About Chemical Innovation - Subscription Information
May 2001
Vol. 31, No. 5, pp 47—48.
Touring the Net

Table of Contents

Nancy K. McGuire

The independent chemist

Last November, we ran an article on temporary employment agencies for free-agent chemists (1). The article challenged the conventional view that chemists are bound to one company by long-term projects and noncompete clauses in their contracts. In a world of corporate restructuring and strategic job-hopping, many chemists are looking at temporary, contract, or consulting work more favorably than before. Who are these free-agent chemists, and what do they do?

Who are they?
As you might expect, chemists choose free agency in greater numbers late in their careers. Chemical & Engineering News ran a report on chemists in the 50–69 age range last June (2). Some have taken early retirement, voluntarily or as a result of corporate restructuring. Many of these chemists work as consultants, offering companies the benefits of their experience while keeping the freedom to set their own schedules.

Frank Wania started his career as a freelancer. Wania received his Ph.D. in 1994 from the department of chemical engineering and applied chemistry at the University of Toronto (3). Following two years at the Norwegian Institute for Air Research in Tromsø, he worked 21/2 years as a freelance researcher in Toronto. He is currently an assistant professor at the University of Toronto at Scarborough and principal investigator of a research group that studies the fate and behavior of organic chemicals in the environment.

Overall, temporary and part-time work for chemists, self-employed and otherwise, increased between 1990 and 2000, according to the ACS’s survey ChemCensus 2000 (4). Only 11% of the more than 47,800 respondents indicated that they consulted during 1999, but 66% of those listing themselves as self-employed indicated that they were consultants. Self-employed chemists working full-time (69%) outnumbered those working fewer than 20 hours per month (32%) in 1999.

ChemCensus 2000 respondents reporting consulting income in 2000 were mostly men—12% of total respondents, compared with 7% for women. Mary Jordan, senior research analyst for the ACS Department of Career Services, observed that most chemistry consultants “go independent” after long careers as full-time employees, and it has been only recently that women have begun entering the chemistry workforce in numbers comparable to their male counterparts.

A 1999 study of German engineers and scientists, taken from census information for 1991–1995, indicates a trend toward self-employment and a prevalence of freelancers with advanced degrees similar to trends observed in the United States (5). In former West Germany, 5.6% of the chemical workforce was self-employed (6.0% in former East Germany) in 1995. Chemists had one of the lowest rates of self-employment of those studied, just above that for mathematicians, and far below the 25–31% and 14–19% self-employment for “other engineers” in former West Germany and former East Germany, respectively.

The German study showed a “disproportionate” rise in voluntary self-employment rates for scientists and engineers between the ages of 35 and 45, and a “proportionate” rise above age 45. Not surprisingly, scientists and engineers who go freelance late in their careers have more funds to invest in their businesses and are more likely to hire employees than those who start out flying solo. Despite having a better financial cushion with which to start a business, older workers are more cautious about taking risks—preventing many of them from attempting the free-agent route in the first place. Others use this caution as a guide to careful business planning—a key factor in their success, according to the German study.

What do they do?
As you might imagine, free-agent chemists can thrive as science writers. Writers can work from offices or homes, expenditures for equipment are modest, and writers are needed for everything from reporting the news to writing grant proposals. The ACS’s Virtual Chemistry Club gives some interesting possibilities for finding work, interviews with several practicing writers, a survey of salaries, the employment outlook for writers, and a list of places to contact for more information (6).

Self-marketing is a big part of a freelancer’s job, and many independents have their own Web sites. In some cases, they rely on press coverage to get the word out. David Halberg, a self-taught chemist in Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, came up with a way to produce the gasoline additive MTBE from barley and butane. According to an article dated September 16, 1996, in the Alberta Report, a weekly news magazine, Halberg’s BioClean Fuels was slated to consume 10% of Alberta’s barley output (7). One hopes Mr. Halberg had a contingency plan to deal with the projected downturn in MTBE demand (8).

Anthony Toenjes has a master’s degree in chemistry, and he works in surface chemical applications and coatings. He also taught undergraduate chemistry courses at Southwestern Illinois College, Belleville (9).

Donald Halpern became a chemical consultant 23 years after getting his Ph.D. in organic chemistry (10). After a stint as a technical service manager in the tape manufacturing industry and then as a research scientist for a pharmaceutical company, he established his own practice. He currently advises clients on pharmaceutical product selection, plant processing improvements, and process validation.

