Is it a Good Idea to be a Chromatographer?

October 15, 2018

The Column

The Column, The Column-10-15-2018, Volume 14, Issue 10
Page Number: 12–15

Columns | <b>Column: Incognito</b>

Incognito wonders if chromatographers are happy with their choice of career.

Incognito wonders if chromatographers are happy with their choice of career.

I read the following on a web page entitled “What Is It Like Being a Chemist?”: “Poor choice of career: My suggestion to anyone wanting to get into this field is that STAY AWAY from chemistry. I graduated with an M.S. in chemistry back in 2007 and worked in several chemical and pharmaceutical companies. I can tell you that 90% of people I worked with, including me, regretted going into this field, and I have yet to meet a person who likes working with chemicals. Chemistry is oversaturated and underpaid” (1).

Another respondent said that there were too many chemistry candidates available in the job market and many of these have PhDs, and that there is no job security in this field with many big companies outsourcing their R&D and manufacturing facilities to Asia. There were also complaints about the number of permanent positions available and the short notice periods that staff on contracts were often given (1).

After reading this and several of the other posts on this and similar pages, I was shell-shocked, but was I surprised? Is this representative? Has my very rewarding 30+ year career, in which I’ve had four jobs and no unemployment or lay-offs, softened me to the harsh reality of what it’s like to start out again and work your way up in the analytical laboratory?

 

A very recent LCGC salary survey (August 2018) (2) contained some useful insights into trends and attitudes within the analytical laboratory. Some highlights worthy of note (n = 124):

  • Job security is high with 85% of respondents feeling fairly or highly secure in their current position and fairly or highly optimistic about the future career prospects of analytical chemists.

  • 71% feel that analytical chemistry careers offer a good work–life balance.

  • 43% of respondents are planning to look for a new job within the next year, primarily because of nonmonetary dissatisfaction with their employer (24.2% of those planning to move in the next year), but almost as many cited a monetary motivation to move (19.8%) or increased challenge (14.3%).

  • 75% would recommend analytical chemistry as a career, with positive comments on the challenging nature of the science, the utility of measurement science, and that there is “always a job in the drug world”. However, there were several negative comments regarding how appreciated chromatographers felt; one respondent stated: “Separation science is viewed only as a tool and expertise in the field is not valued”, another “Qualifications and experience required are high with comparably poor return”, and another that “the reality is that companies rarely appreciate or understand the amount of work and effort it takes to deliver results”.

I still wasn’t particularly convinced that there are no worrying underlying trends here. Whilst comments on job security are conflicting, I do see commonality on points regarding being undervalued and underpaid, if I might put it so bluntly!

 

Let’s take a more generic look at some “job satisfaction” factors and comment whether we feel we are well or poorly served as analytical chemists.

A recent (2017) survey by the Society for Human Resource Management on employee job satisfaction (in all employment areas) (3) rated the top 10
job satisfaction factors as follows (figures in parentheses are % of respondents rating this factor as very important and % of respondents rating themselves as being very satisfied with that factor, n = 600):

  • Respectful treatment of all employees at all levels (65,38)

  • Overall compensation package (61,26)

  • Trust between employees and senior management (61,33)

  • Job security (58,36)

  • Opportunities to use your skills and abilities at work (56,44)

  • Feeling safe in your work environment (56,42)

  • Benefits overall (56,31)

  • Organization financial stability (54,33)

  • Communication between employees and senior management (53,32)

  • The work itself (51,41)

Much further down the list were topics such as training and professional development, opportunities for career advancement, recognition of achievement, and a feeling that you are contributing to the wider business, all of which I would have personally put much higher on the scale.

So let’s try and tie the job satisfaction factors to the very bleak picture painted in the opening post.

 

In my experience the analytical laboratory is typically a pretty respectful place in which to work, with most people working there considering themselves as professionals and treat others well. Apart from professional disappointments and disagreement on scientific approaches (which is healthy if managed properly) and the usual company politics, I’ve not experienced a whole lot of disrespect by the company for its analytical staff.

I would say that compensation for analytical staff is, on the whole, not so good, and whilst I don’t have figures to hand, my gut feeling that remuneration versus education would not be in the upper quartile when compared to other professions.

I feel points 3 and 9 go hand in hand and that trust and communication with senior management vary widely. In the main, I’d say that analytical chemistry is seen as a support function and therefore we are sometimes out on a limb when it comes to communication on strategy and performance.

Job security (factor 4) and organization financial stability (factor 8) again go hand in hand and for anyone working within big chemical and big pharma industries will know that these cannot be assumed. Thirty years ago, when I started my career, being an analytical chemist was pretty much a job for life and in many cases we could pick which employer’s job offer to accept. I know this will be difficult to imagine and of course will differ depending upon geographical location and other demographics, but it was true for me and many of my colleagues. Why has this changed so radically? Obviously the financial and business landscape has changed, but I also feel, as per the opening post, that there are lot more individuals fighting for a lot fewer jobs these days. Automation and industrialization would be a further contributing factor in this, but I’m sure there are other significant reasons.

I find the response on factor 5, opportunities to use your skills, fascinating. What skills do you need to have in the laboratory these days? An understanding of techniques and when they might be applied, an ability to interpret data, an ability to manipulate samples, mathematics, and statistics, an ability to use computer data systems and communications? I could (and may well!) write a whole instalment on this topic, but I do feel that the skill set I needed when I began my career is different from those currently entering the industry. I wonder how many folks rate their ability with spanners and electronics as crucial today or how many need to understand the theory of separation techniques in order to properly interpret data or solve problems?

 

I guess I’m lucky in that I have always felt safe in laboratories in which I have worked but I wonder if this is the case for the majority of readers?

Factor 7, overall benefits, fits closely with factor 2, compensation, however, I do see more “soft benefits” being offered by employees, but do we feel that perhaps our friends in other industries get a better deal on health insurance, company cars, and gym membership?

Finally, to the work itself (factor 10). I’ve always been fascinated by chromatography and the wider aspects of analytical chemistry. I’ve always wanted to learn more and absorb as much as possible to improve my problem-solving abilities and usefulness. I’ve loved working with different types of instruments and even developing new approaches to analysis and automation to get the right results for my employer. Perhaps this is just a personality trait, but truly I’ve enjoyed being a chromatographer.

All of the above is just my opinion. I’m sure readers will have their own individual take on all of these job satisfaction factors. I’m sure that the picture is not so bleak as is painted in the opening web page post. I also get the feeling that my own career has been somewhat “rosy”, but is this because of my enjoyment and willingness to learn, or have I just been lucky?

I’d really like to hear from individual readers on their experiences and reaction to this Incognito instalment to get a “people’s poll” by which we can measure the zeitgeist in the industry-so please do feel free to get in touch via kate.mosford@ubm.com

References

  1. www.thoughtco.com/what-its-like-being-a-chemist-606123
  2. http://files.pharmtech.com/alfresco_images/pharma/2018/08/24/7cb93fdc-f814-4de5-9291-ec12f8a6263c/LCGC_NAmerica_Aug2018.pdf.pdf
  3. www.shrm.org/hr-today/trends-and-forecasting/research-and-surveys/pages/2017-job-satisfaction-and-engagement-doors-of-opportunity-are-open.aspx

Contact author: Incognito
E-mail:kate.mosford@ubm.com

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