of a computer screen. Risk-takers often enjoy the adventure of
working for a start-up company, while those who need a more
secure income gravitate toward more established businesses.
If you enjoy tending to the details and making sure that everything is done according to protocol, you could work in a medical
diagnostics laboratory or process evidence for use in legal cases
(think CSI labs and environmental cleanup operations). Product
development chemists enjoy refining and optimizing processes
or prototypes. If you chafe at routine and repetition and you like
working on open-ended questions, then basic research might be
Every team needs people whose styles complement each other:
idea generators, practical planners, visionaries, detail people, programmers, theorists, people persons, and marketing wizards, to
name a few.
Do your research
How will you find a role that fits you well? Ask questions of yourself
and others, observe, and listen.
A few years ago, two friends and I were dissatisfied with our
careers, and we formed an informal support group. I promised my
friends that I would spend two hours alone every Saturday morning at a nearby coffee shop (so I couldn’t procrastinate by doing
housework or watching television). I would spend this time reading
relevant books and writing in my journal.
I spent this time away from friends and family — anyone who
was eager to load me up with free advice on “what you need to
do.” I turned off my cell phone and any Internet connections, to
thwart my urge to check my messages or look at funny cat pictures.
I used this time to create an inventory of the things that made me
happy and were fun to do, and what I wanted more of in my working life (as well as types of functions and responsibilities I wanted
Looking inward shows you what’s inside your own mind. Reaching
out helps you move past the limits of your own knowledge and
imagination, and puts you in contact with people you’ll be interacting with throughout your career. The best way to find things
out and make yourself visible to potential employers is to contact
people in your field and ask questions.
This can seem very daunting. Whom should you contact? Why
would they want to talk to you? When you get right down to it,
this is part of your undergraduate research, and it’s your job to be
asking these questions. Building your network can be an enjoyable
way to expand your horizons. Meeting and maintaining contacts
online and in the “real world” can make you the go-to person when
potential employers come looking for promising prospects. This
is something you can start during your freshman year— but it’s
never too late to begin.
Start small — pick a few faculty members, grad students,
or postdocs from your department who are working on things
you’re interested in and with whom you feel comfortable. Do your
homework — what problems are they trying to solve? Have they
published a paper recently? Have they just returned from an inter-
esting conference? Write down a few specific questions in advance.
Tell the person that you are doing some career planning, and ask if
he or she would be willing to meet with you one-on-one for about
a half hour to talk about their work. Not everyone is receptive to
this kind of meeting, but those who understand the concept of net-
working will be happy to share their ideas with you.
This is very different from an interview with a recruiter or a hiring manager. You’re doing this to learn what’s going on in your
field, sharpen your sense of direction, and learn what things you
need in order to get where you’re going. Even if you don’t directly
land a job this way, you will be better informed when you do go on
a job interview.
Close your discussion with two questions: “Is there anything
that I haven’t asked about that you think I should know?” and
“Who else should I be talking to about this?”
Send the person a note of thanks afterward (tell them in person
if you see them regularly), and mention two or three specific things
that you learned from them. Taking notes during your meeting will
help you remember these things, but don’t get so involved in your
note-taking that you drop out of the conversation.
Stay in contact with the people with whom you really hit it
off. Send them an interesting article now and then, or tell them if
you’ve gone to their seminars or seen them mentioned in the press.
If you see these people often, ask them how their work is going.
Expand your network
Attend ACS local section and regional meetings. Find people who
are presenting research in your field. Contact them in advance to
request and schedule half-hour meetings during the conference.
Establish e-mail contact with researchers who publish on topics
that interest you. Follow them on Facebook or Twitter and respond
to their posts when you have something relevant to say. Set up a
LinkedIn profile and join several discussion groups: the online version of dressing up in your “business attire” and mingling with professional colleagues at an international conference. Reach out to
people all the way up the hierarchy in your field, and you might be
surprised who responds. If you ask well-thought-out questions and
make intelligent comments, you’ll establish yourself as someone
worth paying attention to.
Your first job after graduation might be exactly what you envisioned. More likely, it will be a first step in a long journey. Your
road map will help you know when you’re moving in the right
Nancy McGuire is a freelance writer based in Silver Spring, MD.
She has a Ph.D. in solid state chemistry, and began her career
doing applied research.
Marcus Buckingham, Donald O. Clifton. Now, Discover Your Strengths; Free Press:
New York, 2001.
Richard Nelson Bolles. What Color Is Your Parachute? 2014: A Practical Manual for
Job-Hunters and Career-Changers; Ten Speed Press: New York, 2013.