How To Reach C&ENACS Membership Number
Visit SGI


November 24, 2003
Volume 81, Number 47
CENEAR 81 47 pp. 50-51
ISSN 0009-2347


To succeed, students must set themselves apart from the pack, show hard and soft skills


As the fall recruiting season draws to a close, many companies are sifting through hundreds of résumés from chemistry and chemical engineering students who are hoping to begin their careers in industry. Graduate students, freshly minted Ph.D.s, and postdoctoral fellows are all vying for the open positions. But just what are industrial companies looking for, and how can applicants set themselves apart?


EYE OPENING DuPont's Sharon Haynie (left), a research associate, discusses some data with intern Vada Richardson, who is experiencing what it's like to work in industry. DUPONT PHOTO

First, students need to understand the competition. "If you look at the supply of graduate students coming out of universities, it's really a bell-shaped curve," says Ron Webb, manager of doctoral recruiting and university relations at Procter & Gamble. "There are three groups of people: those who are just barely getting out, those who are really strong, and--the largest group--those who are strong," he explains. P&G, like other companies, targets the strong and very strong candidates.

"Most of the students we see are quite well trained," Webb says. "But where the students really start to separate out is in their softer skills," he explains. These include things such as the ability to communicate (orally and in writing), to work well with others, and to be a leader. "Those kinds of soft skills are extremely important to us because in industry we work in teams, and the ability to lead, to collaborate, and to communicate is absolutely critical to success here," he says.

According to Webb, "We find some people are stronger in those skills than others, and we can identify them as such." Those people are then ranked higher on the list of people that P&G is interested in, he says.

Although these soft skills are not part of the formal curriculum, Webb notes that professors should do everything they can to help students develop and refine these skills. Unfortunately, "you still find instances in this day and age where students aren't mentored in those skill areas," he says.

Of particular concern to Webb are the instances where professors allow students to complete their graduate work with little or no record of publishing or presenting their work at an outside meeting. "The lack of a publication record puts the graduate student at a large disadvantage when it comes time to look for a job," he explains. "Publishing provides evidence that they can write well and that their research can pass peer review."

With respect to presenting at scientific meetings, he notes that "professors need to have a reputation strongly in place, but they need to share that experience with the graduate students because giving an oral presentation is a skill that you just don't get by watching on the sidelines." Both written and oral communication are required daily in industry, "so we are looking for evidence that these skills are in place as opposed to hoping that when we test them, we'll find them," he says.

Webb advises students to be aware of a professor's track record in mentoring students before signing on with him or her. If it is a professor's style historically not to mentor his or her students in these soft skills, "it should come as no surprise to the student four years later that that's what they've gotten into," he says.

ASIDE FROM CHOOSING research advisers wisely and working on enhancing their soft skills, students should also work on developing some business skills, says Jill R. Unruh, director of global staffing at DuPont. "Companies are moving toward making sure that their research and development dollars are being focused toward end results for business," she explains. "The more understanding applicants have about how their research and skills are going to affect the direction of the business," the better, she says.


INDUSTRIAL RESEARCH Pamela Sharpe (right), a molecular geneticist at DuPont, and her associate Melissa Bosak perform studies with a bacterium that consumes methane. DUPONT PHOTO

This doesn't mean graduate students have to have business course work on their transcripts, Unruh says, it just means that "we look for people who are more interested in the business side of what they are doing as opposed to just the scientific side." Besides, she says, "you are going to get some of that training on the job."

Applicants can also give themselves a leg up by doing an internship during their educational training--as is common in chemical engineering, but rare in chemistry. Both Webb and Unruh agree that more students should take advantage of this research opportunity.

"I always encourage people to find internships and utilize them as a way to learn where you might want to have your career," Unruh says. She notes that within DuPont, as within most companies, there are many different types of career options and by broadening one's understanding of these options, students will be able to develop a skill set for their area of interest.

Webb agrees. Students should be proactive in learning as much about industry as they can while they are in school, and internships are a great way to do that, he says. He also advises students to get a job in industry if they are unclear about what they want to do once they get their bachelor's degree. "I would strongly encourage people to consider working in industry for a couple of years to sort out their thinking, because they can make some good money with their bachelor's degree doing original research, working with Ph.D. scientists, and seeing the industrial work from our vantage point." They can then go on to graduate school if they choose.

Universities do their part for students pursuing a graduate degree by offering programs and resources to help prepare students for the rigors of industry. One of the most popular ways that chemistry departments help their students is by holding a workshop led by American Chemical Society representatives. The widely presented workshop, "Managing an Effective Job Search," is run by the ACS Department of Career Services and covers résumé preparation, interviewing techniques, and ways to target the job market.

The chemistry department at Massachusetts Institute of Technology hosts a similar workshop called "Strategies for a Successful Job Search." "This is a two-day program sponsored by Colgate-Palmolive, ACS, and the MIT chemistry department, and is open to graduate students and postdocs," says Susan Brighton, graduate administrator at MIT. This workshop is open to both chemistry and chemical engineering students and helps prepare them for their job search.

