This is post number 1000 on this blog.  I’ve spent some of my time cheerleading for the profession of chemistry and offering some insights into non-academic career paths that are perhaps less well known.  I’ve tried to offer a positive view on the field, despite the name of the blog, and advance some arguments for why a practitioner of chemistry should be optimistic about the future.

There are some practical difficulties with chemistry as a lifelong field of endeavor relating to the matter of career growth and limitations therein.

Imagine that you are a brightly feathered bird with a very strict diet. Let’s say that you are an exotic bird who feeds on the fruit of a rare tree that grows only on the south facing bank along the headwaters of a minor tributary of a tributary of the Amazon river.  This is the condition many if not most PhD scientists find themselves in.  A company has to limit the number of PhD’s in the organization because they are expensive and can be a little particular about what they do. They are the generators of company technology and IP. It’s hard for a CEO who has come up the ranks through sales and marketing to win an argument with a scientist on matters of technology. That is why you have VP’s of Technology.

Scientists are problem solvers. Some scientists are well suited to industrial activity with a knack for rapid solution of applied science problems. Their work has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Others are, well, eggheads. Some PhD’s couldn’t close the loop on a project if both ends were tied with red yarn to their wrists. They are more interested in the elegance and texture of the system than the punctilious adherence to schedules and timelines.  There is a place for eggheads in industry as well.

I love the science of chemistry. It wraps around the peculiar topography of my consciousness nicely. It satisfies my need to understand the fine material mechanisms of the universe. I crave the next insight into the nuances and subtleties of the material world.  And I’m referring to the fraction of the universe that we can observe- Bright Matter. Dark matter leaves me cold and unmoved. I just don’t care about it at this point.

Realistically, to be in chemistry you need to be in an organization. A chemist without an organization is like a diplomat without a country. The act of obtaining raw materials, processing, and disposing of waste is a tangled mass of regulatory webbing requiring D&B numbers, permits, and money- lots of money. A chemist requires a place to work. At least experimentalists do. 

But these issues still do not get to the heart of the question of alternatives to the laboratory. At the heart of the matter, is the question of the dreaded glass ceiling. Chemists have some omissions in their professional education that limit their access to the rarified hights of of industry. I’ve written about this before.

A BA/BS degree in chemistry is a course in science, not industry. The bachelors degree in chemistry is very much oriented to the Three Pillars of Chemistry- Theory, Synthesis, and Analysis. Graduate studies in chemistry are the same.  Chemistry graduates are versed in chemical problem solving because that is what the ACS curriculum demands and what the faculty are able to produce. This is perfectly reasonable.

However, the commercial practice of the chemical arts and sciences requires much more than what the ACS curriculum provides. Industrial chemistry requires managment of material and human resources. It requires the ability to lay out a timeline for multiple, parallel activities and meet deadlines. It requires knowledge of generally accepted business practices in the form of sales, accounting, shipping & receiving.

What are the duties that academia might have to the world outside the cloister? Is the role of academia limited to the continuation and purity of the profession or does it have any obligation to the pragmatics of the outside world? Faculty are always glad (or relieved?) to see their graduates find careers.

Go to the website of any chemistry department and look at the research interests of the faculty. Aside from the faculty who are not research active any longer, it is easy to see in every listing a snapshot of what was considered hot research at the time of hire. Research is a lifelong activity and we all have to pick a specialty to hope to retain some kind of comprehensive expertise.

What you will never (?!) see in a listing of chemistry faculty interests are topics related to industrial issues. Chemistry faculty hires are often chosen for their connection to what are considered cutting edge research topics of the time.  The rationale is that this kind of hiring brings vitality and modernity to the department. It’s perfectly reasonable as long as the hireling can teach the core classes as well. Chemistry faculty hires in the area of industrial science don’t seem to happen. Whether it is because of ignorance of industry or that industrial chemistry is seen as derivative and therefore not cutting edge science I do not know.

How to help students going into industry? Take some business coursework. A minor in business is an easy place to start.

Intro to business
Accounting
Finance
Management
Business Law

What about more industrially related chemistry topics, say, for grad students?   Well, that only works if their advisors are of like mind.  I do not see that happening in my lifetime.

Geology has a subdiscipline called economic geology. It is concerned with the discovery and analysis of economically viable ore bodies as well as the extractive processes involved in the recovery of value.

Perhaps chemistry needs a subdiscipline in the area of operations management. Process economics and engineering are certainly covered in the Chemical Engineering course of study. Why have we partitioned chemists away from this? Again, it is the academic culture that is the driver. If they do not conceive of curricula and hire industrial faculty members, then the thing never begins.

Economic chemistry (Chemeconomics)- covers the economics of chemical manufacturing and the global chemicals market.  It is a subdivision of industrial engineering.

There are some books out there that attempt to address aspects of this. One on my bookshelf is by Derek Walker, The Management of Chemical Process Development in the Pharmaceutical Industry. While Walker’s book does not delve into economics, it does try to bridge the gap from lab to business issues.

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