Tuesday, March 31, 2015

A comment from a hiring manager at a large chemical company

From the inbox, an explanation of the process for hiring entry-level Ph.D.s for very large chemical companies:
Most large chemical companies use a system of applicant selection that involves:
  1. Preselection of candidates for on-campus interviews, 
  2. Formal on-campus interviews (~ Aug-Oct)
  3. On-site interviews (Sept-Dec)
  4. Offers of employment. 
My company sends a small team of R&D personnel to selected universities for 1-2 days to conduct interviews. Prior to arriving on campus, the assigned recruiters review all of the application packages from interested grad students and post-docs. The packages usually consist of a cover letter, CV or resume, and a short research summary (~1 page). 
During each interview, meticulous notes are taken and later transcribed and uploaded to a central recruiting database that is accessible to recruiting focal points throughout the divisions and business units of the company. Based on the campus recruiters' notes and rankings, the recruiting focal points embedded throughout the company can select candidates for on-site interviews at any of several R&D sites. 
A candidate's primary goal should be to make sure that they are pre-selected for an on-campus interview. Without being selected for an on-campus interview, the odds of getting an on-site interview or securing employment are slim. As such, it is in the candidate's best interest to provide a CV or resume that will draw the attention of the on-campus screening team and convince them to grant you one of a handful of interview slots.

There are two important implications of this recruiting methodology: 
  1. Beyond the initial evaluation, the on-campus interviewer may have very little influence over any future decisions to invite a candidate for an on-site interview or make an offer of employment. As such, a good on-campus interview can go a long way towards landing an on-site visit, but there are still plenty of opportunities for an application to get bogged down or lost in the crowd.
  2. With some very notable exceptions, many integrated science and technology companies have instituted a policy of looking for the best scientific talent, regardless of the specific sub-field of techncial training. This policy is often referred to as "non-slot hiring" and can make for interesting bedfellows in the various R&D organizations. For example, a polymer-centric R&D group may have a handful of scientists with PhDs in polymer science working alongside former inorganic or total synthesis chemists. The idea is that good scientists will be good wherever they land, as long as they have the motivation and willingness to take on new challenges. In principle, this policy is designed to produce a technically diverse work force capable of moving freely among different business units focusing on different technologies. This provides many young scientists with great opportunities to start fresh and broaden their horizons, but can also be frustrating for the folks determined to work in a single area of research for their entire careers.
I thank my anonymous reader and correspondent for their insights. 

18 comments:

  1. "The idea is that good scientists will be good wherever they land, as long as they have the motivation and willingness to take on new challenges."

    Of course, not having specialized people also means that no one ever *really* knows what they're doing, so projects tend to bumble along with problems an expert could have seen a mile away. But since there are no experts around, the opportunity costs of forever marching up the learning curve are never known.

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    1. "...and can make for interesting bedfellows in the various R&D organizations. For example, a polymer-centric R&D group may have a handful of scientists with PhDs in polymer science working alongside former inorganic or total synthesis chemists."

      Yep, "no experts", just flailin' around in the dark, sounds like.

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    2. @bad wolf
      Exactly correct. To top it off, some large companies also hire type "A" exclusively.

      So if you are one of the rare ones who is actually working in your field AND competent you will likely be passed over for promotion even though many people rely on you to do the actual work/thinking required to run a successful business. Instead expect to see promotions stem from whomever is making the most noise about their ridiculous "science" results OR, even worse, their gluttony of QA/safety/simplification rules implemented. If you complain about contributing above others' levels they might tell you are lucky to work in your field, or worse, whip you off your project and put you on something else for "broadening."

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    3. @bad wolf
      "...and can make for interesting bedfellows in the various R&D organizations. For example, a polymer-centric R&D group may have a handful of scientists with PhDs in polymer science working alongside former inorganic or total synthesis chemists."

      Huh. Is there a word for distorting the meaning of a quote using emphasis?

      Anyway, why not hire physicists? Or sociologists? Or geologists? Reducto ad absurdum, I know, but the point is that scientists are not just interchangeable parts. That's an HR perspective that has apparently been adopted by scientists who should know better:

      "...good scientists will be good wherever they land..."

      There's a kernel of truth to be sure, but it's generally false or "good scientists" (whatever that means) would be jumping between unrelated industries all the time...and we wouldn't see "pharma chemists need not apply" in polymer job postings.

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  2. "With some very notable exceptions, many integrated science and technology companies have instituted a policy of looking for the best scientific talent, regardless of the specific sub-field of techncial training."

    So they want the top X%, where X is probably less than 10. The top Y%, where Y is less than 1, will fight to get into academia. This leaves a very large Z% to do what exactly? And this is just at the universities fortunate enough to be graced with the recruitment opportunity. So what makes for a "selected" university? Typically alumni, department ranking, and geography from my experience.

    There's always the black hole lotto of applying online. Maybe the company even setup the system correctly, and you'll actually get that automated rejection 6 months down the road.

    Don't hate the players, hate the game, right?

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    1. I'd say hate the NSF, DoE, NIH and other government funding agencies. They're the one's who allow and encourage massive, 30-50 grad student academic labs and the production of large numbers of PhDs, with no quality control and no connection to the demand for said PhDs (even great scientists) in the job market.

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    2. Some players are at fault... Like the glut of med-school flunk outs that don't particularly like chemistry but take chemistry jobs as a way to pay off their student loans.