Chemical consultants are best known for providing advice on a very pragmatic level, but some freelancers take on projects of more cosmic proportions. James Lovelock, a freelance chemist with a background in medical research and detector development, is credited with formulating the Gaia hypothesis that inspired the Green movement (11). Lovelock began thinking of Earth’s biosphere as a self-regulating entity when he was working on NASA’s Mars exploration program. He postulated that the planet could be regarded as an organism, not sensitive to any particular form of life, but to life itself. In an interview for The Guardian Unlimited last September, Lovelock argues that nuclear power has gotten a bad rap, and that it is a viable solution to the problem of greenhouse gas generation from fossil fuels (12).

Other freelancers pursue a broad scope on a more down-to-earth level. Robert Thomas runs a consulting service under the name Scientific Solutions (13). He bills himself as a provider of marketing expertise, but his list of services also includes training in the use of spectroscopic techniques and applications, training material production, literature searches, various writing and presentation services, and meeting planning. Thomas went freelance after more than 30 years in industry as an analytical chemist and a marketing specialist working for an instrument company.

How do I start?
Several agencies specialize in placing scientific and technical contract workers. Contract Employment Weekly is an information exchange site where employers and contract workers can post job openings and résumés (14). A quick search of the site using the keyword “chemist” turned up 25 listings, all for technician-level positions requiring associate- or bachelor-level degrees and varying levels of experience. A search on “Ph.D.” turned up seven listings for engineers and computer scientists. Searching on the word “scientist” produced a mixture of listings for computer scientists and entry-level lab staffers.

Lab Support, a division of On Assignment, employs contract scientists directly, acting as a go-between for companies needing limited-term workers and free-agent scientists who live within a 50-mile radius of one of Lab Support’s 25 branch offices (15). Their application form provides check boxes for degrees from associates to doctorates in a variety of specialties.

Kelly Scientific is also a direct employer, although they offer conventional employment services as well (16). A search for “scientist” positions under the “contract” option using keyword “chemist” turned up more than 200 listings, mostly for B.S. and M.S.-level positions as technicians or staff scientists.

Aerotek had no job listings with the words “chemist”, “scientist”, or “Ph.D.”, but it does list chemists, biochemists, and chemical engineers on their “placement opportunities” page (17). Its client list under the science category included one major consumer products manufacturer, with the remainder being pharmaceutical companies. It advertises project contract employment, direct placement, and contract-to-hire options.

The American Staffing Association’s site requires you to specify a state or Canadian province for your search. Its “technical” category spans everything from architects to zoologists, and the search produces a list of contract agencies—presumably association members (18).

Teltech, the popular information-on-demand service, was acquired by Sopheon in September 2000 and has resurfaced as Sopheon’s Intota division (19). Intota’s Web site lists more than 150 consultants in 5 chemical specialties, most having advanced degrees and at least 20 years of technical research, applications, and management experience. Consultants provide advice for a fee, a portion of which is returned to Intota.

The Chemical Consultants Network was established in December 1994 and is jointly sponsored by ACS and the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (20). This network bills itself as a self-service resource for consultants. It lists names and profiles of the members, meeting and seminar information, and information on professional liability insurance.

The number of self-employed chemists may be on the rise, but the group is still a small minority. Temp agencies are a good resource for chemists without advanced degrees and those seeking technician-level positions. Chemical consultants and chemists with advanced degrees tend to go freelance after retiring from permanent positions, which have allowed them to establish a professional network and financial cushion. Flying solo is not for the faint of heart, but as the availability of supporting resources grows, the number of free agents may grow as well.


  1. Kleiner, R. E. Chem. Innov. 2000, 30 (11), 38–44.
  2. http://pubs.acs.org/isubscribe/journals/cen/78/i23/html/7823spec.html
  3. www.scar.utoronto.ca/~wania/group.html
  4. Available as a PDF file from www.acs.org/
  5. www.oecd.org/dsti/sti/s_t/inte/prod/pfeiffer.pdf (document no longer available)
  6. www.acs.org/
  7. http://albertareport.com/23arcopy/23a40cpy/2340ar04.htm
  8. Kolah, A. K.; Zhiwen, Q.; Mahajani, S. M. Chem. Innov. 2001, 31 (3), 15–21.
  9. www.southwestern.cc.il.us
  10. http://donhalpern.com/about.htm
  11. http://bailiwick.lib.uiowa.edu/earth2/06gaia.html
  12. www.guardianunlimited.co.uk/Archive/Article/0,4273,4064231,00.html
  13. http://scientificsolutions1.com
  14. www.ceweekly.com
  15. www.labsupport.com
  16. www.kellyscientific.com
  17. www.aerotek.com
  18. http://www.americanstaffing.net/
  19. www.sopheon.com
  20. www.chemconsultants.org

Note: All of the URLs were accessed in May 2001.

Nancy K. McGuire is associate editor of Chemical Innovation.

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