CD-ROM Review: Scientists in Business

Normally, I wouldn't review something that is 5 years old, but I've only just come across "Scientists in Business," and it is fab! This CD-ROM aims to give undergraduate and postgraduate students from all branches of science an insight into science-based industry. And I think it succeeds. With bells on.

I have to confess that I was rather sceptical as I loaded up my e-drive. Despite working for a Web site, I'm not totally convinced that, when it comes to imparting information, print material doesn't win hands down most of the time. After all, you can carry a book or printout with you. The promise of over 300 sound clips of interviews with industry scientists left me cold. Why not simply transcribe them into a booklet?

But, as it turned out, the sound bites are strangely compelling, which is just as well because they are used to convey the vast majority of the information; on-screen written material is kept to a minimum. In the tutorials, each clip is accompanied by a brief written synopsis, but I'd recommend that you risk annoying any office mates and crank up the volume on your PC to get the full effect. You must have had the experience of reading to the end of a page and realising that you've not taken in a single word. Somehow, hearing people tell it like it is, listening to real voices, is genuinely engaging and I found my attention was much less inclined to wander. Virtually no clip is longer than 2 minutes (and most are considerably shorter). So, if you are interrupted, it's no great trauma to return to the start.

The programme is divided into three modules. The first, What Companies Do, covers the philosophy of business, the role of scientists within companies, and career paths. How Companies Work includes a rundown of the different functional areas within a company, such as R&D, finance, marketing, and manufacturing; different management structures; budgeting; and project appraisal. And Personal Development looks at the skills that industry requires of its employees and how to go about developing them. As you work through these modules, sections that you've visited are highlighted with a red tag, which you can save when you exit the programme. Ideal for me--one of the reasons I like printed material is that I can stick a bookmark in it, and I hate having to go back into pages of a website to remember whether I've already been there. It's a simple thing, but this demonstrates how user friendly and well thought through this programme is.

It's a fourth section, Browse, that demonstrates the real genius of the sound-bite collection. Here, instead of following a set tutorial, you are free to pursue you own lines of enquiry. You can follow a 'Question Route', deciding which particular questions you want to hear answers to (perhaps 'What nontechnical skills do you need to do your current job?' or 'How is working in industry different from University?'). Or you can take the 'People Route', focussing on the words of wisdom offered by someone with a first degree in math, or working for BP, for example. Because you choose which answers to which questions you want to hear, it's as if you're conducting your own, personal informational interview from your desktop.

"Scientists in Business" is produced by the Institute of Physics, so it's not surprising that the majority of interviewees are engineers and physicists. But, although you can browse the sound clips by subject area--homing in, for example, on the advice of the chemists or microbiologists on the disc--don't ignore the words of those from backgrounds other than your own. Their guidance is remarkably generic. For example, the answers to a question such as 'What skills do scientists need in business?' are incredibly informative. It's amazing how often phrases such as 'good communication skills' pop up, no matter what the background of the interviewee.

It's often said that universities are operating more and more like businesses, but as this package makes clear, there are fundamental differences in the approach to research and the procedures that have to be followed in industry. If terms such as 'budgeting', 'project appraisal', and 'function-based structures' strike fear into your heart, working through the tutorial modules should lead to enlightenment. And by listening to industry scientists 'talk the talk' you'll be better prepared for any interviews that come your way. For anyone contemplating a career in industry, in whatever sector you may chose, spending some time with "Scientists in Business" will give you real insight into commerce and will surely improve your chances of landing a job.

* Scientists in Business is available from the Professional Development Officer at the Institute of Physics and costs £10 for students (£5 for student members of the IoP).

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