Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A Career in Chemistry: My Long and Winding Road (So Far)


Central science indeed!

Now that I've been at my new job for a few months and am fairly settled in, I've been reflecting a lot on where I am and how I got here in terms of my career as a chemist. It's been a very strange, interesting, and (I think) unique journey, and one that's made me realize we can never predict where we'll end up or what we'll be doing. 

As I've written before on this site, I was educated and trained as a synthetic organic chemist, although unlike most who go into medicinal and pharmaceutical research, I did this as it applied to materials chemistry. I was a purely synthetic chemist but I also had a strong grounding and lots of experience in physical organic chemistry, which is the study of the properties of organic molecules.  Looking back, I see that what I studied and how I learned it was really the precursor to today's dedicated materials science degrees, albeit with more of a pure chemistry bent (which makes sense since I was a chemistry major first and foremost, while the materials science degrees tend to have a broader scope and less specific/more general chemistry, physics, and engineering components all rolled into one). In any event, to make a long story short, I was a PhD organic chemist coming out of graduate school and the same when I finished my postdoc and started my first job in 2008. At my first company, I was working as a synthetic materials chemist in the area of nanotechnology, so I was still solidly in my comfort zone. When things really started changing for me was in 2011 when I took a new job at a new company that was completely out of my area of expertise or knowledge. For reasons I still fully don't understand, I decided to move to a company in the field of electroplating, an area I knew nothing about apart from a basic understanding of it.  Looking back, I realize that by 2011 I had gotten a little bored working on the same class of molecules (fullerenes) since grad school; I was also really afraid of being pigeonholed as a chemist who could only work on these types of materials, which wouldn't bode well for any future career prospects in the event that I needed to find another job sometime down the road. Thus, I decided to take the plunge and take the chance to do something new and learn about a new area of science. The learning curve was quite steep at first but eventually I really picked up on it and enjoyed it. While I was no longer working as a synthetic chemist and was doing more engineering in my role, there was still a lot of chemistry involved and it really forced me to draw upon my broader knowledge of chemistry. In particular, I had to really dig deep and recall all of the inorganic, organometallic, and analytical chemistry I had learned years before, as well as some physical chemistry and physics. Beyond that, it opened me up to an entirely new field of science and technology that allowed me to use my chemical expertise in a more engineering and manufacturing-based R&D setting than I had been used to. 

This is what my career journey feels like sometimes

All of which leads me to where I am now. As I wrote several weeks ago, my family and I recently relocated out of our native New England so that I could take a new job at a large company. This company is one of the biggest in the world when it comes to producing connectors, wires, and electronics technology. My work is in the area of advanced materials development, moving even further away from synthetic chemistry.  I was hired for both my organic chemistry background and my experience in electroplating, product development, and process engineering.  I've been here three months and am really enjoying it, as it's allowing me to use both my broader chemistry (mainly inorganic and organometallic) background as well as everything I've learned in electroplating and metallurgy over the last few years.  Even though I don't do any organic synthesis, I find that I need to use my organic knowledge when it comes to the chemistry of our formulations and the various interactions between the different molecular compounds involved. What blows my mind when I step back and think about where I am is that I am now someone that people will come to for advice or help with electroplating problems. Three years ago I didn't know anything about electroplating other than the basics which I'd learned from a textbook; now, it's something I do and something that I understand quite well.  Let me say that I certainly don't consider myself an expert...there are many people I've worked with both in the past and the present who have been in plating for decades and who have a wealth of knowledge that puts me to shame. But the fact that I am at the point where I have enough knowledge that it makes me helpful to someone else is quite humbling.

What all of this has shown me is that, as I've written before, chemistry truly is the central science; a degree and a strong background in chemistry can indeed lead you in any direction.  Furthermore, you never know where your career will take you, and the important thing is to make sure you never stop learning and never stop enjoying what you're doing. Ever since I started working in the plating and engineering side of the industry, and especially since I've started this new job a few months ago, I find that I learn a ridiculous number of new things every day.  Sometimes it gets a little bit overwhelming but there's no such thing as too much knowledge and I know that in the long run, it will only help both broaden and deepen my experience and knowledge base.  The main thing it has made me feel os that I'm no longer purely an organic chemist, and I don't consider myself one anymore. I feel as though I am now simply a chemist, with no qualifier in front of that word. The different types of chemistry I now work with and the breadth of science and engineering I am learning and applying on a daily basis defines me as someone who is no longer pigeonholed into one specific area of the field. It's been a long, strange trip so far, one I never would have conceived of had you asked me about it a few years ago, but I wouldn't have it any other way. 

"What a long, strange trip it's been..."


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