Getting a degree in chemistry will teach you a lot about science but not much about having a chemist job. We’ve previously talked about what you can do to start a cosmetic chemist career, but you might be wondering what your experience will be like.
Types of companies that hire cosmetic chemists
There are a wide range of companies that hire cosmetic chemists including finished goods manufacturers, contract manufacturers, testing houses, raw material suppliers, etc. Among all these companies you will find both big corporations (>$5 billion in yearly revenue), small companies (<$10 million in yearly revenue), and a few in-between. Having worked at a company that made the transition from small company to big and having talked to many cosmetic scientists who work at different companies, I’ve put together this list of pros and cons of working at either type.
Ideally, you’ll get to choose the type of company you work for. Or maybe you took the first job that came along and you’re wondering if another company would be better. This comparison of companies will help you decide what is best for you.
Big companies almost always have better compensation packages than small companies. They have HR departments who analyze different corporations around the world to determine exactly the salary range they should be paying you. Typically, you’ll start on a lower pay scale then get modest raises over time. When you get a promotion, you get put up to the next salary range.
Small companies try to keep costs low so they tend to pay the minimum that they can get away with. However, they are much more flexible than a corporation and you can sometimes get a bigger salary than you might have gotten from a big corporation if the owner likes you or the company had a particularly good year.
Verdict: On average, chemist compensation at a Big Company is better than at a Small Company.
Big companies don’t mind spending money on equipment for all their chemists. You’ll usually have your own work space, your own mixers, lab equipment, computer, etc. You’ll have access to a corporate library with all the important cosmetic science books. You’ll also have access to analytical equipment that can be useful when trying to develop new products. Overall, Big Companies let you use cool stuff!
Small companies are much more limited. You often have to share mixers, balances, and most lab equipment. You probably won’t have access to much more than a GC, IR or Mass Spectrometer. As far as research goes, the Internet and the public library are your best bets.
Verdict: More money means better equipment and more resources. In this area, the Big Company is better than a Small Company.
Big Companies hire more people so you will potentially have access to a wide range of experience and abilities. For a cosmetic chemist just starting out, this can be a great opportunity to learn. That is, if you can get anyone to pay attention to you. Office politics often keeps people with the most experience too busy to mentor younger chemists. At a smaller company, there are less people but you will often be paired up with someone who has been in the industry for a long time and has a ton of experience. It’s much easier to learn from them as you’ll work more directly with them.
As in any situation when there are more people there is more chance of conflict. The office politics in a Big Company can be frustrating and get in the way of learning and doing good science. Small companies are not immune to office politics but it is much easier to work around.
Verdict: This one is a wash. There will be more people to learn from at a Big Company, but office politics and corporate structure makes it harder to learn.
On the whole, working at a Big Company offers a bit better job security than at a Small Company. In a Big Company, it is easier to get away with doing mediocre work because your impact on the overall company is not as noticeable. At a Small Company, if you are slacking off someone will notice. But even beyond job performance, a Big Company is much less likely to be bought out by another company. Small companies (especially successful ones) are frequently the target of a Big Company take-over. Often when this happens, the lab people from the Small Company are either laid off or required to transfer out of state.
Verdict: For the most part, Big Companies off more job security.
Big Companies follow specific rules that are created by lawyers and HR departments. These cover things like sick time, personal days, work hours, etc. Unless you can work out some deal with your boss (sometimes you can) you pretty much have to follow the company work rules to the letter of the policy. In a small company, policies are often determined by a person who doesn’t specialize in human resources. This could allow for much more flexibility than at a big corporation. Of course, if you happen to work for a tyrant, then things are even less flexible than at a big company.
Verdict: Overall, a Big Company will be less flexible than a Small Company.
One of the best things about being a cosmetic chemist is the ability to create your own formulas and see your own ideas come to fruition. In a Big Company it will take many years and a lot of schmoozing to get one of your ideas developed into a product. Big Companies are generally not set up to allow chemists the freedom to create. You will be limited to the types of ingredients you can use, the types of products you can make, the types of packaging, the specifications, etc. Big Companies work because they can make a lot of product in an efficient way. This necessarily limits your choice.
Small companies are less limited. When you are responsible for the formulation, scale-up, performance testing, stability testing, claims substantiation and everything else that goes into a product, you become a key influencer in what the end product looks like. When you have a small marketing department they are more reliant on you to come up with clever new product ideas.
Verdict: You’re more likely to be able to flex your creativity at a Small Company.
In a Big Company, research and development is highly segregated. You often work on a small product line of a big brand and have to focus on something like formulation, testing, or product evaluation. There are different groups who each handle some aspect of the formula. Your responsibility for the overall product is limited. In a Small Company, you frequently are responsible for everything from the start of product development through all the testing and production. Also, you frequently have to work on multiple product types including emulsions, solutions, powders, etc.
Verdict: If you want the maximum amount of responsibility for a formula, a Small Company is the place to work.
Impact on the Company
Finally, we look at the impact you can have on a company. In a Big Company, your impact on the overall performance of the company is severely limited. It is easy to get lost and not stand out among your peers both in R&D and those in other departments like Marketing and Sales. This isolated feeling can make you feel less important and the truth is, in a Big Company, no one person is terribly important. Everyone can be easily replaced. In a Small Company, you are definitely replaceable too, but it’s just harder. The skills and ability of one person can directly affect the bottom line of a company. You often know the owner of the company personally and can frequently tell them your ideas.
Verdict: Working for a Small Company will make you feel more important than working for a Big Company.
Which Chemist Job Should you Get?
This is tough to answer as it depends much on what is important to you. If you want a job where you can have access to cool stuff, be well-paid, and have a fairly stable existence, then a Big Company is for you. However, if you want to make a difference, have an impact on the company, and maximize your creative abilities, a Small Company makes more sense.
Of course, for many people neither option is satisfactory. If you want to maximize creative control, flexibility, and financial potential, nothing can beat starting your own successful company. That just takes a bit more work.
What kind of company do you think is best to work at? Leave a comment below.