Larry Lewis worked at GE Global research for 32 years and retired in 2014 as a Coolidge fellow and principal chemist. He has consulted in industry since retirement.
Building and maintaining a career in chemistry is challenging.
Companies are bought and sold. Factories are moved offshore. Start-ups lose their funding and lay off most of their staff. Given these ups and downs, it is important to manage your professional chemistry reputation. When the world comes crashing down, your profile is critical.
I was fortunate in my chemistry career. I worked at GE Global Research for 32 years. In the first half of my time at GE, I was able to publish in peer-reviewed journals and attend and present at scientific meetings. Thus, early on I established a good reputation for my chemistry work and built an excellent network outside my company. As time went on, I published less and patented more, and spent more time solving problems internal to my company.
I was curious to see how important publications versus patents were in terms of my external reputation. There were 3200 citations of 20 of my most cited articles, and a grand total of 900 citations for all of my 107 patents. Clearly, publishing had a greater impact on my external reputation than did patenting.
Industrial chemists are at a disadvantage compared to their academic peers with respect to building such reputations and networks and have to work extra hard to bolster their external reputation.
Publications are not the only way!
Working in industry may present opportunities to interact with many others outside of the company. It may be possible to work with contract patent attorneys when filing a case or with granting agencies to raise funds, especially in a small start-up. Scaling up a new product or process may lead to meeting people at contract laboratories. Work with technical sales people who are suppliers. Seeking buy-in from government agencies such as OSHA or EPA offers other connections. All of these external interactions are important opportunities for you to build your network.
An industrial chemist may have only a few opportunities to bolster an external reputation. Remember that you own your reputation. When an opportunity presents itself, grab it! In the meantime, do not get complacent. Update your resume. Network through social media. Attend meetings, even if it is costly. And publish everything possible.
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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