," Bischofberger notes. In fact, Gilead's growth supports hiring at a ratio of two B.S.- or M.S.-level chemists to every one Ph.D., he says. However, meeting that quota is difficult, says Bischofberger, who finds that the supply of well-qualified B.S.- and M.S.-level chemists is much lower than demand for them.

"Often, people who have finished their B.S. degree don't know what they want to do next, and they use a job as a stepping stone to something else. So they might hang around for two or three years and then go and do what they really want to do-go back to graduate school or go into another field," he laments. Master's-level chemists are even more evasive, according Bischofberger. "In my experience, most go on to get a Ph.D.," and few are available for hire.

Despite these challenges, Gilead will be looking to hire a mix of experienced B.S.- and M.S.-level chemists as well as new graduates–especially those who have done some sort of practical lab work while in school. In particular, the company is on the prowl for synthetic and analytical chemists, says Bischofberger. "We are also looking for chemists to help out in our preformulation area, which we are staffing up."

Like Gilead, Amgen expects its hiring of B.S.- and M.S.-level chemists in 2006 to increase relative to last year. "This group represents a key need in our organization at this point in time," says Randy Hungate, Amgen's senior director of medicinal chemistry.

Although Amgen has the strongest demand for candidates with a background in organic chemistry and synthesis, there are opportunities for analytical chemists as well, says Hungate. Individuals who have practical experience gained during their undergraduate career or in industry will have an edge, he notes.

Amgen tends to plug its B.S.- and M.S.-degreed chemists into jobs that involve laboratory work in either its medicinal chemistry or process chemistry synthesis groups. "In most cases, these individuals would be working as part of a larger team directed toward the identification of potential development candidates."

Clean Science
Research chemist Katie Hand develops new surfactant formulations for the household market at Huntsman's Advanced Technology Center.
Credit: Huntsman Photo
Clean Science
Research chemist Katie Hand develops new surfactant formulations for the household market at Huntsman's Advanced Technology Center.
Credit: Huntsman Photo

In fact, "B.S.- and M.S.-level chemists–especially those who are at the front lines making new compounds–can play a key role" in Amgen's team environment, says Hungate. Because of Amgen's matrix organizational structure, "every project team member has access to all the data the team generates," he notes. "Although I would not expect an entry-level B.S. or M.S. chemist to be able to integrate all that data at once, they can certainly grow in their abilities to provide critical input on projects, especially as it relates to new intellectual property."

Not surprisingly, Amgen also offers its undergraduate-degreed chemists opportunities to advance into management. In its medicinal chemistry group, for example, "we have hired a number of B.S. and M.S. chemists who have risen through the ranks and are now supervising their respective programs," Hungate says.

Biotechnology pioneer Genentech is also offering increased opportunities to B.S.- and M.S.-level chemists. The company has stepped up hiring in all departments following "positive outcomes in Phase III clinical trials over the last several years and an unprecedented string of approvals" for drugs including Avastin, a cancer therapy, according to a company spokeswoman.

In 2004 and in 2005, Genentech set a goal of hiring 1,500 total employees per year companywide, which in 2004 represented about 23% growth in hiring. Although Genentech has not yet disclosed its projection figures for 2006, "we do anticipate that we will continue to recruit aggressively in a way that is consistent with the company's growth in general," says Michael Varney, vice president of Genentech's small-molecule drug discovery group.

In particular, the small-molecule arena is a growth area for Genentech, notes Varney. In staffing that group in 2006, the company will favor experienced chemists over new graduates and hire both Ph.D.s and those without graduate degrees.

At the B.S. and M.S. levels, Genentech will be looking for medicinal chemists and process chemists who can demonstrate synthetic chemistry skills. Candidates who can demonstrate an ability to "synthesize difficult molecules more than once" will have an edge over those who "simply worked on a particular synthetic method and ran a reaction a hundred different ways," says Varney.

Depending on their level of experience, B.S.- and M.S.-degreed chemists in Genentech's medicinal chemistry group may take on jobs that range from making assigned compounds to participating in the design of synthetic routes to designing and making their own compounds, says Varney. They are "full-fledged members" of Genentech's various project teams, he says, "and they contribute greatly, because at least in our world, there is nothing until there is a compound. And they are the ones who make the compounds."

Within traditional chemical companies as well, chemists with B.S. and M.S. degrees may have more chances to contribute to business success right now.

"Actually, the job market is stronger than it has been in a couple of years," says Sarah Kok, workforce planning specialist at Dow Chemical. "So it's a good year to be graduating with chemistry and chemical engineering degrees."

