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Bench & Cubicle

Chemjobber’s mailbag: remote work, leaving academia, and age discrimination

Chemistry blogger answers readers’ questions in this edition of Bench & Cubicle

by Chemjobber, special to C&EN
August 24, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 31

 

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What types of chemical or chemical- adjacent roles can be done remotely? What jobs require traveling and thus less time spent at a home-base location? How do bench chemists market themselves for such roles?

Chemistry is described as the “central science,” and I tend to think of performing and analyzing chemical reactions to be at the center of the central science. These two activities must be done in a properly equipped laboratory. Everything else—purchasing, planning, report writing, budgeting, and sales—can all be done remotely. I suspect that 10–25% of the staff of the business side of chemistry worked from afar before the pandemic. For example, the sales force for chemical companies has likely been fully remote for the last 10 years. Regulatory, legal, and quality assurance work can also be done remotely.

For those who like traveling, sales is the obvious role. If you’d like to combine hands-on technical expertise with customer interaction, consider a position as a field-instrumentation engineer, in which you would travel to install, fix, and maintain laboratory equipment. I’ve yet to meet one of these experts who doesn’t seem to enjoy their job.

If you think you’re interested in one of these positions, start by talking to people who have made the transition out of the laboratory into such a job. Then you can express interest to both your current manager and potential new ones.

I am very intrigued to see what will happen with remote work after the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in the chemical sciences. In the broader economy, a disconnect is arising between workers’ desire not to resume commuting and “come back to the office” missives issued by senior management. I can’t predict who will win this particular tug-of-war, but I do think there will be more remote workers 10 years from now than there are today.

What is the proper timeline for leaving academia without burning bridges? How soon should you notify your department chair that you are considering leaving? Should you wait to notify your department until you have another job offer?

I’m not an academic, so I’m not sure I can offer an expert opinion. However, I think a good guideline is to avoid undue hardship on your leadership or your colleagues. I think we can all agree that suddenly leaving the day before classes start would cause a lot of hardship, while giving your department chair a year’s notice is probably somewhat excessive. A semester or quarter, or possibly as little as a month depending on the institution, should be a reasonable period for your department to adjust teaching schedules and hire an adjunct or visiting professor. Definitely check whatever contract you have to ensure you’re not breaking those terms.

It’s always easier to look for a job while you have one because it takes the pressure off and allows you some options. In a particularly good job market like the US seems to have now, you might be willing to consider quitting before you have a job offer—especially if you’re thinking about leaving academia for industry—but it’s still taking quite a large chance. Best wishes with your decision!

Do chemists over 50 experience age discrimination? Is ageism a real thing?

That’s a good question. Age discrimination is real. In the US, Congress passed a law against it—the Age Discrimination in Employment Act—and, as for any civil right, its boundaries are being hashed out in the courts. I am approaching 50 myself, so it’s something that I think of more often than when I was younger. In the chemical sciences, neither academia nor industry requires leaving jobs at a certain age. What I do think exists is a subtle (perhaps sometimes not-so-subtle) belief that certain positions belong to people of a specific age range. For example, when was the last time a company hired someone over the age of 40 or 50 for an entry-level research chemist position? I suspect it’s quite rare. I don’t think it’s because the brains of 50-year-old chemists are slower or less plastic than those of younger people. Rather, I think that chemists have a preexisting idea that the “appropriate” age for laboratory chemists starts at 22 and ends somewhere in one’s early 50s.

This idea is obviously silly, but I suspect this bias still affects older job seekers during hiring and older employees during layoffs. I don’t have any data for my intuitions, unfortunately.

Chemjobber is an industrial chemist who blogs about the chemistry job market at chemjobber.blogspot.com. Find all his columns for C&EN and suggest future topics at cenm.ag/benchandcubicle.

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.

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