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How To Get a Job As a Chemist in The Chemical Industry
This year is your year. That should be your mindset anyway.
The Polymerist is a free newsletter that publishes twice a week with one in-depth article on Tuesdays and a roundup and honest analysis of what happened in the world of chemicals on Fridays. Join the subscriber list to get free updates with honest analysis from someone with a PhD in chemistry from the industry.
This weekend a high school student by the name of Aneka Mulgund reached out to me and asked me if she could publish a piece on Nuclear Power in The Polymerist on Medium. Aneka wrote a fantastic overview of nuclear power and you can find it here. This is an example of how cold emailing someone and having something to offer is a great way to network. I have a lot of hope for our future as a planet with someone like Aneka out there. Definitely follow Aneka on Medium—I have.
Back to our Tuesday topic - chemsitry jobs.
Chemjobber’s 2021 Predictions
Non-Pharma Is Going to Be Difficult
If you do not know Chemjobber then you should because Chemjobber has a regular column at Chemical and Engineering News and they published their predictions for 2021.
If you don’t have time or access to Chemjobber’s article then I’ll sum it up for you here. If you are in pharma R&D or in the pharma industry in some way then you are probably fine and hiring is going pretty well. If you are looking for an academic job there are less of them out there and things are still super competitive. If you are in the non-pharma chemical industry sector (the stuff this newsletter primarily covers) then you are definitely anxious because multiple companies are announcing layoffs and demand in the industry has decreased significantly.
The Column’s Outlook on 2021 For Chemical Engineers
Christian Walsh wrote a really interesting piece in The Column on the future of chemical engineering jobs and the future of work for chemical engineers. Essentially, he says that things are changing, chemical engineers need to learn more and be prepared for a future where advances in technology will change how chemical engineering is done. I agree for the most part because I do think technology will change things, but I don’t think it will happen as fast as McKinsey talks about back in 2017. Maybe in the next 5-10 years?
One thing I didn’t include below was that you need the correct experience, education, location and/or willingness to relocate to the job. Even if you are an exact fit for a job doesn’t mean you will get it. If you are applying for jobs and you think you are an ideal candidate I think the stories below might be helpful.
Landing a Job in Chemicals Has Two Hurdles
1. Getting The Interviews
Landing the interview and getting to the next interview in the process is step 1. For those with a bachelors degree sometimes that first interview is the only interview you need to ace. For those with a higher degree you might have to go through a more lengthy interview process that consists of multiple calls, a technical presentation, and more 1-on-1 interviews with future team members or directors. I present my own stories here on how applying to jobs, attending conferences, networking on LinkedIn, and following up on opportunities will land you an interview.
Step 1: Apply to Jobs. You get rejected from 100% of the jobs where you didn’t apply.
My first job with a BS in Chemistry actually came from Craigslist during the depths of the Great Recession in 2009. I was doing research in Andrei Vedernikov’s Group, but I was not going to be a graduate student. I essentially had the summer to find a job while I worked in the lab doing research and I was renting a room as a boarder in a local family’s house for $300/month. This was a really stressful time. I had started to lose hope because I had been applying to jobs since late 2008, but there was a massive recession going on, the biggest since the Great Depression (sound familiar?).
It’s not that I was lazy in my undergraduate studies. I had worked an internship with the Smithsonian in Art Conservation for about 2 years and I had published a paper during my time there. I remember the director of the Museum Conversation Institute telling me that he would have offered me a job there, but the recession had forced massive cutbacks on the budget and the role they wanted to hire me for would not be available.
That sent me to do research with Andrei Vedernikov, where I published another paper with a graduate student Julia Khusnutdinova (now Professor Khusnutdinova) and I even got turned down to be a graduate student at the University of Maryland, my Alma Mater). In full disclosure, I was not ready and in hindsight doing a PhD at that time would have been disastrous.
This all led me to that temporary research position with Professor Vedernikov and me applying to jobs on every jobsite I could find including Craigslist in the DC area while I was doing experiments in the lab and scrounging whatever coffee and free food I could find. My morale was low and I was almost resigned to giving up, but I eventually got an interview and I got my first job where I had a comma in my paycheck.
