Sometimes when I’m doing career counseling, the topic turns to non-traditional jobs in chemistry, and students are interested in what they are and how you might get one. I think many people know I’m the poster child for such things, especially those who have heard my talk for the Chemistry and the Law Division: “Lab to Lobbyist and Everything In Between.”
So, non-traditional? Yeah, I’ll cop to that. I’ve been in the lab; I’ve licensed technology in Asia and South America; I’ve had a startup business; I’ve worked for an advocacy group in Washington; I’ve taken fire fighter training; I’ve sorted garbage on a manual recycling “picking” line and burned it in landfills in Mexico and China to sample the combustion gases; and that doesn’t even touch my work with ACS over the last 15 years. I think there are now, and have always been, more non-traditional careers in chemistry—at least in industry—than what we think of as traditional careers.
So how did I find that path? Well, maybe a little history helps. In high school I loved speech, debate, and theatre and I was fully on board with a career in law and politics until I took chemistry from Bob Conard at Crown Point High School in Indiana. I was hooked, and wanted to be just like him. But my mother wanted me to be a doctor like her (bad idea on a number of counts). I had a triple major as an undergrad: chemistry, physics, and fun. My GPA and GRE scores would support chemistry grad school (barely) and physics not at all. Rather than go back to selling cars, off I went to a grad school that would have me. And I got into research. I got my PhD after a couple of stops and went into industry, as you know, where I fetched up in the polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic business.
Something that was true then and may well be true now for almost any business is that there are issues—controversy—and there is typically a need for science to resolve the controversy. In the early 1980s in the plastics business, the issue was plastics in house fires. “Are today’s fires more toxic than those of thirty years ago, and do plastics create supertoxic agents when they burn?”
That should sound like a research project to you, and it was. In addition to my company responsibilities for product R&D, I got the chance to oversee research at an independent lab studying combustion and combustion toxicology on behalf of an industry association. The research was pretty interesting and, while it’s too long to reproduce here, what kills people in fires now is what always did: carbon monoxide, low oxygen, and heat. Maybe a small contribution of hydrogen cyanide from burning materials that contain nitrogen, but not a raft of unknown supertoxic agents.
Well, once the research was done, someone had to write it up and someone had to take it on the road to talk to the mayors, code officials, fire fighters, and others who were interested in the work. So the guy who was an adequate scientist, but pretty good at explaining technical things to non-technical people - that would be me, in this case - got the responsibility. I taught courses for fire company officers on the chemistry of fire and products of combustion. I debated firefighters’ union officials on local TV and radio. And it was not always a box of doughnuts, either. Sometimes the debates were tough and direct. One day, I got thrown out of the city of Pittsburgh by the President of the City Council. Maybe that’s a story worth telling someday.
So what does this have to do with non-traditional careers in chemistry? I guess Yogi Berra is alleged to have said it best: “When you come to the fork in the road, take it.” I’m pretty sure that there are opportunities that present themselves to all of us, and it probably happens quite often. Unfortunately, not all of them are labeled “opportunity.” Some are labeled “more work,” “pain in the neck” or “another darn thing.” Some pass more or less unnoticed.
But I always kept my peripheral vision sharp. There was no added responsibility I wouldn’t take if it looked like I could learn something; that’s how I got into fire science. And here’s the second tip—once you gain a little expertise, never let it atrophy. Even when the fire issue went into remission I still read the literature and stayed up with the players and still do thirty years later. Throughout my career I had the chance to add a lot of other things to my toolkit and I always came upon them that same way. Personal growth into an adjacent space where there was a need for someone with a little energy. Do this enough times and it turns into a non-traditional career.
So that’s the advice. You may not fall into this kind of career on day 2, but I’m willing to bet that if you’re observant, by day 500 a number of opportunities have presented themselves in the guise of “more work” or “another darn thing.” Work on your peripheral vision and make sure you see what’s out there for the opportunity it could be. Then take the fork in the road and don’t look back.
Dr. William F. Carroll, Jr. holds a Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry from Indiana University, Bloomington, IN. He received an M.S. from Tulane University in New Orleans and a B.A. in chemistry and physics from DePauw University in Greencastle, IN. He holds two patents and has over sixty-five publications in the fields of organic electrochemistry, polymer chemistry, combustion chemistry, incineration and plastics recycling.