Thursday, March 1, 2012

Why not more industrial training?

In the comments on Tuesday's post about the Organometallics roundtable, there was a fair bit of pushback about the industrial panelists' call for better preparation of graduate students for industrial careers.

Anon 201202280732a:
This is quite frustrating. If "industry" really cared about the skill set of their employees, they would train them themselves. Just like they used to do many years ago. My grandfather was an engineer at GE, but he received his degree in English. GE felt it was a priority and an investment to bring his skill set up to snuff to achieve the goals of GE. 
Friend of the blog Matt Hartings: 
So, what industry needs to decide is: WHAT IS IT THAT THEY REALLY WANTED PEOPLE TO BE TRAINED IN? I know there is no single answer for this. But, what does industry want? Do they just want people, trained in a specific discipline, who are proven problem solvers? Do they want people who are well versed in lots of different techniques? Do they want people who have been trained in economies of scale? In recruiting new hires, WHAT ARE THEY LOOKING FOR?  
If recruiters and industry leaders could be a little more clear on this problem, I think that most faculty would be willing to help their students become ready for their future career. And, I also think that more graduate students would be willing to push for the right kinds of experience to satisfy what "industry wants". But until there is something more explicit, this is NOT going to happen. If industry is just sitting back and cherry picking new graduates looking for experience in "Solid phase synthesis of lithium-based materials that perform at under 300K with expertise in XPS, AFM, SEM, TEM, etc, etc, etc" what they are showing that they really want is for a larger pool of applicants and a larger pool of graduate students and graduate student projects to pick from. We've already discussed what a bad idea this is.  
What is it that industry wants and expects???
For the most part, I think the call for better preparation can be answered by the students themselves. As @UnstableIsotope pointed out, they need to expose themselves to more industrial examples by reading the working literature (C&EN, J. Med. Chem., Org. Process. Res. Dev., other relevant industrially oriented journals.) They need to attempt to turn "unknown unknowns" (things they did not know that they did not know) into "known unknowns" (things that they know that they're not exposed enough to, but are aware of the field and its concerns.) Forbearance from the professor for absences from the laboratory to go and do an industrial internship would also be helpful, I would think. I am curious as to how many professors would allow a graduate student to use an industrial internship and the relevant projects for a portion of their dissertation; while I'm sure most wouldn't have issues, I am sure that some would vehemently object.

To respond on Anon0732a, there was a time when General Electric (and its shareholders) would allow for long-term thinking, e.g. beyond a 2-3 year time horizon. It seems that if you're a major corporation now, you don't think much beyond next year's earnings numbers. (I also assume that GE did not have a major research university infrastructure to draw trained engineers from, so they HAD to do it themselves.) I can do Anon0732a one better and show the example of Kettering University, once the General Motors Engineering and Management Institute. (I remember getting a brochure from them when I was applying to college.) It was set up in 1926 to train employees for just GM -- where's the pharma/chemical version of that?

Ultimately, I think our academic interlocutors are right, in that there is some attempt at cost-shifting here. I don't doubt Wuxi Apptec has an in-house training institute. Is it time for collaborative institutes to train the US industrial chemists of the future? 

16 comments:

  1. "Is it time for collaborative institutes to train the US industrial chemists of the future?"

    I'm sure the invisible hand of the market will make everything right. If GM doesn't train people to do GM jobs anymore, then it's the market's fault and the market will fix it. I'd give it another 20-30 years. Just be patient.

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  2. In all fairness, the Big 4 or 5 chemical companies and some of the diversified Fortune 500's still hire recent chemistry graduates whose graduate or postdoc training is only marginally related to the r&D function for which they were hired. I know a number of "pure" inorganic or phys chemists working in business units such as Coatings, Elastomers, or Oil and Gas. The whole purpose of hiring new grads is to bring them in fresh and transform them into the employee the company wants through on-the-job training and internal development programs. Admittedly, this model doesn't necessarily work for pharma, startups, or emerging technologies as these companies generally can't afford to have someone in training for the better part of a year without producing IP. Unfortunately, there are precious few dynastic companies that are willing to make the long-term capital investment of recruiting, hiring, and training.

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    1. Come to think of it, BASF has its own internal training process for new Ph.D.s, don't they? Of course, this is to groom future leaders, not future technical experts.

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    2. I managed to land a job straight out of grad school with a company in a very tangentially-related field. My thesis was about gas-phase analytical techniques for biomolecules (peptides, proteins, saccharides), but was hired into a corporate analytical R&D lab for a coatings company. My new boss pitched to the higher-ups that whether the system is proteins or latexes, it's all polymers and that my Ph.D. demonstrates my ability to essentially become an expert in an arbitrary field. It also helped that while in undergraduate, I had spent a summer as an intern at another coatings company. Although it was a very limited experience, the hiring managers definitely picked up on that in my resume as well.

