Secrets Revealed: Landing a Career as a Separation Scientist

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This past spring, we convened a panel of six phenomenal separation scientists for a networking session at Pittcon 2023 in Philadelphia, PA. They included:

  • Michelle Corbally, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Los Alamos National Laboratory
  • Steven Lehotay, Research Chemist (Lead Scientist), USDA Agricultural Research Service
  • Jonnie Shackman, Scientific Director, Bristol Myers Squibb
  • André Striegel, Scientific Advisor, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)
  • Paige Sudol, NRC Postdoctoral Research Associate, US Naval Research Laboratory
  • Rachael Szafnauer, Product Marketing Manager, Markes International

Our panel contained a wide range of experiences, from those with master’s to PhDs, to those just starting their independent careers to those who have been in their position for decades, to folks who have transitioned between different job sectors. Here is some of their best advice for separation scientists, whether you are just starting out or looking for a career transition.

What can you say about networking? Are there ways to get in without networking?

Michelle Corbally: Networking is extremely important when looking for a career in science. The most common way we think of networking involves going to conferences to meet new people and speak with vendors. This is important, of course, but you can also consider meeting people in your classes at school networking. I found my current position because someone I went to school with had an opening in her group for someone with my skill set. So, while conferences are important and I highly recommend going to them, I also recommend keeping in contact with previous classmates and friends in the field.

What is the biggest mistake people make when submitting their resume?

Jonnie Shackman: The biggest CV/resume/cover letter mistake is lying (or grossly over-exaggerating). Usually, both Human Resources and the interviewers have done some basic checking before even picking up the phone to talk to a candidate. An undergraduate student who has only seen a HPLC system in their instrumental course should not claim to be an expert (even if they were the best in the class). Similarly, if you were part of a collaboration or team research effort, be honest with what you contributed. The second biggest mistake is not double, triple, and quadruple checking for errors. These documents are your first chance to show that you can communicate effectively AND have a keen eye for detail. Poor grammar, spelling, formatting, etc. will all destroy the image you’re trying to present.

Do you have any tips for interviewing?


Jonnie Shackman: Just like a scientific endeavor, do your background research first. Find out all you can about the company/institution/facility, as well as the job position. If you know who you will be meeting with/interviewing, do some searches on them as well (Google Scholar, LinkedIn, etc.). This will not only show you have a deep interest in the position, but it may also give you an opening to discuss something mutually interesting with the interviewer. When the interviewer asks if you have any questions, never leave this unanswered. You may have multiple interviewing sessions, so having a deep reservoir of questions is key. Be honest, be passionate, be genuine. These are your potential colleagues; the interview is a time to see if there will be mutual compatibility.

What questions should I ask in an interview?

Michelle Corbally: I asked a few questions about the position itself, but I also made sure to ask about the surrounding area and the different activities and hobbies people typically participate in here. Showing that you are interested in not only the position, but also where you are potentially moving to, can show potential employers that you are truly considering accepting a job offer from them.

Paige Sudol: In my opinion, it’s important to ask as many questions about your responsibilities and the scope of your role as possible. Will you be expected to focus on one specific area of research, or will collaborations be encouraged? For me, I wanted to be able to explore multiple areas of research.

What priorities did you weigh when considering academia vs. industry vs. a government lab?

André Striegel: The most important aspect of this consideration is to know what is right for you at that point in your career and in your life. Realize that your priorities and interests can, and likely will, change over a period of several decades. Financially, it is generally an inverse relationship between salary and freedom among these three choices; as in, salaries are highest in industry, lowest in academia, and government is somewhere in the middle. Conversely, in industry, you will likely have the least freedom to do what you want research-wise, while in academia you will have the greatest freedom in this respect. In a government job, you will likely have the freedom to do what you want in a given area, while also being required to address divisional or programmatic needs as part of your job. For an academic position, you should also consider whether your priorities weigh more heavily towards teaching or towards research, and you should realize, especially if research is your main priority, that you will be chasing after grant money for the next several decades (basically, the rest of your career). Job security is likely greatest in a government position and lowest in industry. In academia, job security increases exponentially once (or if) you achieve tenure; until then, you basically have little, if any, job security. In all cases, it is highly recommended you keep an “active” resume; keep publishing (easier said than done when in industry, but still doable, as I know from personal experience), keep presenting, become or stay involved in professional organizations, etc. When the time comes that you either want or have to move to a different institution or change career paths, you want to make sure you are in the driver’s seat.

Paige Sudol: After being a teaching assistant (TA) for most of my graduate school career, I knew that I wanted to focus solely on research for a while without worrying about teaching, so academia was out for me. In weighing industry versus government, I considered the typically higher pay of industry versus the benefits/job security associated with government work. Several of my friends and family work for the government, so I was definitely swayed in that direction. But what ultimately was my deciding factor was the potential real-world impact of working at the Naval Research Lab, where basic research can turn into novel technologies utilized by the Navy.

What other things should you consider in negotiating a position in industry, other than salary?

