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Career Choices

Book outlines alternative career paths for chemists

by John K. Borchardt
February 12, 2007 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 85, Issue 7

Nontraditional Careers for Chemists:
Nontraditional Careers for Chemists: New Formulas in Chemistry by Lisa M. Balbes, Oxford University Press, 2006, 320 pages, $27.95 paperback (ISBN 0-19-518367-3).
Nontraditional Careers for Chemists: New Formulas in Chemistry by Lisa M. Balbes, Oxford University Press, 2006, 320 pages, $27.95 paperback (ISBN 0-19-518367-3).

The stereotype of chemists is that of people working in laboratories wearing white lab coats and safety glasses. However, chemists have always worked in other types of jobs and in other working environments.

The book "Nontraditional Careers for Chemists: New Formulas in Chemistry," by Lisa Balbes celebrates these nontraditional careers. In the process, it provides instructional, often inspirational, examples of people pursuing these careers in fields as varied as business development, government regulations, and human resources, as well as better known fields such as patent law and information science.

Balbes is well-qualified to write a book on nontraditional careers for chemists. She is engaged in her own nontraditional career of technical writing, and she is a career consultant and career workshop presenter for the American Chemical Society. "You never know what's going to happen," she says she's learned, "and the more you know about the possibilities, the better off you will be." This is particularly true in light of a Bureau of Labor Statistics study that indicates employment in some traditional fields of chemistry will remain static or even decline. ("Occupational Projections and Training Data, 2006-07 Edition"; go to and look up the various fields included in chemistry such as chemists, materials scientists, and biochemists).

Balbes notes in her book: "As chemists we are taught how to solve problems and how to find and critically evaluate data. We start by doing background research, identifying a problem, conducting an experiment, then analyzing the results and applying what we learned to the next question. You can apply these same steps to the question of what career path will best suit your personal skills, knowledge, interests, and values." This philosophy is the basis of her book, which is largely a series of career vignettes of individuals pursuing alternative careers.

The book is based on the premise that thinking outside the box and learning about nontraditional career options for chemists will aid readers in making informed decisions about pursuing nontraditional careers in rewarding science-related fields. Although the individuals interviewed obviously are happy with their career decisions, none of the cases presented contains excessive boosterism for a particular nontraditional career.

Of the nontraditional careers Balbes explores, some are well-known, such as information scientist, patent attorney, patent agent, business development and management, and chemical health and safety specialists. In fact, there are ACS technical divisions devoted to these fields. Other nontraditional careers discussed in the book include sales and marketing of chemicals, chemical equipment, and computer software; human resources specialist; science writer; government regulatory specialist; and science policy specialist. For many of these professions, job titles vary widely from one organization to another.

Credit: John K. Borchardt
At ACS national meetings, the Chemjobs Career Center is a chemist's entry point to career discussions and information.
Credit: John K. Borchardt
At ACS national meetings, the Chemjobs Career Center is a chemist's entry point to career discussions and information.

All of the presentations of various individuals' careers follow the same format: "Current Position," "Career Path," "Advice," and "Predictions." Current Position is a summary of an individual's current position, primarily describing job responsibilities but including other aspects of the job such as time spent on business travel and whether the position permits telecommuting or requires working at locations remote from the primary work site.

The Career Path section of each case study summarizes how that person progressed in his or her career and encompasses education, continuing education after college graduation, and how interests and prior career history led to the choice of a nontraditional career. This section also includes current career options for the person whose case is being presented. It looks at career paths with current employers, career options with other employers, and yet other nontraditional career paths that might be followed.

The third section of each case study, Advice, offers the profiled individual's perspective on the skills and interests chemists need both to succeed in and enjoy an alternative career field. Some of the people Balbes interviewed offer insightful advice in this regard. They describe how they began their nontraditional careers, and they provide suggestions on how to break into that particular career field. Other advice includes what professional organizations to join for a given career field and how to participate in these organizations to reap the greatest benefit.

Advice on what might be regarded as "support skills" for various nontraditional careers is quite educational and will help readers prepare for each of the fields discussed. These are interpersonal skills and networking, ethical self-promotion, and both written and oral presentation skills. Other "soft skills," such as how to effectively run a meeting, time management, and so on, are also discussed in the case studies. Such skills are important in today's traditional chemistry careers, but they seem to have a greater relative importance for nontraditional careers, at least for those career case studies presented in the book.

