Friday, May 3, 2013

The Banholzer Award

If you didn't know it already, I actually like it when senior people in industry and academia say things that are true, even if uncomfortable and unpopular and annoying. Beryl Lieff Benderly gets some great quotes from Dow executive vice president and Ph.D. chemical engineer William Banholzer (who, incidentally,  is on the Shakhashiri Commission):
...But you'll notice that a history of postdocing is not among the characteristics that appear in Banholzer's description. "I don't think I need to hire postdocs," he told PCAST. A Ph.D. earned under an excellent professor is sufficient education, he says, because Dow provides newly hired scientists its own training for the work that they will be doing. "They sort of get their postdoc on the job," he notes. 
A final element of Banholzer's formula for starting an industrial career is studying at an institution that ranks high in your field. "If you want to get a job, you'd better go to the best schools because that's where the best faculty are, that's where the best research is done. It doesn't mean there might not be a world-class, creative, capable person at a lesser school, but I've got to work so much harder to find them." Dow recruits at the roughly two dozen schools at the top of their fields; the particular institutions vary with the disciplines. An outstanding candidate from a lower-ranked school can still apply but faces much longer odds of getting noticed and hired... 
[snip] "The reason I'm in industry is that I want to solve society's problems," Banholzer says. For aspiring scientists desiring to join him in this endeavor, his advice is straightforward. "You've got to figure out how to distinguish yourself from others. That means you'd better go to a prestigious university, you'd better work on some disruptive thesis, you'd better be outstanding at communication."
I respect Dr. Banholzer for being willing to lay out the bare minimum for being hired at Dow to be an entry-level Ph.D. scientist, and not hiding behind code words for the same thing ("unique skills", "critical thinking"). I could probably do a really good job at quibbling with this reliance on glamour and sexxxxxy science true, considered meritocracy, but in general, I believe it is true* that better, longer CVs from respected institutions are correlated with getting hired and having better salaries. If you read more in the article (very much worth it), he also argues for there being a relative surplus of Ph.D. chemists in relation to the industrial jobs to absorb them.

Dr. Banholzer hasn't talked about the other, industrial-sized elephants in the room: that Dow probably doesn't need to hire all that many R&D scientists because they're probably hiring them overseas. And I'll also note that he's in direct conflict (hhhheeeyyy) with his boss Andrew Liveris, who can't stop plumping for more scientists.

[I mean, yeah, we could dog him for all of this, but is he going to change Dow's hiring habits? No. Better to know the reality, talk about it and not hide from it.]

But for describing the unpopular reality that you can't get hired by large corporations without a great-looking CV from a prestigious institution, I announce the Banholzer Award for Truth-Telling about Chemical Employment. I look forward to future nominations.

*Anecdotally true, not statistically proven, I might note.


  1. Fantastic post CJ!

    I'm a recent PhD chemist receiving on the job training at a start up. My brother is the same receiving on the job training at Dow. We both went to good schools and did not do post-docs. My job feels like a post-doc in that I'm learning about an entirely new area of chemistry. The upside of course is the salary and the networking in the start-up world.

    And since you won't nominate yourself for the Truth-Telling award...

  2. what he does not tell is that Dow will also happily hire people into senior position with a PhD from some not-well-known university in Eastern Europe if it is followed by one ore two postdocs (or sometimes even three postdocs) with famous (if somewhat slave-driving) people like Nicolaou, and impressive publication output that includes lots of Angew. Chem and JACS first-name papers.

    There is also the old-boy network route of getting to Dow and it preoably matters how well is your advisor connected, and if he is willing to pick up the phone and call his buddies for you.

    I think Banholzer is speaking for himself or his department, not for the entire Dow company - there are several Dow research sites and i would imagine the preferences will differ based on who does the hiring.

    1. Yeah, I know someone who did a decent PhD at a uni that Banholzer probably wouldn't look at, then crashed and burned in his postdocs, but the postdoc bosses were big names and he just recently got a job at Dow. He doesn't have that many publications either (none in the postdocs), but he looked like he was a hard worker, if not a smart worker, so the advisers probably helped him out. Either that, or the PhD boss is connected.

