How to Brew Up a Career in Chemistry

An Actalent experts piece on how to turn a chemist job into a career.

There's a rich landscape of opportunities out there for professional chemists, but many job seekers might not be aware of them all. The fact is, some of the best job listings can be hard to find.

That's the word from Angela Middendorf and Alexandra Hirt, two people who spend a lot of time recruiting chemists and placing them with high-tech employers in animal health or life sciences, or in the food, chemical, environmental or pharmaceutical industries. So Actalent knows about these open positions, but your average chemist doesn't.

Increasingly, these companies are working with staffing agencies like Actalent to bring in chemists on a contract-to-hire basis. It's not uncommon for contract employees to get hired permanently by the end of their contracts.

"Job candidates are seeing just a portion of these positions online," said Middendorf, an Actalent divisional practice lead based in Kansas City. "When they go to Indeed, CareerBuilder or Monster, they"re not seeing the whole landscape of opportunities that are out there, mainly because using recruiting and staffing agencies is such a widespread practice within science companies."

What steps can a chemist take to succeed professionally? Middendorf and Hirt, a scientific account manager based in Kansas, have some hard-earned advice.

What's the job market like for chemists?

"The market for chemists right now is extremely strong," Middendorf said. "There are an incredible amount of opportunities open right now — from entry-level chemists right out of college, to chemists who have three or four years of experience, to high-level chemists in the 15- to 20-year range."

If the job market is so great, why would a chemist need Actalent?

Say you've graduated with a bachelor's degree in chemistry. Actalent helps new grads bridge the gap between school and industry, and puts them in a position to succeed.

"Coming right out of school, most candidates won't have the hands-on experience sought after by hiring managers," Middendorf said. "Most chemists are going into quality control positions. The pace of these labs is fast-paced and high-volume."

After Middendorf and Hirt themselves graduated with chemistry and biology degrees, they had no idea how many different kinds of job opportunities were out there, or which would be best for them.

"We can walk them through the different industries — food, chemistry, pharmaceuticals," Hirt said. "We can talk about what's most interesting to them — what they want long-term."

How can chemists make themselves attractive to Actalent recruiters?

"They can put the instrumentation they have had exposure to on their resume. Applicants often overlook this," Middendorf said. "Many will cover their education and background, but by detailing the instruments they've used on the job, they become way more marketable."

"If they have the opportunity to take an analytical instrumentation class in school, they should absolutely do that," she added.

Also, an analytical chemistry technique called high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) is in demand, according to Hirt. "Candidates who have experience with HPLC, we want to see all day long."

What else can Actalent do for chemists?

Recruiters help prepare applicants for job interviews, based on their insider knowledge of each hiring company.

"We take them through a series of technical and behavioral questions," Middendorf said. "We're actually doing a mock interview, helping them adjust and refine their answers."

Also, Actalent can save job candidates a lot of time.

"We try to fill positions in 48 to 72 hours," Hirt said. "When you're doing it on your own, you're waiting for a month, a month and a half. That's another question we always get: 'How quickly can you get me a job?'"

Why do some candidates get passed over for jobs?

Because they couldn't clearly communicate how their work experience is relevant to what the client needs, according to Middendorf. They couldn't make the hiring manager believe they could do the job.

"That's 80% of it. The other 20% comes down to interpersonal skills," Hirt said. "Scientists often are reserved. One of our struggles is just getting them to come out of their shell and show a little bit of themselves at interviews."

How hard is it for a chemist to jump from the food industry to pharmaceuticals?

It's tough, but it's not impossible. One challenge is that regulations in the pharmaceuticals industry are much stricter, Middendorf said. It helps if the job applicant is bringing the right kind of hands-on experience from the food industry.

"What's going to allow that to happen or not allow that to happen is the extent of hands-on instrumentation experience that they have," she said. "And if they're coming from an FDA-regulated food lab, the pharmaceutical industry is more open to looking at them."

What kind of chemist succeeds?

"People who are committed to the job, who are reliable, who ask good questions, who want to learn the ins and outs of their position," "The candidates who are taking the initiative to learn more and do more are the ones getting hired and promoted faster."

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