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Strategy, Serendipity, And A Paycheck

Chemists share Tips for finding work and stories of how they used them

by Susan J. Ainsworth
November 4, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 44


Although the Great Recession officially ended more than four years ago, the job market remains anemic, and many unemployed chemists are still struggling to find work.

However, not everyone in the profession is down on their luck. Some chemists are finding jobs—and jobs that they love. To uncover their keys to success, C&EN asked readers to tell us how they landed their current, coveted positions.

Through our website, we received a treasure trove of tales, which describe determined feats, lucky breaks, and clever strategies. Here we share a sampling of those stories and tips, edited for brevity and clarity, which may help those still pounding the pavement.


Credit: Photo courtesy of George Hartmann

Natalie LaFranzo, project scientist, Cofactor Genomics, St. Louis; B.S., chemistry, Bradley University, 2007; Ph.D., chemistry, Washington University in St. Louis, 2013

Through the Biotechnology & Life Science Advising (BALSA) Group, a nonprofit consulting group founded and led by graduate students and postdoctoral fellows at Washington University in St. Louis, I had the opportunity to interact with a number of local start-up companies during graduate school. This inspired me to pursue a career in industry.

I liked the idea of working for a small start-up company. However, I knew that finding a job in that kind of firm might be difficult as many start-ups and small companies do not have enough funds to hire a full-time scientist.

I constantly attended networking events and scoured LinkedIn for open positions. In the end, I found the opening for my current position at Cofactor Genomics through a posting on Craigslist!

Craigslist turned out to be a good place to look for a job; many companies post openings there to avoid using more expensive sites. One piece of job-search advice: Don’t discount any venue for job postings. Use every resource available to you!




Mike J. Idacavage, vice president of business development, PL Industries, a division of Esstech, Philadelphia; B.S., chemistry, Drexel University, 1975; Ph.D., chemistry, Syracuse University, 1979

I was looking for a new opportunity after being downsized from Cytec Industries in June 2011. While searching for a job, I volunteered to coordinate the technical program for a two-day conference in my specialty area of UV curing. Because the conference was a considerable distance away, I planned to arrange the sessions and speakers from home but not take on the expense of attending. But a week prior to the conference, the coordinators convinced me to make the trip.

While I was up at the podium introducing the conference speakers, a former colleague whom I had worked with in the late 1980s came in and sat in the audience. He had just taken on a new role as president of a different company. He turned to someone he knew in the audience and mentioned that he had not seen me for many years and he wondered what I was up to. That person told him that I was looking for a job.

After the session was over, he approached me and said that we should talk. It turned out that he was looking to hire someone with my skills and experience. On the basis of our earlier interaction and my success solving quality-control problems at a major supplier, he felt I was a perfect match. Two to three weeks later, in November 2011, I started a very positive new career with his company. My new job has been the perfect marriage of chemistry and business and offers the bonus of being firmly based in UV-curable technology.



Credit: Photo courtesy of Amber Evans

Amber Evans, product development scientist, BASF, Tarrytown, N.Y.; B.S., chemistry, North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University, 2005; Ph.D., pharmaceutical sciences with an emphasis on cosmetic science, University of Cincinnati, 2011

I found my current position at BASF by networking. I initially applied for a generic postdoctoral position at the company because there were no listings for permanent positions in my field of personal care technology. After a month passed with no response, I realized that I would have to take a more aggressive approach to landing a job.

I decided to contact a BASF employee who was an industry expert. Via e-mail, I introduced myself as a recent graduate and fellow scientist, praised his contributions to the field, and inquired about career opportunities at BASF. I was nervous about contacting him in that way, but I knew the importance of being a “go-getter” in a tough job market, and I didn’t want to miss out on the potential opportunity to work with him.

He responded with information about an open permanent position and made an internal request to hire a postdoctoral scientist under the company’s postdoctoral and professional development programs.

The request was initially put on hold, but I continued to follow up with him every two months or so. Eight months after our initial contact, I received an e-mail stating that a position was open! The interviews were arranged, and an offer was extended the day after the on-site interview. I am proud to say that those initial e-mails between two strangers—a helpful employee and a determined job seeker—ultimately led to my gaining a great mentor and starting the career I had always envisioned.



Credit: Photo courtesy of C.L. Rossiter

Lana M. Rossiter, lieutenant commander, Center for Tobacco Products, Rockville, Md.; B.S., chemistry, Emory University, 1992; Ph.D., synthetic organic chemistry, University of Oregon, 1998

In 2010 as pharma-related jobs were being increasingly offshored, I was employed at Albany Molecular Research Inc., a contract research organization (CRO) in upstate New York. Disenchanted with the CRO world, I was looking for a way to apply my chemistry knowledge outside of the lab. I was particularly interested in the Food & Drug Administration. So I decided to apply to become an officer in the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, one of the seven U.S. uniformed services. The corps serves many agencies, including FDA.

Only a few weeks after I submitted my application, before it could be processed, I was laid off from my job of 10 years. Fortunately, by following leads I found through an ACS job site, I quickly landed a job at Draths, a Lansing, Mich.-based chemical start-up, in September 2010.

However, I didn’t stop pursuing my goal of becoming an officer. Four months after beginning my job at Draths, I was accepted for a commission, but there was a hold in calling new officers to duty. And although I was accepted to serve, I still needed to look for open positions into which I could be commissioned, which I did via the website.

