I will be retiring from industrial chemistry in early 2023. Retirement has snuck up on me, to be honest. I suppose like most 64 year-olds I have trouble recognizing myself in the mirror. The joys and battle scars from my youthful early career are still fresh in my memory even as I turn the corner into the doddering years. I still recall most of the sights and smells and people in the years leading up to the present. I was lucky to meet many good people and unlucky enough to encounter a few problematic jerks. One of my earliest lessons was that not every scientist is one of your brethren. Science contains a bell curve of people- skewed to the good side for the most part, but there are always toxic characters around seemingly bent on making life difficult.

My entry into chemistry was a bit of an accident. I entered college as a physics major and Air Force ROTC minor at the age of 22. Naively I thought that my freshly issued pilots license and an intended physics degree would grease the skids into a flying career in USAF. Boy was I wrong. If anything there was palpable contempt for the pilots certificate. The curious attitude was if you didn’t learn to fly in the USAF then you weren’t shit. Turns out that I was also nearsighted so I was automatically disqualified from a pilot slot. My view in turn became that if you can’t fly jets why be in the USAF?

I took freshman chemistry in the summer for the physics major, then in the fall of my freshman year I started organic chemistry just out of curiosity. I was always puzzled about how drugs work and organic chemistry seemed to be the key. It turned out that organic chemistry was uniquely suitable for my type of ape brain. Soon I switched to a chemistry major and out of ROTC and never looked back at the smoldering crater of my flying career. That said, airplanes are still a passion of mine.

From this end of my career I can look back and see some mistakes I made in the past. First, while I chose a good PhD advisor, I may have aimed too low for the postdoc. It limited my opportunities for a better academic career. Always aim high.

I had a succession of four (count ’em) 1-year sabbatical replacement jobs before I got a tenure track slot at a small midwestern college (with an NMR). One year into my tenure track academic position I drove my career straight into a tree by having an escalating argument with the tenured chemistry department chair. After a long and successful career before my arrival, he tragically became a drunk and a failure in the classroom, he came to treat department faculty with disrespect and was an autocrat. All of this was well known in the department. My mistake in handling the personality conflict was to push a little too hard for near term change in department norms rather than playing the long game by waiting for his retirement. Unfortunately there was no support from the Dean despite the chair’s history of bad behavior. Seeing no help from admin, at Christmas break of the second year I took the first industry job offer I got and left the college. There was no hope for a new contract. I consider this episode to be my fault entirely for not being savvy enough to play the politics right. It was a mistake I would not make again. Oh yes, he died a year after I left.

Lesson No. 1. Learn to engage in politics calmly and ethically. Be patient and smart about it. Abstaining entirely from politics is the politics of victimhood. Like the old saying goes, if you put two people in a room you have politics. If it’s going to happen anyway, you may as well be good at it.

Believing that my teaching resume was fatally disfigured by this absurd episode, I resolved to move into industry. I joined a startup company that was bringing out new technology for commodity-scale polylactic acid (PLA). I was hired to find new catalysts for the cyclodimerization of lactic acid to lactide (the monomer) and comonomers that would lower the glass transition temperature of PLA. PLA homopolymer has a high glass transition temperature that leads to brittleness under ambient conditions. It was a great job and I took a fancy to polymer chemistry. Unfortunately, 11 months after I joined the company folded and I was on the street. Bringing a new polymer into the market at the commodity scale requires a powerful position in the polymer market which we didn’t have. Worse, we had persistent problems with low molecular weight as the money was running out.

Lesson No. 2. Beware the siren song of startup companies. They often fail.

Losing an academic job and an industrial one in a short interval had me eating a big slice of humble pie. These were dark times. In order to feed the family I took a job as an apprentice electrician working commercial construction sites. I had a good boss and the work was interesting. This phase lasted 6 months.

Not wanting to move across the country again I looked for a local job as a PhD chemist. They were scarce. Passing by pharmaceuticals, I took a risk and got a job in chemical sales at a small local chemical plant. Initially I assumed that my career as a scientist was over. As it turned out, that wasn’t true. Most of the chemistry there was multistep organic synthesis so I fit right in. This job would put my chemistry education to use in ways I hadn’t anticipated. We had diverse customers scattered across the world and marketing and customer sales and service required more than just a conversant level of chemistry knowledge in this small market. Very often being able to speak with equal confidence to both scientists and purchasing managers was a necessary skill in making the sale. And the job required some travel to far flung locations which was very stimulating.

Lesson 3. Don’t assume that your career should look like your dissertation project. Be open to possibilities.

Along the lines of Lesson 3, it is worth mentioning that in the course of a chemistry career the chemist might run into the choice of remaining in the lab or transitioning into the business end. The chemical industry requires some business leaders to have a knowledge of chemistry. This should be obvious. The problem is that relatively few chemists enter the job market with solid business credentials. By contrast, chemical engineers evolve their careers by solving chemical manufacturing problems and designing projects within very tight economic constraints. Whereas chemical scientists have a world view that mainly has two axes- space and time- engineers see the world in terms of 3 axes- space, time, and economics. Engineers are trained to bring capital projects in on time and within budget. This facility with projects and economics provides for the facile promotion of engineers to top management positions. My observation is that lab chemists without training in business generally seem to have less career buoyancy than engineers within chemical organizations. Of course there are exceptions. An MBA for a chemist can have real value in upward mobility and lifetime earnings. I’ve seen it happen numerous times.

Lesson 4. The world of chemical business is very interesting and challenging. Give it some consideration.

One way to migrate from the lab to an executive level for a chemist is to become a chief technology officer. This can be a very consequential position in an organization bearing a heavy load of responsibilities. Executive level chemistry jobs can take you into the thin air of business development and the chance to work with a large assortment of executives and managers from other organizations. It is worth aspiring to.

Lesson 5. Polymer chemistry is very interesting. For all you small molecule people out there, try it. You might like it.

But with all of this said, my view now is that I should have tried harder for a flying job in the airlines.