Jonnie Shackman: Except at the higher levels, many companies won’t have a lot of flexibility in negotiating packages, which are set based on the position and the company (such as medical benefits). It is more likely that you’ll be comparing offers from different companies, so you’ll want to ensure you know the entirely of the potential benefits, from relocation to commuter options. This will allow you to compare positions holistically. Large metropolitan areas will likely have higher salaries, but the cost of living will also be higher. Regardless of this adjustment, some people will only be happy in less urban settings (or vice versa) or may have other regional drivers, such as family proximity. Some companies are more base salary-centric while others utilize stock to a larger degree for compensation. Do you want to have a rigid time clock (an exact 9 to 5 job), or do you prefer more flexibility (possibly working outside the 40 hour a week range)? Do they require 100% in-person, or are there remote work options? Do you want to stay engaged in research, including presenting and publishing, or will you be confined to the exact job description? What does the company offer for family planning or time off? Are there continuing education/secondary education benefits to take advantage of? Some of these questions can be answered directly by Human Resources, while others will be specifically tied to the position you’re applying for. All these factors should be considered though.

In what ways has your degree allowed you to excel in your career?

Rachael Szafnauer: During my degree, we had exposure to “Project Management” for one module and the ability to apply for a 6-week placement in industry (Markes International). The placement allowed me full access to state-of-the-art GC–MS instrumentation, including new products under development at the time that were soon to be released commercially. Having that hands-on experience gave me skills I was able to demonstrate in a job interview (at a different company) a few months later, and I was offered the role. About a year later, I was approached by Markes, as they had an open position for a product specialist. Having seen how I’d worked during my placement and having my contact details, they asked me to interview and I was successful here too – I’m still here 6.5 years later!

During my time here at Markes, I’ve grown my career and been exposed much more to the business aspect while still being able to apply my technical and application knowledge – it’s great being able to mix the two, as now, I have a lot of variety and no two days are the same. Now, as a product marketing manager, we’ve recently launched new products, and I was able to understand the process of New Idea to New Product and apply what I’d learnt many years prior in the “Project Management” module.

If you’re ever offered an industry placement, I’d say to take it. The days may seem long, but I really enjoyed it. I didn’t mind spending my evenings processing data or learning more about the analytical techniques I was using, so I could go in the next day with new questions and new ideas on how to prep my samples to get better results.

Steven Lehotay: A PhD is required in my position as a research scientist in the U.S. federal government, and it generally leads to higher pay. Independent of that, those who manage to pass the trials and jump through the hoops of attaining a PhD tend to have more curiosity, knowledge, self-confidence, and determination than those with less advanced degrees. However, greater responsibility and more work usually comes with more pay, which leads to more stress, and I sometimes get jealous of those who do not have to take their work (figuratively if not literally) home with them.

Do you have any tips for transitioning to a new career?

Steven Lehotay: There are those who make a living by working for others in a traditional job, and there are those who work for themselves, as an entrepreneur or consultant. I’ve known several people to switch from traditional careers in science to a variety of different fields, but that dichotomy of having a boss or being your own boss nearly always acts as a fundamental reason for their choices. In traditional jobs, financial security is a critical need in my view that takes precedence over feelings of job satisfaction, because within organizations, the grass is rarely greener on the other side of the fence, and even if your career changes, you still have to live with yourself.

What is the most exciting part of using separation science in your industry?

Michelle Corbally: I love being able to try weird and new techniques for separation science. I work specifically on developing new chromatographic methods for samples that typically could not be analyzed using conventional GC or LC. Being able to see the separation of compounds in a complex mixture that typically would break down using these instruments is always exciting.

Rachael Szafnauer: I’m an inquisitive person. I like a challenge, and new application development is an area I spend a lot of my time. Although I’m not so lab-based now, I work with two great application specialists in my team, and we constantly brainstorm ideas on what to try next to get an application to work. You can spend weeks getting rubbish results, theorizing what could be causing application or instrument issues, but when you find that one way to solve the problem and you crack the application – that’s what excites me. Being able to offer the solution to customers globally to help solve their challenges is an added benefit.

Final Thoughts

As people began filing into our networking room in the beginning of the session, there was a buzz about the audience – an energy of excitement. In fact, this networking session was so well-attended that we had to borrow chairs from an unused room several times to seat everyone. While we hoped the panel we convened would generate interest amongst those searching for a job or looking for a career change, we had not anticipated the audience size. People are very hungry for information about how to put their best foot forward and achieve their career goals in separation science. This is something that our audience demonstrated through their inquisitive questions and lively discussion with the panelists. Perhaps emerging from a pandemic has created more interest in exploring different career options, changing sectors in the chemical enterprise, and being involved in meaningful measurement science that helps to advance society. These type of sessions are important now more than ever to help guide individuals towards fulfilling career paths. Next time you attend a major conference, consider how you might learn from a career panel or development talk – or how you might contribute to one and share your wisdom with those who need it. These moments of exchange benefit all of us in separation science and analytical chemistry as they are necessary and important to guide our next generation of scientists. Thank you to all of our panelists for their time as well as those who attended this session and contributed their lively discussion.

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