Chemistry Lessons from Art

In the past year, I have had the opportunity to visit two different art museums, and see in person paintings that I have admired in reproductions for a very long time. In one case the painting was physically much larger than any reproduction I had ever seen, in the other case the original version was tiny, but both made a big impression. In each case, I was struck by how much more wonderful the real thing was. The colors were more vibrant, the detail more apparent, and they pulled me in, as the reproductions did not.

The same thing can happen with a new job, or a career transition. You think you know what it’s going to be like, but until you’re actually in it you don’t know for sure. The closer you can come to actually doing the tasks the job requires, the less of a shock you will be in for when you get started.

So what can you do to experience the job before you begin it?

The easiest way is by reading about your potential new career. Check out the relevant professional society web site, and career web sites like College to Career ( or Make sure what you’re reading is current and still relevant – science changes fast, and what was sufficient background or education may not be any more. For example, regulatory affairs jobs used to be filled by internal candidates who moved over from the lab and learned on the new job. Now, there are many degree programs in this field, and employers are looking for experienced candidates.

The next step would be find someone who has the job you are interested in, and talk to them about what it’s really like. You can ask them what they do on a daily or weekly basis, what skills and training is needed, what other things wish they had, and where they see the future of this particular career. You’re not asking for a job, just trying to learn what it would be like.

If you talk to several people and are more convinced than ever that this is the right place for you, it’s time to preparing yourself to move in that direction. Take a class at a local college or on-line, ideally one with lots of hands-on activities and projects. Not only will this give you a better understanding of the details of how things are done, but it will demonstrate to potential employers that you are serious about the move.

If you’re still in school, look for internships or co-op positions that will let you work closely with people doing this job, so you can observe them on a regular basis.

If you can’t get a paying position, is there a volunteer job that will let you practice this new skill? For example, if you want to move into management, maybe you need to volunteer to organize a large event, which will require you to supervise others motivate them to help realize your vision.

If you can’t find an official position, you can create your own project. If you want to learn how to program databases, you could build a database system to track all your music. Even if you’re the only one who will use it, doing a real project (with real deadlines) will provide real experience, and give you something to talk about in interviews.

At some point you will take the plunge, and move into the new field. Hopefully, you will be sufficiently prepared and pleasantly surprised when the real thing turns out to be even better in person – and you can turn it into your own work of art.


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.


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