Friday, August 26, 2011

Senior Dow manager writes on #chemjobs

In this month's Nature Chemistry, there's a series of commentaries, including an article titled "The changing landscape of careers in the chemical industry", by Keith J. Watson. Dr. Watson is a senior director at Dow Chemical Company in Midland, MI. While I find his article to be at least a little grim, I think it offers some good advice to the aspiring industrial chemist. I quote extensively below, because I feel some of his advice is quite important.

The Grim: While it's not DOOOOOOMing, Watson is pretty clear about the changes to the structure of the industry:
The transition from graduate school to a large company's central research organization has traditionally been a common and straightforward way for top graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to become industrial chemists. However, because speciality chemical investments tend to create products with shorter life cycles, and traditional long-term research has focused on feedstock refining and associated processes, many large companies are either reducing their investments in central research or applying significantly more rigorous business assessment to existing projects. [snip] 
Research budgets have become more focused on near-term business activities, and it is more common to have dispersed researchers embedded within business units than in previous eras. The 'not invented here' syndrome, defined as a mistrust of technologies that haven't been developed in-house, has been replaced with active external research arms that scour universities and start-ups for technologies that have already been significantly de-risked. [snip] 
In addition, instead of Western universities attracting the best of the best from around the world by default, more top talent candidates are staying in their home countries to obtain their graduate degrees. Big chemical companies have responded in kind, opening up state-of-the-art research facilities in countries such as China, India and Brazil. As manufacturing has been transferred to where feedstocks are available, stable and comparatively cheap, in many cases so has the accompanying research. The need to have research in close proximity to manufacturing is often not fully understood. Cycle times for the development and implementation of new technologies are shorter when researchers and operational engineers work together in person.
None of this makes me happy; much of this points to instability, uncertainty and no clear increase in jobs for chemists in the US or Western Europe. That being said, there's no percentage in leaving your head in the sand about these changes.

Counter to many articles about #chemjobs, Watson has some very specific skills that any scientist that is committed to their career can attempt to learn almost immediately. The bold headers are my own:
Keep learning: "Industrial chemists can expect to work on dozens of technologies during their careers. Although a certain amount of mastery of a single discipline is needed to complete a dissertation, it is important that potential industrial chemists demonstrate that they are willing and able to learn new technologies. There are several ways to demonstrate this competency to potential employers, including learning and mastering the research of other professors within one's department. Another approach is to learn a new area of research every 6–12 months. This can be accomplished by investigating and reading the leading literature in the area, or by participating in a different, focused conference outside of one's speciality every year. Whatever the approach, the value that can be derived from diversification is significant."
P-Chem FTW: "The surest way to demonstrate the ability to become a technical generalist is to master the fundamentals. Basic thermodynamics, kinetics and engineering skills will always prove useful — much more so than specific knowledge of narrow fields that happen to be in vogue today. These foundational skills form the basis of all future learning, and can often be overlooked in the rush to specialize."
Project management skills: "Understanding the concepts of the critical path, resource management and stakeholder analysis are important in many aspects of life. In an ideal world, graduate schools would require formal project-management training for graduation. Without this, candidates would be well-advised to learn project management on their own, and treat activities like writing papers or dissertations as formal projects. As a rule, any set of activities that takes more than two–three hours of dedicated work should get at least 20 minutes of planning, including a detailed and thorough answer to the following four questions: What is success? What is needed for success? What is currently rate-limiting? What resources are already available?"
Watson also talks about the ability to understand finance and communicate to non-scientists (like senior managers, government regulators and investors.) He suggests learning other languages and being willing to travel globally for work. I'll note that Dr. Watson ends oddly with a section on paying attention to one's 'personal brand.' While I think there is real value for journalists and other more obviously individual endeavors to rely heavily on this concept*, I find the concept ill-defined and potentially ill-fitting for the more collaborative environment of industrial science.

Overall, I found Dr. Watson's article to be important and informative about the changes chemists face and the things that both potential and current industrial chemists can do to adapt to them. I'll probably be revisiting the article and mulling over some of the specific passages. I strongly encourage you to read it (and, as always, to leave your thoughts in the comments.)

*For journalists, it makes a lot of sense -- I followed William Langewiesche from The Atlantic Monthly to Vanity Fair because of the types of articles he writes, a.k.a. his personal brand. I'm not quite sure how a chemist is supposed to develop one and what it means to do so. 

10 comments:

  1. A million thanks for covering this CJ (I commissioned and edited it - not that there was much to do as Keith suggested the title and wrote the piece very well).

