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Launching Corporate Careers

Recent B.S. and M.S.graduates ignite their passion for chemistry within diverse businesses

by Susan J. Ainsworth
April 14, 2008 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 86, Issue 15

Credit: Stewart Woodward
Birkett conducts antibacterial products drug discovery research at AstraZeneca's Boston facility.
Credit: Stewart Woodward
Birkett conducts antibacterial products drug discovery research at AstraZeneca's Boston facility.

For Casey McLeod, the reality of working in an industrial lab has exceeded her expectations. The synthetic organic chemist who joined Dow AgroSciences in Indianapolis six months ago says she is surprisingly encouraged to make significant and satisfying contributions to the company's R&D efforts despite not having an advanced degree.

"In the past, and still in some companies today, I think there's a mentality that Ph.D. chemists are the only employees who are qualified to form hypotheses and come up with research ideas, leaving B.S.- and M.S.-degreed chemists to simply test and exemplify them," says McLeod, who earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Purdue University in 2006. "But at this company, at least, that's the farthest thing from the truth."

And McLeod, one of a dozen of fledgling non-Ph.D. chemists contacted by C&EN, is not alone in her perceptions. The experiences of these chemists give a glimpse of the kinds of engaging jobs that some B.S. and M.S. chemists are finding in industry now.

The key to tapping into these opportunities is thinking outside the box, gaining experience through internships and temporary work, and polishing interviewing skills, according to the chemists C&EN interviewed. As a result, it is possible for new chemists to launch into exciting careers in a variety of businesses.

"I am surprised to find that I am free to generate hypotheses and do the work needed to test them," McLeod says of her job designing and synthesizing novel molecules to control pests. "It's just a very level playing field. And that is really motivating to me. The supportive culture here encourages me to do the best science that I possibly can."

Janine Van Gemert, who joined Huntsman Polyurethanes as a development chemist in January, says she is surprised and gratified that she has been able to play a significant role in the company's efforts. While working at Huntsman, she is finishing up her B.S. degree in chemistry at Ypsilanti-based Eastern Michigan University. Although having a Ph.D. opens many doors for an ambitious scientist, she says that "you can really do awesome things with a bachelor's degree, and I think that sometimes that gets missed along the way."

Elise Birkett, who earned an M.A. from Boston University in May, is enthusiastic about her new job as an associate scientist and organic synthetic chemist at AstraZeneca in Boston. Working in the area of antibacterial drug discovery (see page 15), her job "certainly does not involve doing the same reactions over and over again. I am very much encouraged to do new chemistry," she says. "I always feel that my ideas are very valued, and so I feel the freedom to try different things and come up with my own ideas, which is really what makes chemistry exciting."

As a consequence the competitive industrial environment, many companies need to have all their employees–regardless of their level of education–contributing ideas and creating solutions. Empowering employees at all educational levels is critical at Esstech, an Essington, Pa.-based developer and manufacturer of specialized raw materials for products including dental composites, contact lenses, and cosmetics. "We are a small, tight-knit group where everyone knows each other, and if there's a big job to do, everyone jumps in and helps out," says Jim Duff, an Esstech research chemist who earned a B.S. in chemistry from California State University, Fullerton, last May.

Credit: Courtesy Of Monica Huynh ENGINEER After interning for a petrochemical company, where her work included sampling unprocessed oil, Huynh switched her career focus to the semiconductor industry and will start an engineering job with Texas Instruments in June.
Credit: Courtesy Of Monica Huynh ENGINEER After interning for a petrochemical company, where her work included sampling unprocessed oil, Huynh switched her career focus to the semiconductor industry and will start an engineering job with Texas Instruments in June.

For his part, Duff is actively involved in work to tailor molecules to fill specific gaps in the marketplace or to fit the precise needs of customers. He likes that his job combines synthetic organic and analytical chemistry and requires him to draw on experience he gained in a previous job in the cosmetic field, which he held for almost nine years before going back to finish his degree. Another plus, he says, is that his position also allows him room to do "true blue-sky' research" in between customer projects.

