A degree in joblessness...?
February 3, 2010 11:55 PM   Subscribe

I went from loving my degree to completely meh about it...what now?

I'm a fourth year undergrad at a decent Canadian university finishing up the last bits of my chemistry degree.

In high school, chemistry was my religion--I kid you not. Loved it, loved it, LOVED IT...hence why I chose this degree. First year, my grades were great, I got a summer research job that worked me to the bone but was happy anyway; experience and all that. Second year, grades slipped a bit as things got harder, but was still solid. Third year, life blew up in my face (including, but not limited to, toxic relationship and death in the family) and my grades dropped like a rock. Took a year off to do school-sponsored internship, which went fine. Fourth year (now) my grades are back on track, I'm doing more research to buff up resume/make up for last year's shoddy grades and finishing off the last bits of my degree.

I'm not sure if it's because of how much labwork I've been making myself do, but...what used to be an exciting scientific pursuit has left me kind of sour towards my degree. Particularly my last term, I was practically living in my lab, and literally if I wasn't in a course lab I was in my research lab doing crap (I did my first year research under the same prof, but I was put under a lot more pressure this time around). I hated it, was always exhausted, burned out, still finished it, but I feel like the experience has totally soured me on research now. I'm still doing research this semester (different lab, different prof, arranged ages ago so no backing out), but I can't really muster up the enthusiasm, and while I make my progress and keep my grad student/prof happy I just can't find myself caring anymore. I don't have the ambitions of finding some Really Cool Science Topic and diving into research for a few years (and the politics of academia and finding advisors and all that is rather daunting too). But industry is insanely competitive too, and while toiling away in an industry lab seems more appealing than an academic one, the thought isn't thrilling either. I'm not enthused about doing my research, or even the more trivial course labs I have to do. And yet...benchtop chemist is probably the most viable thing to do after all this (assuming I find a job). If I reject it, what next?

I'm only about 4 courses away from my degree--one more semester. In fact, I've completed all the core requirements for my degree; all that's left are electives. So come hell or high water, I will finish this B.Sc. I just feel like after I get my fancy sheet of paper, I'm left with...a degree in joblessness. I'm not sure if this is burnout from last term working me to the bone and beyond, but I can't find the enthusiasm I once had for this subject.

I'm not depressed either; in third year I probably qualified, but after removing myself from the situation for a year and getting a breather I've gotten my head back on straight and am generally quite happy with my life. I just...don't know what the heck I want to do after all this school. I don't know what I can do with a BSc in chem if I don't seem to like benchwork anymore...which is kind of bad, because all my ample amounts of work experience are all lab experience stuff. I'm kind of entertaining the thoughts of running away to the oil fields and work a soulless job for a few years to get some cash, and then start looking for a Real Job (Real Career) or something then. Basically, like all grads, I just want to Get A Job (and hopefully never go back to school again).

My question is a bit all over the place... I guess this is a two parter: 1) Am I crazy for feeling this way? Will I regain my enthusiasm and I'm just temporarily soured on the subject because of one crazily stressful semester? And 2) What are the job prospects like for a B.Sc. in chem in this day and age?

Any other anecdotes and advice appreciated. Sorry for the length; I can't seem to write a short AskMe to save my life.
posted by Hakaisha to Education (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I did Computer Science in Undergrad, and I swore I'd never do programming again. I still am somewhat reluctant to do any programming activities, but once I actually start doing them they can end up being quite fun.

I think research can just be really boring if you don't have any interest in it, and that's true of any field. Sadly, as an entry-level job you'll probably have to do some of the crap research you're not interested in. Jobs, however, have the amazing quality of having them be work that you can leave at work. There shouldn't be any homework, you hopefully won't be working yourself to the bone like you do in school while juggling research and coursework.

You could, however, take a couple years and get a Working Holiday Visa and go off somewhere and get some random job in some foreign land. As a Canadian (I am assuming here), you have quite a collection of countries you can go to. Once you do that you can see if you're willing to get yourself back into Chem (you may even be able to find a Chemistry-related job while on the WH Visa), or maybe you'll have found yourself a new career path by then.
posted by that girl at 12:22 AM on February 4, 2010

Am I crazy for feeling this way?

