Monday, December 3, 2007

Chemistry after Australia

I’ve been thinking 'career' in recent days and that always leads to a sense of 'reality' that can be a little overwhelming. Everybody (or the statistical equivalent thereof) finds a first job. Thankfully Kate and I are on the same page with regard to how much money corresponds to satisfaction and its not much. A modest little house somewhere safe and some pocket change to travel with for a few weeks a year would be more than enough for us both. So I'm not worried. But the overwhelming 'reality' comes when I let myself think about just how much time and effort I have invested into this 'organic chemistry' stuff. Time I can't get back, time I might have spent working or learning something different. I like what I do and and I like what I have learned but I am heavily invested and that can be stressfull. I hate the thought of the time I may have wasted should things not work out well as I believe they can. Other than Kate, most my friends and family (ouside of academia) don't have a good understanding of my career options. Many of you will not want to waste any more of your time reading this but I will try to briefly describe those options in this post. If nothing more this will clear my thoughts so I can get back to work.

After Australia my aim is Montreal. I hope to be hired as a research chemist for Merck or Pfizer or BI or some other Pharma Giant. Rarely are they formally offered but these jobs are usually ‘informally available’ for the right well-trained synthetic chemists. It works like this: seven years of good synthetic experience (via PhD and Post-Doc), a handful of good publications, good reference letters from impressive supervisors, and some luck all add up to an interview. In that interview, on my own, I will either succeed or fail. It is not complicated. A pharma interview is the equivalent of a comprehensive synthetic chemistry oral exam and only acing it with flying colours constitutes a ‘pass’. It is not difficult for a company find the best talent and filter away the rest in that interview room. These jobs are difficult to get, we all know that, but they are definitely worth getting! So I study. I will read and learn chemistry every day between now and that interview. There are, of course, other options. There are lesser known generic companies that are satisfied with less decorated chemists in exchange for lower salaries. There are also countless smaller biotech’s and start-ups that have need for the skills I offer. In these companies, there is the potential to fast track into management and possibly make a lot of money from the success of a company. But a start-up is far from an established business and with typically only a year or two of secured funding a start-up can’t guarantee success. And they often fail. Some survive and with that in mind I’ll certainly have a look around when the time comes but I have the feeling the stress and risk of that kind of work is better suited for someone single (or soon to be single :). I am also qualified to teach chemistry at any University anywhere in the world. These positions are always available but many people have an intuitively inaccurate knowledge of how academia works. Here it is: a well-paid happy university professor is a researcher first and foremost and educator second (a distant second). To survive, one must have original ideas. There is no escaping that simple fact. It also helps to write good grant applications and/or to kiss a bit of bottom early in your career (sadly). Also young academics must work VERY hard and their ideas must succeed (or lead to something that does) so that they can publish, and publish, and then publish some more. Can I do that? Maybe.... probably. I have an idea book, and it is not blank :). I am certainly capable of teaching well, but that is not a useful quality. Some research chemists also happen to teach well which is great but teachers who can’t research do not survive. Universities today do have ‘just teaching’ positions but these come with salaries similar to those of high-school teachers who were smart enough not to waste five years getting a PhD. (That was a very harsh statement and I respectfully apologise to anyone that may have loved their PhD and now loves their teaching job and doesn’t give a crap about my opinion.)

Many chemists aspire simply to be one of the best in their field. The top academic chemists in the world, the ones that travel for half the year, the ones in contention for Nobel, the ones whose names all other chemists know, are not only the most knowledgeable and creative of us but they are also natural leaders and motivators that have a natural ability to impress, sell their ideas, and showcase their results. I have observed that unfortunately some of these same top-academics (too many) also benefit from being cut-throat competitive, guarded, and from having little regard or respect for their peers (that is especially but note exclusively true in the American system). The rules of the game are such that academics compete with each other for government funding. Each can benefit only at the expense of the rest. It's not quite as cruel as Texas Hold'em (there are more winners) but it's the same idea. I don't mean to sound too synical but I do belive that for many reasons, academia is a difficult career choice. Some scientists are so passionate, creative, independent, or 'odd' that they have no choice at all, they are born academics and they are happy and I admire these people greatly. And I will always respect a chemist who has something positive to say about someone else’s research. It is far too rare.

That brings me to the end of this rant. For those that stayed with me, thanks for listening. Somewhere in all this mess, I will soon find a niche for myself. Of course, there is the possibility of a completely unforseable career: there are transition options into other fields of chemistry and science, the environmental chemists are pretty busy these days. I have thought about science journalism or writing, if only part time. Possibilities are numerous but starting with anything outside of synthesis will surely not justifiy all of this training. One thing is for sure, I'm done with school for a while.

Enough of this serious talk, there's more to life than just work. Plus I have to go to bed. I have to get up early and go to work :)

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