Step 2: Go to Conferences and Career Fairs If You Can
My second professional job would come to me in the final months of graduate school. My PhD groupmate, collaborator, and peer mentor at the time had gotten an interview and turned down a job at Hexion in Louisville, Kentucky. I figured I had a shot, so I applied, got a screening phone interview, and then I got ghosted. I tried following up, I tried calling the HR person back, but I heard nothing until I was about to go to an American Chemical Society Conference in San Diego. I was told the job was canceled as I was getting onto a plane.
ACS typically has a career fair, but that year it was pretty dismal. There were only 2 companies that were hiring where I might be a fit and both dealt with the same sort of chemistry—phenolic resins. The first was Georgia Pacific and the role was being a chemist that would travel between different plants solving technical problems with different products. The second was the job I had applied to at Hexion where they ghosted me! Apparently it wasn’t canceled after all.
I actually got in person interviews for both jobs at the career fair and I was able to land the deciding interview at Hexion, which at the time was a technical on-site interview that lasted a whole day. I would get turned down by Georgia Pacific for the job I wanted and I turned them down for an industrial post-doc role where they wanted to hire me. Hexion on the other hand asked me how soon I could get on a plane to Kentucky and by the next week I was presenting in a conference room on a Thursday. By the next Monday I had an offer.
Step 3: Network and Use Recruiters
The next job I got after Hexion came to me through LinkedIn. I had been actively looking because my fiancée and I (we are now married) didn’t want to live in Kentucky our whole lives and my fiancée wanted to have more options for nursing graduate school. There are tons of recruiters who specialize in recruiting for the chemical industry on LinkedIn. Go find them, connect with them, and tell them about yourself.
Are you unsure about a market sector in the chemical industry? Go find 10 people in that industry, ask them to connect to you, and talk to them. There has never been a better time to be a person looking for a job with the tools we have available to us.
Getting interviews with recruiters is easier than cold applying because they also sort of act the way a company’s HR system would in screening you. The best parts are that recruiters often work on multiple roles and you can have multiple recruiters working with you on multiple jobs and there is a higher chance your resume is getting past whatever applicant tracking system companies might use for their online job applications.
Remember that recruiters make money when they get their candidate to fill the position. You do not pay recruiters.
Step 4: Follow Up. Always.
My fourth (third post PhD) and current job I got by following up. I was unhappy/bored at the job I got through the recruiter after about year so I started applying online again. I was trying to be focused on the DC area because that is where my family and my wife’s family are located. We also didn’t like Nashua, NH very much despite loving northern New Hampshire and the neighborhoods closer to Boston.
I applied to a job at what I thought at the time was W.R. Grace, but was actually the spun off construction products business of W.R. Grace under the new name of GCP Applied Technologies. I applied thinking that I was going for a job in Columbia, Maryland, but in actuality the job was located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. My resume even said that I was looking for jobs in the DC/Baltimore area.
Around August 26th I got an email from the company’s talent acquisition recruiter and she asked me if I was interested in the job because it was located in Cambridge—not Maryland. I then realized my mistake and confessed and asked if it was possible to transfer to Columbia, Maryland later. It was not, but I wasn’t fully against working in Cambridge either. I was also interested in the market space of construction products so working in Cambridge in a market I was interested in would be most of what my wife and I wanted (she would also be closer to potential schools).
So I had a call with the recruiter and I bowed out of the job because we were getting ready for our wedding in October, but I made sure to keep the door open to this job in Cambridge. A few weeks later I followed up and I was getting questioned if I was serious about wanting to be in the area and I was then also told a few people were going in for final interviews and that they would reach out if they needed me. I felt bummed I had missed my chance, but final interviews do not mean taken offers.
A few weeks after that I followed up again to see if those final interviews had turned into job offers. Those interviewees didn’t pan out and after talking about compensation and availability I had a phone interview set-up for the next week. After the phone interview I had an on-site interview scheduled for half a day a few days after my wedding.
In total between applying and actually getting the on-site interview it took about 2 months and you could argue I did not present myself as the best candidate at the start. I like to believe my technical ability and my willingness to follow-up on things actually got me the interview and the eventual offer.
2. Getting the Offers.
The second step to getting a job after you land the interview is getting the offer. You typically get the offer by being amazing during the interview followed by a few other small, but critical things. The four stories above are about me getting the interview and the next are about some key things you need to do to try and convert those interviews into solid offers.
