Chemistry is beautiful, chemistry is life, but how can you make a living for yourself as a chemist? While there’s no shortage of resources telling you what you can do with your degree, not many detail the “how” and “why”. As a favor to aspiring chemists out there, we interviewed industry and academic professionals to get you the advice you need.

Bri Sebastian is the Chief Technology Officer at InnvTek Inc., a start-up company based in Calgary, Alberta. There she aids in the development of research/business strategies, and secures funding from accelerator programs. Her day to day involves a lot of technical writing: outlining goals, timelines and budgets, but also dealing with clients to ensure the company is submitting project milestones on time. Additionally she is the Director of Laboratory Operations at Psygen Labs Inc., a pharmaceutical company, where she supports the design and set-up of their new clean room and laboratories.

Greg Patenaude is an instructor here at the University of Lethbridge as well as the lab coordinator for CHEM 2600. His day to do involves preparing for and reflecting on lectures to improve the student experience. As a lab coordinator he also oversees graduate students teaching and deals with behind the scenes prep work for the labs.

Stephanie Lee is a Research Associate at Xenon Pharmaceuticals, a neurological based company in Vancouver, BC. Her day to day responsibilities in the bioanalytical group include managing cell lines/tissue culture, operating UHPLC MS-MS instruments and processing reports. Her position allows her to collaborate with other departments (in-vivo, chemistry) and run their tests excipients to generate data for the purpose of drug discovery.

Edward Hsiang, yours truly, is the Sciences Editor at the Meliorist, and also a chemistry graduate student in the Hayes Lab. I’ll be providing some of my own input to these questions as well.

The main focus of this article is to give our students an idea of how career paths in chemistry generally progress, can you give us a brief rundown of your personal career path?

B: All of my post secondary education was at the University of Calgary, I started off thinking I wanted to go into medicine but then changed my mind halfway through and ended up getting a BSc in biochemistry. I went on to get my PhD in an alternative energy lab working on glucose biosensors. Finally, I went into my post doctoral fellowship, and that was in petroleum and chemical engineering. From there I kind of did a pivot and went into agriculture, working on fertilizer formulations. Now I’ve moved back into alternative energy, working with InnvTek on battery membrane separators.

G: So the reason I got into chemistry I can trace back to an “interesting” chemistry teacher in highschool, and I don’t know why but for some reason the idea of mixing things and making new compounds was always interesting to me. It wasn’t until my second year in university, and I remember specifically talking to two of my TA’s and asking them what they were doing at the uni, where they described to me this concept of grad school. That really flicked a switch in me so to speak and I was like “maybe I want to do that too”. So I looked into doing research projects with my professors in my 3rd and 4th year and did my graduate studies at UVic. After I finished my PhD, more because I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, I did a post-doc and that’s when I realized I didn’t really want to go into industry. It’s not like it’s the only other pathway but the other common path if you don’t go into industry is to go into academia and I was fortunate enough to find the position I have now.

S: I graduated from UBC in 2017 with a BSc in Chemistry with co-op distinction. I worked at ALS Environmental as a Lab Analyst for a year, operating flow instruments to determine nitrogen (ammonia) and mercury levels in water samples. After that I moved to Xenon Pharmaceuticals, a place where I did a co-op placement in my undergrad, and I’ve been there since April 2018.

If someone read your job description and decided “Yes, that’s exactly what I want to do when I grow up”, what advice would you give them? What key experiences should they be aiming for?

B: I recommend taking every opportunity you can and don’t be afraid to make mistakes or hard pivots. Another thing to consider is the city that you’re in. I have an electrochemistry degree but there aren’t a lot of electrochemical positions in this city. A lot of electrochemists I know have had to move to BC or the east coast or the states in order to find a job. So where you want to eventually end up geographically is something to consider. I would also suggest trying different combinations of degrees, for example a major in chemistry and a minor in business, it makes you more versatile and opens more doors to where you want to go in the future. It’s also really important to network because making those connections will help you find really cool jobs in the future that aren’t necessarily posted.

