Good Things Come in Small Companies: Reconsidering Your Career Path

Graduate StudentsMany chemistry majors and graduate students envision themselves working for huge multinational corporations. These are the recruiters who come to campus, and these are the companies with the highest profiles. But “large” chemistry-oriented companies are in a distinct minority in the United States: only 2.3% of all U.S. chemical manufacturing and allied companies have more than 500 employees. More than half of the companies in this industry have fewer than 20 employees.

As recently as a decade ago, more than 70% of new chemistry graduates went to work for large companies and only 28% chose small companies (with fewer than 500 employees). Today, almost half of new chemistry graduates get their first job with small businesses. The trend has been strengthened by diversification in the industry, the growth of “boutique” biotech firms that need the support of staff chemists, and a competition for good workers that has given many chemists the opportunity to carefully evaluate what they want from the workplace.

But for many chemistry students and those who have entered the workforces of larger companies, the “small” company remains a mystery. What exactly constitutes “small”? How do the structures and rhythms of work differ from those in larger corporations? How do you learn enough about a small company to be sure you want to work there? And what goes on in there that seems to be attracting so many able scientists?

No One Size Fits All

The first and most important thing to know about small chemical companies is that no two are exactly alike. Using the definitions set up by the U.S. Small Business Administration, a small company can have anywhere from 1 to 499 employees. It can be family owned, employee owned, controlled by a larger company, traded on the stock market, or run as a research not-for-profit servicing the chemical industry. Although every company is required to follow national and local employment laws, the atmosphere and work ethic can vary widely, from come-as-you-are and work-the-way-you-need-to-work to fresh-lab coat-every-day and punch-the-clock.

Speaking broadly, however, the old adage is true: very good things can come in small packages. In general, smaller companies offer new employees certain advantages that they might not find working for larger corporations. Some of these advantages are quite tangible; others have to do with job satisfaction. Whether you’re a new graduate or someone thinking about switching employment, the small-company box may hold some pleasant surprises.

Sidebar: What Makes A Satisfied Employee?

What’s in the Box?

What’s in the small company box for you? Although every company is different, small business employees and owners report that a range of interesting opportunities awaits new employees.

Lots of hats: In a smaller company, you’re less likely to find yourself doing one narrowly defined job. Employees may be asked to perform in several areas of strength or to pitch in for group efforts. You may find yourself doing basic science in the morning and a sales rep briefing in the afternoon. The result is that you know more about the company and more about your own strengths and job preferences. You may find that a hat you never thought of trying on fits you perfectly.

A megaphone: Your voice is louder in a small company. One of the most common fears of recent graduates is that they will become silent cogs in a big-business operation. At a small company, each worker is much more likely to have the opportunity to speak up and be heard on topics from research and development to which kind of coffee to use in the break room. Your good ideas, for innovation of techniques or advancement of the company’s scientific mission, will have an easier time finding an audience with upper management. And if these ideas are adopted, you’re much more likely to find yourself a part of the team that sees them through to successful completion.

A smaller map: Smaller companies are usually more geographically circumscribed. The well-rounded workingman or woman of the 21st century who may have strong ties to family and community has (thankfully) supplanted the “Organization Man” of the 1950s. Many of today’s workers are reluctant to sign on with huge multinational corporations that may transfer them (or their entire units) as often as every 2 years. With a stable, smaller company you can be reasonably sure that your job will still be where you want it to be for the foreseeable future. And, if you’re looking to start a new job, small chemical businesses offer a diversity of geographic locations that allow you to choose your ideal community at the same time that you choose a new employer.

A piece of the pie: Many smaller companies offer their employees stock, shared profits, shared ownership, and other incentives to participate materially in the success of the business. These offerings are often more significant (and sometimes less risky) than the standard stock options offered by larger companies. Chemists at small biotech firms have found themselves suddenly wealthy in the new genomic revolution in medicine. Owning a piece of the business also may position employees to start up spin-off businesses with new technologies (and the blessing of the parent company). Most of all, having the opportunity to own a part of the company gives employees both a material investment and a sense of goal-directed teamwork that may be lacking in larger corporate settings.