Similarly, freedom to work independently and to learn a new area of chemistry is something that Brian Caldwell loves about his new job as a radiochemist for IBA Molecular, an international diagnostics company. He came to IBA's Sterling, Va., facility after a brief stint with a Maryland-based bioscience company where he was limited to doing very basic, directed chemistry, he says.

Caldwell feels fortunate to have landed this kind of role in R&D with only a bachelor's degree, he says, noting that he might have "come in at the right time" as his department had just been formed. Still, at IBA, his advanced-degreed colleagues, "treat me as an equal," says Caldwell, who earned a B.S. in chemistry from the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, in May 2006. "They will ask for my input on certain things and make me feel like part of the team."

Jeremy Deguzman, a research associate within Roche's Biochemical Pharmacology group in Palo Alto, Calif., says he enjoys a similar level of support. "The group here is great. They are very supportive and willing to listen to my ideas," says Deguzman, who has a B.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Although his primary responsibility is overseeing the technicalities of screening assays for inflammation testing, he is also able to "combine elements of programming, biotechnology, and biochemical and pharmacological theory" in his job, which he started in late 2006.

While some B.S.- and M.S.-degreed scientists are pleasantly surprised by their level of involvement in company R&D efforts, others are delighted to discover the breadth of opportunities that are available to them.

"I always thought that my only option would be to work in a lab or as a technician, but I was amazed by all the different jobs that were offered to me," says Monica Huynh, who will start as a semiconductor fabrication engineer at Texas Instruments in Houston in mid-June. In this position, which she will take just after graduating with a B.S. in chemistry from the University of Texas, Austin, she will monitor the stages of manufacturing "to optimize efficiency and make sure the process runs smoothly on a daily basis," she says.

Although landing an engineering job as a chemist felt like a long shot, Huynh was eager to pursue those opportunities after her brother led her on a tour of a facility owned by Applied Materials, a supplier of products and services to the semiconductor industry. Venturing into the engineering job fair at UT Austin, she was surprised to find that the visiting companies were actively recruiting chemists. Chemists, they reasoned, are trained to be detail-oriented and have strong problem-solving skills, which are beneficial within corporate team structures. In addition, she found that "there are phases in the process of making a semiconductor chip that a chemist might understand better than a mechanical engineer."

Thinking outside the lab may create multiple opportunities for some chemists like Huynh. For others, exploring nontraditional job possibilities may serve as a strategy for finding a first job in a market where demand for chemists has been fluctuating (C&EN, March 3, page 37).

"I sometimes felt that my only career path led to a seat behind a laboratory bench," says Rachel Wooley, now an associate editor with Holt McDougal, a division of textbook publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. "But as my own job search began, I realized that many fields require the expertise of a scientist," she says. "I just kept asking myself, "Okay, who needs a chemist today?' "

Wooley began her job in August 2006, about three months after graduating magna cum laude with a B.A. in chemistry and a minor in professional writing from Texas A&M University. Currently, she is involved in editing the chemistry chapters of a middle school physical science book.

Job seekers need to be open-minded and creative in their search, Wooley says. Although she was most interested in scientific writing, she applied for employment in a variety of fields, including forensic science, public relations, and teaching, she says.

It does not pay to be too selective during the job search, says Nicholas Lewellen, a senior associate scientist for quality assurance at Pfizer in Groton, Conn. "Don't forgo applying for a job or turn down an interview simply because you don't believe you want that particular job," advises Lewellen, who earned a B.A. in chemistry from the College of Wooster, in Ohio. "Even if the interview does not result in a job, it can expose you to different industries and help you gain a perspective on the culture of a given company," he adds. "Knowing what you do not want to do can be as valuable as knowing what you want to do."

Being open-minded is critical for job-hunting chemists outside the U.S. as well, according to Ng Ru Hui, a scientific associate in the chemistry laboratory at Novartis Institute for Tropical Diseases in Singapore. She advises undergraduates to remain receptive to positions "that might not be your first choice." Sometimes that starter job might be just the ticket for new chemists who need to gain "domain knowledge" before they land a dream job in their desired industry, says Ru Hui, who received a B.S. in chemistry with honors from the National University of Singapore. "Companies tend to prefer candidates with experience working in the laboratory," she adds.

