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Chemical Connections

When Rolanda Johnson (pictured left) finished her Ph.D. in organic chemistry in 2003 at Louisiana State University, she intended to find a job in industry that would use her expertise. But her job search, which she started 6 months before defending her thesis, was disheartening: There was intense competition for every position she applied for, and at first she received no offers.

Johnson's experience isn't unusual. Employment in the U.S. chemical industry has been sliding in recent years. Only in certain key sectors, especially pharmaceuticals, are opportunities abundant, and even there, hiring is very competitive. In a competitive job market, knowing where and how to look can make the difference between a real job with a real salary and another 2-year postdoc waiting for real life to begin. In Johnson's case, it was networking that eventually made the difference.

High salaries, tough competition
Every 5 years, the American Chemical Society (ACS) surveys its members about their employment status, and the results are published in Chemical & Engineering News. In 2005, the private sector employed 62% of all the chemists and 53.4% of the Ph.D.-level chemists who replied to the survey.* Salaries for industrial chemists are high compared to other sectors, the survey showed: The median base salary for chemists in industry was $90,000, compared to $64,000 for chemists in academia.

But higher salaries don't help much if you can't get a job, and private-sector employment is declining as a share of the chemistry employment market, the survey found. In just the past 5 years, the percentage of chemists working in the private sector fell by 2.7%. The unemployment rate, at 3.9%, is also relatively high among chemists whose last job was in industry; 1.6% of academic chemists and 1.4% of government chemists are unemployed.

The industry's one employment bright spot is pharmaceuticals. The percentage of chemists employed in "pharmaceutical and related manufacturing" rose from 12.0% in 1985 to 21.6% in 2005. Chemists who do interdisciplinary work related to medicine, polymers, and materials science are also finding plenty of opportunities.

Thinking back to her job hunt, Johnson recalls that "when I was applying for positions, there just weren't that many advertised in industry for organic chemists. There were, however, lots of jobs posted for analytical chemists." The ACS survey bears this out: Analytical chemistry is the leading specialty in the chemical industry, with 17.1% of the jobs, followed by medicinal/pharmaceutical chemistry (10.9%), organic chemistry (10.8%), chemical education (7.3%), and polymer chemistry (7.3%).

Even at a particular company, hiring trends can change rapidly, however. Genentech employs many analytical chemists, synthetic organic chemists, and scale-up chemists. But, says Michael Varney, head of the small molecule drug discovery group at Genentech, those hiring trends are about to change: "For us, over the next 3 years, we'll hire more medicinal chemists and more process and scale-up chemists than we will analytical chemists."

What employers look for
In this highly competitive environment, employers can afford to be choosy. Procter and Gamble (P&G) gets at least 100 qualified applications for every chemist it hires; often the ratio is 150:1. When Ron Webb, P&G's manager of doctoral recruiting and university relations, reviews candidate résumés, the first thing he looks at is technical mastery. Next, he looks at publications and conference presentations. "We are looking for people who have a history of publishing and presenting. If the résumé doesn't have those two key elements, they'll be at a competitive disadvantage."

Webb also looks for "soft" skills, such as leadership, the ability to collaborate and to work in teams, creativity, problem-solving ability, and communication skills, as well as the ability to prioritize work. "At P&G, when someone comes for a day visit to be considered for a job offer, typically an hour of that day will be set aside for a three-person panel to probe these areas and find out what kind of history these individuals have in terms of demonstrating whether these skills are present," says Webb.

George Wang

Even chemists applying for jobs in hot areas need strong communication skills to stand out among hundreds of other highly qualified candidates vying for a few positions. "An enormous amount of whether they will get hired or not will rest on their ability to communicate effectively during the interview process, which usually includes giving a seminar," Genentech's Varney says. "I would encourage them to practice extensively before they go out and interview."

Like other pharmaceutical companies, Genentech also seeks refined scientific skills, a passion for helping people and patients through drug discovery, and a talent for collaboration. "All of what we do is focused on high-quality science, so we look for the best scientists first," says Varney. "But in small-molecule efforts, it is the ability to work in teams that make you successful."

George Wang is a case in point. He earned his Ph.D. from Princeton University, and along the way he managed to assemble a package of skills he could sell to the pharmaceutical industry. Wang's Ph.D. focused on developing and characterizing novel catalysts, which required training in analytical and organic chemistry. "I planned to find a job in industry after completing graduate studies, but I knew it would be challenging to enter the field with no industry experience," he says. His breadth of training helped him land a position as a research chemist at Bristol-Myers Squibb. "I applied for a job with the Analytical Research and Development Department at Bristol-Myers Squibb," he says, "and I received a job offer."

Rick Davis

The right connections
Rick Davis, a polymer chemist who has worked for a year and a half at ExxonMobil in Baytown, Texas, didn't move straight into industry after finishing his Ph.D. in polymer science and engineering at the University of Southern Mississippi. First he "wanted to see what caught my eye, what interested me," he says. "I looked at postdoc positions, companies, and also teaching positions, just examining what was out there." He accepted a National Research Council postdoc in the Fire Research Division at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, Maryland. A year later, he took a permanent position at NIST as a research chemist in the same division and spent the next 3 years developing methods to generate polymers and test their flammability.

While at NIST, Davis kept in contact with industry managers by presenting at conferences. These interactions led to networking opportunities and eventually to his present position. "Someone from ExxonMobil approached me and asked if I would be interested in interviewing, and I did. I enjoyed working at NIST but felt the opportunities at ExxonMobil better matched my long-term career goals." Davis is now responsible for leading teams through the adoption of new high-throughput methods of research and development in polymer science--generating dozens of unique materials at a time and rapidly screening them--and finding ways to implement the most promising candidates in R&D labs across the company. "I am very happy with my decision," he says.

Networking was also a key to Rolanda Johnson's eventual success in her job search. While she was in graduate school, Johnson participated in a weeklong summer program at P&G, where she established contact with Webb. Years later, this connection led to an interview and eventually a job at P&G. "My advice to chemists looking for a job in industry is to start early and make contacts by going to conferences," she says.

Robin Arnette is the editor of MiSciNet.

Comments, suggestions? Please send your feedback to our editor .

* Chemical & Engineering News, 1 August 2005, p. 41;

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