Where Do You Want To Go From Here, Really?

I spend a lot of time talking to scientists about their careers, and how they can move their professional lives forward.  Usually, they start off by asking me to help them find a new job.  It is surprising how fast it becomes apparent that some people know what job they want but don’t know how to find it, some have unreasonable expectations about their professional options, and a few have no idea what they want to do – or even what the possibilities are.

Recently I spent some time talking to a graduate student who was about to finish her Ph.D., and was trying to figure out what to do next.  She started the conversation by telling me she couldn’t move geographically for family reasons, and spent a long time talking about the lack of industrial opportunities within a reasonable distance of her home.  She then went on to tell me that since she had worked in industry for a time before graduate school, she knew what it was like to work there, and she had not enjoyed it.  She wistfully said she was not looking forward to going back into industry, even if she could find something in her location.

The conversation then shifted to careers in education.  She really didn’t want to take a post-doctoral position, mainly because she didn’t really enjoy bench chemistry. It was at this point that she realized she liked thinking about chemistry, and talking about science, however she really did not like hands-on chemistry at all.  She was actively dreading a career where she would spend most of her time at the bench, which is what she had been searching for.  No wonder she was not excited about her job search, or making little progress!

Over the years, I have talked to many students (and recent graduates) who are in the same position.  Usually, they get excited about chemistry by a great teacher in in high school or college, and maybe even advance to graduate school as a way to get more deeply involved in the field, and do some real hands-on scientific research.  Over time, they slowly realized that research isn’t what they thought it was going to be.  They either don’t like hands-on science; they aren’t good at it, or both.

In an undergraduate chemistry class, the lab work is very straight-forward and predictable.  The “experiment” you are doing in your lab has been done hundreds, or even thousands of times, and the only real variable is your ability to manipulate the ingredients.  However, when you get to graduate school, you are doing things no one has ever done before, and have to figure out not only how to do them, but why the first ten ways you tried didn’t work (it’s called re-search for a reason).  It’s a very different way of working, and thinking, and not everyone is suited for it.

Unfortunately, by the time most people discover this, they are well into their graduate training, surrounded by people who enjoy research, and can’t imagine wanting to do anything else.  It can be very hard to stand up and be different – to say “I don’t want to do this anymore”.  The longer you stay in research, the harder it becomes to leave, since you don’t want to feel as if you have wasted all that time and training.

This is exactly the situation this student I was talking to found herself in.  She was far enough along that she was going to earn her Ph.D., but had been convinced by her fellow graduate students that anything other than a bench position in industry was unacceptable, even though more time would be spent doing something she did not really enjoy.

Once she was able to admit that she didn’t want a position at the bench, I started asking her about what aspects of her current and past jobs she did enjoy, what was important to her, and what really mattered to her.  Within a surprisingly short period of time, she was able to identify several possible career paths that would take advantage of her chemistry background and indulge her passions, without requiring hands-on chemistry.  She was excited and energized about exploring them, and looking forward to, instead of dreading, the next phase of her career.  In fact, she had started researching them before we got off the phone – and this was research she really was passionate about!


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 (2006).

One Response to Where Do You Want To Go From Here, Really?

  1. Jeremy says:

    Good post. It can be tough to accept that your passion for bench chemistry has waned, but it’s fine: you can use your skills in various fulfilling ways within or outside chemistry. Once you’ve mastered a difficult, abstract concept like quantum mechanics or the stereochemistry of a reaction, learning new topics isn’t so intimidating!

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