In 1993, I had completed all my coursework for a master’s degree in Chemistry, but I was still finishing up laboratory work and writing my thesis. At that time, I needed money to keep my housing and tuition paid. I found a prospect in the local newspaper for a research tech position with a tiny branch office in town of an industrial company based in California. It was outside my specialty, and I had no experience beyond my studies and lab work. I got the job anyway.
How I Got the Job: It’s All About Being Willing to Adapt
I took the interview process seriously. Even though the job I interviewed for was at a small research lab run by only two people, I made sure I did not underestimate the professional attitude required for consideration. I dressed in the requisite “interview suit,” a dressy blouse and mid-length fitted skirt, with hose and sensible but stylish flats with rubber soles. The sensible shoe strategy was meant to show that I understand the need for safety in a laboratory setting. I was shocked to see the girl who interviewed for the job just before me. She was carrying her schoolbooks and wearing cut-off jean shorts! I couldn’t believe someone would go to a job interview dressed like this.
I listed all my experience, hoping something was relevant in this job that was outside my field of expertise. In the actual interview, I had to sell myself as someone who had experience with a laboratory setting and who could learn new techniques quickly. The job was inorganic materials research related to the development of batteries for electric cars. My specialty was synthetic organic chemistry. These were worlds apart, but I bridged the gap by listing all the machinery I had used and all the analytical techniques I had learned in my classes. Luckily, they stopped me when I got to cyclic voltammetry and asked further questions about it. I had only done it once in a classroom, but I told them I understood the method and could do the experiments again if needed. It turned out that all the units the lab produced were tested using cyclic voltammetry. I was in! The moral of the story is don’t be afraid to apply for jobs outside your specialty, because there may be a minor aspect of your training that may be sought after in a totally unrelated field.
An Ideal Working Atmosphere for my Lack of People Skills
This lab rat had found a comfortable nest. I settled in to this job quickly, because there was not a lot of outside “noise.” It was now a 3-person operation with an office area and a laboratory bay, much like a somewhat expanded version of the laboratory I did my graduate work in at Auburn University. I simply kept notes, constructed materials and tested them. I also learned how to use Apple computers and Microsoft Windows at this job. I had a large office table in the main room, and I didn’t have to interact with people much beyond my supervisor and the occasional visitor from the main office. All the phone calls I made or received were straightforward: ordering materials or exchanging information with the main office. It was ideal for me, since I was most comfortable working in a secluded laboratory atmosphere.
Local small industrial lab jobs are nice but risky. The fact that this job was located in town was helpful. I was newly married and still finishing up my thesis, and I didn’t relish wasting time traveling to out-of-town jobs or worse, having to move across the country to a new job while I finished my thesis by long distance. One downside to working in a small branch of a larger industrial firm is downsizing. About 1 ½ years after I started the job, I was very comfortable with the procedures and methods. Then the corporate office called. Our little branch was being closed and my co-workers were being recalled to California. I was laid off with 3 days notice. Luckily, I qualified for unemployment insurance, but it was a tough blow at the time.
What I Learned About Industrial Jobs
Academic openness doesn’t exist in industry. Sometimes representatives of other firms would visit the lab, and we escorted them around and showed them our prototypes and such. Once, one of these people came to my desk and spotted some of the information about the composition of an experimental electrolyte we were using. No one told me this was proprietary information, so I didn’t react when the man looked at my data sheet. Only afterwards did I learn that I had made a blunder. Coming from academia as I did, I was used to the open sharing of information. Industry is all about secrecy and proprietary formulas. I even had to sign a document at the end of my employment, promising not to divulge anything to any competitor firms.
I learned my priorities. About a year after I was laid off, I got a call from the company. They were offering me the same job I had before, only in San Diego, California. I was In Alabama, and my husband was employed at the college as well. Not only did I not feel like moving across the country, I was also a bit frightened that I might be laid off again at a later date. If that happened, I would be in California, thousands of miles from friends and family, without a job. I decided not to take the offer. At the time, I was working in a new job, this time at a laboratory at the college. My first job experience taught me just what my priorities were. I craved stability, secluded working conditions and familiar surroundings. Someone else might have jumped at the opportunity I was given by the company, but it was too far outside my comfort zone.