A response to Aaron Gertler's you should write about your job
When strangers ask me what I do, I often respond "I do drugs", and get a kick out of the confusion/amusement that appears on their faces.
I've know I wanted to become a chemist since I was 14. And I did.
I finished my master's in organic chemistry (more specifically organic synthesis, the science of assembling simple molecules into complex ones) and tried one year of PhD. Then I switched to the private sector, and have not regretted the decision for a day since.
In my experience, since private companies spend their own money, rather than the public's, and they care about feasibility more than about appearances, work is a lot more fast-paced in the private sector. Good enough results quickly is much better than perfect results slowly.
Where I live (Estonia) the ratio of capital to people is heavily skewed towards capital, so it was not difficult to find a job right out of university. Compared to cost of living, the pay is good (1400 euros net per month). I might be able to bargain for more, but I've never cared enough about money to spend a lot of effort chasing after it.
The day to day
The place where I work is a small-ish company by pharma standards (~50 employees, but growing).
The average project in our company looks something like this: a client wants x kg of a certain compound per year, so they pay us to develop a process to manufacture it in large scale, for the privilege of buying it from us at a discount price.
My job is to figure out a series of chemical reactions that leads from commercially available (and preferably cheap) compounds to the desired compound. Once I think of one, I test it and try to troubleshoot the myriad problems that will inevitably arise. After I find a route that could conceivably work, I start to scale it - first make 1 g, then 10 g, then 100 g, up to however much I need. Earlier steps usually require more material than later ones, because some amount is lost in every step. More often than not, a new and exciting problem will appear with each level of scale-up, because of many issues that Kurzgesagt made a whole video series on.
Most common everyday tasks include
- mixing stuff and seeing what happens. This one of the most fun parts (~5% of time);
- purifying (un-mixing) your products from all the other compounds in the reaction mixture (20-30% of the time);
- analyzing your reactions and your compounds. No single instrument can give you the full picture, but combining several gives you a good idea of what's happening (~20% of the time);
- documenting EVERYTHING. The larger concept of research involves sieving through your data to find what's important. But since you don't initially know what's important you first need to collect all this data to discard most of it later. Most of my colleagues write into physical notebooks with pens, but since keyboards are so much faster I've elected to speak into a dictaphone and type it into a computer later (~10% of the time);
- literature analysis. Very often, somebody somewhere has already done the same or a similar thing that you intend to do, so it's a lot easier to read how it went rather than try it out yourself. As my boss often says, a week of work in the lab will save you an hour of literature research (~10% of the time);
- meetings (~10% of the time).
I realize that those don't add up to 100%, the remainder is taken up by finding the right flask, repairing a clamp, figuring out where your reagent bottle is hidden, etc etc.
What I love about the job
- the variability: no two reactions are identical, and figuring out on the fly what's important and what's not is a lot of fun. I work with many different machines to react, separate and analyze my compounds. Using jointed glassware, I can assemble my own unique machine custom-built for the job at hand;
- the visuality: reactions are often accompanied by compounds turning into gases, sticky oils, fine powders, intricate crystals, foams, fizzy mixtures, caustic liquids. There's an infinite number of compounds and many of them look cool in one way or another;
- the self-management: on most weeks, the team leader tells me on Monday what kind of experiments he wants me to try, and it's up to me how and when I do it. Aside from a few mandatory meetings, I get to come and go as I like, as long as I get the things done.
What I don't like about the job
- the dead ends: sometimes, the reasons behind a problem are so confusing and inscrutable that we're forced to just give up and abandon the particular angle of approach or the project altogether, never learning what exactly happened;
- handling information: I'm more absent-minded than most, and though I've developed a series of tools to help me remember to log everything, there will always be occasions where collecting a particular sample will slip my mind, which might become a significant problem weeks later.