Challenges of Self-employment

In today’s difficult employment climate, more chemists are considering self-employment either as a long-term commitment or as a stopgap to produce income while they job hunt. I came to this conclusion based on my recent observations as an ACS Career Consultant working with members and my discussions with other Career Consultants about their experiences.

Common skill areas for self-employed chemists include the technical knowledge they developed over the course of their careers. This often includes how an industry or various industries uses chemical technology in their processes.  Chemistry is the universal science many industries use it to operate their businesses and show a profit. For example, the three industries I am most familiar with are oil and gas production, petroleum refining, and paper manufacture. All use chemistry in their key production operations.

Self-employed chemists often work as consultants helping clients in various industries solve problems relating to chemistry. Some chemists tap the skills they developed during their laboratory careers. Information scientists locate information needed by client firms to solve their problems. Patent attorneys help firms without their own legal departments prepare and file patents and deal with intellectual property issues. Some chemists use their writing skills to write reports, technology assessments and other documents. They may also work as self-employed (freelance) writers preparing articles for trade and consumer magazines, newspapers and on-line publications. The list of fields in which self-employed chemists can work is a long one.

Key features of self-employment

Key features of self-employment are:
• You are constantly selling your problem solving skills to prospective clients. These firms hire you because their own employees do not have the skills or the time to solve particular problems themselves.
• In addition to drawing on your chemistry knowledge, you rely on your professional network of contacts and knowledge of various industries to identify work opportunities and provide technical information.
• You are running a business. To make it profitable requires treating what you do as a business and managing it accordingly.

Self-employment requires business skills

Chemical skills alone are not enough for successful self-employment. I was fortunate to have a mentor, successful consultant Geoff Dolbear teach me that one’s business skills are more important than one’s chemical skills in making a living as a self-employed chemist. I learned that it is essential to:
• have the organizational skills needed to develop and adhere to a business plan
• the interpersonal skills to market yourself to prospective clients and to work well with clients
• the writing and oral communication skills to market yourself to clients and report your results to them
• the business skills to price your time appropriately, bill clients and collect your fees from them

One also has to have good time management skills. The ability to meet deadlines is critical. Meanwhile, one also has to market oneself to prospective clients while working with (and being paid) by other clients. Self-employed people cannot afford to work for clients without simultaneously soliciting new work from prospective clients. If they do so, they risk having a period of no income after finishing a project for a client while they market themselves to others. Marketing must be continuous.

Self-employment means opportunities to work on varied projects, many of them fascinating, and meeting many interesting people. For example, as a science writer I have interviewed at least sixteen Nobel Prize winners; a wide variety of leading scientists in various fields, not just chemistry; a vice-president of the United States and a wide variety of business executives and entrepreneurs.

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.

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