Charlotte Ashley Roberts gives some advice on finding a job as a computational chemist and the importance of staying positive
Q: I am in the second year of my PhD doing computational chemistry. I do enjoy it, but I feel that I am not as good as my peers and I am worried that I won’t get a job afterwards as I am too specialised. Will I be able to find something?
A: Before I answer your main question, I think there’s another point that should be made regarding your concern in comparing yourself to others. Feeling that you are not as good as your peers, no matter what stage of your career, is actually very common. This is especially true when you look around and see people who are very experienced or exceptional in their field of expertise. You need to remember that you too are an expert in your field and that you deserve to be where you are as you have worked hard. For every person that you feel is ‘better’ than you are, there will be another who is looking at you and thinking ‘I could never do that’. Everyone will have feelings like this from time to time but if these thoughts are overwhelming or unmanageable at any point, I would encourage you to speak to your supervisor, a doctor or someone in your student support services. We all experience doubt, but if it starts to affect your wellbeing then please talk it over with someone.
With respect to your question about finding a job, at the moment our figures suggest that it generally takes three to six months for our members to find a role. This is absolutely normal and is in fact showing an improvement – it was nine months or so during the recession.
You mention that you enjoy what you are doing so I will assume that you would like to stay in your field of research. This is a broad area with plenty of opportunities: computational chemists work in almost every sector from pharmaceuticals to defence to academia and everything in between. And although you will specialise in your specific area of research, you will also gain general skills in this field that will be of use to various employers and areas of research.
You may find that you are asked to look at experimental data, for example analysing spectroscopic information or researching the best way to begin a laboratory synthesis. You could also use your experience to predict the existence of unknown molecules or explore reaction mechanisms that cannot be physically carried out. This will depend on the nature of your research so far and the type of company or institution you join once you graduate.
Unlike analytical chemistry positions, where there is usually a team of people within a department or company, there are usually only one or two roles for a computational chemist with any one employer. This may lead you to think that your job prospects are limited but there are more than you think. A quick search online shows there are over 150 computational chemistry roles the UK now (Oct 2012) in both industry and academia.
Bearing in mind that you are in your second year, the pressure of job hunting is still some way off so the best thing you can do is to make use of that time by building up your networks. Attend conferences or events held specifically for computational chemists to meet people who work in this area. Through these contacts you will be able to find out more about what jobs might be available, what they involve and which companies are hiring computational chemists.
To help with your networking, you can join professional bodies. The RSC doesn’t have an interest group specifically for computational chemistry but we do recommend that you join the Molecular Graphics and Modelling Society.
There is also a website dedicated to jobs in computational chemistry called the computational chemistry list, which lists positions available in both industry and academia.
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