Step 1. Be accountable for everything on your resume
The first job I got after my undergraduate degree where I applied to the job via Craigslist was in part based on me knowing everything on my resume. I was interviewing with a bunch of PhD chemists so they all knew more about chemistry than I did, but my resume told a story of research excellence. When they asked questions about my research I was able to talk at length and in-depth and I think I even started to ramble at times. I felt comfortable drawing structures on a white board and showing reaction mechanisms. There was nothing on my resume I couldn’t talk about at length from memory with considerable depth.
The interviewers might know more about chemistry than you, but you are the author and expert of your resume.
Step 2. If you are giving a presentation be prepared to answer all questions. Even the ridiculous ones.
Typically during a technical presentation for a PhD level job you will get questions from the audience who also likely have PhDs and more experience. Be prepared to get interrupted to answer questions that might be asked in a straightforward manner, maybe even bordering on rude.
In every technical presentation I’ve given I have had to answer questions from the audience. In crafting your presentation you should know many of the logical questions. If you are really good you can lead the audience with what questions you want them to ask and have the answer on the next slide.
Sometimes you get asked ridiculous questions that have no bearing on what you are presenting about. This might happen during the presentation or it might happen during 1-on-1 interviews with team members or non-team members. An example might be:
What is the density of water in lbs/gallons?
You talked about viscosity on your last slide. Explain to me what viscosity is from a fundamental point of view.
Can you give me the total synthesis of methyl methacrylate from crude oil?
An example I can give was I presenting on adhesives and my work as an industrial chemist that was a bit vague due to intellectual property reasons. I was asked to draw structures and show mechanisms of how reactions progressed. I drew mechanisms of how amino and phenolic resins are made. I drew mechanisms on polyurethanes. I drew mechanisms on anionic polymerizations.
In my 1-on-1 with a technical fellow he told me that my presentation was not very good and that I should have presented my doctoral work because that represents my true ability as a scientist. I then proceeded to spend the next 30 minutes walking him through my thesis work with reaction mechanisms on a white board from memory.
It felt a bit unfair to me to do this because I knew my PhD thesis like no other. Maybe that was the point—if you cannot talk about your PhD work in detail 5-10 years after you have finished it then maybe you didn’t do a very good job at understanding what you did.
Step 3. Be prepared for the worst case scenario
I was in Edmonton, Canada working with a different division on a project when they were interviewing people for a job. The manager of the group asked me to interview candidates at the hotel bar where I was staying in an informal manner and he also asked me to really figure out if they knew their stuff. The role was essentially a leadership chemist position where multiple chemists would report to this person and this person needed to know synthetic polymer chemistry, specifically phenolic resin chemistry.
So the candidate thinks they are meeting me for a beer in the hotel bar to talk about the company, what it is like to work as chemist, or talk about company culture, but in reality it is a highly technical interview done on bar napkins. I started by drawing structures on bar napkins and asking the candidates about how incorporating those molecules into a phenolic resin might influence their properties.
To be clear I wasn’t looking for a right or wrong answer I just wanted to see how they would reason through a somewhat basic question that would be common to the job.
The first guy I interviewed started physically sweating as soon as I asked questions. He danced around the question and tried to answer with a non-answer, but when I pressed him he couldn’t give me an answer. The second guy I interviewed the next night actually was able to reason his way through the questions despite him not knowing phenolic resins at all. The second guy got the job and has been promoted a few times already.
The wort case scenario here if you didn’t catch it was being ambushed in a hotel bar with chemical structures drawn on bar napkins. While you yourself might not be a synthetic chemist there are probably similar scenarios where you need to be prepared to talk chemistry, physics, chemical engineering, or all the above in a non-traditional setting. Even getting a ride to the airport so you can catch the red-eye back to New York can be an interview.
Step 4. Ask leading questions where you have anecdotes that show you ideal for the role
An interview is a two way street, which makes it feel less like an interrogation. Some of my favorite questions to ask are the following:
What are some attributes that you need to be successful in this job?
What is it like working here and how is it different than your previous jobs?
Do you have to wear a lot of different hats here, do you work cross-functionally, or do you get to just be in the lab?
The first question allows the interviewer to give you an attribute to expand on at length. An example I have was my second job after my PhD. The interviewer told me I would have to wear a lot of different hats, I might be talking to a customer in the morning followed up working with operators in the plant just after lunch followed by running some experiments later in the day. This gave me a chance to explain how my previous experience made me an excellent candidate for the job because I had done all of things already.