G: I think if you want to be an instructor, you need to get as much experience teaching as possible, to make sure that’s what you want to do so to speak. I also think you should absolutely go to grad school. In chemistry you’re going to get at least a significant amount of teaching experience and I think that’s important to go through to see if that’s what you like. If you just do an undergrad and try and get an instructor position I think it’ll be harder because you’ll have other people out there with graduate degrees, and I’m not sure how much teaching experience you’d get as just an undergrad.

S: I would highly recommend gaining some experience either volunteering in a research lab, or practicing extensive report writing. I would also recommend taking the co-op program, if available. In general being able to follow standard operating procedures is extremely important. Soft skills such as having a positive attitude, and understanding the purpose of the experiments will also help big time.

“So immediately I went into industry and started making mad bank, which at the time was very important to me.”  

Bri Sebastian

What do you love most/least about your job?

B: I really enjoy that we’re able to enhance an overall process by working on just a small portion of it. So in the grand scheme of things, our little process is making cleaner energy a much more viable option. My least favorite thing is trying to get money, funding, funding, funding is awful!

G: I like how everyday is so different. I’m not just doing the same thing over and over again, I think I would go potentially mental doing that. But I think for me what I really like is when you find a particular student, or group of students, who enjoys the material you’re teaching and you can see the lights turn on when they’re like “Yeah, now I understand this”. When that happens to someone, regardless of what they’re learning, there’s an excitement that happens, and you as a teacher can kind of feed off of that energy. My least favorite aspect is the assessment. It’s a necessary evil I think we have to do, but my least favorite aspect is grading papers and giving an assessment.

S: I love how no two days are the same, because research is always changing, and we are expected to adapt. I enjoy troubleshooting and working on the UHPLC LCMS-MS and breaking down each component to see how it works. The data we generate will benefit individuals who struggle with neurological diseases in the long run too. I’m not the biggest fan of writing very lengthy reports, and the whole QC process that goes along with it.

An age old debate for anyone in a STEM field is whether or not to pursue graduate studies. What do you recommend? What limitations do you foresee for someone with only a BSc?

B: There’s pros and cons to both. From a hiring perspective, if I’m hiring for someone to do general research, I’d be looking for a bachelor’s or maybe a master’s degree, unless it was very specific. Then I might look for a PhD. In general, if people are just doing repeating experiments, you’re looking for someone with a diploma or a bachelor’s degree. You’re not going to make as much money at those lower levels, but at the same time there’s lots more job availability. Once you get up to the Masters and PhD levels, there’s a lot less jobs, especially if you’re very specific in your field. So there’s definitely pros of having that PhD in that when you find that specific job that’s perfect for you, it’s great, but you have to wait potentially a couple of years to find that job. Another benefit is that managerial positions often require you to have that PhD, so if you want to be a desk chemist, you definitely need to have that graduate degree.

G: I’ve been in the university setting for a long time, I started my undergrad in 1991, and I’m still in academia, and one of the things I have noticed over the years is that a problem with our society these days is that it dictates that students have to go to university. Even though I’m a product of academia, and I’m in academia, I don’t feel that’s true. There’s a lot of students who are in university who don’t really know why they’re here. They think they do, but they don’t really know why. So along the same lines, I don’t think grad school is necessary for every career path. In terms of limitations, I think if you want to go into some sort of academic setting, you’ll absolutely need some sort of grad school. Just looking at our own department, hiring people and stuff like that, if they don’t have a graduate degree, there’s just no chance and it is what it is at this point. So if you want to go into academia, or in industrial research you’re going to need a graduate degree, but I would not say that every single career path needs grad school.

S: It’s more difficult to find non-entry level positions without a graduate degree. It’s also difficult if you have a small network of hiring professionals. You start with a smaller salary at the beginning, but since you (hopefully) get to start your position immediately out of your bachelors, you start earning sooner and that kind of makes up the difference for spending 2+ years in graduate school.

