Career Choices for Chemists

“Companies come in all shapes and sizes just as chemists do.” One might imagine categories of companies according to size (micro: less than fifty people, small: less than 500 people, medium: up to 2,000 people, and large: over 2,000 people). There also are companies where chemistry is a strategic focus (synthetic specialty chemicals, petroleum, contract labs) and companies where chemistry plays a supporting role (consumer goods companies, food companies, electronics companies). There also are companies that are highly diversified such as a General Electric where chemistry is king at GE plastics, but supporting at GE lighting. All of this is important in evaluating your fit to an employer, just as some students thrive in enormous Universities and others prefer small private colleges.

In general, the predictors for business success are perhaps 75% in interpersonal relations, teamwork, and communications skills and 25% in technical skills. Rarely is this appreciated in the College/University setting. Let’s briefly consider small vs. large companies.

Large companies: They nominally provide better security, benefits, and starting salaries. Since they are large, it is implied that there is a better defined advancement ladder for a junior chemist to climb, although in recent years many of the middle rungs on such ladders have been cut off as firms respond to global competition by operating in a more “lean” mode than before. Large companies are geographically diverse so there is more opportunity to take an assignment in “Brazil” if international experience is something you desire. They also give you a better chance of changing career directions within the company as in moving from a lab position to a sales position. Large companies still maintain some form of a “defined benefit” retirement plan and medical coverage for retirees, whereas almost all small companies provide neither and rely on 401K plans and/or ESOPS.

Small Companies: Small companies tend to be more of an aerobatic aircraft than a 747 lumbering along. They can be very exciting and fraught with risk. You are a bigger fish in a smaller pond. You typically will have a far more varied job description than in a company of 25,000. You have a great chance to make an impact in a company of 100 people. Your opinion will reach the President and you may well personally know each other on a first name basis. In a large company you may only read about your CEO in the newspaper. You participate in more decisions rather than carry out decisions that may have been set in a different State or even a different country by people you have never met. Overall, in a small company you are more likely to be able to grab onto something and make it grow (you may, of course fail) and in a large company you are more likely to have some security (but your part of the large company may, of course, fail or be sold). Risk abounds everywhere, as does opportunity.

More to think about: It is difficult to generalize, because every situation is different. Some small company CEOs can be tyrants and some large companies can be very accommodating. One good thing for today’s graduate: It is very common to pursue 2-3 employment situations during your first ten years of work. You will learn from all of them. Many large company chemists have transitioned to smaller more entrepreneurial firms over the last decade and many small company chemists have moved to larger firms once they have the “3 years of experience” that many large company employment ads ask for. There is no reason to assume your first job is a “lifetime” commitment and therefore you don’t benefit from analyzing it with respect to every minutia of the vacation plan, the dental plan, and whatever.

I have been lucky to have a wide range of experiences. I worked for two enormous Fortune 500 companies: GE and P&G. I’ve consulted for a dozen others. I started one company in my garage and advised others on doing the same. I’ve been a faculty member for 27 years and have had broad international experience. I could not have predicted any of this. I’ve just followed my nose and done what seemed like it was the most fun at the time. I’ve never even looked at the “benefit plan” of any place I have been. They’ve all been adequate, but other things drove me much more: the chance to make a difference, the collegiality of colleagues, and the fun of creating something and watching others learn and grow.

Chemistry is a great career choice: We have fabulous opportunities in chemistry going forward. It clearly is the “central science” to everything we can touch and feel. I have no regrets about the choices I have made along the way. For those starting out, I hope they make “having fun” the priority. No one should want to work. Life is too short for that and it is not necessary.

Pete Kissinger, ‘66
Chairman and CEO
Bioanalytical Systems, Inc.
(Professor of Chemistry, Purdue University)