Credit: Amy Strong
Duff helps design molecules to fill gaps in the marketplace or satisfy customer needs at Esstech, a specialized raw materials firm.
Credit: Amy Strong
Duff helps design molecules to fill gaps in the marketplace or satisfy customer needs at Esstech, a specialized raw materials firm.

That experience can come through internships and temporary work. Some would-be industrial chemists gain experience before graduation. For example, Eric Hendrickson, a product technologist at GE Water & Process Technologies in The Woodlands, Texas, took on an internship at the Tarrant County Medical Examiner's office in Fort Worth, working with their analytical teams in trace, drug, and toxicology labs.

In addition, while at Texas A&M, where he earned a B.S. in chemistry in 2005, Hendrickson worked with a carbon-dating research group and a nanotechnology research group, which allowed him to become familiar with using a scanning electron microscope. Having hands-on experience with instrumentation, he says, gave him an edge over other applicants for his current position, which involves performing analytical tests for customers in the water and hydrocarbon process industries using techniques such as gas chromatography, nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, and scanning electron microscopy.

Instrumentation experience is one attribute that really helps candidates stand out in a crowd of applicants, says Huntsman's Van Gemert, who worked last year at the employment agency Manpower helping to place chemists and other scientists into jobs.

She also worked to hone her lab skills both inside and outside of school. As part of her university research, she has used gas chromatography and mass spectrometry in the characterization of tree resins and in the analysis of a plant residue on prehistoric tools. She also built her instrumentation skills while working for a small, family-owned analytical lab.

For some, internships or other temporary jobs can lead to lucrative full-time positions within the same organizations. McLeod, for example, landed an internship with Dow AgroSciences over the summer of 2004, and then secured a temporary job there as a contract chemist. She held that job throughout most of her senior year and for nine months afterward, before being hired into her current position.

Although it wasn't easy to work while earning her degree and "to pass up a summer of reuniting with high school friends," the sacrifices paid off, McLeod says. The temporary work allowed McLeod to sharpen her technical skills and test the waters at Dow, while the company evaluated her in an "extended interview process," she says. "In the end, I was a very low-risk hire."

In a similar move, Ru Hui got her foot in the door at Novartis Institute for Tropical Diseases by participating in a training attachment program, which was a collaboration between the Economic Development Board of Singapore and biomedical companies including the Novartis Institute.

During the one-year "attachment period," Ru Hui says, she capitalized on the opportunity to equip herself with the skills and knowledge required to be a full-time scientific associate with the institute. As a result, she earned a permanent position there in 2005.

Credit: Dow AgroSciences
At Dow AgroSciences, McLeod designs and synthesizes molecules aimed at controlling pests to improve crop yields.
Credit: Dow AgroSciences
At Dow AgroSciences, McLeod designs and synthesizes molecules aimed at controlling pests to improve crop yields.

Her work focuses on the synthesis of organic compounds designed by the institute's principal investigators. "Depending on the state of the research project we are involved in, my projects can involve trying out new reaction conditions for a novel compound, doing parallel synthesis of compound libraries, or optimizing reaction conditions in preparation for a scale-up process. My day-to-day work consists of setting up chemical reactions as well as doing purification and analytical characterization of the target compounds."


Another B.S.-level chemist, LeAnthony Holliness, used temporary work as a stepping stone to a full-time position within the same company. While earning a B.S. degree in chemistry from Texas A&M, Holliness began searching for internships in beauty and health care product development—a field he had dreamed of entering after studying synthetic organic chemistry.

He became interested in Procter & Gamble after participating in a company symposium recommended by one of his professors. He was accepted into an internship there the following summer. And last June he started in his job as a product development researcher, testing products and ideas with consumers to "understand what they really want and how we can bring that to life through our technology." Holliness believes that the internship gave him exposure critical to landing the full-time position because it "really showed them how I would fit," he says.

Those who can't intern for a prospective employer can often demonstrate their ability to assimilate into the corporate culture through the interview process. Showing a fit with the personalities within a group or team can be an important part of the interviewing process that many candidates overlook as they focus on the important task of promoting their knowledge and skills and presenting their research.

