Monday, June 11, 2012

What are these skills that new graduates are missing?!?!?

In this week's C&EN, a valuable article by Linda Wang, detailing where employers feel that current graduates are lacking. While I find the article full of aggravating vagueness, the sad reality is that the voices heard are many of the people that new graduates (and all applicants, for that matter) need to please.

The lead paragraphs, including the throwing-down of the S-word:
After years of belt-tightening, the biotechnology industry is starting to see signs of recovery. “Companies are definitely hiring,” says Kerry Boehner, an executive recruiter at pharma and biotech recruiting firm KOB Solutions. “I’m extremely busy, and most recruiters I know are very busy.”  Large numbers of newly minted Ph.D.s looking for jobs should provide no shortage of talent, yet employers say they can’t find enough qualified candidates to fill their open positions. “The industry has reinvented itself,” Boehner says. “Companies have very specific skill sets that they’re looking for, and they’re not willing to compromise. They’re willing to wait until they find the ideal person."
[snip] The shortage of skilled workers in the biotech industry is emblematic of a broader skills gap problem that has developed in many other sectors, from nursing to information technology to advanced manufacturing. According to staffing firm ManpowerGroup’s 2012 Talent Shortage Survey, released last month, 49% of U.S. employers reported experiencing difficulty filling positions that were critical to the mission of their organizations. 
So, class of 2012, you're lacking. What are you lacking in?

Industrial experience: 
New Ph.D.s are increasingly finding that their academic credentials are just not enough to get them a job, because companies are looking for candidates with industry experience, whether from an internship or full-time employment. “The reason industry experience has become more important is because there are more people out there looking for jobs,” says Debbie S. Yaver, a director of R&D at Novozymes. “You somehow have to separate them, and one criterion is, ‘Do they have some industrial experience?’ 
"Key skill sets": 
“What we’ve noticed, within the time span of about 10 years or so, is that it’s now completely reversed,” said (Stephan) Rodewald, who is a research chemist at Goodyear Tire & Rubber. “We have trouble filling all the interview time slots with candidates that we think are qualified for the positions that we have. And when we actually take a chance on them and invite them out for closer scrutiny, often we find that they’re really lacking in terms of key skill sets.” Rodewald believes that graduate students aren’t getting the preparation they need to work in industry. “It may be a situation where the time that is available for professors to spend with their students and to ensure that they get proper training has just diminished,” he said.
 Mumbojumbogobbledygook Soft skills:
...They’re also seeking candidates with the right combination of soft skills for the job. Companies are looking for people who “have exceptional communication skills and the personality to work in a team,” Boehner says. 
...Cubist Pharmaceuticals, in Lexington, Mass., recently revised its hiring criteria to reflect its changing expectations. “We look for talent that not only has that key experience and the specific knowledge that most companies are looking for [but also] key competencies or personal attributes that are critical to where the organization is going from a strategic perspective,” says Debbie Durso-Bumpus, director of talent acquisition at Cubist. “I think because we look at it from four to five different perspectives, finding that right individual is a little tougher than if you were just to say, ‘Do they have the right experience and education to do the job?’ ”
...“The old model of education was to complete an apprenticeship and learn from the master,” says Judith A. Kjelstrom, director of the UC Davis biotechnology program and program manager of the DEB graduate program. “Universities drifted away from that model over the past 30 years to a model focused on didactic learning without offering on-the-job training. Our program addresses these shortcomings.” 
...UC Davis graduate Amanda J. Fischer completed a three-month internship at Novozymes while participating in the DEB program seven years ago. Fischer, who is now a senior scientist at Novozymes, says that interning for the company gave her a clearer understanding of what is needed to be successful in industry. “I realized that team building and building relationships are really critical in industry,” she says. “Also, in industry not all the questions need to be answered. You should focus your efforts where the outcome will lead to product innovations that can benefit the company.” Now in a hiring capacity herself, Fischer is looking for candidates who have industry experience. Her biggest concern about candidates without industry experience is whether the environment will suit them and whether they’ll be happy “with the way the projects flow,” she says.
What should you do, class of 2012? Well, they do have useful recommendations there (emphases CJ's):
For now, it’s up to individuals to pursue the industrial training they need. “If I were advising graduate students on how to make themselves most employable by industry, I would say to find yourself an industrial internship while you’re in graduate school,” Shulman says. “Take a summer off, and even if it slows you down getting your Ph.D. by three months, the fact that you’ve seen what goes on in industry is going to make you more attractive to a lot of companies.”  
An internship isn’t the only way to gain industry experience, however. Taking some time off between undergraduate and graduate school to work in industry can also be beneficial. Such candidates “would also rise to the top for me,” Novozymes’ Yaver says. “They have at least some perception of what the difference is between an industrial research setting and an academic setting.” 
Another way for recent Ph.D.s to gain some industry experience is to seek out an industrial postdoc or even a temporary position, Shulman says. Companies are increasingly looking for such short-term hires because they enable a firm  to evaluate potential candidates to fill permanent positions, he notes. 
For job seekers who don’t have industrial experience, Durso-Bumpus suggests they focus their job search on larger companies that might have more resources to train new employees. “As a midsize organization, we prefer people who had been there and done that and could do it again,” she says of Cubist. “Although as we continue to grow, we’ve actually gone to the market with more entry-level positions that we didn’t necessarily have in the past.”
Well, there you have it, class of 2012. Go get that industrial experience (good luck!)