      Let's just say that I don't think Dow is 'that' exclusive as Banholzer makes it out to be.

    2. I think Banholzer is being pretty straightforward here. I'm currently employed by Dow and the two examples that were just given are definitely the exception rather than the rule. I'd be happy to discuss what goes into getting a job at Dow and where people go after Dow if anyone has any interest. Just need to protect my anonymity just in case there are any other Dow trolls out there.

    3. Anon7:45p, I would like to hear from you. Please e-mail me at chemjobber -at- gmail/dot/com. Confidentiality guaranteed.

  3. Is this the same Banholzer that stuck his foot in it with this howler a few years back? "[Banholzer] didn’t think any new polymers would be discovered, since chemists already had done a thorough job in finding ways to link carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen and sulfur atoms."

    Sorry, I'm not impressed with the guy.

    1. My lab just recently came up with a new method for making polymers, and consequently new types of polymers, and this was published after Banholzer said this. Well, sometimes people say stupid things. Like Lord Kelvin about airplanes. And Lord Kelvin said a lot of wrong things actually. He was still a Lord and head of research; like Banholzer in fact.

      But, I also think that chemjobber's award was a bit 'tongue in cheek'.

    2. A tiny bit tongue in cheek, but also mostly appreciative.

  4. Assume that what Banholzer said is all true. Is it too much to ask that if companies are not getting enough supply of good scientists "easily" from their preferred pre-selected sources that they work a little harder and sift through the other for good employee candidates before they ask Congress to increase the number of visas for STEM?

  5. Had an interesting conversation with a professor from what would be one of these top schools.
    The statement he made that was most interesting "**** University and the faculty have no interest in doing anything that changes the status quo, because **** University and the faculty benefits so much from the status quo". If this is true why would the research at this University be cutting edge, as cutting edge has a chance to change things, the incentive to innovate isn't there.
    To horribly overgeneralize (and yes I realize I am doing it) if you want someone who has been trained to think like all the other top people, then go with the top Universities. If you want someone who might think in a new and innovative way, perhaps you look somewhere else where there is a benefit for doing something new. Of course once someone does something innovative and are highly successful, they usually get snatched up by **** University.
    -note that this was a real conversation with a department head at one of the top Universities in the world.

  6. I went to one of those select Universities from which Dow liked to recruit PhDs. It is typically in the top 5 for inorganic chemistry. The main reason Dow recruited there at all was via the 'good ol' boy' system. A PhD from one of the profs had moved his way up to become a manager at Dow and wanted to recruit from his alma mater but more specifically from his old adviser. Of the people he recruited the majority were from his old advisor and the remainder came from a HUGE name prof that was just passing through on his way to the golden land on the west coast.

    From what I have seen of the recruiting process at Dow, you MUST go through one of these gate keeper recruiters. They give HR the thumbs up on who to pass along to other group managers. Only applying online will get you nothing.

  7. I had an interview with Dow's corporate R&D center, and it was completely because the hiring manager was an alumnus of my grad school, a public university in the Midwest. It was pretty clear he didn't know what I did...or even cared that much.

    In fact, it's my understanding that Dow's Midland location recruits primarily from Midwestern schools. It came out during my interview that retention is a major problem for recruits coming from the outside. (Midland is an acquired taste that some people never acquire.) Even for those who stay, there is a steady stream of those who later decide to work at Dow Corning, which is just across the road.

    While many top schools are located in the Midwest, I'd be surprised if Dow even bothers recruiting from Stanford, Harvard, etc. I detect a great deal of puffery in Banholzer's talk of "top of their fields."

  8. Concrete DovetailApril 2, 2014 at 3:30 PM

    Didn't DOW hire the guy with fraudulent work in his thesis? Retraction was in 2013. I wonder if they kept that guy.