One of my readers, a PhD chemist, is thinking about a career change and is looking for some advice. Having been through a mass layoff earlier this year, I can sympathize. I did everything I could to avoid a career change of my own, and I'm very glad that I was able to. I like what I'm doing, and I hope I can keep doing it for a long time to come. But there are times that a change can’t be avoided, and there are times that it’s downright desirable. That said, the question is what works out well as an alternative career for a chemist? From watching colleagues of mine over the years, I can offer some of the traditional choices.
I’ve seen people move over into clinical development, for example. This is often best done inside your existing company, because changing companies and changing job responsibilities simultaneously isn’t easy. I haven’t felt much of a pull to the clinical side myself, but the attractions include getting to work further down the drug pipeline – that is, on compounds that have a much better chance of doing someone some good. And there’s still plenty of that what-happens-next research feeling, since development is just as much of a wild unknown as preclinical work is. Keep in mind, this is a job for someone with good organizational skills, because you’re going to have to pull a lot of stuff together and get it to work on time.
Another option is patent law. This one is going to require some recredentialing if you’re going to go all the way, of course, but I feel safe in saying that there is constant employment for good patent attorneys who know the technical end of their field. If you can be good at both the chemistry and legal ends of the job, you’ll do well. There’s a reason that not many people span that gap, though – the sort of temperaments that fit the respective fields are sometimes at odds. Chemists who have struggled their way through four-page generic claim structures often wonder how any sentient being can work full-time on such things, but there’s many a lawyer who feels the same way about basic research.
Scientific writing is another possibility. Sad to say, not all that many chemists can write well, so if you’re in the minority that can, your abilities could be worth leveraging. I should talk, since I’ve been rattling away on this blog for five years, and do some paid writing as a sideline. But I’ve never seriously thought about it as a full-time career. For one thing, I like doing the actual science too much. Another concern is that freelancing, your best chance at writing on the topics you feel like writing about, can take a while to get going, and can also be an uncertain existence at any time. There are a lot of science writers inside companies, though, who earn regular salaries. But that has its own compromises.
So there are a few common career changes that make use of chemistry experience. Any readers able to add more?