The apparently inability of any industrial hiring managers to fully point to any actual missing skill sets (other than vague statements that they're missing) is a really important piece of the #chemjobs problem. I'm more than willing to buy into the thought that academia is training young chemists with the wrong techniques or doing it in the wrong manner (e.g. the career advisor's comment that "Universities drifted away from that model over the past 30 years to a model focused on didactic learning without offering on-the-job training.") But once again (in this article, and elsewhere), very few actual missing skill sets are on display. Rather, it's just the assertion that remains.

46 comments:

  1. Re: "...most recruiters I know are very busy."

    She neglects to mention whether these are full time or contract positions with "contract to hire" potential. I see lots of contract positions, but full time, not so much.

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  2. But I learned everything during my total synthesis work....

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  3. It's just a convenient fiction for executives to blame their lack of hiring on applicants not having the right skills. They know that it sounds bad to say "despite record profits, we've decided not to hire anyone this year" so they pretend like they're trying to hire but use ridiculous job requirements to disqualify anyone who applies. It also gives them a convenient line to use on their existing workers- "we're sorry, we know you're overworked and tired, we're trying to hire more staff to help you out but we just can't find anyone good! Be patient and to that extra unpaid overtime!" If they really needed to hire new employees, they'd find ways to train them (and I guess some companies still do that).

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  4. I have been in industry for 40 years, never have I seen the BS piled so high and deep than it is in the quotes above. Obviously today's young chemists are screwed to the max. It is time to write off your lame training and take your talents and brains elsewhere. Let industry get all their great soft-skilled talent off-shore where obviously all the desired inexpensive, people-team oriented talent exists.

    B-T-W, whose PhD advisor is going to let them take some time off to relocate far away on the students' dime to provide free labor - an internship- to some company that needs to save money so it can pay pays its CEO a zillion dollars? Can I see a show of hands form students and profs?

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    1. I know one "progressive" prof in the Gulf Coast region who allows industry-inclined students to take summer internships in the energy sector. The work that they do has no direct link to the student's thesis, but to my knowledge every student who has completed the internship has been hired back by the sponsoring company after the defense. I have to respect that.

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    2. My advisor allowed it. Of course students would bring as much donated gear as they could fit in the car.

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  5. "The most important reason good individuals can't get jobs where there appears to be a shortage is that employers are defining job requirements in such a way that applicants need to have done the job already, a fact that dramatically narrows the supply of qualified applicants..."

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  6. "For job seekers who don’t have industrial experience, Durso-Bumpus suggests they focus their job search on larger companies that might have more resources to train new employees."

    As much as I hate to say this, the large companies really shouldn't be expected to become the training grounds for a new grad until they find something better. Bringing on a new hire and training them is extremely expensive (think signing bonus, relocation expenses, medical exams, background checks, etc.) My observation is that the company doesn't really start to see a real return on that investment for 2-3 years, just in time for that employee to get scooped up by a small or mid-size outfit.
    Besides, it's easyto say "Oh, no experience? Just go work for D*W, B#ASF, DuP&nt, Pfi@zer, etc, etc." But getting a foot in the door is by no means trivial.