The second question is more about building a rapport with the interviewer. They might talk about how working with John Smith is really difficult and that the business is in flux, and things are sort of stable, but there have been a lot of departures lately. If you hear things like that you might want to consider not working there, but if you are desperate as most people are then you might be able to talk about how you do well in ambiguous environments and how you were able to work well with someone that was difficult in your last role.
The third question really gets into what role you want to have in the future. If you just want to be the person who is very technical and maintain an individual contributor role then working in a position that requires you to just be in the lab might be ideal. If you want to branch off into sales or marketing or a regulatory role later in your career then something where you perform different functions or where you can work with other business functions is important. Depending on the interviewer’s answer you should be able to provide a good example of how you work really well in whatever situation they are describing and if you can’t it might be a good idea to consider that the role isn’t right for you.
Step 5. Do your homework
Read the interviewers’ LinkedIn profiles. Learn about the products the company makes. Ask recruiters what they think of the people interviewing you.
I once interviewed for a temporary federal government job over the phone (that was the technical interview). Prior to the interview I had a list of everyone I would be talking to and I spent about an hour or two looking these people up on LinkedIn, reading some of their published papers, looking at their Facebook and Twitter profiles, and trying to get as much information about them as possible.
When it came time for me to ask them questions I was able to use parts of their history to influence my questions and one of them remarked:
Wow, you really did your homework here
I got an offer, but I didn’t take it due to it being very temporary with no chance of turning into a permanent position.
Put in a solid 1-2 hours before your interview looking up the people or the company and you’ve got a good shot at getting an offer. An interview is an opportunity to show someone how you are unique and will bring immense value to an organization.
Before the interview for my current job I talked to a local recruiter who knew the people I would be talking to and he was able to give me a rundown on some of their attributes and what they might be looking for at the company. This 30 minute talk with a recruiter not only provided me with additional information before heading to the interview, but it also helped create a relationship with that recruiter who might be someone I would need in the next five years.
Not that I want to leave me job in the next 5 years, but pandemics happen, layoffs happen, parents gets sick, people die, your priorities might change drastically in the next year. They probably changed this year. Put yourself in a position to get as many opportunities as possible.
Step 6. Be polite. Send thank you emails. Follow-up with any additional questions.
Whenever you interview somewhere usually the people talking to you give you their card or give you a way of contacting them. It only seems polite to just reach out, thank them, and maybe ask a follow-up question or provide some additional color on a question that they asked that you might have fumbled.
That job I got from Craigslist I actually did fumble a question a bit and I was beating myself up about it. I really needed the job, so I crafted an email directly to the person who asked it of me, wrote a better answer than I gave, and then I thanked her for her time and the thoughtful questions. I also emailed my interviewers and thanked them for the opportunity and their time. After I got the job and started working there the woman who I had emailed my follow-up answer to told me that in her over twenty year career no one had ever followed up like that in an email. She told me that email had her argue passionately in my favor.
It took me five minutes to write that email.
Being polite is free. Thanking someone is free. Following up is free.
Small But Critical Components
The other things that I didn’t talk about that are critical for getting an offer would be you need to have good references. Your thesis adviser, some professors your worked with, old coworkers, or current coworkers are people who will vouch for you. If you are someone that is difficult to work and you don’t have good relationships with people your life will be more difficult.
If you want to be a professional you should be able to give someone an honest reference if needed and put your personal differences aside. It doesn’t have to be a positive reference either so as someone who is looking to gain references you should be careful about who you select.
You should not lie on your resume about jobs because companies run background checks. If you said you worked at XYZ and there is no proof that you ever worked there then that is a red flag. Sometimes this happens if you are an unpaid intern or you are working for free to develop skills and then this is when a reference with someone who did work there is critical.
Do not self sabotage yourself by talking bad about your current employer or previous employers. Do not get a job offer and then proceed to get arrested or do a bunch of drugs and then fail the drug screening or criminal background check. It sounds obvious, but you would be surprised about some stories I’ve heard.
I hope you get the offer you want.
Notes: This was my first foray into career advice based on my own experience as a chemist looking to get employed by the chemical industry. I’ve been messaging people directly asking what topics they might like to see in the newsletter and careers and getting jobs is #1 based on my respondents.
I’ll probably do some follow-ups on career related advice during the coming year and I will post a version of this to The Polymerist’s Medium Page.
If you are finding value with this newsletter and want to say thank you let me know in the comments, subscribe, and/or share with your friends.
The opinions here are my own and do not reflect those of my employer nor should they be considered investment advice.