Not even a little bit.
posted by SpringAquifer at 12:25 AM on February 4, 2010

Very few people in my Biochem course went on to work in the same field; I got to a similar point as you (although perhaps not through quite as difficult circumstances) and decided that I never wanted to work in a lab again. Not sure what the others' reasons were, but I now look back on my years of study at uni as kind of personal development - different methods of study, interacting with and influencing people, persistence, planning, problem solving... not the actual specifics of running experiments, etc.

On the job front, there's always going to be a demand for people who can think, understand, plan, prepare, fix - and coming at something (from my experience, the technical aspects of life insurance; not necessarily as boring as it may sound!) with a completely different attitude, mind-set and skill-set has proven extremely valuable compared to those who studied the subject - and who are now bound by how things have always been, and who don't really have a jot of imagination or common sense.

Finish the degree (you'll likely regret "wasting" the years if you come out with nothing at all), and when you're out don't panic - get a job (note: not a career!) doing something that pays and doesn't drive you mad, and don't worry about having a big plan yet.
Plan for a career by all means - what are your best skills, which parts of your degree did you enjoy or dislike the most, etc. - you may decide that you want a career related to your study, but not actually doing the stuff you've learned (e.g. science reporter/writer, teacher).
posted by Chunder at 12:34 AM on February 4, 2010

You could be a highschool chem teacher.
posted by delmoi at 1:30 AM on February 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

A B.Sc undergrad doesn't limit you to just working in the sciences for the rest of your life. Like Chunder says, there's always going to be a demand for people who can think and understand something from a totally different perspective. If you went on to study law, for example, you would be able to carve yourself a niche in something like patent law, where it's always a challenge to reconcile the technical requirements and specifications of a particular project with the legalese required to actually protect this innovation. Similarly, I know a lot of business firms (like Proctor and Gamble) are actually hiring students with engineering and science background for even their more marketing and business-related roles because they want someone with a different perspective and who hasn't been taught the same three models of thinking all throughout their business undergrad.

Another avenue you could consider is going with the Canadian government, which has a tremendous amount of opportunities for students and recent grads. You're a bit too late for the FSWEP program, but I know they have student work programs that you could look into. I don't know if administrative type roles appeal to you at all, but with your background you could swing an entry-level job with some place like Health Canada and do things like toxicology assessments.

I'm starting to ramble a bit, now, but my point is that there are so many opportunities open to you that you won't even see until you land one of them. Don't despair. Your undergrad degree by no means determines your future. Chunder's advice to find a job that pays the bill for now is a good one (but be careful not to let yourself stagnate). Chin up, and good luck!
posted by Phire at 2:30 AM on February 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

As others say, a degree is a proof of ability not something to chain you to working in a particular field for the rest of your life. IIRC only about half of chemists end up ever working in chemistry related fields. I have this statistic as I did an undergrad degree in chemistry, unlike you I was dumb enough to just stop going to courses and got a very poor result. After graduation I messed around for a bit before pulling myself together and I am now an academic in the social sciences. I have never practiced chemistry in any form since graduating. At my 10 year graduation dinner reunion, virtually no-one was still working in chemistry, including some who went on to get PhDs! (Really, one ran his own Indian restaurant, one ran a mini property empire.)
posted by biffa at 2:59 AM on February 4, 2010

You're totally not crazy, lots of people feel exactly as you do.

You're one semester from graduating, though. That's... concerning. Many of your peers have already applied to grad school and for grad school funding - that's the route to having a career in science since a B.Sc will only qualify you (in a science career) as a lab tech maxing out at well under 100k/year. Closer to maxing out at under 60k. If you`re serious about science, you need a terminal degree. Seriously.

Then again, most people with BA`s don`t actually get into a career related at all to their major. Your B.Sc can translate into that as well, and could be worth much more than someone`s Communications BA, Do you have any LibArts or Enlgish major friends - ask them what their plans are?

Check with the Canadian gov career sites - a gov job`s pretty cushy (so seeming from a friend who has an economics MA who`s working for a provincial competitions board), and there are .. some .. jobs where you inspect and ensure compliance with legislation of, say, agriculture and laboratories and stuff. Universities also have `Health and Safety`boards that need people with degrees in science to inspect university labs to ensure compliance. I know someone who only has a B.Sc, worked as a lab tech for a while, promoted on competence to lab manager+research assistant, then got headhunted into Health&Safety at UBC and is absolutely loving her job.
posted by porpoise at 3:28 AM on February 4, 2010

1) Am I crazy for feeling this way? Will I regain my enthusiasm and I'm just temporarily soured on the subject because of one crazily stressful semester?

