Other Employment Areas
Aside from research and hands-on science, there are many other career opportunities for chemists in industry, including work in formulation chemistry (determining the right components to put into a finished product), process chemistry (scale-up from laboratory to pilot plant to manufacturing scale), manufacturing and production, quality control, quality assurance, sales, marketing, regulatory affairs, purchasing, human resources, health and safety, and all sorts of other non-laboratory careers. Some companies hire as many bachelor’s-level chemists to do sales and marketing as they do to work in their laboratories. One thing to be aware of is that once you leave the lab it can be hard to go back, since your skills and knowledge become outdated quickly.
Companies of all sizes use placement agencies or contracting firms to find and manage many of their employees. Contractors generally work on-site at the client company, but their salaries and benefits (if any) are paid by the contracting agency. Especially for entry-level positions, this can be a great way to try out a company to see if you like it, and to see if they like you. Contract employee terms can be anywhere from a few months to a few years, may or may not be renewable, and may or may not include the right to be hired directly by the client company. It is important to understand the contract terms before agreeing, and ask questions before signing anything.
The types of positions for which you will be qualified depend on a large extent to your educational level. With a two-year associate degree, you will be qualified for technician positions, usually in the lab. A bachelor’s degree will prepare you for a wider variety of positions, including bench scientist, technical support specialist, or quality control/quality assurance work. A master's degree will prepare you to be a research assistant or get you started on the management track. At the Ph.D. level, you will be expected to routinely take on more advanced roles, including supervising others and contributing original solutions to complex technical problems. The higher your level of education, the more independence and control over your own projects you will have, but the more responsibility you will have for the outcome of your decisions.
One of the biggest surprises to many who move into industry is the fact that virtually all projects are done by teams. In school you may have done a few group projects, but for the most part your grades were determined by your own work. In industry, your success or failure often depends on the people around you, and how well you interact with each other.
Effective and efficient communication is essential in industry, especially since you will be working on teams with widely diverse cultural backgrounds, and often they will be distributed geographically. Your manager will expect you to be able to explain your ideas both orally and in writing, to others on your team and to those who know nothing about your project, as well as to both scientists and non-scientists. Learning to describe your project to managers and co-workers who deal with customers is essential: What problem does your project solve or what new capability are you adding, what does your solution cost, and how quickly can you bring this to market?
The better you are at clearly and concisely communicating your ideas and needs, the more your ideas will be heard, and the more valuable you will be to the team. For this reason, Powell says she wishes she had sought out opportunities to write more technical documents while an undergraduate, since writing successful grant proposals is very important to her company’s success.
All this teamwork requires leadership skills, which are highly valued in industry. Any experience you can get while you are in school — organizing an event, chairing a committee, or starting a project — will be valuable. Not only will you build your skill set and learn which types of skills you enjoy, but it you will also have specific examples of your success with that skill that you can talk about during the interview process.
No matter which sector you choose, one of the best things you can do while still in school is to get as much laboratory experience as possible, preferably in a field similar to where you want to work after graduation. The specific type of experience you get doesn’t matter so much as making sure that you learn instrumentation, laboratory techniques, scientific calculations, problem solving, and so on. Take advantage of opportunities to learn and practice non-technical skills, such as written and oral communication, time management, leadership, and teamwork. There will be a lot of on-the-job training, but you will need to be capable of keeping your own schedule, keeping a good laboratory notebook, recording observations completely and accurately, storing data properly, communicating your work with others, and so on. All these skills will come in handy, no matter which sector ends up being right for you.