Thursday, November 14, 2013

A good, different perspective on sales and marketing jobs

Philip Skinner is a friend of the blog, a former medicinal chemist and a current marketing director at Perkin Elmer Informatics. He e-mailed me a very interesting set of critiques (after a discussion on Twitter) about a comment I made on Monday:
Yes, there is inappropriate boostering of the need for more STEM education that isn't supported by the job market. You only need to look at stagnant salaries to prove that. You will never get me disagreeing with that (at least until it miraculously isn't true) 
However, there is a hierarchy of thought as to what is an appropriate STEM career. A few years back, we all pushed against the idea that a STEM education was for becoming a STEM academic researcher only (if you can't, then go into industry). We now are (mostly) over that and see industry roles as another valid decision for a STEM graduate. 
My issue was with the following (sarcastic) statement "Because after spending 2 years in the lab, there's nothing a B.S. chemist or a biologist wants to do more than marketing or medical-device sales". I would respond "why not?". Some of them actually do, and we should actually be happy that a STEM education sets you up for more careers than a pure research role. I don't see a difference between the prejudice in that statement and these variations...\ 
"Because after spending 2 years in the lab, there's nothing a B.S. chemist or a biologist wants to do more than scientific journalism" 
"Because after spending 2 years in the lab, there's nothing a B.S. chemist or a biologist wants to do more than become a science educator" 
"Because after spending X years in the lab, there's nothing a graduate chemist or a biologist wants to do more than work in industry" 
"Because after spending X years in the lab, there's nothing a graduate chemist or a biologist wants to do more than become editor of a scientific journal" (tell that to Stu Cantrill) 
My point is that if you need a STEM education to do the job, it is a STEM job. I doesn't have to be a research job to be a STEM job. A STEM education isn't a vocational training. We are just exposing the next layer of prejudice here. 
Some people want to be researchers, some don't and actually want something different where they are still needed for their STEM education. But don't assume that everyone wants to be a researcher, and if they don't it is because they couldn't. Just as we thankfully now don't assume that everyone wants to be an academic. 
I think the common assumption here is that you don't need a STEM education to do STEM sales or marketing - that anyone can do them. I wouldn't include a retail store manager as a STEM career, although I think a STEM education would certainly benefit you in that role. But you do need a STEM education for (some) sales and marketing positions, which is why I see it as prejudice and am pushing back. Everyone in my team, myself, and my boss, has a lab/science education or background - many have advanced degrees. I am unusual in not really having chosen this as a career path, many did. I don't hire people with marketing or MBA degrees into my marketing team - unless they have it as an extra. I hire people with science degrees.
Philip says much the same things in the comments here.

He is right in that I was probably being sarcastic and dismissive of Carnevale's comments on bachelor's science graduates going into marketing or sales positions. I think a lot of this stems (pardon the pun) from my biases against Carnevale and the work of the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce. For me, hearing these statements from Philip has moral force that Carnevale's statements simply don't. Carnevale has not been there, Philip has.

Philip's assertion about the important of a science education for science sales and marketing is something that I think I had not fully absorbed until his statement. Where he and I may digress is on the fate of (specifically) B.S. chemists/biologists who enter into the sales force. Perhaps this speaks to my views of either the bachelor's science degree or the entry-level positions that they're put into, but I have a mental image of 23-year-old kids with a list of cold calls to make. That's probably too narrow a vision of what they're asked to do, to be honest.

By contrast, I've interacted enough with Philip and his team to recognize that they do get to use their chemistry backgrounds and be innovative. I think this is something that I need to do more thinking and reading about. Food for thought for me, and for other readers of this blog. Thanks, Philip. 


  1. All STEM and no STEM makes STEM a STEM STEM.

    The word STEM is pushing science and technology back into the realm of mysticism. Say the magic word!

    After spending X years in the lab a chemist just wants to eek out a humble middle class existence, but all we hear is "let them eat STEM".

  2. I agree with Mr. Skinner. Technical sales or marketing shouldn't be considered inferior career choices. However, alternative careers in science only exist because there are still many, many more people doing the traditional jobs. There are certainly inter-dependencies, but the chlorophyll of the scientific ecosystem is with the researchers. Without them, the whole thing collapses.

    Also...the vast majority of "STEM jobs" don't actually require a STEM education. Software and IT jobs, which are the bulk of "STEM," generally do not require ABET-certified degrees or certifications.

