Industry restructuring is the result of mergers, acquisitions and changing R&D models. Restructuring is creating more opportunities for chemists interested in nontraditional careers. These opportunities are increasing even as R&D is increasingly done overseas. The primary reason these employment opportunities are increasing is because corporations outsource work to vendors and contractors, consultants and other “non-employee” workers.
Many chemists work in industries undergoing major restructuring. For example, many large pharmaceutical companies currently are outsourcing more R&D as the result of changing business models and disappointing results from their recent R&D programs. Entire large research centers employing hundreds or even thousands of people have already been closed. Oil companies provide another example. Many have outsourced chemistry-oriented activities to oilfield service companies. There have been waves of restructuring in the oil industry in the late 1970s – early 1980s and mid 1990s. The chemical industry experienced a lot of restructuring in the 1990s and in the years just prior to the 2008-2009 recession.
Contract and project managers
While the headlines have touted the large number of bench research jobs lost, restructuring can increase job opportunities for chemists interested in nontraditional career fields. In particular, firms need contract managers and project managers to manage their outsourced R&D projects. Strong chemistry backgrounds and industry R&D experience is needed for many of these projects.
Companies use contracts to manage outsourced R&D. Contract managers write the technical terms of these contracts. Their industry experience and strong chemical background is needed to write these contracts. The technical requirements for project success must be defined. For example, in developing a new manufacturing process for a chemical product, contract managers set required maximum cost per pound, process yields, required product purity and acceptable concentrations of byproducts. Dates must be defined for project milestones that represent intermediate goals. These project milestones must be achieved on time and on budget for the overall project to be successful.
Companies also need project managers to monitor progress on their outsourced projects and work with their R&D contractors to help keep programs on course and on schedule. These project managers must have the chemical expertise to understand the details of the contractors’ work and recognize when a project may developing problems. They have to be able to review spending and recognize when a project is going seriously over-budget and how to remedy the situation.
As mentioned, industrial R&D experience is essential in chemical R&D contract and project management. In particular, having experience as a team leader or research group manager will make one a leading candidate for these positions.
Lean R&D staffing
Companies are trying to operate with leaner R&D staffs. One way to do so is to hire chemists only for the life of a project. Both parties involved, the chemist and the employer, recognize that the employment is only for a limited period of time. When the project is completed the chemist must look for another position. Outstanding performance can maximize a chemist’s chances of being hired for subsequent projects. In my own consulting and technical writing work, initial assignments have resulted in additional ones that have kept money rolling in for as much as seven years.
Many chemists will regard these positions as stopgap measures to provide income while they look for a long-term (once called permanent) job. These positions sometimes offer the opportunity to develop and practice new skills. The people you work with in these contract or temporary assignments can become helpful members of your professional network.
John Borchardt is a chemist and freelance writer who has been an ACS career consultant for 15 years. He is the author of the ACS/Oxford University Press Book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers.” He has had more than 1200 articles published in a variety of magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias. As an industrial chemist, he holds 30 U.S. and more than 125 international patents and is the author of more than 130 peer-reviewed papers.