Getting an Advanced Degree on the Job | January 1, 2007 Issue - Vol. 85 Issue 1 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 85 Issue 1 | pp. 37-39
Issue Date: January 1, 2007

Getting an Advanced Degree on the Job

Although the Ph.D. is the terminal degree in chemistry, it may not be the last one a chemist earns
Department: Career & Employment
Credit: Istockphoto
Credit: Istockphoto

Newly minted Ph.D.s often swear that they will never be a student again. For most chemists, that's true. However, for doctoral degree holders who become interested in careers that require specific degrees, such as law, business, and information science, school ultimately beckons them back.

How do you get another degree when quitting your day job is not an option? Three Ph.D. chemists told C&EN about their experiences completing that degree part-time while maintaining a full-time, professional job. They emphasize that time management is critical when attempting to juggle the demands of work, school, and home life.

Jeffrey B. Robertson pursued a Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry at Texas A&M University right out of college and thought he would be a chemistry professor. He had not even heard of intellectual property (IP) law until a patent lawyer gave a lecture that piqued his interest during a seminar series at Texas A&M.

Credit: Rachel Petkewich/C&EN
Credit: Rachel Petkewich/C&EN

In 2005, Robertson passed the Virginia State Bar exam. He joined Hunton & Williams in March 2006 as an associate in the firm's Litigation, Intellectual Property & Antitrust Division in Washington, D.C. Most of his daily work involves preparation, filing, and dispute resolution surrounding chemistry-related patent applications for industrial clients.

Robertson knows patents well because he tested the IP waters with a job at the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) in Crystal City, Va., directly after completing his Ph.D. in 1999. "I became a patent examiner, and my supervisor encouraged me to get a law degree. He thought it would be very helpful because we dealt with a mixture of science and law," Robertson says.

Robertson enrolled specifically at nearby George Washington University Law School for several reasons. He liked that the school's IP program was highly ranked and taught by experienced practitioners, including federal circuit court judges. In addition, GWU has a law program designed for working students, so he could continue to gain valuable experience at his PTO job."In this field, experience really does help" when applying for a job with a law firm, he says.

Going part-time meant four years of school versus three years in a full-time law program. Robertson says four classes on weeknights and about 12 hours of reading per weekend didn't allow time to do much else, but it forced him to make effective use of time he had. He says support from his wife, who worked fulltime, was very helpful, too.

To pay for the degree, Robertson mixed available means. The patent office offered some tuition reimbursement to employees after two years of service. However, because of disruptions to the reimbursement program, he ended up paying for most of law school, largely financed through student loans.

Robertson is content with his choice to mix science and law. He says those interested in both fields have a lot of options for jobs beyond the patent office and private law firms, including inhouse counsel at scientific, pharmaceutical, and biotechnology companies.

Credit: Rachel Petkewich/C&EN
Credit: Rachel Petkewich/C&EN

David L. Schutt also considered mixing science and law, but his long-term interests in math and business won out. He is currently the chief strategy officer and director of external affairs for the American Chemical Society in Washington, D.C., which publishes C&EN. He says he wouldn't have been considered for his current job or his previous position as chief financial officer of ACS without the knowledge and experience that he gained from completing a master's degree in business administration.

Schutt started at ACS as a science and policy fellow in 1992, fresh from defending his Ph.D. in physical chemistry at Princeton University. He says he came to Washington just to gain a broad perspective before finding a teaching position in an undergraduate institution. Instead, he stayed on in a permanent position at ACS and later directed the Office of Legislative & Government Affairs.

Credit: Alla Balannik/University of Maryland
Credit: Alla Balannik/University of Maryland

Still interested in economics and finance, however, Schutt looked into business degree programs at local universities. He chose a Johns Hopkins University program because it was geared for working adults, and he could take classes at a satellite campus near his home. He took night classes twice a week and full-day classes on Saturdays. He says he originally picked the program because he wanted the knowledge, not because he wanted the degree per se. But Schutt also esteemed the professors, many of whom were adjuncts, because they were experienced, highly regarded, working business professionals.

Schutt finished his M.B.A. in 2000, when ACS had an uncapped tuition reimbursement program for employees. He wholly credits his wife, a stay-at-home mom for two then-toddlers, for keeping the family organized. He did homework by getting to his office at 5:30 AM.

Another Ph.D. scientist, Svetla Baykoucheva, went back for her master's degree in library science while her daughter was in college and before her husband retired, but like Robertson, she recalls that classes, homework, and travel to school consumed most of the time outside her job. She sometimes had to drive 140 miles from her home and stay overnight for weekend classes. Baykoucheva is currently the head of the Charles E. White Memorial Chemistry Library at the University of Maryland, College Park, and says she needed her library degree to get the job.

Born in Bulgaria, Baykoucheva completed a Ph.D. in infectious microbiology in 1977 at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Microbiology. There, she did research and supervised graduate students before coming to the U.S. in 1990 as a visiting scientist at the University of Kansas Medical Center. The following year, she started doing research at Ohio State University in the department of medical biochemistry and used Medline searches frequently.