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    1. "Signing bonus, relocation expenses"

      Companies dont offer these perks anymore. Last time I got an offer was below market rate because i had to be trained for the job, hence the low ball offer. Still I had to take it and operated at a loss to gain experience. I owe no loyalty to any company. I will most likely jump ship at the most anything better or equivalent come along.

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  7. Debbie Durso-Bumpus - Oh God. I almost applied to Cubist once...

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  8. I love how they want 0-1-2 years of experience and the same time "record of successful method validation" or "familiarity with GMP"

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  9. Someone could make a killing selling these companies purple squirrel hunting licenses.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Purple_squirrel

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  10. I did an industrial internship in grad school. Didn't learn a thing I didn't already know (except that the corporate BS is even worse than I ever imagined), but it looks good on a resume and I'm sure it helped me get offers.

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  11. Given the slow economic recovery and large pool of unemployed, of course employers are being selective with their hires. Whether the criteria they use for their evaluations is wise/fair/reasonable/etc is a whole other kettle of fish.

    To address one of the specific strategies pointed out in this article - When I interviewed with my current employer, I got the impression that my internship in the same industry was a big plus. But I didn't do my internship during grad school or between undergrad/grad careers. It was a 3-month summer position at a much smaller outfit while still an undergraduate. I think that really demonstrates the value of having any shred of industrial experience on one's resume.

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  12. The article is complete BS. Every business/company is unique and the skills required for the job must be trained on the job. This is completely unfair for new grads coming out of school. How about these companies stop being cheap and invest in some training programs.

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  13. As someone currently looking for a good candidate (recovering from a less-than-stellar hire who generously created the opening by finding other employment) I can say that "soft skills" do matter. Being able to take direction, work in a team environment, handle an inconsistent work flow (ranging from hectic to rather slow, just depending), and adapt to a corporate culture that sometimes makes no sense are skills that are necessary at my job, but not necessarily somewhere else.

    I think some sort of industrial experience is useful just to take the newness off. But the last commenter is exactly right in that ALL jobs require some OJT. I'm not expecting that I won't need to train someone I hi, but I would prefer someone who could hit the ground running - we are short and have been for a while. A two year investment to get someone up to speed is daunting, but that's about the norm for new grads.

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    1. You can't correctly predict soft skills. There was a guy who joined my lab who was very friendly and a hard worker, but increasingly as his project showed no results, he got slowly aggressive, would only talk to certain people in the lab, and would make bad comments about other people in their presence. It got really unpleasant to be around him and my output suffered since I had to work next to him and I just started coming when he wasn't there (nights). He noticed that I wasn't too happy with him and I quickly got moved to his 'bad people' group. His negativity affected two other people who stopped coming to the lab as well (and then just disappeared while still collecting salaries from grants). But if I ever had to interview him, I would say that he is friendly, has industrial experience and seems like he can get on with a wide variety of people. However, it would be the wrong impression for good 'soft skills'. Meanwhile, a small, quiet person who doesn't say much might be really willing to listen to you when you discuss chemistry and will make good comments on where to take a project even though they never did an industry fellowship. The PhD recommendation letter is not going to tell you anything about soft skills. You think a boss is going to write 'this guy has an impossible personality' about their students with whom they have co-authored papers?

      It's impossible to predict and you are probably getting as good a selection as when you go for 'purely random' when you try to select for 'soft skills' at an interview.

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    2. I'm not saying you can definitely predict the soft skills - but you can get a bit of what someone is like when you start learning what to look for. Team behavioral interviews are what we use at my company, and we just get a general sense of the person. I agree that you can never know for sure about someone until they're hired.

      One of my biggest problems in getting candidates is simply that the company is in an undesirable location. In the middle of nowhere.

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    3. ms, if you'd like to talk more about your approach to hiring, you're welcome to e-mail at chemjobber -at- gmail/dot/com.

      Confidentiality guaranteed.

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    4. One of my biggest problems in getting candidates is simply that the company is in an undesirable location. In the middle of nowhere.

      I can't stand that this is a real limiting factor. Yes, we have a real problem with saturation of PhD scientists (or all scientists for that matter). But if you're going to say that you won't move to _____ because you don't want to live there, you lose all right to complain about the job market. You're either willing to do what it takes to get your foot in the door or you're not.

