When you were a child, and people asked what you wanted to be when you grew up, you probably said something like doctor or teacher. Those were the careers you had personal experience with, and the ones where you thought you knew what they did.
But just because you have been to a pediatrician, does that mean you know anything about what it’s like to be a geriatric oncologist, a thoracic surgeon, or a diagnostic radiologist? Each of these is a type of doctor, but what they do is very different.
The same is true of being a chemist. My own informal surveys over the years have always shown that the majority of professional chemists became so because they had a wonderful high school teacher, who got them excited about the logic and the beauty of chemistry. Many went on to major in chemistry in college, with little knowledge of what a professional chemist does. During college they probably learned about research, and maybe even participated in some, so like they knew what a career in scientific research would involve.
However, the world of chemistry is full of all sorts of careers, with all sorts of interesting niches. No matter what part of chemistry you enjoy most, there’s probably a career in that. It can be eye opening to learn about new-to-you career paths, and realize just how much is really out there
Recently, I was researching careers in quality management. What I found was a broad range of jobs, each with a different focus, that would appeal to different kinds of people. Starting with the analytical chemistry, lab bench-oriented quality control jobs that test both raw materials and final products, there are jobs that appeal to those who like a predictable routine, knowing exactly what to do and how to do it. These jobs also involve intellectual challenge, when the results are not as expected, and the chemist must determine where the problem is, how to fix it, and hopefully get the production back on track with minimal downtime and product loss.
Moving away from production and into the bigger picture, there are the more process and documentation-oriented quality assurance positions. These scientists are responsible for implementing and improving quality processes, in order to reduce the risk of product defects. They too may be called in when there are problems with the processes they have instituted, and changes are required.
Moving to the even larger picture are the regulatory affairs professionals who are familiar with all the current regulations, make sure the proper processes are followed, and ensure that all processes meet at local, state and federal requirements in all the appropriate jurisdictions. And of course, there are public policy scientists who advise those who create the rules in the first place, and government agents who receive the reports and inspect to make sure everything is in order.
In looking at this whole spectrum, I would bet there are some jobs that you find intriguing, as well as some that you have absolutely no interest in. It’s usually not too hard to convince candidates to investigate the ones they find interesting, to learn more about what they really involve and what skills are really required.
But a more interesting challenge is to take one of the jobs that does not interest you, and see if you can think of a way that you might turn it into something that you could enjoy? If you did it at a larger company, so the tasks were more focused, would that make it match your interests? Or if you worked at a smaller company, so your duties were more diverse, would you like that better? What if you could do that job in a particular industry, or working on a particular kind of product?
By turning it into a game, and forcing yourself to not immediately discard the option, you will force yourself to think in new, creative directions. Stretching your mind like this will help you be more creative when the time comes to think about what you really do want to do next, since you will have lots of practice in developing new possibilities.
This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC. Lisa is a freelance technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists: New Formulas for Chemistry Careers,” published by Oxford University Press.