With a title like “Great Expectations” you may be expecting a semi-autobiographical novel of literary renown, but you would be wrong. I only have 500 words and I’m no Charles Dickens, so you’ll have to be more realistic.
It is easy to lose perspective with the onslaught of distorted information and communications hurled at us everyday through television and the Internet. Commercials and pop-up ads promise the impossible and an expectation of entitled grandeur seeps into our psyche. Impossibly thin people with UV-activated smiles also prey on our insecurities making us think that others are getting ahead—cheating us out of the life that we deserve.
The reality of the situation is that U.S. chemists have got it pretty good. Surveys of ACS members peg the unemployment rate for chemists at 3.1% which compares quite favorably to that for the general public at 4.6%. Our most recent job fair held during the ACS National Meeting in Boston also bodes well for the profession. With 913 positions available to a pool of 1,526 job seekers, the odds were pretty good: 1.7 job seekers per position. But when you are unemployed or looking to make a career transition, it is easy to lose sight of the figures. That’s when it is necessary to take stock and put our lives in perspective.
The numbers above represent national employment trends, but local situations vary. Odds for someone in the Midwest might be significantly worse than for someone in the “Biotech Corridor” along route U.S. 270 in Bethesda. Likewise, the call for theoretical chemists is not as loud as that for medicinal scientists.
The expectations of employers also play a role in our potential to be hired. Employers are not looking for “us” as we see ourselves. They are looking for an amalgam of dreams and wishes expressed by those involved in their hiring process. Line managers look to output potential, while R&D managers look for innovation. To be successful, we must be willing to repackage ourselves in the wrapper they dictate. Otherwise, we will not get their attention.
Chemists, especially those with experience, have many skills and talents of which they are unaware. A careful self-dissection can be helpful in the discovery of undiscovered strengths. A look through the lens of interpersonal relationships to see how you influence others may reveal traces of leadership, innovation and teamwork.
It may also help to switch perspectives from one technical field to another. For example, a synthetic inorganic chemist viewed through a biotechnical lens might have applicable biochemical knowledge. After all, heme complexes of metal ions have more to do with biological systems than inorganic chemistry.
As chemists, we are familiar with breaking molecules down into the atoms of their composition. We are also familiar with ways to recombine the same atoms into new structures. When employment factors change around us, we must be equally adept at transforming our images into those demanded by the market.
Knowing what we should expect in a job search and what others will expect from us is the best way to shape our expectations.
This article was written by David Harwell, Ph.D., assistant director of the ACS Department of Career Management and Development. Originally published in the chemistry.org newsletter on Sept. 10, 2007.