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    5. If you are considered disposable by employers, then moving to nowhere might make it difficult if (when) your company no longer requires your services. If job security is "the ability to get another job", then being near few other jobs is a disadvantage. You have to bargain the ability to find a job quickly against the cost of living (since they generally correlate negatively to one another); no jobs and low cost of living means you can get by for longer on savings but may need to to find something else, lots of jobs and high cost of living means you can't spend too long finding a job, and you will probably take a bigger hit if you have to sell a house and move elsewhere (although that is less likely than in low-job markets).

      Other side issues are the "two-body" problem (if your SO needs a job, it may be hard if there isn't much around), and the desire to have one's children go to schools where the teachers can read. Both of these are likely to have significant short-term and long-term consequences, and are not easily dismissed.

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    6. I wasn't trying to slight molecularshyness's place of business with the last comment.

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    7. Moving to a remote area for a job is like doubling down in Black Jack. Your opportunity for networking becomes exponentially harder, the stakes are worse if you fail. Your ability to get out of chemistry is also much harder, and underemployment feels like you just entered a third world nation. Not to mention your children will be left with even less opportunity than you had. Given the choice of doing blue collar work in more metro areas vs. non-metro areas, life may be harder, but at least your children will get a better shot of succeeding whereas due to bad timing of your birth, society has failed you. I feel blessed that my next relocation is in a metro area for very good money, even if it happens to be 16 time zones away. It has for the moment certainly improved my morale for my career choice. It certainly beats Los Alamos or Richland, VA as far money, culture, companionship, and networking opportunity.

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    8. There are certainly hurdles no matter which way you go. At the personal level, this is not black and white. Unfortunately, you won't likely get the chance to explain that to a hiring manager. I've worked with people who have moved their whole family with them and others who live in a separate state from their spouse/children to maintain some sort of stability for them. These are obviously bad situations at a personal level (especially the dual state one). But these people are willing to do what it takes to stay employed and as long as they are, the people who aren't are going to have a harder time. Having worked with these types of people, I have a hard time feeling bad for new grads/postdocs who are determined stay in a city they love but complain about the job shortage.

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    9. @9:21 I still feel bad, but I think those people are going through a personal transition. They have to come to terms with the fact that their chosen profession they have dedicated almost a decade of their life for will not give them the quality if not the life experiences they want. They have to let go and quit. Easier said than done but, if friends and spouse are that important to you, maybe high school teaching just won't suck that much. Just be warned that flaming out in a location where you have no roots, no friends, no family, and underemployment will set your family back three generations, maybe you were better off making that decision before you moved. Of course, ranting at the blogs is a great way to process the angst of the transition. There will be shortage of these people.

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    10. How can you move more than 12 time zones away?

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    11. Fine, the time zones certainly feel farther away when you find yourself trying have business calls at very very odd hours where you are still sleeping and can't keep the simple math straight in your head.

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    12. I live in the middle of nowhere South and have been desperate to find a job. What I've found is that everyone doing the hiring has a specific rubric they follow and every candidate must meet it or be tossed. I have 20 years experience in Microbiology and Immunology (industry, academia, and government) but that doesn't matter because my PhD won't be awarded until Dec 2012.

      I CAN hit the ground running, but the rubric won't let me even look through the door.

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  14. Having sat on both sides of the fence, I must say that although I do think that universities could be doing a better job preparing people for industrial positions, I believe that the very basic research and understanding at the academic level must be maintained because the value of that knowledge is so low in industry.

    All that matters to the company is when they're going to have a usable product that they can sell. Nobody cares if you figure out why one of your key reactions was only going to 40% completion and that you may have unearthed a new reaction. Unless it has potential to bring in money, it has limited/no value. So it's important that universities fill that gap of fundamental knowledge.

    Derek Lowe's recent post about making the transition from grad school to industry really nicely outlines some of the key issues where schools could be helping more. One thing that I think students could really benefit from is his point that in industry, an elegant cascade reaction that gives 15% yield is nowhere near as useful as 3 standard peptide couplings at 85% each. I see a lot of people criticizing Nicolaou for using a brute force approach to making the different molecules he does, but this is almost exactly how people in industry do it. Unfortunately, I think implementing this would require a gargantuan shift in the mindset of academic chemists worldwide (ie; convincing them that it's worth publishing the synthesis of a molecule in a high tier journal even though there's no amazingly cool reactions in it and encouraging them to follow suit).

