Chemical Information: A Career Alternative For Chemists

Chemists who are contemplating career alternatives in today's highly competitive job market might want to consider an emerging specialty: chemical information. Information professionals perform a wide variety of tasks, including library research, patent research, marketing research, preparation of customer service materials, acquisition of books and journals for libraries, and updates of electronic research systems.

By | March 22, 1993

Chemists who are contemplating career alternatives in today's highly competitive job market might want to consider an emerging specialty: chemical information. Information professionals perform a wide variety of tasks, including library research, patent research, marketing research, preparation of customer service materials, acquisition of books and journals for libraries, and updates of electronic research systems.

As computer networks, online databases, and various types of document delivery systems become more actively used by researchers, the need for knowledgeable and competent scientists to perform abstracting and indexing services will increase, according to the National Federation of Abstracting and Information Services (NFAIS), based in Philadelphia.

Abstracts are the concise, generally noncritical summaries at the beginning of documents. Indexes are lists of a document's contents organized by key words or phrases.

A new book, Guide to Careers in Abstracting and Indexing (Philadelphia, NFAIS, 1992), points out: "In the 1990s, A&I [abstracting and indexing] services have become big business. Technology has revolutionized the basic A&I services, and a growing population of computer-savvy users poses new challenges."

Even with computer databases that provide full-text documents, NFAIS executive director Ann Marie Cunningham predicts that the need for services that facilitate speedy data searches, such as those provided by the Institute for Scientific Information in Philadelphia and H.W. Wilson Co. in New York, is making all A&I services more vital.

Scientists often begin a career in A&I working on a freelance basis for a book or serial publisher or A&I services. "Most of the scientists going into this type of work have advanced degrees in a particular scientific discipline," she says. "For instance, many people coming to the end of their professional career as a researcher or university professor and who don't want to work full-time or are retiring might consider getting into some freelance indexing and abstracting.

"Sometimes, a publisher may hire someone for entry level with a bachelor's degree to cover the general scientific literature. But for something technical, like chemistry or physics, it would not be unusual to see doctorates."

According to NFAIS statistics, average annual starting salaries for A&I work run between $13,000 and $29,000. Some government agencies pay up to $46,000 for A&I in a highly specialized field.

To obtain the A&I career guidebook, contact NFAIS at 1429 Walnut St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19102; or call (215) 563-2406.

--Ron Kaufman

Because of their heavy reliance on scientific literature, chemists--many of whom will be convening at the spring meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS) March 28 through April 2-- have particularly high potential to excel in this specialty.

Unlike general-interest librarians, chemical information professionals are hybrids--they often possess a degree in chemistry or another science field, in addition to a degree in library science, although a library degree is not always required.

In recent years, the demand for such people has become keen: The information age has prompted a need for people who not only retrieve and organize complex scientific data, but also understand its meanings and applications.

The growing awareness that scientists are highly qualified for such positions springs from a recognition of the assistance a chemist can offer a scientific colleague combing through chemical abstracts or researching patent law.

To underscore the growing demand for such people, ACS's 1,400- member Division of Chemical Information recently released a survey of pay scales for the discipline. Because the field is so varied, the survey also provides statistics on the type of degree or degrees held by information professionals, types of employers, and job functions.

"Having a science background can be very important," says survey coauthor Patricia O'Neill, who heads the physical sciences library at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

"People who are end-users of [scientific] products have very specific needs," she says. "And if a marketing representative, for example, can't communicate in their language, how can a customer possibly understand?"

In the survey, responses were compiled from 589 information professionals, who provided data as of September 1991. For academics, this represented the 1991-92 school year.

Sixty-two percent of the respondents were members of ACS's Division of Chemical Information. In addition, queries were mailed to members of the biological and chemical interest group of the American Society for Information Science and the science and technology section of the Association of College and Research Libraries.

The salary results mirror the varied nature of the specialty. The average annual salary reported was $50,400. In academia, however, the average was $36,900. Averages for industry and government were $57,000 and $54,900, respectively.

Notable, though, was the finding that scientific information professionals with a doctorate in chemistry earned 19 percent more than their peers holding a doctorate in another science field, and 25 percent more than those holding a doctorate in a non-science field.

"There are openings in these positions all the time. They won't vanish like some jobs vanish these days," says Arleen Somerville, head of the science and engineering lab at the University of Rochester in New York. "You need to understand chemistry and have the ability to work in the electronic world. In academia, you traditionally need a library degree. But there are very few people out there in the industrial world with a library degree and a chemistry background."

Edlyn Simmons, manager of the patent information science group at Marion Merrill Dow Inc. in Cincinnati, concurs. "There's enormous demand for people who don't exist," she says. "Until 10 or 15 years ago, the amount of information available in the patent world was relatively small. Now, we're flooded with information sources, and they're pretty complicated."

At the same time, Simmons cautions that companies aren't bidding up salaries because of the lingering recession and the continuing transfer of chemists from laboratory jobs into information jobs. "Different companies have very different values placed on the people who perform this work," she adds.

In government, the need for such information professionals is growing, although budget constraints continue to dampen hiring, says Joseph Clark, senior scientist in the technical administration division of the United States Department of Commerce in Washington, D.C. "The information resource manager is a relatively new classification," he says, adding that this job requires keeping up with new technological advances.

 Type of Average Base Salary Organization  Academic $36,900 Industry 57,000 Governmental 54,900 Other 55,100 
  • Information professionals' salaries increased as the length of time with their employer increased.
  • The average salary for women was $45,829, compared with $56,256 for men. However, O'Neill notes that the men were at their jobs for an average of two years longer than the women and that there were more women who reported working in academia, which pays 30 percent less than industry, on average.
  • Academic respondents indicated that their most common function was to serve as a librarian, doing such work as cataloging, purchasing, and online or literature searching.
  • Those in industry reported more diversity among functions, including computer research, database management, marketing, patent and legal research, and managing information centers.

    Overall, experts predict that demand will increase as employers recognize that the quality of the workload requires highly specialized knowledge and skills. "You can't just do this as part-time work. There's too much to remember," says Victoria Veach, a technical information specialist with 3M Corp. in
    St. Paul, Minn.

     Degree Average Base Salary Held  Doctorate $65,500 Master's 44,600 Bachelor's 51,600 
    "To access a database and make use of indexing, you need to use information regularly and pull out codes for compounds. It's quite complex to search in a chemical area," she says.

    Once the economy improves, hiring should pick up, particularly among employers who engage in a lot of research and development, experts say. "You won't see a lot of help-wanted ads right now because of the state of the economy," Veach says. "We're not hiring anyone right now. But if we were looking, I'm not sure we'd find someone. A lot of people don't even know that the profession exists. For employers, it's slim pickings."

    Edward R. Silverman is a freelance writer based in Hoboken, N.J.

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