Credit: Ryan Inzana
The chemistry graduate school experience
Christine Le thought she wanted to be a doctor, but she loved chemistry. When she had to decide on an undergraduate specialization, a professor took her aside for a chat. “He said, ‘People take a lot of different paths, so you should study what you love and let the career decisions unfold later,’ ” Le recalls. She ended up completing a doctoral program in organic chemistry and is now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley.
She’s now on the hunt for an academic job, hopefully in her home country of Canada. Le reads blogs, subscribes to alerts, sends emails to previous supervisors, and tries to get the word out about her search. “It’s extremely stressful,” she admits. “Right now, the postings are coming up and the cycle is just beginning, so I’ve been trying to formulate application packages, tidy up my CV, and think about job prospects—all while also trying to finish my research.”
More students than ever are learning skills to segue from their education into careers in academia, industry, government, policy, or other jobs.
“The biggest need of all is to make students aware of all the career areas where they could utilize their graduate degree,” says Joerg Schlatterer, who leads the ACS Graduate & Postdoctoral Scholars Office. “Unfortunately, only a small fraction of students are aware of the value of their degree in the workforce.”
One of the ways the American Chemical Society is helping bridge the gap is through the Preparing for Life after Graduate School Workshop that chemistry departments can host. It is designed to teach graduate students and postdoctoral scholars about career options and how to prepare for them.
The workshop helps with more than imagining careers: It teaches the skills that students need to land those coveted jobs, says Lisa Balbes, one of the workshop facilitators. “Most students don’t think much about a plan for their careers. They just think, ‘OK, I went to high school and then to college and then graduate school and a postdoc,’ ” she says.
Balbes had her own career hiccups early on. She relocated, with her husband, to a new city for a job that fell through. “There was only one city where we both had job offers. But when I arrived the group didn’t receive a grant, so they didn’t have any money to hire me,” she says. Instead, Balbes shifted to technical writing and career consulting. “I thought maybe someone else can learn from my mistake.”
In addition to lab skills, interpersonal skills are crucial. That starts with networking. From early on in grad school, it helps to contact alumni who are working in various fields and find out what their positions are like.
Getting a job often requires legwork. “The biggest thing that students don’t understand is that most jobs are not posted,” says Lori Spangler, an ACS career consultant and presenter. “You can’t sit in your office and submit online these days,” she says. “You have to be networking.”
Doing informational interviews widens a student’s chances to grab those hidden jobs. Spangler suggests that anyone who graduated from the student’s adviser’s group is a good place to start. Most schools have a LinkedIn group by department or college, she says. “You could look at the alumni group and look for someone at your dream job and ask them to have a conversation with you about their career path.”
Conferences are another opportunity for forging connections. “When you go to a conference or give a poster, you are a professional,” Spangler says. It’s a student’s job to meet people and make meaningful contacts. “You may have the best possible résumé, but you still have to get out there and talk to people.”
For Le, Twitter has been a path to engaging with other scientists. At a recent Canadian chemistry conference, she organized a tweetup of 40–50 scientists. Twitter has given her an opportunity to meet chemists in diverse fields from all over the world. “One of the most pivotal aspects of my career has been my networking,” she says. “It’s been instrumental for building my name, my confidence, and collaborations and friendships.”
It’s not always easy. The people drawn to science are often thinkers and introverts, so having to talk to people can be daunting. Still, working through that hesitation will reap benefits. “Because applying to jobs is so hard, you need to talk with people,” the chemistry-career blogger Chemjobber says. He says that even though networks are great, it’s still necessary to put in the time in front of a screen, formatting résumés and tailoring cover letters. “The application process is the immovable object, and you have to figure out the best way of dealing with the problem.”
Many chemistry graduates end up in industry. A smaller portion go to academic jobs, and others end up in careers like policy, intellectual property, project management, and more.
Jordan Ho, a fourth-year chemistry grad student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, currently plans on heading to industry, but his plans are still malleable. “Long term, I’d like to be still doing research or some form of wet-lab work,” Ho says. “I think I’d be happy if whatever I do had me still tapped into cutting-edge research.”
Ho has considered going into consulting because his brother works in that area. “I like the aspects of teamwork, network, and the sense of helping others with expertise that consulting offers,” Ho says.
Another path he’s considering: using his biochemical knowledge and skills in the food industry. He’s fascinated by companies like Finless Foods and Impossible Foods that use animal cells to create food without animal-based agriculture or aquaculture.
Spangler’s advice to students who want to go into industry is to figure out if a postdoc position is required. In many cases, it’s not. “Postdocs make a lot of sense for foreign nationals and for people who want to pursue academia,” she says. But a second postdoc is rarely a good idea, she says. “Postdocs should not be the default next thing because you don’t know what to do,” she says. “It is a holding pattern unless you are using it to build up a CV for a career in academia.”
For students who want to simply learn more about what career options exist, there’s a do-it-yourself way. Safia Jilani, a fourth-year student at Georgetown University, teamed up with classmate Johnson Truong and pitched an idea to the chair of the chemistry department: They wanted to organize monthly career seminars in which alumni share their career paths and answer questions from current students.
Professors aren’t allowed to attend, which creates an open and candid atmosphere, Jilani says. Speakers for the seminar series have included a patent lawyer, an operations analyst for the Department of Defense, a director for the wind technology office in the Department of Energy, and a chemist for the U.S. Geological Survey. Since many grad students attend, the seminars can plant the seeds for future job prospects.
In the end, ACS’s Schlatterer says, only the students can make a career take flight. “No school, no employer, no society cares as much as they do about their career,” Schlatterer says. “Everyone else provides resources, but only they can make the magic happen.”
Katharine Gammon is a freelance writer based in Santa Monica, Calif.