Eventually, everything worked out. Draths closed its doors just as I was set to begin my current position as a chemistry reviewer at the Center for Tobacco Products within FDA. And in December 2011, I was commissioned at the rank of lieutenant commander. My duties include reviewing tobacco product applications and assessing research gaps in tobacco science—work that I find to be very interesting and rewarding.




John McCarter, director of business development, Soluble Therapeutics, Birmingham, Ala.; B.S., marketing, Virginia Tech, 2002; B.S., chemistry, University of West Alabama, 2009; M.Sc., biotechnology, University of Alabama, Birmingham, 2011

I got my job by totally reorienting my career and going back to school starting in 2007. While completing a master’s program, I interned with Soluble Therapeutics and was subsequently brought on full-time in a hybrid research associate-business development position upon my graduation.

Now, in my current role as director of business development, most of my time is spent traveling for business purposes.

Making the switch into the biotech world is the best decision I ever made. I love my job, because I am constantly challenged and always working with highly motivated people.




Lacey Fitts, instructor of science education, Delta State University, Cleveland, Miss.; B.A., chemistry, Mississippi State University, 1998; M.S., inorganic chemistry, Vanderbilt University, 2007; Ed.D., higher education/education leadership, Delta State University, 2014 (expected)

I have a passion for science outreach that has guided my career choices over the past decade. In my prior role as a National Science Foundation teaching fellow at Vanderbilt University, I was able to bring “real” science into local middle school classrooms. This fueled my appetite for teaching, and I taught high school science courses before moving to the rural Mississippi Delta.


When I interviewed for my position with Delta State University, I was asked to give a talk to the students and faculty. In that talk, I wowed the crowd with a science demonstration that involved creating a fireball in the front of the classroom. I also emphasized my commitment to serving economically disadvantaged students. I think that they were able to see my enthusiasm for science education.

In my current position, I have the opportunity to help teachers get the resources they need to be successful, and I get to train our next generation of science teachers. I LOVE my job.

I am not saying that every chemist should blow something up during his or her interview, but it worked for me.



Credit: Photo Courtesy of Jeanette Greenlee

Jeanette Greenlee, manager, Fujifilm Manufacturing USA’s Greenwood Research Laboratory, Greenwood, S.C.; B.S., chemistry, Augusta State University, Augusta, Ga., 1998

After being laid off from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site in the spring of 2005, I had six months of unemployment benefits, a bit of severance, and plenty of optimism. One plus: I was able to keep my ACS membership due to the unemployed-member benefit, and I steadily used ACS resources to look for career advice and jobs.

I searched for work online and applied for jobs daily, but my optimism began to wane. At the end of that August, I decided to attend the fall ACS national meeting in Washington, D.C., and having the ACS unemployment benefit meant that I could go for free. I booked a cheap flight and a room at a fleabag hotel and scheduled three interviews through the career fair.

After the first interview turned into a conversation, I had a good feeling about it. Sure enough, in a few weeks I had an on-site interview resulting in an offer to start the week after my unemployment benefits ran out.




Daniel Udwary, senior scientist, Warp Drive Bio, Cambridge, Mass.; B.S., chemistry, University at Albany, SUNY, 1996; Ph.D., chemistry, Johns Hopkins University, 2003

A few years after starting work as an assistant professor at the University of Rhode Island, I was shown an article by a colleague describing Warp Drive Bio, a biotech start-up that was conducting research remarkably similar to mine. We were both conducting genome mining for discovery of medicinal compounds from bacteria. I was intrigued with the idea of working there.

To keep an eye on them and their hiring plans, I set up an automated news alert on Google, using Warp Drive Bio as a search term, so I’d receive any news about the company. Then in early 2013, my current boss posted a job ad on LinkedIn for a somewhat low-level position. I immediately applied for the position to get my foot in the door. Ultimately, I was hired as a senior scientist in June 2013 and have never been happier.




Matthew Meredith, senior chemist, Huntsman Corp., The Woodlands, Texas; B.S., biochemistry, Oklahoma Christian University, 2004; Ph.D., chemistry, University of Oklahoma, 2010

I really enjoyed my postdoc experiences at Saint Louis University and the University of Utah, but I was continuously on the lookout for jobs because I knew the work was temporary. Through the jobs website, I applied for my current position, because the research sounded interesting.

I didn’t know anyone at Huntsman before interviewing there, and I had no industry experience. I had one phone interview and one on-site interview, during which I presented some of my postdoctoral research on biofuel cells.

In my opinion, I got the job for three reasons: My group was looking for inexperienced chemists to train in the area of agrochemical surfactant research; I had a good publication record and good speaking skills; and I am originally from the area where the job is located, so that made me a minimal flight risk.


Shifting To Retail


Ethan Pulliam, assistant manager, Wal-Mart, Arlington, Texas; B.A., chemistry, Texas A&M University, 2013

After interviewing for several positions for which I was unsuccessfully competing with engineering students, and deciding that research just wasn’t for me, I opted to try a different route. I decided to pursue a job as a retail manager, even though it has nothing to do with chemistry.


I applied for my current position at Wal-Mart through the university career center. During the interview, I emphasized the leadership experiences I gained from being in the Army and the Corps of Cadets during college rather than what I learned from classes. I received an offer within a few days to start whenever I was ready.


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