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  3. Matt you are correct that no single answer but if am to generalize I feel you touch on a couple things that would be on top of what most in Industry typically look for: Well versed in the fundamentals of their chosen discipline both the book/literature knowledge and variety of techniques/procedures, plus ability to solve problems with thirst/capability to learn and adapt(because again argue most will get additional detail training once in industry). I would trust these would be inherent everywhere although in fact degree does vary from place to place and group to group. At the same time Unstable Isotopes makes relevant suggestion in that Industry would appreciate people with some exposure and awareness of what occurs there and how can be different that academia (what % of Dept seminars even have Industry speakers?) and would extend to greater use/value of Patents. My experience is that chemists from Europe do get basic exposure so transition is less of the dramatic separation of US. Oh except for ChemEs doubt economies of scale is critical educational aspect but again would be nice if there is familiarization with the concept and why it has importance in evaluations of projects.

    Beyond these things desire for increasing communication skills, verbal and written, plus gaining inter and infra-discipline collaboration/team work would go a long way as preparation for Industry (were lone wolf scientist is rare occurrence). While I do not think most in industry really would expect perfect match straight out of school, I feel would be good idea to shift balance away from the dominating overly academic mindset to make entering not such a shock.
    CMCguy

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  4. With all due respect, CJ, what makes you think INDUSTRY will allow internship projects to appear in public dissertations? Big pharma would never allow it, I suspect...but there are older professors who would be fine with it (my boss, for example). I see it as similar to allowing a student to work at another university or abroad; the payoff is a more knowledgeable graduate student with a broader knowledge base. There are many young professors looking for slave labor who would not go for it, but tenure can do amazing things.

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  5. Here in the UK it is almost a pre-requisite for undergraduates to have spent a year in industrial med chem during their undergraduate studies to stand a chance of scoring an interview for a post-college position.

    Just a shame there almost so few actual med chem jobs for when they finish!

    The dissertation that they write for that year in industry never leaves the company building - the assessors have to come visit us and mark it here. [and of course the assessors have to sign a confidentiality agreement too - and whilst here we get a nice free seminar from them as well!].

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  6. Unstable IsotopeMarch 2, 2012 at 8:35 AM

    Some really good points here. I agree that the most important skills are good fundamentals in the field, proven ability to solve problems and communication skills. It would be nice to get some exposure to important industry questions but as anon @ 11:14 PM pointed out, perhaps industry can take another look at how they can help the universities train students to get their desired outcome. I can certainly understand why a prof would not be eager to send a student to a company when for 6 mos work they get no paper or credit out of it and are deprived of the work of that student for that time.

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  7. After I finished my master's, I wasted a lot of effort sending resumes to "chemical companies" that were really distributors/resellers because I knew so little about how the chemical industry works. Anonymous @9:42 PM has a good point about the teamwork aspect of industry - when I was a grad student, I saw rapidly advancing consumer electronics coming out, and had a mental picture of someone like E.J. Corey scaring the shit out of some poor engineer to make it happen. Now I know they do that with large teams, not by scaring some individual to death and making him work 80 hours a week! That's probably the biggest difference I've seen between academia and industry - industry usually does things in teams, and someone with poor communication skills usually won't do well in industry.

    At the undergrad level, I think the fundamentals are being sacrificed to make room for coverage of newer things like NMR and HPLC. I'm not sure what to do about this; both fundamentals and recent developments are valuable, and it shouldn't take 5 or 6 years to get a bachelor's.

    Companies are to blame for the problem too - a lot of want ads I see are ridiculous, like 2-4 years experience formulating ink for golf ball logos or something equally narrow. They'd rather have someone who can do the job on the first day instead of the person with the most long-term potential.

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    1. Re Ridiculous ads are likely due to 1) HR being in charge of hiring process where they always want a detailed and highly specific Job Description which then gets dumped out as position requirements even though it more likely a wish list for the hiring manager attempting to cover multiple duties in his one available slot. Conversely 2) certain ads are "legal work-a-round/CYA notifications" as may already have a specific person they want for a position and are required to show made "good faith" effort to seek other candidates because of immigration or other obligations (but since ad is based on that person's CV no one else is likely to be as good a match). As with most things it reflects a behind the scenes game that goes on.

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    2. Good point about CYA - I knew of a situation a few years ago where a university department had already decided who they wanted for a tenure-track faculty position, so they played CYA by placing a want ad in the local paper (somewhere down in Louisiana) to make sure no one actually applied!

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  8. Many universities have a residency requirement that specifically forbids students from taking leave for a few months. So much for internships.

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  9. "It seems that if you're a major corporation now, you don't think much beyond next year's earnings numbers."

    Your time frame is too long. Most of the companies I've worked at (primarily pharma), the focus is on THIS QUARTER. Is it any wonder that pharmaceutical companies are in so much trouble these days?

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  10. The simple fact is that the industry is looking to make profit. it does not want the hassle of having to groom people so it wants people who already have the skills.

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