Baykoucheva decided to transition from the lab to the library. Years of "natural interest" in information science and her own successful publications in biochemistry and information science fueled the switch. "I thought that I could get a job in a library without having a library degree, but I found that, especially in academic institutions, the degree was a requirement," she says.

While still working at Ohio State, she received her degree from Kent State University in Ohio. The degree is now called a master's of library and information science. She says that many people go to school for the information science degree part-time, but the Kent State program was specifically designed to accommodate the needs of adults with full-time jobs.

To get her degree, Baykoucheva took two classes on Ohio State's campus for free because she was an employee. She paid for all of the other classes at Kent State. To finish in two years and minimize costs, she took many credits each semester and even had to ask for permission to take more than 16 credits in her last semester.

After completing the program in 1997, Baykoucheva managed the library at ACS for almost eight years before moving to her current job at Maryland. "I enjoy my job in academia very much because I meet a lot of interesting people, and I have the freedom to do things that I enjoy, such as writing articles and attending conferences," she says.

She trains faculty and graduate students at the university on how to find chemical information and search complex databases including SciFinder Scholar or Discovery Gate. She is also active in the ACS Division of Chemical Information.


Completing A Chemistry Ph.D. While Working

Pursuing a doctoral degree in chemistry while working at a separate, full-time professional job is quite rare, but Donald J. Treacy Jr. did it. He worked as a bench chemist in government and industry labs for several years before he went back to school for a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry. "I wanted to learn more chemistry," he says. But Treacy didn't want to give up the opportunities to learn at his job. He managed to finish his doctorate in four years while working full-time as a manager at a small pharmaceutical company.

In 1999, just seven months after his wife gave birth to their daughter, Treacy defended his doctoral thesis at the University of Maryland. A year later, Treacy moved to Advancis Pharmaceutical in Germantown, Md., where he is currently the vice president for analysis and pharmaceutical quality. He says he is "unequivocally happy" that he got his doctoral degree, but work, school, and home life often fell out of balance during the process.

"Basically, in the latter half of my twenties, I didn't see friends and barely saw family," Treacy says. He says it wasn't uncommon for him to, for example, leave his house at 3 AM on a weekday, go to work, head to school for a class, drive back to work at Shire Pharmaceuticals for a meeting, return to school to do lab work, and make it home by 11 pm. Weekends were just as intense.

Treacy had to go parttime at work (32 versus 40 hours per week) during the one semester he was required to teach an instrument lab at Maryland. He says his employer was flexible about when he put in the actual hours, as long as he stayed on top of his work. And his graduate adviser? Treacy talked to a couple of professors before he found a willing adviser with a project that dovetailed with his unique situation.

In her current position as a manager, Baykoucheva recruits science librarians. "There is big demand for people with both a science degree and a library degree," she says, but she admits that "it is just not easy to find people who have advanced degrees in both." Positions for information specialists also exist at industrial or government facilities, she says, and the requirements may be different from those for academic positions.

Statistics are hard to come by that quantify how many Ph.D. chemists go back to school and get additional degrees to pursue careers in nontraditional fields. According to recruiters at industrial companies, most people who go back to school part-time hold either a high school diploma or a bachelor's degree and work toward the next-level degree. Employers frequently encourage their employees at all levels to get additional training. Incentives may include generous tuition assistance programs or flexible workhours to accommodate class times.

BP , for example, encourages all employees "to pursue a lifetime of learning," says Susan Knox Wilson, a company recruitment manager. She explains that in addition to operating a range of intensive and formal training programs for new hires at all degree levels, BP supports continuing professional development, from structured degree programs and courses to e-learning. "We have a very generous educational assistance program and, where appropriate, support employees looking to achieve relevant professional qualifications," she adds.

Pfizer Global R&D has an educational assistance program for employees who pursue university training, says Brian Bronk, chair of the company's Ph.D. recruiting in the U.S. and director of neurosciences medicinal chemistry. He says that experience within the company can provide the qualifications needed for a transition from a lab-based job to another sector of the organization without formal university training and that there is internal precedence for these types of moves. He adds that a similar move between companies would be more challenging in the absence of a specialized degree.

Credit: Rachel Petkewich/C&EN
Credit: Rachel Petkewich/C&EN

Nevertheless, several companies contacted by C&EN could not point out Ph.D.s who had either used tuition programs to get another degree or transitioned within a company.

Yet the desire to embark on a degree program is a "good signal" about an employee, says Donald J. Treacy Jr., vice president for analysis and pharmaceutical quality at Advancis Pharmaceutical in Germantown, Md. Treacy, who got his Ph.D. in analytical chemistry while working, now manages people in a small pharmaceutical company.

Going back to school means that the person has initiative and is willing to go the extra mile, and both of those characteristics mean a lot at promotion time, he says, noting that three Advancis employees have finished master's degrees in chemistry and biotechnology in the past year.

Will Treacy pursue another degree? Probably not, he says. He has considered an M.B.A. but says working at a small company provides plenty of on-the-job business training.

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