Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Mile wide, inch deep?: do you need to be a 'well-rounded' expert?

Is it a inch or a mile deep?
Photo credit: icanhazcheezburger
 Anon1220101032a asks a very good question:
"I used to hear that professional organic chemists, especially in industry, preferred to hire candidates who were "an inch wide and a mile deep". Nowadays a disproportionate amount of public funding seems to be allocated to multi-disciplinary research, e.g., organic projects often NEED to have a discrete biological component (usually assays done by collaborators). My guess is that recent organic PhD graduates may, by neccessity, have acquired "diverse" (disjointed? disparate?)research skills during their graduate studies. Is it so bad to be "a mile wide and an inch deep"?
Ideally, one would know everything about everything and be able to do anything, however I would be the first to admit my limitiations. In my conversations with late-stage grad students and postdocs at recent ACS conferences, I've often heard complaints from them that industrial recruiters were focused on hiring those with demonstrated expertise in restricted skill sets (i.e., synthetic jock). What should an eager-to-learn yet jack-of-all-trades new PhD do to gain employment in the chemical (fine & pharmaceutical) industry while competing against hordes of temps who already have the specialized skill sets and experience?"
I find it very difficult to answer these sorts of questions, because who knows what an employer wants? But I have a guess -- I believe that when employers hire Ph.D.-level chemists, they wish to see 1) mastery of a chosen field and 2) the ability to solve all incoming problems and complete projects.

What does this mean from a practical perspective? In your graduate and/or postdoctoral work, you do work that shows a synthetic chemist that "Hey, (s)he's just as good as (or, better than) me" first; then, you show them that you've shown that you can do lots of other stuff.

To answer the final question about competing with more experienced chemists, I believe that you can't. You can only hope to show them that you'll be cheaper, (maybe) work harder and try to have a steep learning curve.

Readers, do I have the priorities right? Do you need to be an expert or well-rounded? I'm pretty sure I could be wrong on this one.


  1. I am in a company which is heavily multi-disciplinary. As you progress in the company you must become a mile deep in a topic which is applicable to understanding how products can work or improve.

    The ability to be an expert is not limited to stuff you can learn in grad school. In my experience, I think this is true everywhere, even in pharma settings. In pharma a major part of the job is understanding medicinal chemistry and SAR. There is no way you are going to learn this as deeply as the job requires anywhere outside of doing it and being around many experts that are willing to teach you. There are lots of people that can do synthetic chemistry, it is a tool to use on the job. Good understanding of synthetic chemistry will give you the intution that you need to learn the rest. In my perspective, companies are looking for someone who can learn and solve problems.

  2. Smart, hard working people who can learn and solve problems are a dime a dozen these days. You must be that AND be an expert in the skills in the job description to be competitive for an entry level job these days. Be an expert for your initial position but demonstrate some (not at the cost of expertise) breadth for potential growth.

  3. A) What does a hiring manager want? Heaven only knows. I've seen smart, dumb and political hirings because the manager was that. In my mind, a Ph.D. represents "the ability to solve all incoming problems and complete projects," but I think that is a minority opinion. We also see this in our clients. Some have beening looking for the perfect specialist - someone who's work on heat-sealing of PE cpolymer films in a medical device application - while others are perfectly fine knowing that I have 20 years of broad-based experiences in polymers. (Needless to say, the first client did not choose to work with us.)

    B) You can compete with experienced scientists, but only the lazy ones who sit on their laurels, which is way too many of them. But keep in mind, you can only beat them in the lab. They are way too good at the political game to lose, which is why they still have jobs.

    C) My vote is for 3/4 miles wide with some very good, strategically placed, deep fishing holes.

    Oh, and D) Regarding the first Anonymous's comments: It is very true that you cannot learn everything you need in school, and you wouldn't want to. I can't imagine a prof teaching about QSR, GMP, 510k submissions or anything else that they only have a theoretical understanding of and no practical experience. You can read all about it, but the first time an FDA auditor starts asking you questions, you'll find out what you really need to know.

  4. @Chemjobber: The photo for this post reminds me of the old "Oregon Trail" computer games. I always had bad luck with either fording or floating the wagon down the Columbia River in the last stage. Unfortunately, I don't think there's an easy "toll road" to deliver weary grad students and postdocs to the promised land of steady employment.

    Anyway, from my limited industrial experience, I would advise all job seekers in this economic climate to examine the position requirements carefully. Overall it is not a good strategy to apply for everything and anything out of desperation. If you don't have experience in formulations or antibody purification, then don't apply for a development job. Long gone are the days of companies willing to invest the time and money to train new graduates, especially when so many trained workers are available at a cheap rate from the temp agency/CRO pimps.

  5. Don't know if you ever heard of this guy CJ, but he might be a good one to interview:

    "Great American Dream in Limbo: Ph.D. Scientist Seeks Plan B After Job Layoff Stalls Career" -Gary A. Cain, unemployed PhD Organic Chemist now humor writer

    Read more: http://authspot.com/biographies/great-american-dream-in-limbo-phd-scientist-seeks-plan-b-after-job-layoff-stalls-career/#ixzz18nkBBlz0

  6. my girlfriend says that to be broad is more important than to be deep - but maybe she is just being polite.

    Merry Christmas to ya all

  7. I am a biochemist and a postdoc in academia--read, I have no personal experience in this arena... but that won't stop me from putting in my 2 cents ;)

    I recall a seminar from a senior VP of research at Merck a few years ago. He'd started out as a synthetic chemist there some 20 or 30 yrs prior (which I know is almost unheard of these days). I was struck that at the end of his talk, before taking questions, he advised students in the audience that you can't just be a synthetic chemist in pharma; you have to understand the biology and be able to communicate with the people who are testing your compounds.

    This seems to be pretty sound advice from any aspect of interdisciplinary research. You have to be an expert in something... but then you have to be able to have meaningful interactions with people in distinct areas. I knew a brilliant synthetic chemist who decide he needed broader experience to be considered for pharma positions. But to him, this meant doing an assay once or twice without really understanding the whole process. The people who are truly successful in interdisciplinary research can pick up a new area and use their understanding of their own area of expertise to make a contribution. Interdisciplinary research isn't about being a master of all trades; rather it's about being able to have meaningful interactions with people in disparate fields.

  8. I've done lots of organic synthetic crap and gone deeply in my own field. The only thing I know for sure is that if I don't get a job after this postdoc, I'm packing it in to become a comedian with a large repertoire of "that's what she said!" jokes. Hopefully I won't have to compete with milkshake.

  9. I think a valid question is, will the "interdisciplinary" training you get in academia be the same "interdisciplinary" knowledge you will need in industry? Almost certainly not., My sense is that pharma companies use organic chemistry knowledge/experience as a filter, figuring that if their candidates can do this stuff well, they can be taught smart enough to be taught what they need to know in other fields. Or in other words, what John said.


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20