  3. I think if you spend years in grad school, your statements about not wanting a marketing position ring true, but not necessarily for BS graduates. Many of them just want to get out, get a job, and advance their careers as fast as possible. One example:

    I work for a large chemical company. One of our ex-technicians has a biology degree and worked in the lab for 5 years, becoming very good at her job. However, many technicians have a certain....celing that they can reach without having many, many years of experience or an advanced degree. This technician decided to take a marketing job and is now an account manager for half of the US in our business unit. Her technical background makes her very good at this job, and as far as I know she's happy and will have a much better chance to advance her career from the marketing side of things than the technical side. Most marketing/business people that I know have a technical degree and see it as something of value for others who they might be considering for marketing roles.

  4. The esteemed Lisa Balbes writes in:

    "I agree with the original comment - there are many things that STEM-educated people can do outside the lab, and some of them will be much happier there than in the lab. IMHO, the two factors we need to deal with are:

    1. Students have no idea of what careers are out there, and even less idea of what education/experience they need to get into the career that is right for them. Most of the non-traditional people I talk to just "fell into" their career over time, as a natural consequence of drifting towards things they were better at and enjoyed more.

    2. Our current educational system, especially grad schools, are set up to turn out university professors. How many chem grad students even think to take a business class, for example? And most of their professors have only ever been in academia, so can't offer practical advice.

    The good news is that in the 10+ years I have been dealing with this issue, things have gotten infinitely better (when you start from 0, that's easy to do :-) ), but we still have a long way to go.

    Just because someone chooses to leave the lab, that doesn't mean they are no longer a chemist."

    1. I agree with the points Lisa has made. An education in chemistry (or biology, or physics, or STEM, or science in general, take your pick) teaches you skills that many employers value: 1) the ability to define a problem, 2) the ability to pose methods to solve this problem, 3) logical thinking, 4) working as a team (science is, after all, collectively a team sport). We need to work to publicize this more with potential employers and to highlight with potential employees that there are fulfilling career pathways outside of academics or working hands-on in a laboratory. You are not a "fallen chemist" if you apply your analytical and critical thinking skills to careers other than those I just mentioned.

    2. Dr. Balazs:

      I believe the topic is using scientific training for jobs besides the traditional ones. Most here would agree that a background in science can be an asset in jobs away from the bench. Certainly, these jobs are nothing to look down on.

      I have to object, however, to your assertion that the value of scientific training is in obtaining vague soft skills..."problem solving," "logical thinking," "teamwork." These can be learned anywhere even without knowledge of atomic theory. I learned far more about teamwork playing football than I ever learned in a lab. I also learned more about logical thinking from my philosophy professors than from my chemistry professors. And the adequacy of "problem solving skills" depends highly on the type of problem at hand. (Try using the scienfitic method on a personnel issue and see how far that goes!)

      I sure wouldn't be sold on hiring a chemist if all he could offer was "logical thinking." Perhaps ACS needs some chemists-turned-marketers to better determine the value proposition of ACS members. I'm sorry if I come off as harsh, but there are deep-rooted, systematic problems affecting the profession today. I sincerely believe that talk about "soft skills" isn't going to help anybody land a job.

    3. I deeply agree with Anon11:15a. The problem facing chemistry is this: Why should any student pick *chemistry* as a place to learn those soft skills, as opposed to any other scientific/technical field?

    4. Bryan makes excellent points about the core skills regarding problem solving approach that are, or should be, part of STEM skills that are widely valuable. Although I am less certain how broadly applicable #4 "working in team" might be for most science education environments? While might work with lab partners or collectively in a group under supervision of a PI and occasionally in collaborations with other labs from my experience in chemistry the focus is frequently more on individualized researcher activities, particularly PhDs, therefore can be immature development for being part of a team. For new industrial med-or process chemists one of the first lessens often is how to effectively work together with other chemists plus other disciplines for a common goal. I have seen other STEM schooling, especially Engineering, tended to promote more group/team projects that was atypically for chemists.

    5. In reply to new comments just added I would disagree that problem solving is a "soft skill" based on comparison to wider public and can be definite part of getting a job (where needs are for solving problems). I think such is not exclusive to chemistry since they can be learned in STEM areas and can not really say why any student might pick chemistry verses other areas since there is definite dichotomy between the perceived value and need for STEM people against rewards systems and career stability in STEM.