Second interviews, in particular, "aren't about what you can do," Huynh says. "They are about finding out if you are a perfect fit for the company and if the company is a perfect fit for you." Her job offer at Texas Instruments came after she was able to demonstrate that she had the desired skills and work ethic, as well as a personality that would fit comfortably within the company environment over the course of a career, she says.

The story is not much different for M.S.-degreed chemists pursuing positions in a lab environment, according to Donna Friel, an assistant scientist within the lead discovery team at Schering-Plough Research Institute in Cambridge, Mass.

"Although your CV and letters of recommendation from your adviser are the keys that get you in the door, it's your performance in the interview that gets you the job," says Friel, who is finishing a master's in chemistry at Boston College.

During an interview, which typically lasts an entire day, "it's important to be confident and show that you are well-educated and trained, but, most important, you have to let your character show through," she says.

At that point, "it's not so much about the chemistry, it's about you as a person and how you would fit with people that you work with," she says. "I am a very social person, I communicate clearly, and I am very determined and energetic about my work, which I think gave me a leg up on interview day."

In particular, managers and lab personnel involved in the interview "want to determine what you can contribute to a team, and they judge this by how well you interact with potential colleagues," Friel says.

From his own experience, Pfizer's Lewellen knows it can be difficult for freshly minted chemists to make the "paradigm shift" to working on teams in industry. "In college, I did some assignments as part of a team, but overall, I did the majority of my work on my own," he says. "In addition, I think my college experience could be characterized as rather competitive," which could be true of many chemists moving from school into industry. However difficult it might be, making the adjustment is critical, he says. "If you are not willing to consistently and effectively work as part of a team, you will be in for a rude awakening."

In addition to seeking strong team players, recruiters also favor those candidates who want to support committee work and social programs outside the lab, AstraZeneca's Birkett says. During the interview, she felt she gained an edge by "making it very clear that I was not just here to make compounds, but I also wanted to contribute to the corporate culture and the community." In the near term, she is eager to help set up a system to facilitate communication among those in her department as it expands into a second building.

Gaining an edge in the interview "has a lot to do with attitude and passion," Holliness says. While meeting with Procter & Gamble recruiters, "I asked a lot of questions, and it was probably clear that I wanted nothing more than to get in there and play with them."

Credit: Tricia May
While finishing her master's degree at Boston College, Friel works as an assistant scientist within the lead discovery team at Schering-Plough Research Institute.
Credit: Tricia May
While finishing her master's degree at Boston College, Friel works as an assistant scientist within the lead discovery team at Schering-Plough Research Institute.

Not surprisingly, Holliness aspires to carve out a long career in beauty and health care product development. "Although it is sometimes stressful, I like the fast-paced nature of business compared with academia. It always keeps things interesting," he says. "One day I hope to be the lead for many great projects that make superior products to positively impact the lives of people around the world."

Esstech's Duff, too, hopes to take his work to the next level. "Ultimately I'd like to help grow and run a research lab, preferably the one I'm in now," he says. "I love the research I am doing at this point, but we don't yet have the staff and resources needed to try all the things I want to try."

Others see their current job as an important stepping stone to other career avenues. Hendrickson, for example, is "working toward branching into management, while maintaining a grasp on the technical field," he says.

Huynh, too, has set her sights on management. She would like to earn an M.B.A., eventually becoming a chief executive of a chemical company. "An undergraduate chemistry degree can take you a long way in life if you combine it with hard work," she concludes.

Deguzman echoes that point. Within Roche, many B.S.-level scientists have been promoted from associate level to positions typically held by a Ph.D. "via hard work, dedication, individual contribution, and perseverance. At this company, it's possible to participate in or even lead the charge on groundbreaking discoveries" with only an undergraduate degree, he says.

Still, Deguzman hopes to find a way to return to the classroom to "build a much stronger scientific foundation and improve my ability to contribute to the science."

Dow AgroSciences's McLeod is another B.S. chemist who may return to school to pursue a Ph.D., but not in the near future. "I can do everything I want to do right now—from mental and paper chemistry to physically executing the reactions," she says. "I am very happy."


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