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    1. That how I worked when synthesizing natural products for my academic boss' side business. Just make a whole bunch of shit and as long as you can separate it on the column and get a few mg for the biologists to test and get a hit (or not), you're good. It was a great job because we had deadlines and industry guys coming in talking to us about patents, buying rights, etc... but it was still in a university so I had access to SciFinder.

      I work in a lab now where some staff scientists have never been exposed to that kind of thinking. It's frustrating and it makes me want to shout at them sometimes. There is one guy who insists on making a simple phosphine because 'it's too expensive' if you buy it from Aldrich and the boss is fine with him making it. It's 10 grams for 1000 bucks. Just buy the damn thing and we have our year's supply and you save a few days to a week. Then there is the other person who tries to save money on everything. "You use too much D2O, maybe you should think about using H2O?" Even though the desired course of action when confronted with that is opening your mouth and standing in stupification without moving for five minutes, the best course is to say: "No, I need D2O. Sorry. Can I get it soon please? Yes, the boss is fine with me using 50 mL a week of it."

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    2. Bingo, uncle sam. There is a big change that needs to occur in the way you think. It's not easy to break those habits, but it is necessary. My bosses have never asked what my yields were or how many steps it took me to get to a target. On the other hand, just about every week they've asked "When will you be able to deliver X?"

      I don't think that's a mindset that works in all areas academia, so I don't necessarily think that PIs need to ingrain this type of thinking into their students. But it probably wouldn't hurt to let them know that taking their sweet time to run that control experiment is a luxury they won't enjoy in industry.

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    3. Re:Nicolaou - The problem with his (sometimes) method of synthesis is that, in many cases (I am guessing maitotoxin for one) it doesn't achieve anything of general utility. Academic chemistry is supposed to deliver a product - interesting, unusual, potentially useful chemistry. Alternatively (as with Smith's work on discodermolide) it can also optimize a synthesis to deliver product that might be interesting or useful to others and optimize techniques to be used for related molecules.

      KCN's syntheses don't usually do either of these - they don't deliver useful products in quantities that can be used for anything (not even enough for research, much less testing or use), and they don't usually deliver novel chemistry. He has made some neat structures and done some novel chemistry, but his brute force syntheses do not seem to be in short supply. Finding smart ways to make things quicker is, and he's probably not the best example of that.

      Ultimately, you work for someone else, not just for you, and when you work, you have to work to achieve their ends. If their goal is to get product out the door quickly and cleanly, then finding beautiful chemistry (unless it helps in achieving the primary goal) is not productive. If their goal is finding interesting and novel chemistry for the public, then throwing five post-docs and three grad students at a molecule in human waves until it succumbs is not going to help, either.

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    4. Hap, I agree with most of your criticism of Nicolaou, and I tried to be careful not to defend anything but the one thing, which is the brute force approach. You touched on it (maybe instinctively) by mentioning that his syntheses have little to offer in the way of novel chemistry. This is an unimportant criteria in industrial chemistry and I see Nicolaou consistently get killed on that. If a company for some reason decided to make part of Maitotoxin, my guess is they wouldn't find a way that was much more elegant than KCN's.

      Your last paragraph touches on something I said earlier about shifting mindsets. How many times on various blogs have you seen "This isn't (insert journal name) worthy" just because the synthesis isn't elegant or novel? I don't think that should be the only criteria to make a paper worthy of publication in a good journal. If someone managed to make Vinigrol in good yield with a bunch of SN2's and peptide couplings, that should be just as publishable in a quality journal as Phil's original work. But a lot of people would disagree, and being adamant in that mindset makes the transition into industry a lot harder.

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  15. Unstable IsotopeJune 12, 2012 at 8:31 AM

    I do think academia can do more to prepare students for industrial work. One of them is loosening the grip a bit and letting their students take some classes outside of their focus. Another is to let them do an industrial fellowship during their grad years.

    However, when a bunch of candidates have industrial internships on the resume, who is going to be blamed when these candidates still aren't hired?

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  16. In industry, I want employees who work well in a team and are able to work independently, people who know when to take the initiative and when to ask for permission, people who are critical thinkers and good implementers, people who can follow rules and people who can be flexible, knowing when rules can bend....etc. I appreciate that a new employee will want to pull their hair out in frustration, yet my team members are able to fulfill all those requirements. Did they learn these techniques in grad school? On the job? Or all they just all amazing, stellar individuals? Honestly, a bit of all three.

