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Early career chemist: personality in the career choice September 20, 2014

Posted by fetzthechemist in Careers.
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I have written some on personality and how it is important in a successful science career. I am thinking I ought to reiterate some of those ideas and refresh them, too.

A scientist coming out of grad school or a post doc sees a three pronged path ahead. The routes of academia, industry, or government service (there are other possibilities outside of laboratory work, but those are minor trails and usually termed “non-traditional”).

Academia is the most familiar to the young scientist. He or she has spent many years getting advanced degrees and often spending more time as a post-doc. They know the logistics – teaching, building a research group, writing research proposals and getting grants, and publishing to get tenure. But what else other than these mechanics ought the young scientist have?

Academia is a lone-wolf, non-collaborative venture in the first few years. Collaborating and getting second- or third-author publications does not build a strong reputation. These collaborations are tough to get funding for unless one of the collaborators is a Big Name. If so, then the young researcher gets little credit and no increase in reputation.

The researcher has to be a supervisor and manager from the start. Nobody else will build a budget, get resources and equipment, draw in and “hire” young talent. (A paradox here because most people coming out of grad school think academia is not strongly weighed in this area, but industry is, so they eschew industry.)

Academia can be very competitive, even a dog fight, for the young scientist. Other young professors may also be on a similar timeline for tenure.

Industry, in contrast, is faster paced in its science, but slower paced in its careers. Supervision seldom happens before 5 years and managerial duties (budgets, resource allocation, safety, et cetera) are owed by others with more experience.

In the science, academia has long-term projects of a bigger scope. Industry gives someone many more small and shorter-term work. Much of industrial work is problem solving – developing new methodologies, solving problems in plants or with products, improving quality, yields, and throughput. These are minor aspects of an academician’s work.

The young scientist must understand her or his own personality and attitudes to assess which of these 2 is a better fit (I will discuss government service in a future article). Is a slow, steady workflow more enjoyable then a frenetic and varied one? Is working alone more suitable than supervision or is a mentor needed? Is spending time at the bench most important?

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