Q: I completed my degree in chemistry in 2001 and worked in a lab for a couple of years. I then decided I wanted to do something different and went into a financial role in a large firm. Since then I have had a child and a 12 month career break, and now I would like
to move back into chemistry. Can you help me?
A: From your question, it looks like you haven’t had a chemistry role for almost 10 years. My usual advice is that moving back into chemistry gets more difficult after 18 months to two years, but it’s not impossible and we do see people move back and forth between sectors.
There may be some restrictions in the types of job you will apply for based on location, family commitments, experience and so on, so I would encourage you to ask yourself these questions before you make this decision. You need to be very honest with yourself so that you don’t apply for roles that would be unsuitable.
You also need to understand the reasons behind your desire to return to chemistry in order to ensure you are making the right decision for you and your family. For some people it is to make a difference, for others it’s being more challenged in their role, or perhaps a love of research. Chemistry does provide these things but so do other roles and sectors, so be specific about the chemistry skills and activities you enjoy and want to do.
Love the lab?
Some jobs are more difficult to get into than others. For example, if you’d like to move back into the lab then you will need to refresh and update your practical skills. In this case, shadowing in a lab is a good idea to begin with to see if it is definitely what you want. If it is, then you have a number of options to get you there.
If you don’t already have a postgraduate qualification, then a masters or doctorate degree can help you build those lab skills back up, and will be particularly helpful if research is what interests you. Talk to university departments about going back to study and the sort of research they carry out to make sure you find something that suits you. My only caution would be that employers aren’t always looking for extra qualifications and there is no guarantee that you will get a job based on this. So make sure you do it for you, because you want to, and not because you think you need to.
Another option is getting a temporary or part time position in a lab. You can often find such roles through a recruitment agency. You will need to highlight the practical skills you already have and how enthusiastic you are to get back into a lab-based role. In this situation, a skills-based CV will help. Make use of your networks, as you may be able to find someone to help you spend some time in a lab environment, or who knows someone who can help – a university classmate, for example.
Of course, it may be that you want to use your chemistry knowledge outside of the lab. Some people in this situation are concerned about losing their chemistry skills, but remember that a chemist’s skills are varied. There are many roles where your chemistry knowledge and the transferable skills that you have gained – such as working with people, project management and problem solving – will be valued and desirable to employers. Again, think about which skills you have and which you like using the most. And don’t forget to make use of the skills and experience you have from your non-chemistry role – you may be able to offer something unique to an employer that other candidates don’t have.
By evaluating the skills you have and want to use, and what it is about chemistry that excites you, you will be able to make an informed decision about the career path you take.
If you have more advice you’d like to share about this month’s question — or have your own career conundrum for Charlotte — please write to firstname.lastname@example.org