    I know I sit with my team to discuss the research and all matters pertaining to the projects far more frequently than my supervisors did with me in grad school or during my post-doc. However, meetings have to be efficient and not just frequent. Being clear on milestones and timelines is imperative for people to know exactly what is expected of them.

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    1. Anon, if you'd like to expound more on how you approach being a supervisor (?), please feel free to e-mail me at chemjobber -at- gmail/dot/com.

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  17. I'm coming from more of the biochemistry side of things, but it strikes me that we live in highly competitive times. We graduate more biology PhDs every year than there are available scientists positions, and the problem only seems to get exacerbated every year. Companies are awash in applications so when companies say they have trouble filling technical positions due to a deficit of qualified applicants, this seems to translate into a deficit in finding applicants who have the perfect *combination* of skills, not necessarily that any one technical skill is missing amongst the applicants. In addition, many newly minted PhDs fresh from the academic world seem to not always possess the intuitive social intelligence skillset that are necessary when navigating projects with a highly diverse set of people in a team goal oriented setting, that often fall under serious time constraints.

    If an applicant doesn't have the perfect combination of technical skills a project requires, or the apparent communication savvy to effectively work with a broad ranges of people with different backgrounds, nor any firsthand experience in what many times can be a radically work environment, then why should a company take a risk and hire you if there are going to be 50 more applicants next month?

    These biotechnology programs, like the DEB at UC Davis, allow ambitious students the opportunity to fill some of these holes in their skillsets. For instance, there is a steady stream of industry players that visit UC Davis' DEB program to speak to students about the ins and outs of the private sector. During these visits students get the chance to talk one on one to these industry leaders during lunch. The speakers model appropriate communication styles, make connections with bright students and offer a sense, in real time, of what the holes the company is actively trying to fill as well as thoughts on potential future directions of the company.

    The UC Davis’ DEB program also has courses designed to give students an appreciation of the more business aspects of these types of jobs and offers them the opportunity to work within diverse sets of teams to develop the common project goal of taking an idea for a company off of the page and into the real world. This program also has performs a substantial amount of community outreach which also helps to develop communication and leadership skills, including mentoring the budding scientists of tomorrow. The industry co-ops and internships that the DEB facilitates are also crucial to giving students real world experience working in a dynamic team setting, a new network of industry connections and true sense of what it takes to manage a career in the ever evolving world of biotech.

    To approach the problem as, “What specific technical skill do I need to learn to get hired?” I believe is lacking the foresight to see the broader picture of what it takes to successfully engage in an industry position. Many companies have a high percentage of positions that are not publically advertised, positions which can operate in fundamentally divergent ways from academic positions and often require a fairly unique blend of technical skills. These biotechnology programs seem to address the real needs of the biotech industry via interactive relationships. If you are curious at all about UC Davis’ DEB program and what it offers I would really encourage you to contact Dr. Judith Kjelstrom.

    -Johnathon David Anderson
    joanderson / at / ucdavis / edu

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    1. Sorry that this good comment got temporarily eaten by the spam filter.

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  18. "employers say they can’t find enough qualified candidates to fill their open positions." Boehner seems to have left out the "at the wages they are willing to pay". Recruiters are idiots, a near indiscernible step above lawyers.

    "director of talent acquisition at Cubist"

    And here is where much of the disconnect comes: moron CEOs with no understanding of science hire a bunch of overpaid idiot MBAs (I got one, and it's easy enough a marginal housecat could also---pie chart class was tough, though) who work at Mckinsey or BCG (and who also don't know anything about science) to come in an give them brilliant suggestions such as retitling their director of IR as a "director of talent acquisition". Can't say for sure, but I assume Ms. Durso-Bumpus has no clue what a 'molecule' is.

    "more academic-industrial partnerships to help students bridge the transition between academia and industry", I assume he means to say "It'd be great if biopharma companies had readier access to cheap, short term, labor to help do some drudge work". I guess it beats outsourcing it to the PRC or Eastern Europe. The "take a summer off", as mentioned, is laughably naive and shows a complete lack of understanding of how grad school works.

    I do enjoy staged photos, like the woman pouring something without looking. At least she's got proper PPE on!

