Chemist looking for non-chemistry work
May 11, 2012 8:09 AM   Subscribe

I'm a current senior graduating with a degree in chemistry from a fairly selective liberal arts problem. The catch is that I really, really do not want a job in a chemistry lab when I graduate. I'm looking for ideas for alternative career options that would be realistic for a chemistry graduate.

I've had reserach experience in environmental chemistry(water chemistry), but am not quite sure about grad school and really am not looking forward to a dead-end lab technician job.

I'm utilizing my school's career center and my connections, but I'm mainly just looking for personal stories or ideas.

I would love to have a job in the environmental field, particularly a job that involves being outdoors, but being indoors isn't a dealbreaker.

I have fairly strong quantitative and qualitative reasoning skills and have a fair amount of experience programing. Any ideas?
posted by aleatorictelevision to Work & Money (17 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Apply for the outdoor environmental jobs you want. Being just out of college, all the employer is going to see is:

1. Enthusiasm for the subject
2. Degree (hey, in science!) from reputable university
3. Smart kid able to do job well

Your degree won't make or break you for an entry-level position, says the archaeologist who's made the transition to IT twice.
posted by The Michael The at 8:22 AM on May 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

I did Chemistry at uni. I hated it, did virtually no work and got a lousy degree classification. I now have an MSc and a PhD and a decent academic job (in a branch of environmental policy as it happens). None of these were in chemistry and I have never used the chem degree other than in sporcle and pub quizzes. You have the advantage of not having piddled through your degree which means it serves as a good proof of your ability for potential employers. I would guesstimate less than half of the people in your classes will end up in jobs that use their chem learning, because that is pretty typical. It is perfectly possible to do all sorts of stuff that uses some of your transferable skills, and certainly that would include environmental science; you might consider an MSc to up your chances.
posted by biffa at 8:36 AM on May 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I don't have a helpful answer, but I wanted to point out that "liberal arts problem" is one of the greatest slips I think I've ever read.
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:39 AM on May 11, 2012 [13 favorites]

What about chemistry, exactly, do you not like? A lot of suggestions I could offer might take you DEEPER into the stuff you don't like rather than further away from it.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:46 AM on May 11, 2012

You could probably get an entry level sales gig for any company that is selling chemicals or chemical processing services. Having sales reps that understand what they are selling is always a plus.
posted by COD at 8:51 AM on May 11, 2012

Look into environmental consulting. It's fairly lucrative even at entry-level, and it's definitely not a dead-end job. You might start out doing things like water sampling or other field work, and really, any science degree makes it easy to get a foot in the door. There are a lot of sub-specialties - I work mainly in the energy industry, but have previously done work more for refineries, etc. Also check out your states Department of Environmental Quality. Entry-level environmental scientist positions usually just require a degree in a hard science, and it's also a great gateway into consulting if you have trouble getting those types of jobs initially.

Feel free to memail me if you have questions or for specific job/company recommendations. I've been in the field for almost 10 years and started out much like you (though my degrees are in molecular biology).
posted by tryniti at 9:06 AM on May 11, 2012

There are quite a lot of non-lab, environmental chemist jobs out there. The non-lab jobs are generally data analyst or environmental compliance/review type jobs, which mostly involve paperwork. You sound like you would be well-suited to those by your skills and your strengths. There are fewer chemistry field work jobs compared to say biology or geology, but they do exist. Chemical sampling jobs are essentially lab techs who work out of the back of a van, in my experience.

The environmental chemistry field is not particularly well paying compared with industrial chem jobs, but there are jobs and companies are hiring even in the present market, particularly if you're willing to move. Entrix (example) and Stantec (careers page) are a couple of the big ones hiring chemists. I would look hard at smaller mom-and-pop type consultancies too though. The big companies can offer career mobility, but the smaller shops are often much more pleasant to work in, and can offer a broader range of experiences and opportunities.

The review and compliance work is entry-level, and you would be anticipated to move on to bigger and better things later. Field experience can be a career boost if you want to stay on the technical side. For policy, management or other roles, it's not so important. It's wise to keep your eyes open for it.
posted by bonehead at 9:10 AM on May 11, 2012

Would you enjoy using your degree more if your work clearly helped people? If so, how would you feel about a career in public health, perhaps with (or beginning with) an international focus? There are numerous agencies devoted to improving water quality in impoverished parts of the world that would go for your blend of experience/degree credentials and you could triangulate from there.
posted by carmicha at 9:22 AM on May 11, 2012

Response by poster: To Kid Charlamagne, I guess my major problem with chemistry right now is the repetitive and tedious lab work. I enjoyed the math-ier aspects of my degree but really did not like the lab work as much as I expected.
posted by aleatorictelevision at 9:25 AM on May 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

What about going to school for a Master's degree in chemical engineering? This will unlock a lot of career options for you that aren't accesible to someone with a BS/BA in chemistry. If you're interested in water chemistry, every chemical plant and refinery has engineers that work on water quality processes.

At my university, someone with a bachelors in chemistry will have to take a handful on undergraduate chemical engineering courses, and can then go straight to the Master's.
posted by rancidchickn at 10:00 AM on May 11, 2012

Also a chemical engineering degree will be much more math intensive, which you like, and there isn't much lab work outside of academia.
posted by rancidchickn at 10:02 AM on May 11, 2012

Another idea is to apply to the patent office to be a patent examiner examining chemistry-related patent applications.
posted by gyc at 11:37 AM on May 11, 2012

So, here's the thing, a lot of jobs have tedious and repetitive aspects. It's perfectly fine if you don't find the tedium of chem labwork worth the payoff, but understand that one broad themes of working life is finding the balance.

Now, that said, a chem major with some programming experience should be able to find lots of options, outside the field, if not in it.

With respect to environmental work, I'll share what someone told me: there is a lot of environmental work, so long as you are willing to work on the industry side. The people doing environmental policy work don't necessarily get paid as well, but the policy they push, and the independent oversight they provide create economic and legal incentives for industry, and they need people to help them do the right thing.
posted by Good Brain at 1:57 PM on May 11, 2012

Pharmaceutical Sales Rep. And I'll repeat what I've said in the past - there are WAY TOO MANY software engineers out there. The jobs don't exist, I really don't know where people still get the idea that it's in hot demand, even combined with a chemistry degree.
posted by Yowser at 4:12 PM on May 11, 2012

I'm taking Gen Chem right now, and before embarking on her PhD program, my TA used her chemistry BA to work at a vineyard in New Zealand.
posted by ocherdraco at 9:35 PM on May 11, 2012

check your memail!
posted by harkin banks at 9:59 PM on May 11, 2012

i did my undergrad degree in chemistry, also did research and went through the same thing as you, basically. gave myself a year to figure out what to do next and decided to do medicine. i used that year to finish premed requirements while continuing to teach chemistry to undergrads.

didnt like chem lab as well; i like seeing patients more :-)
posted by onegoodthing at 10:25 PM on May 11, 2012

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