Heavens no. I can't think of a single person who finished an intensive degree or an honours and retained that kid-like love of it. As much as university is about knowledge, it's also about grinding out large volumes of grunt-work under stressful deadlines. It's no wonder you feel the way you do.

My advice (coming from the experience of having dropped out before my final semester) is this; it's a lot harder to go back to school once you start working. Your income increases significantly, you have the time for a social life and the means to live somewhat comfortably. It's a trap, though; everyone you went to school with ends up graduating and getting better jobs eventually and it ends up making you feel like you're behind. I disliked that feeling more than the feeling of being worked to death; it took me three years, but I went back for the rest of my degree and got a job immediately with the government.

I can't speak to the job prospects of chemists, however I would suggest this; if you're really feeling burnt out, go see the world and teach English somewhere. It's not going to hurt your degree to let it smoulder and almost everyone I know who followed that path came back with some direction and renewed enthusiasm. South Korea, Chile and the U.A.E. are places where some friends are doing this right now and their photos and experiences in emails are fantastic.

If you're lost, go lose yourself in another part of the world with some new people. Seems to help people find their way.
posted by Hiker at 3:35 AM on February 4, 2010

In reality, all a degree indicates is that you can stick at something, follow guidelines, adhere to deadlines, and perform adequately or above within the parameters of your field of study.

Electives? You've left your electives till now?? But that's where the fun is!

Have you locked yourself into your electives yet? If not, choose electives that come closest to your idea of academic fun (and as removed as possible from chemistry) and run with them. If it melds, choose electives that give you some other skills that will later come in handy - communications, illustration, drama studies, etc. I don't have enough fingers and toes to count the number of my acquaintances who ended up in satisfying work that was based more upon their electives with the major running second rather than the other way round.

You are tired and for the moment, chemistry has worn out its appeal. Don't think that your feelings now represent your feelings toward chemistry in the future. You are on that last slope and need encouragement to breach the hill. Keep going. The breather you'll get from topping your degree, combined with the view from up there, should revitalise you. Make the last bit easy on yourself and spend your electives, your last leg, on something you enjoy today. Best wishes!
posted by Kerasia at 3:39 AM on February 4, 2010

So, you feel you can pass? Just pass.

Give yourself a few rest breaks when you can and plan to take a longer one, for a fixed period, in some form, once you complete.

I remember how you feel from my 4 years of doing a Physics degree "just to get a degree" at a tough UK uni.

An undergrad degree is not a totally career-defining event. You now know math, a fair chunk of natural sciences, and a lot of problem-solving.

These things can lead you into other qualifications or various careers that don't really care much what exact stuff you did.

Start applying for some internships and go from there, a job interview is not a final committment!
posted by KMH at 4:09 AM on February 4, 2010

I went through similar feelings during my physics degree back in the early 90s. Everything was fine until I reached a stage where I was doing a lot of lab work for a project. I found myself skipping a lot of the work I should have been doing and messing with computers instead (which is ultimately what I ended up doing for a living).

In the final year I pulled myself together enough to get a reasonable degree, and I'm glad in hindsight that I did. While I've never used my degree, and probably never will, at least I can say that I finished what I started. Being able to see things through despite losing heart is a really worthwhile thing and will probably do more to enrich your life than the understanding of chemistry will.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 5:07 AM on February 4, 2010

Depending on your level of interest and personality, you might like working in sales or sales support for a chemistry-related company, e.g. working for Agilent configuring/setting up HPLCs/NMRs/etc. for new customers. While the work may get repetitive, you will be traveling to customer sites and interacting with new people all the time, rather than beating one small problem into the ground for three years.

There are a fair number of jobs which require you to know chemistry without doing chemistry.
posted by benzenedream at 12:42 PM on February 4, 2010

And go and talk to your careers dept, they will be able to give you some advice on identifying areas other than chemistry you might work in, what you might do to develop your skills in that direction and how to write your CV/resume to bring out the crossover skills, etc that you have picked up while studying.
posted by biffa at 7:19 AM on February 5, 2010

To toss something out there, I think you are qualified to become a Canadian patent examiner, which isn't always super exciting but is a nice, solid 9-5.
posted by anaelith at 5:26 PM on February 5, 2010

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