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  19. There is no doubt that it sucks to be coming out of school (at any level) or an academic postdoc and hoping to get into industry right now. People hiring into industry now have a WAY harder time than I had when I started out back in the boom times of 1999. But there is also no doubt that a lot of people coming out of academia have really no clue about industry in general, and biotech in particular. And when the market is flooded with a lot of experienced people, that is not a position you want to be in. You can still compete- hiring managers having a bias towards experience, but they also have a bias against hiring someone they deem "over-qualified" for a junior position (and yeah, that sucks, too- don't blame the messenger).

    I have have hired chemists, or former chemists, really, since they are now doing informatics. I have also hired biologists (or former biologists), software engineers, IT guys, DBAs, and project managers. Regardless of the position I'm hiring, do you know what the number one way to stand out is? To be someone I know or someone that someone I trust knows. That sucks, too, because it requires networking, which we all hate. And it is harder on the people just starting out.

    But, to be fair, I try to make it easy. I accept any and all requests for informational interviews. Really. I actually usually buy the person asking lunch if he or she is a student or a postdoc. I can do this because I get very few requests for informational interviews. I think people are afraid to use this networking method, but you shouldn't be. Most people are happy to talk about themselves. I also answer all emails asking for information, even ones that come in via my blog (which is primarily a personal blog, and not about biotech, but which still has picked up some science types as readers). And I remember the people who have seemed clued in during these interactions.

    So piece of advice #1 for the people coming out of school right now: suck it up and network like crazy, even though it is hard and no fun.

    Piece of advice #2: don't turn up your nose at contract work. I have three people working for me as full time employees right now who started out as contractors. Why? Because that was a low risk way to try them out.

    Here's the thing: hiring is a PITA. But firing is even more of a PITA. It is hard to know if someone is going to work out based on their resume and interview. If I know the person, or someone I know can vouch for him/her- then there is a much better chance the hire will work out. If he or she has contracted for me, then I have direct experience with the work quality. I don't mind doing a little training on the job- I expect it. I have even trained contractors. But I have to know that this person is going to be able to come in and solve real problems NOW. I do not have the luxury of allowing a year for training or whatever someone up thread suggested. A lot changes in a year in a biotech company. If my hire can't help get our projects done now, we may all be out of a job in a year. Sorry, that is just the way it is in biotech. Really, my nightmare hiring scenario is having to pick from complete unknowns based solely on resumes.

    And frankly, even back in the boom times, networking was still the way to get a job. It is how I landed my first industry job, and pretty much every job since then. It has gotten much, much easier with time, not because I've gotten better at schmoozing, but because I know more people because I've worked with them. I think that is one big reason people coming straight out of academia are at a disadvantage in trying to get industry jobs, and the good news is that you can overcome it, at least partially. But you have to be willing to network, and take the time to learn how to do it well.

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    1. Networking does suck, but I have been working pretty hard at it now. Who knew that blowing off work to go socialize would have been a more productive use of my time in grad school?

      I wonder if I could have your opinion on a something. What do you make of someone who maybe worked a couple years in "industry" before they went to grad school, then missed the employment boat and is in post-doc limbo for the fourth year at around 35 years old? Is this person hirable?

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    2. Yes, I think you're still employable. Everyone knows how tough the job market is right now, so a long postdoc won't necessarily kill your chances. But you have to not be bitter about it. When you talk about the postdoc, you're working on cool and exciting stuff, right? You're just ready to move on and get back into industry, which you really liked when you last worked there. Or something like that.

      Also, I don't know what your field is or what your interests are, but I'd encourage you to consider the fields in industry that don't correlate directly to a field of study in academia. People in those fields tend to have slightly stranger career paths, so yours would fit right in. And applicants that actually get what the field is about and seem to genuinely want to work in it are more rare. This is where the informational interview can really help, because you can talk to people working in the field and find out what the work is like. And then you can pitch your cover letter accordingly. I can't tell you the number of cover letters I have read that make it clear the applicant actually wants to be working in a field related to mine, but not mine. Those applicants have zero chance of being hired by me.

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    3. Cloud, thank you for the reply. I really appreciate your comments.

      A 6/13 5:36

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  20. Search YouTube for ZombieSymmetry's "Trustus Pharmaceuticals" videos. Some of those may be applicable here.

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  21. Chemjobber, I just came across your blog today. It's actually just what I needed to see today, after submitting my 80th employment app. A friend just told me she submitted 150 before she got her postdoc.

    I'm in micro/immunology but all of this applies just as much as it does to chemistry.

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