#ChemCoach : Online Organic Chemistry Tutor

by James

in Off Topic, Teaching

Early morning in Jerusalem, 2010

For any readers who are interested in chemistry as a career, blogger SeeArrOhh of Just Like Cooking is running a blogging carnival called #ChemCoach where chemists talk about their careers and how they got there. If you’re at all interested in the huge variety of jobs that people with a chemistry background do, I highly recommend checking out the main post here , which links to over 20 entries by a variety of very interesting people. This is my entry.

My current job: I work independently as an online organic chemistry tutor. Basically I run a small business.

What I do in a standard “work day”. It depends on the time of year, but I spend a considerable portion of most days in Skype chats with students who are taking organic chemistry classes. Summers are pretty quiet on the tutoring front, but the months from October through May are often pretty full.  I’ve worked as much as 11 hours in one day, but I find that the maximum I can tutor in one day and stay sane is about 8 hours.

When I’m not tutoring I’m writing articles for my blog, or developing study materials that I think will be useful for organic chemistry students. I spend a lot of time in ChemDraw!

What kind of schooling/training/experience helped me get there? My background is in total synthesis. I have a Ph.D. in organic chemistry and worked as a postdoctoral fellow for four years (two separate postdocs). My first postdoc was a very traditional total synthesis postdoc at a high powered institution. The second postdoc I took in Jerusalem in order to finally be able to live with my wife (we did 6.5 years of long distance before that – long story).

I finished my first postdoc just in time for the recession.  We moved to Jerusalem in late ’08 and the recession really changed my focus. Not only did it make “getting a job” harder, I saw how precarious even the careers of my friends with “safe” jobs in pharma could be with plant closings and mergers. I didn’t want to be in the position where an individual could walk into my office and fire me or tell me I had to move cities. My solution was to start my own business on the side.  In ’09 I started a spectacularly unsuccessful scientific editing service called WriteChem that never got a client. Later that year I was doing some organic chemistry tutoring in person, but the language barrier  meant that I didn’t have many students. Sometime around January 2010 I saw Chatroulette and saw how easy it was to connect to people all over the world with online video. So it struck me – why not tutor people online through Skype?

In order to attract people to tutor I thought I’d need a website.  I remember seeing Tenderbutton and Not Voodoo in ’06 and thinking that someone needed to build a site that combined the best features of them. Four years later, nobody had really done it yet, so that “someone” turned out to be me. I figure that if I created something truly valuable to people, everything will eventually work out. And so far it has.

The best thing about my work is that  it allows me to work independently, have flexible hours, and live anywhere. And I get to meet all these great people.

How does chemistry inform my work? I talk and write about chemistry every hour of the day. It probably helps my teaching that many of the reactions I talk to students about I’ve run personally. Beyond undergraduate tutoring, it’s fun to get inquiries from people I never would have expected, like graduate students, chemists in private industry and in law enforcement (I had one person ask me about doing a series of sessions for a city crime lab).  On another note,  I find that the methodical habits and attention to detail that were valuable for being a successful chemist transfer well to running a small business. I still run “experiments” but they’re of a different kind.

A unique, interesting or funny anecdote about my career: You never know what you’re going to get with a Skype chat. I’ve worked with women breast-feeding their crying babies (camera off) , people who keep chickens, people in airports.
Living in Jerusalem was fun. In the last few months we lived just outside the gates of the Old City. In order to hit the North American evening crowd, I’d wake up at 1:30 am, tutor from 2am to 8am [I’d quit my postdoc by this point], go for a run through the Old City, sleep until noon, write / tutor for the next several hours, eat dinner, and go to bed at 9pm.
I’d be tutoring at 4am (that’s early evening EST)  and the Call To Prayer would suddenly blare out from each of the three mosques in the adjoining valley. That always got a reaction. Sessions would also get interrupted by the noises from fighting street cats. I actually miss that now.

For more posts in the #chemcoach series, check out SeeArrOh’s blog

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