simultaneously, with little opportunity to do anything else. Now
I was expected to keep my mouth shut and swing a tool. This was,
believe it or not, enormously liberating: to not be responsible for
things beyond my immediate control. There were no papers due,
no finals, and no thoughts about what I was going to do when I
graduated. I had to show up on time and work hard— but evenings
and weekends were mine.
However, I soon found myself spending my spare time re-reading old textbooks, and realized I needed to get back into science.
Making this decision was an exercise in “
sat-isficing”— that is, finding something that
was reasonably interesting and paid well
enough, but still offered a sense of balance.
I thought about getting a Ph.D. in chemistry or chemical engineering, but I worried
that becoming so highly educated with
such a small amount of work experience
might make it difficult to find employment. Going for a master’s degree, on the
other hand, felt just right. It would give me
an edge in the market but would neither
take five years nor pigeonhole me into
something forever. I eventually found and
enrolled in a program that grants an M.S.
in chemistry after 15 months, including 9
months of work experience.
In contrast to going back for a traditional
master’s or Ph.D., my master’s program was
more akin to an apprenticeship. I worked in a semiconductor fabrication facility that makes chips for cell phones and tablet computers. My job was to prevent failures from occurring in plasma etch
processes and processing tools. To be successful, I had to rely on
concepts from almost every chemistry course that I’d ever taken, as
well as electronics and electricity and magnetism. After graduation,
I could choose to stay where I was, look for another job in semiconductors or another chemistry-related field, continue on for a Ph.D.
in chemistry, or even go back to working for the Forest Service.
with previous experience frequently come in with a certain understanding of what is and isn’t possible with the available resources.
In addition, so-called “soft skills”— like writing, giving presentations, or simply being able to work with a rude co-worker— are very
desirable to employers.
People in your network can also help you distinguish yourself
with a potential employer. If you’ve worked successfully as a mem-
ber of a team, that establishes you as a competent colleague, with
whom others will want to work. Your fellow team members can be
a huge component of your network, by serving
as references for future employers.
Last, but not least, there is your education.
Your undergraduate degree will qualify you
for certain types of entry-level positions, but
will not distinguish you from the thousands
of other recently minted B.A. and B.S. job candidates. If you’re interested in continuing your
education, however, remember that there are
options beyond Ph.D.s and professional degree
Master’s degrees offer specialized experi-
ence (e.g., research and advanced coursework)
that industry seeks in applicants, and they
do so without a four-plus-year commitment.
Many master’s programs offer the opportunity
to co-op with a company in your field. After a
company invests many months in training you,
you’re an obvious choice for any permanent
openings. And even if you don’t ultimately work for that com-
pany, you still have contacts within the industry, and experience
with which to market yourself.
I soon found
Looking back, planning ahead
my spare time
realized I needed
to get back into
I completed my undergraduate degree in 2009, but since then I’ve
had plenty of adventures. Two years ago I was just starting my
graduate coursework, and now I have an M.S. degree and a position
at one of the most established and widely recognized names in
I’ve also learned a few simple but valuable lessons. First, use
your experience, references, and education to actively market yourself to potential employers. Don’t get stuck thinking that the only
experience worth having is in your industry! Taking a year off to do
something unusual is often a great option (and not just for your
psyche: it will make you stand out later). And most importantly, try
to figure out what you want, and use that insight to guide you.
By applying these principles (mostly unwittingly), I’ve more than
once found myself working at a job that was fulfilling, with some
time on the side to enjoy life. The world is a big place; don’t be
afraid to wander out into it once in a while.
Finding a place in a crowded pool
According to the ACS Annual Report of Earned Degrees, 2008–
2009, there were about 14,600 B.A. and B.S. degrees in chemistry
awarded in the United States in 2009, and about 5000 in chemical engineering. At the same time, I was competing with newly
unemployed, experienced chemists for entry-level jobs.
With so many people vying for a limited number of opportunities, finding a job was and still is not as simple as flashing your
diploma; you need to stand out. Suppose, for instance, that I have
the skills to solve a specific set of technical problems faced by a
firm. Once they post a job opening, I need to convince them that
I’m one of the top candidates, based on three personal assets: my
experience, people in my network, and my education.
Companies are looking for someone with the experience to get
the job done and add value to the organization. Frequently that
means taking on small, unglamorous tasks that aren’t discussed in
theoretical coursework but are still absolutely essential. Applicants
Nicholas M. Kelly is a process sustaining engineer at;Fairchild
Semiconductor in Portland, ME. He earned a B.A. in chemistry
at Kalamazoo College, MI, and an M.S. in semiconductor
processing at the University of Oregon, Eugene, OR.
inChemistry • www.acs.org/undergrad