E: As someone currently in graduate school, and someone who’s tried finding work with only a bachelor’s degree, there’s definitely limitations to what you can do without at least a Masters. Many jobs that say “BSc or Masters” in their hiring blurb will overlook you for not having that Masters degree. That said, if you do internships and network a lot, it can be possible to find some really cool jobs right out of undergrad. I have friends making way more money that I thought would be possible, and those jobs were all from co-op experiences with the right companies. Otherwise, it’s frustrating but you’re kind of limited to jobs on par with those that only have a diploma, and while those can make for a decent career, it’s definitely repetitive work and not for everybody.

“I know it’s a hard thing to do, but you don’t want to be stuck with a job for 15 years, if you hate your job for 15 years, it’s not a good thing”

Greg Patenaude

What about industry vs academia? What should students expect going into either, what general advice would you give them?

B: I always knew I didn’t want to be in academia, so I completed my PhD very quickly and didn’t publish as much as someone would if they wanted to stay. If you want to get positions at universities, you need to have a lot of publications or even patents. When I got out of my PhD, the first thing I wanted to do was make money. So immediately I went into industry and started making mad bank, which at the time was very important to me. It’s so nice to have, especially coming out of grad school. Doing co-ops if you can gets you into a really good position for potentially working at that company or getting you good references. Opposite, if you want to stay in academia, you need to network with professors and other people in academia, so who you make friends with is the most important thing here. There’s only so many academic positions, but lots of industry positions.

G: I always thought that I was going to go do research in industry, but halfway through my post-doc I really started thinking about this because you know, the end of the line was coming, and that’s when I realized I didn’t want to go into industry and starting looking for positions in academia. So get some experience teaching or doing research and figure out if that’s what you like. That’s essentially what grad school is, a trial run on research and teaching. Don’t be shy to say like “I’ve been doing research for 4 or 5 years but maybe that just isn’t for me”. I know it’s a hard thing to do, but I think it’s an important thing to do. You don’t want to be stuck with a job for 15 years, if you hate your job for 15 years that’s not a good thing.

Just for fun, if you could have any job you wanted, what would it be?

B: Probably be like a farmer, or at an animal rescue facility where I can just play with puppies all day.

G: You know I think, kind of like what Robert Ebert had where he just sat there and watched movies all day and reviewed them. I love watching movies, and just sitting there and watching movies, that’d be fun.

S: Professional rich person? But in all seriousness… maybe a fitness trainer?

Pursuing a chemistry degree doesn’t necessarily mean you have to have a chemistry only based position.

Stephanie Lee

Finally, let’s be frank, chemistry isn’t a very popular field of study, what would you say to someone to convince them to pursue a career in chemistry?

B: I think chemistry is definitely the way to go because it’s an incredibly diverse field. You can really, with your chemistry degree, go into any area you want and you can find something you’re interested in. It provides doorways to pursuing what inspires you. You’re also needed by a lot more people, I’m always helping out engineering. They always think they know what’s up but in the end they really need a chemist. And this is so very true in oil and gas, but same in other areas. It always comes down to the fundamentals of chemistry.

G: Wow, um, this might get a bit too philosophical here, but if we want to be informed citizens, be a good citizen, I think we need to understand the world around us the best we can. And one of the things I really like about chemistry is that they call chemistry the central science. So chemistry touches all aspects of everyone on a daily basis, whether they notice it or not. Just understanding why these greenhouse gases are bad or how your water softener works, or even devices that people use all the time, there’s a lot of chemistry behind that. So for me the reason why I like it is that it allows us to understand a lot of the things that happen in our world, whether it be medicinal, environmental etc, it gives us a better understanding and touches on so many things.

S: Pursuing a chemistry degree doesn’t necessarily mean you have to have a chemistry only based position. My job for example, is mostly biochemistry based, and someone will eventually give you a chance if that’s your field of interest. There’s so many fields in chemistry such as environmental, analytical, medicinal etc. Science based jobs, while not the most traditionally lucrative, are extremely important at understanding how the world works, discovering cures to diseases that affect real life patients, and so much more. It’s worth trying in the name of science.

And that’s it for our interviews, please comment or email if this article was helpful and whether you’d be interested in a similar article for your field of study!

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