To help students refine their presentation skills, the chemistry department at Columbia University holds an annual workshop sponsored by an industrial affiliate. At the workshop, students give a brief talk about their research and chemists from the sponsoring firm present their work, according to Lani C. Muller, program coordinator for external affairs at Columbia. This workshop "gives the company an advance peek at our graduate students and gives the students an idea of what that industry is doing," she says.

Likewise, the chemistry department at Texas A&M University hosts a similar event. "The Industrial-University Cooperative Chemistry Program Symposium is a student research symposium directed toward industrial employers that is conducted each year to spotlight graduating students," says Joy Monroe senior office associate at Texas A&M.

ANOTHER IMPORTANT activity of the individual departments is to organize on-site recruitment visits from companies looking to hire chemical professionals. "Representatives from industry schedule interviewing dates through me, and I inform students of their intended visits," says Mary Kay Zimmerman, graduate admissions and career services coordinator for the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Like Zimmerman, representatives from other graduate departments tell C&EN that they are responsible for coordinating all of the details. "The rate of success varies from year to year, depending upon the economy and whether the students 'fit' the types of positions open," she says.

These on-site interviews are very important because they provide students with a great opportunity to sell themselves, industrial recruiters point out. "We have dedicated recruiters who interview on a regular basis and evaluate the students on-site; then the recruiters come back and are advocates for the student," P&G's Webb says. "Roughly half of the chemists that we hire come from campus interviews."

To further help get their students' résumés out to interested companies, some chemistry departments put together a collection of résumés from their students and postdocs for distribution. For example, Texas A&M's chemistry department publishes an annual résumé book. "This year marks the 18th year of the publication of this book, which is mailed to over 500 companies," Monroe says.

The chemistry department at the University of California, Berkeley, also makes a collection of résumés available via the World Wide Web. "We have a website--run by a private company called After College--that people can enter their résumés into," says Joel Nice, manager of the chemistry department at UC Berkeley. "For a small fee, companies can post jobs on the website and they can browse the résumés."

Some departments also offer students courses that are geared toward preparing them for industry. For example, the chemistry department at MIT offers Chemistry in Industry. "This class is a series of seminars given during the course of the semester by scientists from industrial research laboratories," Brighton says. She notes that while the class is for first-year graduate students, the seminars, which deal with recent advances in various areas of industrial research, are open to everyone in the department.

Student groups also organize and support activities such as seminars that help prepare their peers for life beyond graduate schools. The Columbia Chemistry Careers Committee (C4) is one such student-run group.

C4 is "dedicated to taking an active role in increasing interesting career choices for Ph.D.s and preparing scientists to make informed career decisions," says Sonja Krane, a graduate student at Columbia and a member of the C4 executive committee. Through the group's Career Seminar Series, several industrial speakers have visited the department. C4 has also organized several field trips to industrial research sites, including one to Pfizer Global Research in Groton, Conn., last spring to help students get a hands-on feel for what industrial research is like.

As students work to develop all the right skills, UC Berkeley's Nice has some advice for them to help them set themselves apart from the pack. He advises students to "pick something that they are really passionate about, because if they can meld passion with market, then the sky is the limit."

With the slow economy persisting yet another year, unemployment for chemical scientists is high and demand is soft. New graduates can expect a long job search and fewer offers, but some companies are hiring.

Unemployment among American Chemical Society members in the domestic workforce is 3.5%. This is a record high since the society started measuring the employment status of its members annually more than 30 years ago. Salaries continue to make steady gains.

Becoming a high school chemistry teacher is a great choice for a chemist with an advanced degree, and a few are taking that option, sometimes as a second career. These workers can help fill a need for qualified science teachers that is expected to skyrocket with impending retirements.

Graduate students, freshly minted Ph.D.s, and postdoctoral fellows are all vying for the few open positions in industry. Find out what industrial employers are looking for and how applicants can get noticed.

A guide to sources of job and career information designed for those in chemical and related sciences who are seeking industrial, academic, or government positions or looking to change careers. Online resources for scientists are highlighted, as are American Chemical Society career services.


Chemical & Engineering News
Copyright © 2003 American Chemical Society

Visit Eastman
Related Stories

[C&EN, August 4, 2003]

[C&EN, June 23, 2003]

[C&EN, April 7, 2003]

[C&EN, November 25, 2002]

Career & Employment
[C&EN Archive]

Related Sites
E-mail this article to a friend
Print this article
E-mail the editor

Home | Table of Contents | Today's Headlines | Business | Government & Policy | Science & Technology |
About C&EN | How To Reach Us | How to Advertise | Editorial Calendar | Email Webmaster

Chemical & Engineering News
Copyright © 2003 American Chemical Society. All rights reserved.
• (202) 872-4600 • (800) 227-5558

CASChemPortChemCenterPubs Page