Tuesday, June 12, 2012

What skills do I think new grads might be missing?

I think of myself as closer to a "new graduate" than not (in reality, it's been 5-10 years (left intentionally vague) since I left graduate school and entered the industrial world.) So I can't really speak for "this generation" of "new graduates." As I implied yesterday, I am skeptical about the supposed lack of skills that new B.S., M.S. and Ph.D. graduates have. But I'll attempt to point out areas where I think that new graduates might be able to improve, especially towards an industrial career. (I might be pointing out some of my own weaknesses, too.) My comments are going to be much more aimed at synthetic organic chemists, since that's the field that I understand the best:

What hard skills do I think new graduates could improve upon or demonstrate? Running larger-scale experiments (>100 grams of starting material) is always a nice demonstration that you understand the difficulties of scale-up. At the very least, telling people (photo in a presentation?) that you've used an overhead stirrer of some sort is helpful. Familiarity with basic analytical chemistry instrumentation is really important; that you can discuss the in-and-outs of fixing a HPLC that's beepingbeepingbeeping at you is a sign that you're someone that's adept at troubleshooting instruments. (This is a valuable skill anywhere, but especially at a small company.) A simple understanding of what a quality control laboratory does (and what it doesn't) and what makes a worthwhile certificate of analysis (and what does not) is more than I could have said for myself 10 years ago.

What soft skills do new graduates need to demonstrate? This is harder, a lot harder. My guesses: your advisor compliments you on a good notebook and good documentation of experiments. Being able to navigate the here-there-be-dragons aspect of reading through old texts, reviews, trade journals and patents and synthesizing it into a "OK, this is the subfield, and here's who the leaders are..." 5 minute summary is key. I like Keith Watson's comment on how to do this while still being in academia:
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...
The problem is this: after 24 hours of sitting and thinking about hard and soft skills that younger chemists need, I've come up with 2 paragraphs of mush that don't really amount to much. Readers, I'm sure that I'm just not thinking straight, and there are skills that new graduates don't have, but should. I'd love to hear what you have to say.

[For a much lightyears-better version of this post, check out Derek Lowe's "Lessons for a New Medicinal Chemist". While it's (obviously) aimed at med chemists, I think it speaks to the conceptual mindset that is needed.] 


  1. Unstable IsotopeJune 12, 2012 at 7:36 PM

    I think the skills that are missing is working in teams, especially multi-disciplinary teams. Most of my industrial work is done this way. None of my grad work was done this way.

    I work at a large company, so the ability to repair an HPLC is not needed.

    1. For the most part, I agree. Graduate school did not train me to talk to chemical engineers or quality assurance managers.

      I don't know quite how this might be taught at graduate school, though. (Maybe routine cross-divisional seminars/chalk talks? With Q&As recorded? Dunno.)

  2. Hopefully upon graduation, one has sufficient skills to learn how to learn on the job - whatever that job may be. As long as the job is interesting to the new hire, the new hire is motivated, and the hiring institution willing to guide, then everyone wins. These three things MUST all be present for success for the new hire, the projects, the department, and the institution to all be successful.

    The soft skills are simply there - or not. I really do believe that soft skills are learned in childhood. Behaviors can be modified with appropriate feedback and guidance. But if the new hire simply doesn't play well with others, hasn't learned how to interact with other kindergarteners, then there is not much hope that the new hire will ever play nice with his/her team mates in the institution. It depends on what the hiring institution values. May institutions, especially Big Pharma, spout all kinds of gobledey-gook about soft skills, but then hire idiosyncratic selfish arses who cannot communicate anything except how great they were in grad school in Professor X's lab.

    It is really important to understand the other team members' needs. And then understand these needs in relation to your own. And then negotiate an acceptable and flexible plan of action to solve whatever goal the team is going after together. Its really not that difficult, if your institution has hired people who can play nicely in the sand box. If you are employed in an institution where too many people manage up only, well its time to leave. There is just no fix for that. Except for maybe an FDA consent decree. Then heads roll...

    1. "The soft skills are simply there - or not."

      I think that is completely correct. Pity there is no room on applications for one's kindergarten transcripts (which, if I recall, did include 'plays well with others').

      That said, in dealing with HR rubes "important" soft skills that might be of value would include a seminar or two in management-speak, maybe a class in mission-stating, and perhaps some work in pie charting.

  3. Apparently lack of skills is a pure BS:

    "... in 2009, the Business Roundtable conducted a survey asking employers to rank the most important work skills missing among recent high school graduates. Here again, the biggest complaints were about attitudes and self-management skills. We have to go down to the eighth item on the list to find something that might be taught explicitly in schools (oral communication) and 14th on the list to find a traditional academic subject (reading skills). A 2011 study of 540 hiring managers conducted by Harris Interactive for the DeVry Career Advisory Board echoed these findings: Out of the 15 attributes the managers viewed as important for success in their organizations, only one, communication skills, was related to an academic subject."

  4. Skills that I wished I had learned before going into industry:

    1. Learn about the industry. For example, in pharma/drug development I had to learn that drug discovery is actually a small component in this machine. It is helpful to learn all the necessary steps and stages needed to get your product to the market to help put your contribution into perspective. (i.e. It is not all about you.)
    2. Fiscal management/budgets: I think an excellent teaching tool would to have grad students participate in preparing the budget for the project, including costings for salaries, benefits and overheads. This will give an appreciation of the actual costings (learn of those "hidden" costs that sneak in) and where are the highest costs(often people and not the equipment or materials).
    3. Time management and project management: Learn to approach a project by breaking it into small manageable bits and devise the timelines for each of those bits. This forces you to really think about the project in advance. Include go/no go decisions. Once you come up with the plan, actually keep track of your project and watch how you do. Are you on or off track? What were the delays? Were there ways that those delays could have been avoided? How could you have done things faster or better? For those people who are advanced at this, once you come up with a plan, imagine being told that you need to do it faster and for less cost. (and then imagine that with your new plan you are again told to do it faster and for less cost. Repeat until your head explodes!) This is the reality of industry. Some may say that this is only for managers, but managers expect people to be able to self-manage to some extent (their own time and supplies for example).
    4. Presenting data: whether oral or written presentations, really learn how to get your point across-what is the key information? How to best represent the results? Either graphically or by tables (yes even those dreaded pie charts). Think of your audience--will they understand your HPLC results? And now prepare to present in half the time or summarize a year's worth of work in a single slide (okay, maybe two).

  5. Soft skills demanded for successful careers:

    risk taking
    self control
    critical thinking
    self awareness
    problem solving
    conscientiousness [See http://blog.nesacs.org/?p=697]

  6. I've been wearing lead weights on my tongue, licking peppers, and swallowing boiled fat. I no longer have sense of taste, lost gag reflex, and can lick a yoplait jar clean. Hopefully this is a skillset that will make me employable.