    6. Anonymous 11:42 AM,

      "STEM problem solving" is definitely not a soft skill. Scientists know how to solve scientific problems; engineers can solve engineering problems. It's why we have them. However, "problem solving" when learned in the context of science and then applied to non-scientific problems most certainly IS a soft skill.

      Look at it this way: Does the science you know help with crossword puzzles? Playing chess? Wedding planning? Finding lost campers? Locating potential car buyers? Woodworking? Finding legal loopholes?

      It's ridiculous to think that being able to solve problems involving molecules, forces, or thermodynamics provides any advantage in solving other problems. Only the most general strategies translate, and those strategies can be obtained from many avenues besides an education in science or engineering. [sarcasm]You'd be surprised to learn that a good portion of the "general public" is actually quite good at problem solving...despite their lack of a STEM degree.

    7. Lisa writes in again:

      There are two issues being mixed in this discussion.

      1. For people who have graduated from college with a chemistry major, are there jobs for them on or off the bench? I argue yes, they know about some of them, but not nearly all of them, and certainly can be made to feel like failures if they leave "pure research" and academia.

      2. For students thinking about college, and contemplating a major, is chemistry the best major if you want a job in, say, human resources? I would argue probably not. But see previous point - how many college students really know what they want to do when they graduate, let alone for the rest of their lives?

      Should we encourage students to study what they love, then see what they can do with it?
      Or should we tell them to figure out what career they want, then study what will make that happen?

      Doing both would be ideal, but is probably impractical. And what if they change their mind a few years down the road? Learning how to learn, and how to value your transferable skills and knowledge, is probably more valuable than any specific experience you can get.

  5. For decades a lot people have aspired to pre-med educations but can't get past organic chemistry so they take their pre-med degree and do something else in the end. I am sure that is true of English literature majors, history majors and music majors as well. The one big difference between all of the standard college majors and STEM majors is the hysterical cry in the land we must produce more STEM majors to save Society and our economy. NO ONE says that about art majors or journalism majors or..... STEM majors are magical people only in the minds of non STEM majors and people looking for simplistic solutions to our competitive problems in a global economy. People who build businesses whether or not they have a STEM degree are the most important drivers of the country's future economic health.

    Students should major in fields they truly enjoy and in which they have an aptitude independent of their job prospects in their majors. Students certainly should not major in a STEM degree because they think their future jobs and riches are assured. They are not. Plus if everyone has a STEM degree, they will be no more valued than a high school diploma was in my generation.

    However at >$100K in costs, everyone seems to want to believe the fantasy that a STEM or any type college education is a ticket to the good life not some low level entry job in sales or in a government bureaucracy. Students will be much happier if they follow their dreams even if in the end they can only land a job in the Social Security Administration listening to Baby Boomer whine about their lives.

  6. Good to see someone (anyone) being open to changing his / her opinion after hearing out arguments contrary to their original position.

    So unlike much of the internet.

  7. Very good points and fair to make a separate post.
    As a chemist in a small company I know how frustrating it is to explain to non-STEM finance/sales/marketing why this is a good product. Good technical sales people tend to make your life as a (bench) chemist much easier: better input en better marketing.

  8. What is a "STEM major?" As often repeated here, STEM is really T. Technology jobs (software and IT) numerically dominate the STEM workforce, and growth in those fields means that they will for a long time to come. The majority of these workers do not have B.S. degrees in computer science or computer engineering. Sometimes they have certification obtained through training. Usually they just have demonstrated hands-on experience. Based on who actually does the STEM work, there is no such thing as a STEM major!

    The STEM categorization has unfortunately shaped how we think about our own profession. When we hear "STEM," we all think they're talking about us and what we do. Numerically speaking, they're not. When industry groups roll out statistics about STEM, they're actually talking about software and IT. When they apply these numbers to scientists, it's to justify, to mislead, and to exaggerate. They usually have a vested interest in confusing the issue.

    The term "STEM" is beyond useless because it actually encourages sloppy thinking. It propagates the confusion created by improper categorization. I suggest we all stop using "STEM" here and elsewhere.

  9. Your gettin' soft. This is the classic line. Move the goalposts. The argument has changed as the numbers have increased, but the goal remains the same: Keep 'em coming.

  10. I feel these jobs are viable options for employment of a chemist, however where does one find them? I have rarely seen (if ever) the so called nontraditional routes while searching for chemistry positions. My search has been limited, am I just missing them?