Dow anticipates bringing in more graduates in 2006 than it has in the past few years, she says. Hiring, however, will be balanced between experienced people and those who are right out of school. In addition to chemists, the company plans to increase hiring of biologists and chemical, mechanical, industrial, electrical, and civil engineers. Most of the hiring "will be concentrated at the bachelor's-degree level," she adds.

Dow's robust hiring plans are part of a strategy to meet "significant growth" in some specific business segments now and into the near future, says Kok, who declined to identify the targeted areas.

In particular, B.S.- and M.S.-level chemists can delve into three general areas within Dow: analytical sciences in the lab, pilot plant testing, and production and process R&D. "And we don't make them wait until they have worked here for 10 years before they get involved with big projects," Kok points out. "In fact, it is very common for us to ask entry-level chemists or engineers to make contributions in our cross-functional, cross-geographic teams from day one."

To further leverage new hires' effectiveness in the organization, Dow puts them through a special rotational assignments program, which "exposes them to a range of opportunities and gives them a foundation of experience very quickly," says Kok. "When they are finished, they are grounded with excellent skills and experience that they can apply later on."

To support a similar set of programs, W.R. Grace plans to bring in an increased number of recruits, including B.S.- and M.S.-level chemists, in 2006, according to Troy L. Vincent, the company's vice president of human resources for the Americas. "Our goal is to hire approximately 20 people into one of our two-year, rotational leadership development programs."

Through these two programs, which are geared toward either marketing or finance, Grace identifies and develops high-potential individuals for leadership positions within the company, he says. Program participants are partnered with a senior-level mentor who follows their progress and provides guidance and support. Participants rotate through different business units in assignments that are designed to provide a broad range of business experiences and strengthen leadership skills.

Huntsman is another chemical company that is opening its doors to more chemists right now. The company has stepped up hiring following the consolidation of its research units this past summer. In that move, Huntsman shuttered four research facilities???in Austin, Texas; West Deptford, N.J.; Brewster, N.Y.; and Los Angeles???and brought all those activities under one roof in a new technology center in The Woodlands, Texas. "A lot of people didn't desire to make the move, and so we are experiencing a definite blip in the curve in terms of the total hiring level," according to Brian Pellon, vice president of R&D at Huntsman's Advanced Techology Center.

Even in the absence of a consolidation effort, however, hiring at Huntsman would not have been down this year, Pellon predicts. "Certainly, high feedstock costs have impacted all chemical companies' profitability and earnings," he says. But even in the face of these challenges, Huntsman thinks "it is important to continue to bring in new employees who can develop products and provide service and technical support."

In all its candidates, Huntsman favors those with experience. "It would be a rare case that we would hire someone right out of school," says Pellon. "We'd rather have someone with some level of experience who can hit the ground running a little faster."

In the coming months, Huntsman is primarily targeting Ph.D.-level candidates, who can deliver "very strong expertise in specific fields of chemistry," Pellon says. However, the company plans to bring in some experienced undergraduate-degreed chemists to work in its various research groups as well as in its analytical and physical testing areas. And within its technology development groups, Huntsman will be looking for B.S.- and M.S.-level chemical engineers, who are needed to support its bench-scale or pilot-scale activities.

Chemical engineers at the B.S. and M.S. level are also in demand at BP America. "At BP, we recruit mostly B.S. chemical engineers, as well as a handful of Ph.D. chemical engineers and one or two Ph.D. chemists," says Susan Knox Wilson, manager for recruitment marketing at BP America. "Our needs for B.S.-degreed chemical engineers are up about 30% because of increased needs in our exploration and production sector."

Outside of the industries that traditionally hire chemists, job seekers with B.S. and M.S. degrees may find some exciting pockets of opportunity.

For example, investment firms such as Chicago-based First Analysis periodically scope out chemists. Some might think it is "a little strange for an investment firm to be recruiting chemists," says Dave Leshuk, senior vice president at First Analysis. "But we recognize that large portions of the economy are driven by chemistry. Someone with a chemistry background may have an edge in identifying great investment opportunities in those sectors."

As a smaller firm, First Analysis does relatively little hiring. But right now, the company is looking for an entry-level associate to focus on specialty chemical companies. The ideal candidate would have completed a B.S. or M.S. degree in chemistry, as well as a handful of business or management courses. "A year or two of experience in industry would be helpful as well," says Leshuk. "Anything more would be overkill in this position."

Finding chemists with the right skills and inclinations for the investment world is not always easy, Leshuk points out. Chemists coming into an investment firm, he cautions, "need to understand finance and love the stock market. They have to like crunching numbers. They need to enjoy interacting with clients and companies and building networks."

