“Food Science equals guaranteed job placement!” Dr. Clydesdale (aka, Ferg), former University of Massachusetts Food Science Department head told me in 1990. “It’s a one-way ticket to Chicagoland or NJ!” noted the Ph.D. candidates who had been in industry already (but decided they preferred to be on the many-year research road plan), rolling up their elite eyes. At IFT the only free meal I ever got (as a student) came from Kelco and National Starch, after I promised to use their products … someday… They knew I would, they knew all of us young twenty-something food scientists would be the next ingredient decision makers, and not so far in the future, either. Just like the entourage of UC Davis undergrads who joined me on the Wixon boat cruise this summer at IFT in Anaheim, food companies know these are the “children of the future”!
Back in the mid ’90s, there were tons of food science jobs, but where were they? The Internet had very few job sites in general, let alone food science jobs, so my only resources were university job postings, a random recruiter or two that would call inexperienced new grads, the back of IFT’s magazine (I Think It’s Time to Call Maxine!!!) and the curtained booths job section at the IFT annual convention. I remember sitting in the Internet library room in 1997 in Fort Worth, TX wondering why there were no food companies in the Dallas Fort Worth area!? There were! I just didn’t know how to find them. None of us did really, but yet we still all ended up with jobs. There was always a professor who knew someone who knew someone in industry who needed to hire someone. Matter of fact, summer of 1997, it was Dr. Clydesdale who came to my rescue, after I called him, crying, telling him I needed a job. A NY minute later, I was on a plane to NJ, interviewing with Dr. Bill Franke, U-Mass food science graduate and then head of R&D at Lipton. Two days later I was offered a job in the food microbiology labs. It was that easy.
And it’s always been that easy, if not easier. I have never been without a job longer than I choose to be without a job. And, I can honestly say, I don’t know a single food scientist who is out of work, unless it’s by choice. Every year in the U.S. there are only a few hundred students graduating with degrees in food science, and people keep eating, and we still love our processed foods and food companies both small and large really do need food scientists!
But no one can deny that times have been a bit tougher for the R&D chef… Those jobs are few and far between these days, so I have decided to take advantage of my dual citizenship in the culinary and food science worlds and tap back into my food science side. I am not going to lie, being an R&D chef is a lot more glamorous than being a food scientist. If you had to choose whether to spend three days in a plant monitoring pH readings or three days at a trade show at the Wynn in Vegas, what would you pick? I will miss doing menu presentations, culinary tours and ideation sessions, but am finding that I still enjoy the hard-core food scientist tasks and dealing with the technical and commercial issues that I used to deal with in my early pre -Culinology days (circa late ’90s!). These days I am wearing steel toes, hanging out in manufacturing plants, conducting audits, reviewing HACCP plans and dealing with the FDA, USDA, regulatory agencies, nutritional labels and state inspections.
I am not a career coach, but I do want to throw in my two cents on what out-of-work research chefs who don’t want to go back into the exhausting world of restaurants and catering can do to improve their chances of finding a new job in the food industry. Don’t focus on the degrees, but focus on the experience. As I mentioned, food companies want to hire food scientists, but there are not a lot of us around and there are plenty of research chefs who did their time in the other trenches, the “lab trenches” and the “plant” trenches. Maybe you spent time on a HACCP team in one of your R&D jobs or maybe you had to conduct lots of test and plant trials. This exposure to the industry beyond the R&D gold-standard test kitchen is the key—it’s what food companies need these days. Yes, food still has to taste great, but it also needs to be manufactured properly and safely and have all the right labeling and documentation and certifications. A lot of this work is not based on science, but based on experience and exposure to the industry as a whole.
To any and all laid-off research chefs, you have been exposed to the unglamorous parts food industry and you “get” it. You have crossed over from kitchen to lab and maybe you are even a CRC or CCS! The certification means a lot; it shows that you have lived in the industrial food world and understand the intricate details involved in the scale-up process.
There are many resources available to help food scientists and R&D chefs find a job in the food industry. Some sites are free (Monster and Craig’s List), other sites you need to first pay a membership fee (IFT and RCA). There are temporary agencies seeking food scientists for both temporary and full-time jobs (Lab Support), and recruiters these days are posting their job opportunities in the different food groups on LinkedIn. On Facebook you can find food science and RCA “groups,” and even Twitter has a @getfooscienjobs that you can follow. Several jobs are “tweeted” up each day. Check in with your regional RCA or IFT contacts. (And if you live in Northern California, you can e-mail me, the RCA NWP regional contact, anytime at Rachel@theintrepidculinologist.com.) I get lots of calls and e-mails from companies seeking food industry professionals to hire.