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.