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  3. Having just been through this process, I've been thinking about it a lot. I saw the process work quite well (at least for me) and also quite badly, particularly in this respect: "...there are still plenty of opportunities for an application to get bogged down or lost in the crowd." The communication between the on-campus people and the people who hire in individual divisions (mediated by the massive computer system in between) seems quite poor.

    The hiring manager didn't discuss what I thought was a very important part of the process: the site interview. This seems to consist mostly of a 1 hour presentation about your science to other scientists, followed by many mini one-on-one interviews that last all day. I think this part of the process is key.

    Regarding this aspect: "The idea is that good scientists will be good wherever they land, as long as they have the motivation and willingness to take on new challenges," I'd say my experience bears out that this really is the thought process, at least in some places. I was offered two opportunities which had nothing whatsoever to do with my graduate expertise. I guess I'll see how it goes...

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    1. I think the other commenters are being a bit harsh about this last aspect: "The idea is that good scientists will be good wherever they land, as long as they have the motivation and willingness to take on new challenges,"

      I think it's a good attitude since everyone wasn't an expert when they started grad school anyways and it really doesn't take an eternity to get caught up in a new field if you're reading articles and doing the chemistry for a year. I got caught up in Materials Science and published a paper after only eight months of work... Just be willing to read a lot of literature in your free time in the first little bit and maybe write some emails to people back from grad school. Good luck at the new job.

      Other points are 1) that there will always be experts in a field along with those from other areas, so it's not like they'll be flailing around in the dark as bad wolf says. I imagine the teams will be balanced. With regards to gripe 2) "And this is just at the universities fortunate enough to be graced with the recruitment opportunity. So what makes for a "selected" university? Typically alumni, department ranking, and geography from my experience." Well, it's a private company so they can do whatever they want, and if they feel like hiring only top chemists from every field, rather than focusing on a narrow field, there is not much that can be done unless you can prove that it's bad for their bottom line. Technically, you'd think that someone who got a PhD is already the top 5%, but from my grad school experience at a top 50 place where no company came recruiting, ever... I do think some people just got their PhDs by sitting around long enough and maybe those companies were on to something. Though, we had enough really top notch grads too.

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    2. "...from my grad school experience at a top 50 place where no company came recruiting, ever... I do think some people just got their PhDs by sitting around long enough..."

      From a top 10 where companies do come to recruit. True there as well. It is logistically easier to give a grad student a PhD and send them on their way than it is to make them leave if they don't want to. There are plenty of top notch people as well, just a lot more of the sitting around type than you might expect.

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  4. I used to work for the old Rohm & Haas, and we had very few academically-trained polymer chemists. Almost all of the PhD's I knew had inorganic, physical, or organic backgrounds. Prior experience in emulsion polymerization, which was R&H's biggest strength, was nearly nonexistent. While there was truth to the idea that a good scientist can learn anything, I think there was also a good deal of hubris - "We're the experts, and no one else knows what they're doing" seemed to be the mentality.

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    1. Obviously, that's not ideal. I was thinking more along the lines of 60 (or 70)% experts in the field and the rest good scientists from outside the field. To me that would be ideal. You hire mostly experts in the area, but are flexible enough to take really good people from the outside when the opportunity comes. But then again, I was never a CEO of a large R&D operation.

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    2. I think we're all neglecting a temporal component to this. How long does it take for a non-expert, good scientist to become an expert in whatever you are doing? You could start a group with 60-70% experts and then hire no one except non-expert good scientists. As long as you're pacing yourself, those non-experts will become experts in a couple of years, thus maintaining your ratio. I assume Rohm and Haas was as successful in its "biggest strength" area as it was because the non-experts it hired became experts.

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    3. @Mike
      You have a point, but you're ignoring the point someone else made above: Marching up the learning curve is hard, expensive, and time-consuming. Unless there's a damned good mentoring/tutoring program in place, your non-expert recruits are going to be a huge drain as they get up to speed.

      That is, unless you hire Uncle Sam who became a materials science expert in a mere 8 months. {eye roll}

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    4. I didn't say I became an expert. I just did enough reading and work to publish an article in Materials Science after 8 months. I made a functional surface and it worked. I guess I got lucky, but I got to play around with weird shit like potentiostats and XPS (well, someone did that for me, but I talked to them about how it works and what I was seeing). Also got some nice STM images. All this stuff was completely foreign to me, but I think if you have the right attitude and dive into it, and are not asshole enough so that you ask people for help all the time, when you don't know what you're doing, you can go a long way.

      Again, I guess I got lucky in that my project worked (at least for publications purposes). I wouldn't call well-versed in teh area an expert unless I worked in a company in the field for five years. You can keep rolling your eyes... but I'm the one who has a first author pubz in Materialz in the Commoner Society of Chemistry.

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    5. "I got caught up in Materials Science and published a paper after only eight months of work..." - said Uncle Sam

      As someone who's studied materials science for, oh, 20 years now, I found your statement to be dripping with hubris. I rolled my eyes because it's rare that I encounter so many simultaneous levels of naivety and arrogance.

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  6. A lot of comments focused on just one type of scientist. A medium to large R&D institution is most productive with a mix of subject matter experts, generalists, and evangelists. The ratio is often up for active and contentious debate even though these groups fill different and mostly non-conflicting roles.

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