How I Made the Transition from Research Chemistry to Manufacturing Management

By Wayne Schnarr

My move to manufacturing was probably the first in a series of company and career transitions. Prior to my transition, I was a biologics plant manager and a fine chemicals division manager. The decision to transition was not an easy task. I was a 29-year old Ph.D. chemist with no manufacturing experience, no business experience and no management experience in a unionized environment, asking for a job in manufacturing. Even so, there were two things that did help make my transition a successful one:

  • I started an MBA part-time at York University with a specialization in industrial marketing and operations management. I chose York because at the time, they offered the largest variety of evening courses specifically geared to part-time students. I was probably one of a handful of PhD-MBA holders in Canada when I got my MBA in 1987. Looking back, one thing that has changed about MBA programs is that most of the larger Canadian universities now offer part-time or executive programs which ‘churn out’ thousands of MBAs annually, many with advanced scientific degrees. However, one thing about the MBA that has not changed is that for most people, it is still an entry-level degree which only allows you to compete for a place on a career path.
  • The second move that helped my transition was taking two junior positions in the manufacturing facility to gain experience in some of my deficiencies mentioned above. The first position was as the foreman of the afternoon shift, supervising two to four workers involved in several production processes. Working afternoon shifts is not easy. It’s even harder when you have a morning shift and two classes once a week. My other position was as a Technical Specialist and my responsibilities included looking at optimizing existing processes and scaling up new processes developed at the research centre I worked for.

My transition to manufacturing was as a result of my interest in natural products which started with my Ph.D. in carbohydrate chemistry, and continued through the many products I worked on at Canada Packers. I was hooked on manufacturing as a career as a result of these experiences. While these were the reasons for my transition, some of you may have had different reasons and still, some of you may currently be contemplating if you should make a career transition. If you are contemplating making the switch but are unsure what you should consider, here are some factors I think will help you make a more informed decision:

       What factors might impact your decision to make a career change?

  • You are not great at your current career. I admitted in my last blog post that I was not a great bench chemist. My expertise was isolation and purification, not synthetic organic chemistry. An interesting thought to ponder would be, what options do you have if you are also not great at the new career?
  • You find your current job to be boring. For those who started off on the same path as me, research can be boring. Repeating the same experiment with minor changes to optimize yield or costs has the same level of non-excitement as doing minor tweaks to a P&L forecast for days.
  • You have no real input in your current job; you simply execute. In research, unless you are in senior management, you don’t get to choose the research projects.
  • Your current job is not stable. Markets and technologies could change and kill the opportunity for a project you’re working on. While the research centre at Canada Packers was a personal favorite of the senior Maclean (controlling shareholder family), I was reasonably certain that any change in ownership of Canada Packers would result in the demise of the central research facility.
  • Are there opportunities for the same career at another company? There were no similar career opportunities at other Canadian companies at that point in my career although during my later capital markets years, I did look at several companies in the natural products space, including those isolating the paclitaxel raw material from yews, Ceapro (grain extracts), Aeterna (shark cartilage and cosmeceuticals), and Neptune and Acasti (krill oil).
  • How stable is the career you are considering? The chemicals division had sales of about $30 million in a $3 billion company. This was a relatively small division so management would probably pay little attention to, or fund any major capital expansion.

These are just a few factors you should consider if the idea of switching careers seems alluring to you.

With rare exceptions, your path upward will not be one continuous ascent. There will be some lateral moves and there may even be the need to go down one step to access new opportunities. My parents’ generation often stayed with the same company for over 25 years. My own father spent 30 years in the Canadian armed forces and another few years with the militia. While my generation is a mix of the one-company-for-life loyalty and a move-with-the-opportunities perspective, the current generation is probably a mix of a move-with-the-opportunities view and a move-as-the-market-changes. My recommendation to you would be to continually assess your current job/company, and your possible new jobs/companies as the pace of change in science and industry is increasing.

As with all our posts, please see our full legal disclaimer.