As chemists, we typically think of non-technical roles as ones that are no longer at the bench. If you are considering a “non-technical” role, it is important to realize that all roles have “technical” skills that are required to competently complete the job requirements. An extreme example would be to compare the skills of a bench chemist and a fork truck driver in the warehouse. The chemist may be skilled in the use of a Schlenk line or other chemical equipment, while the fork truck driver is skilled in driving a fork truck. Both skill sets are critically important to the successful operation of the company.
If you are considering a non-technical role, first think about the kinds of skills you want to acquire or already possess. Common examples of non-technical roles include sales, marketing, regulatory, project management, legal, finance, and human resources. Each of these roles have requirements to be able to effectively perform the job responsibilities. However, many people can craft roles to fit them and utilize their unique talents. Consider making a list of strengths and talking to a Career Consultant or mentor about where you might be able to leverage your unique experience. Alternatively, talk to a variety of colleagues working in the chemical enterprise to find out what kinds of roles are most interesting to you. When you find a role that piques your interest, ask the person about the skill set they currently have and how they prepared for the role.
Many large companies provide pathways for transitioning from technical roles into non-technical opportunities. This often starts by networking with others that have left the bench. A career development plan with managerial support can guide the transition. I recommend finding small projects in related areas that can expose you to the skills and day-to-day activities of people in the role you have in mind. This allows you to build the necessary skills while confirming that you enjoy that kind of work. If your company does not routinely offer development plans for their employees, I encourage you to attend one of the CHEM IDP workshops from the ACS on how to build a personal development plan. You may also find that specific course work or degree programs are the best route forward for the specific role you are seeking. A strong network is particularly important if you are seeking to change roles and companies at the same time.
Finally, any chemistry bench experience will likely enable a smooth transition to the non-technical assignments. When looking to take on any new role, don’t forget what makes you unique and a worthy career investment. This often includes soft skills like building group trust, approachability, or driving to decisions. The technical skills you have learned at the bench may help you simplify complex ideas, effectively manage time, or have a “gut feel” for when something is correct or incorrect. Careers come in all shapes and sizes, technical and non-technical. Solving today’s business challenges requires a diverse skillset. Making a well-planned career move may be an important next step for thriving in a career you love.
This article has been edited for length and clarity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of their employer or the American Chemical Society.
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