Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Jobs I Could Do (And Those I Couldn't)

(An homage to Chemjobber)

I’ve spoken to lots of colleagues about the job market lately, and one of my favorite questions to ask them is always “Well, what would you do if you weren’t doing this?” Let me preface this discussion by saying that I love being a chemist; it’s the job for me. But, like everyone else, I have interests outside the lab: music, sports, food, and writing. Could one of these be my calling down the road somewhere?

As it happens, we’ve been in the midst of a move for some time now, and I’ve interacted with (too) many real estate agents. I walk away from most of these meet-‘n’-greets and fill-in-the-blank lease forms thinking “I could definitely do that job!”

Intense synthetic chemistry training draws on lots of skills: data mining, critical thinking, historical sense, motor memory, adaptation, public presentation, logistics, etc. Job promoters would call these transferable skills, and they open up a wide palette of career opportunities.  Below, I’ve run a thought experiment to see where I could contend, and where I might fall apart.

Could Do

Real Estate Agent – Really draws on the data mining and ability to forge contacts. Can you predict how a neighborhood will look in a few years? Memorize some tax and housing codes? Fill in lease and mortgage statements with names and dollar figures? Buy a GPS? You’re in!

But, how will they accept my tenure talk?
Struggling Musician – Some might say “Don’t you have to have talent and drive for this, and luck?” That sounds like an assistant professorship! You don’t make enough, you’re constantly self-promoting, and your most creative moments have to spill out in a 3-5 year period in your late 20s to early 30s (chemistry timeframe, people, I get that biologists are longer in the tooth).

Mel Brooks, he of Young Frankenstein and Spaceballs, once described his songwriting process for stage productions as humming into a tape recorder when the moment struck him, and having an amanuensis transcribe it into a song later (from It’s Good to Be the King: The Seriously Funny Life of Mel Brooks, by James Robert Parish). Food for thought.

Line Cook – Synthetic chemists ‘cook’ all day, and we use a much larger catalog of ingredients. Plus, I’ve read Kitchen Confidential, so I can answer Jimi’s question “Are You Experienced?”

Professional Gambler – Hey, it’s what you do with chemistry careers now anyway! (Bah-dump-CHING!)

Seriously, though, much of this involves critical thinking, learning about odds tables, house advantage, best times to play, and, if possible, how to beat the system. It also involves calculated risk, such as calling the bluff of that one-eyed, gruff man across the poker table from you.

Film Critic – OK, many readers have written a dissertation, right? How do you start? Read some literature, get a sense for where the field has been and where it’s going, learn central themes and players, then develop opinions about the work. Write.

"Boron? Yeah, like their whole show!"
"The movie's great: just change everything after the title!"
"Vitamin C? More like 'C you doing anything but this!"
Credit: Jim Henson Productions
Well, what do critics do? Watch a bunch of movies. Learn historical context and chart how actors and directors work together over time. Learn central themes. Develop opinions. Write. Dovetails nicely, wouldn’t you say?


Jobs that start with ‘Phys’ – Physician: what many scientists try first, perhaps due to parental input and a sense of social responsibility. For me, I couldn’t stomach the various fluids of every hue and smell that emanate from sick individuals. Trust me; I was an EMT once, long ago…

Physicist: Too much math. Anything that uses all the Greek letters, base e, imaginary numbers, and ever-stronger graphing calculators and computing clusters is where I get off the boat.

Phys-Ed Teacher: I was never a runner. To me, coordinating exercises for 20-30 young kids for an hour sounds like herding cats.

Let's see: loop[object bullet, n=0-25, IF fired(true), init stop(n)]
Credit: cinema sifter
Computer Programmer – Artists can “see” forms, shape, and color, like photographers can. Business types see emerging markets and opportunity, and musicians hear notes and rhythms where we cannot. I have personally tried (and failed) to be a programmer more than once, and I simply don’t think like they do. Iteration, nesting operations, classes, functions, describing how you want the program to function is, to me, “thinking about thinking.” Just not in my toolbox.  (On the other hand, check out these perks, courtesy of our bud CJ)

Readers, do you have any thoughts about your future career paths, and whether or not they include chemistry? I’d love to see some comments, or hoof it to Chemjobber and discuss there.


  1. You may enjoy this old (heh) Leigh Boerner post:

  2. Hey, yeah! I went looking for that earlier, thanks for helping me track it down.

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