With that kind of interest inventory, a chemist can potentially be a natural in the business of finance. In that line of work, "it's important to be innately inquisitive," and that is something that is second nature to chemists, says Allan H. Cohen, managing director at First Analysis, who is a Ph.D. chemist. And much of the methodology of chemical research–including forming a hypothesis and gathering relevant information–is directly applicable to the work done in an investment firm, he notes.

In fact, chemists' way of identifying and analyzing problems may make them attractive to some other businesses that are removed from the science of chemistry. One such company is CNA, a nonprofit research organization based in Alexandria, Va., that employs about 300 researchers to provide data and analysis to leaders in the military and public-sector organizations.

"We have been actively recruiting people with "hard science backgrounds–including chemists–who have completed a master's thesis," according to Katherine A. McGrady, the company's senior vice president for research, who is a Ph.D. chemist. "We have found that scientists who have done a thesis have really gone through a process that's very similar to the kind of thing that we need analysts here to be able to do," she adds.

Chemists at CNA work in teams and with its clients on very quantitative projects in settings that are completely removed from the traditional lab environment, says McGrady. "Few chemists think of themselves as somebody who might be deployed to the Middle East to do research, but this is what a lot of chemists like myself have done."

In fact, the company is currently recruiting people who are open to this kind of work. It plans to add 50 to 60 people–a mix of chemists, physicists, mathematicians, biologists, biochemists, and engineers.

Whether in nontraditional or traditional fields, job opportunities for B.S.- and M.S.-level chemists seem to be scattered over many industries right now. For example, at the University of Delaware, a range of companies–131 in total–are listed as seeking B.S.- or M.S.- level chemists in its recruiting database, according to David J. Berilla, associate director of the university's Career Services Center.

"I have observed that we have more requests for chemists than we have had in the past several years," says Berilla. "We definitely had an increase in recruiting activity this fall through our job fairs, campus interviewing, and job postings." However, "we don't yet have the statistics to know how this compares with this time last year." The center compiles and releases figures about job placement about six months after graduation. The report on the class of 2004—05 will be finalized later this month as part of the center's Career Plans Survey.

Berilla reports that pharmaceutical and biotechnology firms are not among those scouting for B.S.- and M.S.-level chemists in his neck of the woods. "Instead," he says, "they are more interested in Ph.D.-level chemists and chemical engineers."

But the opposite is true in Southern California, which is home to numerous biotechnology firms and research organizations. "Our 4.4% unemployment rate in San Diego County, coupled with a strong biotech industry focus, has proven successful for our students both this year and the previous year," says Andy Rabitoy, assistant director of the Job Opportunities Program at the University of California, San Diego. "As a whole, the climate in the San Diego area has been very positive for our chemists."

The number of participants–including drug and biotech firms–at UC San Diego's Fall Science & Technical Job Fair rose by 20% this year as compared with 2004—05, he notes. "We are optimistic that this trend will continue to grow."

However, not all universities are upbeat about the current job market for their B.S. and M.S. chemists right now. The recruiting environment for B.S.- and M.S.-degreed chemists is only "moderately better" this year at the University of Texas, Austin, according to Diane Kneeland, the school's senior career adviser for chemistry. Of the 20 recruiters who visit the university each fall, most of them are in the pharmaceutical business, recruiting almost exclusively at the graduate level. "No one has expressed a huge interest in hiring this year, although we had a good showing from Schering-Plough," she adds.

The situation is much the same at Ohio State University. Most of the on-campus recruiters, who dropped in number to 10 this year from 15 a year ago, are from the drug industry, and they are looking for Ph.D.-level candidates, according to Jennifer Bates, the university's graduate admissions secretary for the department of chemistry. "No one seems hungry for chemists. In fact, the job market does not seem very good," she adds, pointing to the impending layoffs at Merck.

To be sure, the job market for B.S. and M.S. chemists remains competitive.

To land a first job or a better position, chemists need to know how to differentiate themselves from the pack.

In particular, recruiters want undergraduates "with initiative" who have done research, an area of emphasis at UC Berkeley, according to Scheiber. "Specifics can be taught, but companies want the broad experience in areas such as research techniques and safety standards."

To gain an edge, it's important for a candidate to demonstrate their affinity for communicating and participating in a team environment, Gilead's Bischofberger says. "You have to be able to leave your big ego outside. The days of the lone ranger in the lab making a big discovery are gone. They've been gone for a long time."

And strong communication skills are "really the key" to landing a job in today's tight job market, says Huntsman's Pellon. A candidate can have the best education background and stellar work experience, he says, "but it comes down to how well that person can share that with a prospective employer, communicating specifically how he or she can be of benefit to the organization." Now, more than ever, he says, "it's all about selling yourself."

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