The final section for each case study of a nontraditional career, Predictions, presents that individual's prognosis of future career opportunities in his or her field. This usually includes future needs for skills required by the job and job growth in that employment sector.

Overall, the book's format facilitates dipping into one chapter one day, another chapter a few days later, and perhaps comparing information from different chapters about different careers. That is to say that this book isn't designed to be read cover to cover in a small number of sittings. There is simply too much information presented for readers to retain. Instead, reading and rereading case studies of greatest interest and then considering one's intellectual and emotional response to a career profile is a profitable way to use this book. Indeed, only chemists who have an extraordinarily broad range of interests or who give career advice to others may want to read the entire book.

Balbes' writing style is highly engaging, despite the frequent use of long sentences. She apparently enjoyed discussing careers with the many people she profiles in the book, and they apparently enjoyed talking to her as well. Many of the people interviewed share personal feelings and insights that make the book much more than a dry recitation of factual information.

The nontraditional career case studies present many interesting, unexpected career options that lead one to marvel at the creative ways people have found to use their chemistry training and skills. Reading about the many career options should stimulate thoughtful readers to consider how their skills and interest could be applied to nontraditional career fields. It's a minor quibble, but she could have presented more chemistry-related career fields as well. For example, forensic chemistry has become popular because of several television shows on the topic. Some colleges have instituted forensic chemistry courses as a result.

Interestingly, "Nontraditional Careers for Chemists" does not automatically make obsolete the 1997 book "Careers for Chemists: A World Outside the Lab," by Fred Owns, Roger Uhler, and C&EN Associate Editor Corinne A. Marasco (published by ACS). The latter covers some of the same career fields as the former but also includes a strong chapter on entrepreneurs plus chapters on finance, nontraditional careers in education, and careers in technology transfer. Hence, readers of "Nontraditional Careers for Chemists" may also wish to consult the other book for ideas, inspiration, and advice.

Although Balbes notes that "it's never too late to try something new," relatively few examples are presented of chemists beginning nontraditional professions in mid- or late-career. Chemists at this stage of their working life, particularly those unemployed and wishing to consider additional career options, could greatly benefit from encouragement and role models.

Consulting work is another area that could have benefited from more extensive discussion. While three examples of consultants are presented, more information about this career option is needed. For example, many chemists pursue consulting careers but do not earn enough to live comfortably without income from other sources, such as retirement benefits. This is because business management skills and specialized knowledge are essential to making a living as an independent consultant. Tellingly, the three consultants presented in the book all have specialized knowledge in addition to their chemistry expertise. Olin Braids and Ruth Hathaway, for example, are knowledgeable of government environmental regulations, whereas Veena Chorghade knows about government regulations affecting the pharmaceutical industry and the capabilities of pharmaceutical and chemical laboratories and companies in India.

Balbes introduces the concept of using some nontraditional careers as "back-up" careers in case a traditional chemistry career falters. Several of the chemists she interviewed acquired expertise in a nontraditional career field, such as information science, and gained experience by putting this expertise to work for current employers or for other organizations while continuing full-time employment. This kind of preparation can get a full-time nontraditional career off to a faster start.

The concluding section is packed with helpful general advice about nontraditional careers, such as consideration of the type of employer a person might like to work for, consideration of personality when evaluating career options, and the importance of choosing an enjoyable career.

One subject Balbes does not cover is unconventional working arrangements such as part-time employment and job sharing. While these subjects are not directly related to nontraditional careers, these working arrangements could become a gateway to a nontraditional career. For example, some employers offer work schedules in which employees get alternate Fridays off. How do chemists use these alternate Fridays? While some no doubt pursue family and personal interests, do others explore nontraditional careers and even begin them on a part-time basis? When I worked full-time for a company, my alternate Fridays off made it possible for me to continue a demanding job and write my book "Career Management for Scientists and Engineers." Of course, one must avoid any conflicts of interest with current employers.

It was Louis Pasteur who noted, "Chance favors the prepared mind." In the career management field, Balbes offers consistent advice when she writes, "Always be on the lookout for opportunities to try something new-seek them out and consider them seriously when they are offered."


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