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Sales As A Career Option

October 8, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 41

Sept. 17, cover: The photo of a hybrid poplar tree farm should have been credited to GreenWood Tree Farm Fund. It was incorrectly credited to ZeaChem.

A recurring topic in the letters section is the angst of losing gainful employment in our beloved science.

When I held my last lab position in 1989, I was always aware that in business parlance, R&D is a cost center, while sales and marketing are profit centers. Cost centers are expendable, underfunded, and typically have pay ceilings well below profit centers. Being fluent in math, we should all realize the importance of this equation and react accordingly.

My career plans changed when my company was bought out by a larger player in our market. We were promised that our great little lab and production facility would remain untouched, but it appeared to me that would not be the case. My fight-or-flight sense kicked in, and I left for a career in chemical sales before the inevitable closing of our beloved facility.

I had never worked in sales before, and it was a scary move. As scientists we have technical expertise that one typically doesn’t find in business majors. I found that I was an invaluable asset to my customers, and I had the opportunity to practice my craft in a wide variety of industries.

I was learning and teaching while getting paid better than any chemist. It was a lucrative symbiosis for all parties. I know it’s a trite expression but it’s true: Everyone is in sales. When you apply for a job, you’re selling yourself. When you’re pushing to get funding, you’re selling your idea.

And yes, rejection is part of the territory but it’s a big territory and there are other starfish in the sea. On a personal level, sales has pushed me through my many “oh nos” and “I can’ts.” So, to all the many downsized professionals out there (and there seem to be more and more every day), I advise you to consider furthering your talents through sales. You might be surprised by what awaits you in the vast unknown.

And yes, we should still encourage students to pursue degrees in the sciences lest we contribute to the growing and dangerous pool of science illiteracy. Look around you and notice how many of us are working in fields different from our B.S. or M.S. degrees.

There is hope and opportunity just as there are lemons and lemonade.

By Mark D. Ryan



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