“What are the Elements of a Successful Career in Chemistry?”, Charles Lathrop Parsons Award Address, National Press Club, Washington, DC

What are the Elements of a Successful Career in Chemistry?

Richard N. Zare
Charles Lathrop Parsons Award Address
National Press Club, Washington, DC
May 3, 2001

All of us in this room should consider ourselves successful.  I must say, I had no idea when I first thought of a career in chemistry that it would receive the recognition and praise as that conferred by receiving the Charles Lathrop Parsons Award from the American Chemical Society. I still need to pinch myself to make sure I am not dreaming; it seems that people willingly pay me to do things I find to be such fun.

My first interests in chemistry date back to growing up in Cleveland, Ohio at the end of World War II. I would find lying around our home new issues of Chemical & Engineering News along with college chemistry texts.  My father dropped out of graduate school in chemistry at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio to marry my mother during the Depression. He always wanted to be a practicing chemist and he maintained his subscription to Chemical & Engineering News and his membership in the ACS all his life. It was natural for me to become curious about this interest of his.  But, when I went to look at these chemistry texts, both my mother and my father discouraged me, saying that chemistry leads to nothing but troubles!  Indeed, my repeated requests to purchase a chemistry set were sternly denied, and I had to make friends with a local pharmacist, who would sell me potassium nitrate, sulfur, carbon, alcohol, and finely divided metal powders, all the ingredients I wanted for some colorful pyrotechnics.

Like so many others, my first interests in chemistry revolved about flames, explosions, and color changes.  I think it is important not to lose sight of this original impetus for going into chemistry.  I have yet to meet someone who chose a career in chemistry because of an excellent homework problem.  Instead, it is the thrill you get when you can do something with your own hands and understand something with your own mind that inspires would-be chemists.

To recall that time, I have brought two examples with me, which I happily demonstrate to you now:

I owe to so many others what success I have had in chemistry ­ to my teachers, to my friends, and especially to my wife Susan who is here with me tonight.  Our marriage is an old-fashioned one in which Susan as my partner has supported and aided me over the years making it possible for me to be here before you.  I cannot thank her enough.

Suppose you were challenged by a group of young people about pursuing a career in chemistry.  They wanted to know from you how to be successful. What would you tell them?  I think you would find this question more difficult to answer than it first seems.  I know I would first emphasize that success is a relative thing that is not easily measured, certainly not simply measured by awards and prizes.  Moreover, it is intensely personal.  Here is what I think I would tell them.

Successful careers don’t just happen. They involve planning. They also involve the consistent application of some key principles. With apologies to David Letterman, here is my top ten list:

1.Take responsibility for managing your own career. No one else will!  Avoid the trap of getting caught up in the expectations of others. Polonius said it — to thine own self be true.

2.Plan your career. As Yogi Berra said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might end up someplace else.”  But life is more a stochastic process than is first imagined. One crazy thing after another keeps happening to you. Consequently, long-term planning is less useful than it might seem. When opportunity knocks, open the door. Always make plans but be flexible and be willing to reassess your plans.

3. Practice persistence.  You may or you may not need a Ph.D., but you do need dogged persistence in solving problems.  Good things never come easily.

4. Donít grow up!  Peter Pan was right.  A child-like sense of wonder allows great creativity and invites discovery. You were born with this sense of wonder; donít lose it because it is not regarded as adult behavior. Serendipity can be made to happen. Unlike lightening, once it strikes, it can be made to strike again and again.

5. Become a happy, contented schizophrenic, believing and not believing at the same time.  If you believe too easily, then you will delude yourself; if you are too critical, you will never try the outlandish.  Become your own worst critic but simultaneously dare to try something different.

6. Embark on a program of continuous self-improvement. Remember that a dull ax requires great strength to chop wood.  Be wise and sharpen the blade.

7. Seek challenges. A little known secret is that it takes about as much effort to solve a hard problem as an easy one. Don’t wait for your ship to come in. Row out to meet it.

8.Go to people you trust and respect for career advice. Recruit mentors and make friends.  I cannot emphasize enough the importance of the value of critical friends, someone who will not simply tell you what you want to hear, but who will speak the plain unvarnished truth, even if it hurts.  Critical friends are priceless. Of course, when you ask this of others, you must be willing to offer the same quality of friendship to others.

9. Keep your life in balance. No job should serve as a substitute for your family or for a rich personal life. Make your work something you love.  Life is short and a career is even shorter.  If you donít love your job, you better think about leaving it for some other job that you do love.  Be aware that no perfect job exists.  Every task has its drudgery and its frustrations. No situation is free of politics.  What is important is to be able to pass through the negative so that you can dwell happily in the land of the positive. Blessed are those who achieve equanimity in this age of angst, stress, and false gods.

10. Have a dream and do something that you love.  Build sandcastles in the sky. Their foundations will follow. Select something that you love — something that you value. Study it. Live it. Work at it. Work harder at it than you have ever worked before. Immerse yourself totally in it. In that immersion you will find happiness and contentment in a life truly well lived.

I would tell this group of young people: Chemistry is an excellent springboard to many careers, traditional and nontraditional. Your interests and your imagination provide the only limits to your opportunities for a career in chemistry!

I am sure my top ten list is quite incomplete.  I know I need to add something about the value of communication skills, the need for individual assertiveness as well as the need for teamwork. But I do hope it has captured some of what is needed in a successful career in chemistry ­ and for that matter in many other occupations.

In summing up, let me admit that the word ësuccessí has many meanings.  By a successful career I am thinking of a career that is truly fulfilling.  Therefore, let me close with a few thoughts about the more traditional meanings of success and failure, and their relative unimportance. I have experienced the giddy heights of great success.  I have also experienced the black depths of abject failure.  I have found that what matters most are to have a dream, to do something that you believe in, and to love it passionately. Do not fear failure.  Do not crave success.  If you ask for financial reward for what you do, for peer approval, or even for thanks from others, then you are asking to be paid for what you should be giving freely as an act of love.  The true reward is not in the result, it is in the process, not in the achievement but in the achieving. With the power of love transform your dreams into action.  If you do what you love ­ professionally and in every other way ­ happiness and success will follow.

I thank you this evening for giving me this opportunity to share some very personal thoughts on success and what receiving this great honor means to me. Let me express again my gratitude to the American Chemical Society.