    And I'd like to remind your readers that the article itself is free - but only until the end of September - so please read/download it soon!

    On the subject of 'personal brands', I disagree that it's ill-fitting, but I guess it might be ill-defined - but I can't think how else to define it. For me, it's about how other people see you - are you someone they would like to collaborate with? Do people outside your lab/institution/company know you or your work?

    Looking forward to more of your thoughts!

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  2. When I see "personal brand", I take that to mean my online presence. As in, making sure my Facebook page is clean and the parts that aren't are secure/hidden. And hopefully, I haven't picked a bunch of fights using my real name on these blogs or worse, LinkedIn.

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  3. There's a lot of good advice in that article. He's right that we have shifted from being experts in one field to being generalists. The most important skill you can show right now is the ability to change to something completely different and get up to speed quickly (that's my experience at least).

    I think this change is relatively recent because there are still a lot of experienced people here where I work who are specialists. They are becoming an endangered species.

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  4. "Keep learning..Project Management skills..Yadi yadi yada.." I agree that all these tips are very helpful, but where can I get a job that will help me obtain all these skills? I'm pretty sure the employers are not paying for the training.

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  5. A10:28a: Sorry for that. I think, though, that the different topics laid out in the "Keep learning" section are definitely applicable in an academic setting (with the possible exception of going to conferences every 6 months.)

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  6. "...it is important that potential industrial chemists demonstrate that they are willing and able to learn new technologies"

    Too bad hiring managers don't see it that way. From what I've seen, most are looking for very specific skills...not the potential to learn those skills quickly. And with unemployment so high, why should they settle?

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  7. Employers want a plug-and-play employee who can produce from day one. They dont care about training or on the job learning. Very soon, new graduates will be required to do 1 or 2 years of free intership before the employers will consider hiring them full time.

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  8. I looked up Watson’s profile on LinkedIn. He spent a grand total of six years doing research at Dow, and has spent the past 4 in various management jobs. He appears to be out of R & D altogether. He certainly is qualified to talk about changing from a research career to a business career. To be plain, I don’t believe he’s particularly qualified to speak about what is needed to have a decent industrial R & D career, since that apparently has not been his own aim.

    I’ve also looked up his patents. They are all in the same narrow field of polymerizable benzocyclobutenes. Even he himself has not worked as a researcher in various areas. So much for being a generalist.

    I worked at Dow in Midland 30 years ago. Back then, it was recognized that there needs to be a mix of generalists and specialists. It was recognized that it could take some time (1-3 years) for a person to get up to full speed doing R & D. People were encouraged to move around the R & D labs for various businesses – it was rare for a person to spend their entire career in one business unit doing one type of work. And people were happy to move around.

    And there was none of the corporate buzzword mumbo jumbo. There were barely any meetings. No Six Sigma and its myriad useless cousins. And the R & D people were highly productive, since there was nothing inconsequential to chew up their time. The management had a good deal of respect for R & D, as well.

    Who knows what it’s like now at Dow. It sounds like it’s no different than any other large chemical company. Or any type of large company.

    I hope that next time Nature Chemistry actually chooses a real industrial R & D chemist to comment on careers for today’s industrial R & D chemists.

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  9. Oh Daaaaaamn! Watson gets nailed for being a hypoch... hipo... a hypochon-driac! Only done work on benzocyclobutenes.

    Still, now I'm actually going to read the article. That's why I was thinking about the MBA earlier. Sure, I wanted to make a difference in peoples' lives by doing research when I was young and stupid. Now that you can't make a career out of that, might as well go all the way over to the dark side. Now I just want a fat paycheck so that I can afford to drive around in a Porske guaranteed; even if I can't solve anyone's chemical problems while earning the fat cash. Hey, what can I say? I'm a material boy.

    That's why I need this guy Watson's adivice on how to leapfrog into management with less time on research and no in depth learning of new stuff. I just have to learn to read between the lines and speak betters. I think the biggest problem will be the clothes though. I sweat too much in hot weather and that ruins white shirts; and I still get the girlfriend to tie the tie because I can never do it right. Once I get that down (plus learn how to play golf), I think I can be good in management.

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  10. Chemjobber, can we have a reasonable discussion of the ethics of middle management/MBAdom? Perhaps we are all biased on this one, but what exactly does everyone gain? The front lines of research feel micromanaged and suffocated to death with what feels like unrealistic short term expectations and even less stability. What does technology and industry really gain at the end of the day? In some respects I kind of feel that industrial science is cannibalizing itself on its own legacy (especially after reading posts like this.) How do we make progress go forward?

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