A rubber band: The shape of employment in small businesses is as elastic as management wants it to be. Flexibility is high on the list of attributes all employees want in their jobs, and smaller companies most often have the latitude to structure your employment to fit your needs. Some newer companies take an entirely laissez faire attitude toward the scientific workplace: as long as you get the job done, it doesn’t matter how, when, or in what way you do it. Others allow as-needed deviations from routine-for doctors’ appointments, exercise, family matters-and require only notification of supervisors, without adjustments to pay or leave status. The flexibility of the small company also may allow you to try out different tasks, exploring new scientific areas, receiving additional training, and pursuing meaningful community activities, such as coaching Little League or doing volunteer work.

Secret compartments: Every really good package has some unexpected extras hidden at the bottom. In the case of small companies, these are the intangibles that everybody talks around but few employers address directly in their job advertisements or brochures. Smaller companies are more like families. You are more likely to be valued for who you are, form lasting relationships with co-workers and management, and make a real difference in the company’s mission and success. Sounds corny, right? But when asked what they most like about working for small companies, employees give these answers first. For recent graduates, the small company may provide the flexible and supportive atmosphere that can nurture a well-trained chemist into a great scientist.

Outside the Box

All of these benefits may come with a job in a small chemical business, but how do you find these employers? More important, once you’ve found them, how to you find out what which one offers the work environment and challenges that best suit you?

You can start looking for openings at small chemical companies right here on Professional journals and classifieds are another source of information on who is hiring where. But for the best jobs in smaller companies, the experts advise that you do some serious networking: tell your colleagues, professors, professional contacts, and others, exactly what sort of job you’d like to have. Ask if they know any smaller companies who are working in your areas of interest. Find out the names of the contacts at the companies, and do your research before calling or sending in a resume. Better yet, take advantage of the career assistance available at scientific meetings. The semi-annual meetings of the American Chemical Society offer career fairs at which prospective employees are matched up for a series of interviews with representatives of companies of all sizes.

You can get a good idea of the size, stability, and financial situation of a smaller company by a quick visit to the library or by checking on-line. Resources like the D&B Business Rankings from Dun & Bradstreet can tell you where the company stands, and a good reference librarian can point you to other resources that will tell you about the company’s history, work foci, growth, and organization.

Once you’ve identified several smaller companies in which you’re interested, how do you find out what working there is really like? The answer here is simple: arrange a visit. If you have an appointment for an interview, ask to see the facility. Do employees seem friendly, interested, and engaged in their work? Do they seem genuinely glad to see the manager or manager’s representative who’s taking you on the tour? Quite simply, does it look like a place you’d like to work? If possible, talk to one or two employees apart from your tour guide. Ask them to name the two best and two worst things about the workplace. Be direct with your interviewer in asking about profit sharing, flexible hours, employee participation in business decisions, and any other factors that are important to you in a job. Don’t worry about sounding pushy; the interviewer will see that you’ve given substantial thought to what kind of company you’d like to work for and that you’re looking for long-term, productive employment.

Think Small

When contemplating a career move or a first job in chemistry, keep small companies in mind. Finding the right one takes a little more effort, but the rewards may give you a career that is more satisfying and multidimensional than any you might have imagined.

Nan Knight is a freelance science writer and editor whose credits include Smithsonian exhibits, Discovery Channel Web sites, and a wide range of publications on radiation in medicine.

Related Reading

Chemical Employment in Small Companies from the ACS Department of Career Services discusses the process of identifying and applying for jobs in small companies.

Want to start your own business? Read Start Me Up: Is Small Business Entrepreneurship in Your Future? From the JobSpectrum Weekly archives.


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