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Bench & Cubicle

How to design the perfect career panel

Don’t invite your friends—pick panelists that point young people toward the diverse future of chemistry

by Chemjobber, special to C&EN
November 26, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 43


An illustration of a computer monitor showing four people on a video call.
Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock

We’ve all been to boring career panels with four versions of the same story. It’s either “I went to graduate school, then a postdoc, and now I’m a professor” or “I went to graduate school, and I’ve been working at the same R&D department for the last 10 years.” But career panels don’t have to be this way. In fact, these events should be especially engaging because they address an extremely important question: What does the future look like for chemists?

Many career panels end up being a combination of old friends and regular business contacts of the organizer, which is a quick and easy approach. But just because people are chemists does not mean that they are representative of careers in the chemistry community. Instead, a career-panel organizer should be asking, “What is the best way to teach young people about the wide range of careers in chemistry?”

Who would I invite to a career panel for graduate students and postdocs? I’ve found it relatively easy to identify panelists with diverse career paths—a mix of industrial chemists, chemistry professors, and people who work at government laboratories is a good place to start. A warning when choosing panelists: if you have four panelists and more than one of them is a professor, you are sending an unspoken message that more than 25% of PhD chemists become tenure-track faculty. However, the current percentage of PhD chemists who are tenure-track faculty is around 13%, and the highest the percentage got was around 36%. Still, career panels tend to happen in academic environments, so it’s an understandable and simple choice to have one of your four career panelists be a professor.

However, a statistical approach to a career panel would not work well when it comes to questions of gender or race. When I am organizing any sort of panel, career or otherwise, I work hard for it to have at least 50% women and a strong representation of people of color. This puts forward an aspirational chemistry enterprise, not our current demographics. But I think it’s important to send the message that the future of chemistry can be an equitable one.

Ideally, one or two of the panelists will have had an interesting transition in their career, such as someone who was a professor but is now an industrial research scientist or vice versa. Another idea is someone who started in research and then moved into other functions within a company, especially leadership positions. People who have had multiple jobs can offer a bit of contrast to those with a more traditional career path. They can contrast the different job application processes and even address the question “What is success?” If you’re a moderator, you can ask panelists why they made a career change. Sometimes you can learn about the deeper motivations within their careers, whether it be the traditional (more money, a new leadership position) or the less discussed (they were tired of what they were doing or wanted a less toxic environment).

If you’re organizing this panel at a university, consider including alumni from the institution so there is a clear connection between audience members and the panelists. The panelists aren’t just panelists for that day—they serve as potential contacts for future employment, so that alumni connection can be helpful.

No matter who the speakers are, every career panel should start with a reminder that not all people who graduate with a chemistry degree end up working as chemists. Chemistry careers can span from the typical (academic or industrial research) to the unusual (chemists who change careers to medicine, finance, or even politics). It also helps to include the reality check that the median time to a PhD in chemistry is 6 years. You can also touch on the median starting salaries of typical positions. If I could, I would list the actual jobs of recent program graduates, ideally with their starting salary ranges.

A great career panel is energizing. By hearing the panelists’ stories, young people start to understand their own next steps, which is a crucial aspect of any career discussion. Undoubtedly, students and postdocs need to understand how to navigate the pathways of common careers. Even more importantly, a great panel has the chance to bend or even break their paradigms of jobs in the chemical sciences and show students the panoply of potential careers they didn’t know existed.

Chemjobber is an industrial chemist who blogs about the chemistry job market at Find all his columns for C&EN and suggest future topics at

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



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