#altchemjobs are just #chemjobs

Edit: I realized after writing this that  not all #chemjobs are lab jobs and not all non-lab jobs are #altchemjobs (ie, computational positions). I apologize for any confusion; throughout this post, “lab jobs” and “non-lab jobs” can probably be better defined as “research jobs” and “non-research jobs”. There’s a lot to unpack in this space, I know.

Second Edit: Chemjobber has responded here.

Earlier this month, I went on a bit of a rant about #altchemjobs. Not on the “alternative” chemistry jobs themselves, but in how we talk about these sorts of careers. It’s linked above, but I’ll give you the tl;dr — I really don’t think we should use the #altchemjobs hashtag anymore, and I think we’re doing our young scientists a disservice by referring to very common career paths as “alternative”.

For those who have literally no idea what I’m talking about, fellow blogger and Twitter power user @Chemjobber posts chemistry job postings and employment-related comments under the hashtag #chemjobs. This is a super useful service he provides and honestly he is an absolute treasure to our community. People have picked up on this hashtag and as a result there are tons of posts that direct job seekers toward opportunities and useful resources from every corner of the Twitterverse.

Chemjobber, and others, also use #altchemjobs for listings that might be of interest to folks with a chemistry background, but aren’t lab jobs. “Sounds useful,” you say. “What on Earth is Marshall getting worked up over?”

Let’s take a look at just two recent tweets on this hashtag, both coincidentally from @Chemjobber (though there are plenty from others as well):

While #chemjobs is primarily a workhorse hashtag, it is not at all uncommon for #altchemjobs to be used as a joke. A meme.

Now, call me biased or oversensitive, but I have an “altchemjob” that I feel makes very good use of my chemistry background and has a measurable impact on chemistry research. I’m not a fan of having my career path and the jobs I will inevitably create through what I do being lumped in with memes about chasing Bigfoot and whatnot. However, memes or no memes, the hashtags don’t actually accomplish what they’re trying to accomplish. They aren’t separating chemistry jobs from non-chemistry jobs, they’re separating lab jobs from non-lab jobs (yes, I recognize that many lab jobs “promote” up into non-lab positions in the same company. That is partially my point). @Chemjobber has often cited that he uses the term in order to create a well-defined subset of the job market based off Bureau of Labor classifications to make tracking the chemistry jobs market easier/more meaningful/etc. However, that isn’t what this is about: this is about how we talk about chemistry careers and expected outcomes. One can classify based on lab jobs and non-lab jobs without making one the “thing” chemists do and the other the “alternative.” They’re all #chemjobs, but somehow we’ve decided that only a subset of them get to be “real” #chemjobs.

Okay, so at this point I sound really pedantic. Eyes are likely rolling over me throwing a fit over my jobs having been second to the hashtag party. However, there are bigger consequences than my hurt feelings when we classify jobs this way. In short, how we frame what is a chemistry job and what are “alternatives” affects how young scientists think about their career paths. Whether or not we mean it that way or if those young scientists “should” think about their careers in that way is irrelevant; the fact of the matter is that early on in your career, especially while in school and ESPECIALLY especially during graduate school, there isn’t consistent guidance on what one’s career options are. Moreover, most people (based on my experiences, at least) go through graduate school with the expectation, real or not, that they are there to ultimately get some sort of research position either in academia or industry, and that deviation from that is “unusual”. Even in my relatively career development-centric undergrad program, there were research jobs and then there were “other things you could do with your chemistry degree.” The framing creates a hierarchy, regardless of whether or not it’s intentional.

I know this from personal experience, too — I very keenly remember being a postdoc being asked if I was willing to give up everything I’ve earned to go be an editor. Someone literally asked if I really thought it was worth it to “throw away everything I’ve done” up until that point. To say that I was self-conscious about not pursuing a research career puts it very mildly — it wasn’t until I was in my editor position for probably eight months or more before I really felt like what I was doing was a valid use of my experience, and that’s a shame, because I think I’ve done some pretty neat stuff since then.

And I am DEFINITELY not alone in this — I have given many career panel talks, Q&As, jobs seminars, etc as both an editor and preprint business lead, and usually the reason people want to hear from me is to learn how to break the news to their colleagues that they want to pursue something outside of research. They have the same concerns about being shunned by their peers, that their advisor will think less of them, or that going down such a path is akin to chemistry seppuku. Worse still are the folks that find their way into my DMs or email inbox with these concerns, where sometimes these students are having full on identity crises. (If you’re having stress about your career and think that I can offer you any advice, consolation, etc, please don’t hesitate to reach out. My inbox is a confidential, judgment-free place for you to seek help if you need it, and you can feel free to vent to me if that will help you.) Call me crazy, but I think that a student should pursue a career that excites them, that they’re passionate about, and that can help them maintain a life (both personal and professional) that they’re satisfied with. None of those criteria require you to take your PhD to a laboratory, and I think that anyone who is trained as a chemist is a chemist as long as they choose to identify that way.

So, this isn’t about whether or not we need a million different specialized #chemjobs hashtags or that I think there’s a cut-and-dry right or wrong about classifying different job functions. What this is about is the often unrealistic expectations placed on the output and outcomes of our young scientists. Simply deleting a hashtag from our lexicon won’t solve that, but changing how we speak about these jobs in both overt and subtle ways, especially in casual settings, will certainly help push us in that direction. Simply not making non-lab job holders outsiders by fragmenting them out of #chemjobs is such a small, low-stakes way to have a meaningful change in how we discuss these positions. I don’t think we’re going to be at a point where we equally revere and celebrate the folks who are currently under the #altchemjobs umbrella as those who do lab work anytime soon, but the least we can do is try to categorize these jobs by what they actually are: lab jobs and non-lab jobs, which are all #chemjobs.

Oh, and stop using #altchemjobs as a meme. It’s rude.

 

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