Chemists in the Real World
Nancy McGuire, Freelance Science Writer
Nancy McGuire will be the first to admit that her career has been a long, winding journey. After obtaining her B.S., she began her career as a lab technician at a company in her hometown, but eventually grew bored with the repetitive nature of the job, and decided that a career in research would be more interesting and rewarding.
After earning her Ph.D. at Arizona State University, she then embarked on a remarkable career journey that ultimately led her to become a freelance science communicator. At several points along the way, she experienced an all-too-common setback, when her position was eliminated or significantly reduced. Over time, she moved from post-doctoral fellowships at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and Texas A&M University to lab science positions at Union Carbide and Dow Chemical. She did writing and editing as a government contractor with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Office of Naval Research, and the Army Research Laboratory. She was even a magazine and web editor at the American Chemical Society.
As her career progressed, McGuire continued to build a widening network of associates and colleagues. Many of her connections were important for professional reasons, and several times, her colleagues alerted her to new opportunities to pursue as her current jobs were ending. Even more remarkable, McGuire built her network despite being a self-described introvert. Today, she’s found that writing about science topics on a freelance basis satisfies her needs in ways that none of her previous positions did.
What was your area of focus in graduate school?
Chemistry (solid state/materials) – specifically, the analysis and characterization of inorganic crystalline solids.
How did you find your first chemistry-related job after you graduated from college?
When I got my B.S. degree, the job market was pretty tight. I looked for several months with no luck. My parents’ minister played golf with a lab tech who worked at a water desalination pilot plant test facility, run by the U.S. Dept. of the Interior. They had an opening for an entry-level lab tech, so I applied and got the job.
What is your major responsibility in your current position?
I write and edit web content, magazine articles, corporate reports, newsletters — anything that requires someone to explain scientific concepts to people who aren’t specialists in that area. My main focus is science and engineering, and I write almost exclusively for adult readers.
What's a typical day on the job like?
I spend about half my time writing and revising articles and other content. I split another 40% between researching, interviewing subjects, and marketing (which for me involves social media, website updates, networking, etc.). The last 10% of my time is taken up with business operations (billing, insurance, taxes, etc.).
Typically, how many days each month do you spend away from your workplace on travel?
Generally, I am not required to travel. However, I sometimes have an assignment for which I need to work onsite at a client’s location, and occasionally I go to symposia and workshops.
Are there any apps/software/instrumentation/tools that you can't live without?
I rely heavily on my laptop computer, large flat-screen second monitor, external hard drive, printer/photocopier/scanner, and a reliable Internet connection. I also use a variety of software and apps of various kinds, including Dropbox (for backups), OpenOffice (word processing, spreadsheet, database suite), Scrivener (document management for large writing projects), PhotoShop (photo editing), InDesign (desktop publishing), and Audacity (audio recording for phone interviews).
Describe your work environment.
I work by myself most of the time, but I have signed up for a co-working group that is just getting started in my town. (Co-working is where freelancers and other independent workers sign up for a day or two a week in a shared office environment.)
Does your job follow a typical 9-to-5 schedule?
Right now, I’m working 25–30 hours a week, but I hope to increase this to 40 hours a week as I take on new clients and projects. I do most of my work in the afternoons and evenings, unless I have an interview or a meeting scheduled in the morning. I can take breaks during the day to run errands or follow my exercise routine. If I’m deep into a project, I can work late into the night or on weekends — my hours are my own. I can feel a little pressured if I’m coming up on one or more deadlines, but generally the pace is relaxed.
What do you like most about your job and why?
I like having the independence to choose my own projects and set my own schedule. For some projects, I can choose the topics I write about, within a broad set of guidelines. I enjoy interviewing researchers and businesspeople about their work and finding out new things. I really enjoy taking everything I find out and organizing it into an article or report that someone else will find interesting and informative.
What is your best productivity trick?
I make a list of things I need to do every day. If I have a big project, I break it down into parts and write each part down in my calendar on the day when I need to do that piece of the project. That way, I don’t get stressed out by looking at the whole project. I just do what needs to be done that day.
What's the best career advice you've received?
Do what you love. Don’t worry about which careers are “hot” or what everyone else is doing. Find something that you love to do, preferably something that sets you apart from the crowd, and go for that. Know what you’re good at, and know how to explain that to someone who might hire you.
One way I’ve differentiated myself, for example, is in the subject areas about which I write. It’s been helpful to know how to write about not only chemistry, but also fields such as geoscience, physics, computing, and engineering. I’ve heard from several sources that many unemployed journalists in the Washington, DC, metro area are looking for work writing about the fields of life sciences and health. Because my niche is not quite as crowded, it helps me stand out.
Do you have any special talents or traits that make you a great fit for your job?
I am very inquisitive. I love finding things out and putting information together in a creative and informative way. If I’m interested in a topic, I can spend hours digging for information — I’m not easily distracted. I work well by myself, without supervision. In addition, I’m good at explaining complicated concepts in creative ways — I can be accurate and interesting at the same time. I’m also a lifelong learner, and it’s exciting to rely on my wits to figure things out.
Is there anything else you would like to mention about your career?
I spent about 15 years writing and editing as a full-time employee, and I built up a solid financial cushion before I left to become a freelancer. I’m still in the start-up phase of my business, and it’s bringing in almost enough to pay my bills at this point. I’ve also used a temp agency to find some work, which has been a good fallback. The agency has gotten me into places where I wouldn’t have been able to find work on my own; in addition, it’s been nice getting paid on a weekly basis for the temporary work, which helps with cash flow while I’m ramping up with my freelance clients.
I’ve built up a fairly large professional network over the years, and this has been essential in a number of ways. Earlier in my career, whenever my position was being phased out, my network connections helped me find new positions; now, my connections are helping me find new paying projects. I can’t just rely on people to remember that I’m looking for projects; I have to keep in contact with them and constantly search for opportunities. I’m learning to do this as I go along, and fortunately, my professional colleagues are very good teachers.
What essential habit do you have now that you wish you'd started much earlier?
I don’t panic as easily as I once did. I’m more likely to try things that frighten me a little (like becoming a freelancer) and take things one day at a time. I break big challenges down into manageable pieces, plan as best I can, and then go for it.
What is your favorite ACS resource?
Career Services has helped me on several occasions. I have benefited from job fairs and seminars at the national meetings. (The Alternative Careers for Chemists series helped me through the transition from lab chemist to writer/editor.) An ACS volunteer career mentor helped me find a part-time consulting job that lasted for several years. My online résumé helped me land a staff job at ACS headquarters, where I worked for six years. Now, I’m writing content as a freelancer for the ACS website.
How have you benefited from being an ACS member?
ACS has helped me stay current on research and development trends in chemistry, and it has been a major contributor to my professional network. I have several long-standing personal and professional relationships with people I met through my work at ACS, and through the national and regional meetings.
Do what you love. Don’t worry about which careers are “hot” or what everyone else is doing. Find something that you love to do, preferably something that sets you apart from the crowd, and go for that."
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