Chemistry Postgrads on (an Industrial) Tour

Want to find out what a career in industry might involve, and have the chance to discuss your impressions on the spot with some fellow students? A joint initiative from the German Chemical Society (GDCh) and the UK?s Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), gave a group of postgrads the opportunity to do just that. Claudia Halter and Mark Barratt describe the Postgraduate Industry Tour they took part in during November 2003.


Claudia Halter, Universität Regensburg, Germany

At the time of the RSC-GDCh-Postgraduate Industry Tour, I was still working on my diploma thesis. However, I was nominated for the tour by the head of the local GDCh group, Prof. Dr. Armin Geyer, because I am an active member of the local JungChemikerForum (Young Chemists' Forum). I looked forward especially to meeting the UK students because it was a good opportunity to learn about other studies, opportunities, and the image of chemistry abroad.

I had just started the second year of my PhD when our postgraduate tutor, Dr. Rod Mason, nominated me for the tour. Having spent a year working in the analytical development department of Dow Agrosciences as part of my degree, I was looking forward to seeing some of the other aspects of the chemical industry and the ways in which some different chemical companies operate. This would be the first event I had attended as a postgraduate and the first time I had presented my work to anyone other than the staff of my department, so although it was exciting, the prospect was nerve-racking.

Mark Barratt, University of Wales, Swansea, UK


We all met for the first time at Gatwick. Our troop leaders for the week were Dr. Kristy MacDonald and Mrs. Debbie Howes from the RSC and Dr. Kurt Begitt from the GDCh. One of the things that stood out was that the UK group was very multinational, including Spanish, Irish, Egyptian, Italian, and Sri Lankan students as well as UK nationals, whereas the German group contained no foreigners. The chance to meet people from widely differing backgrounds is one of the best aspects of the PhD experience in general and this tour in particular. We were all impressed to be put up in the Renaissance London Gatwick Hotel where we occupied plush single en-suite rooms.

The tour officially began that evening with a team exercise put on by Dr. David Alker, manager of the Discovery Staffing Group at Pfizer, who took us through a simulation of the drug discovery process. Then, in groups of five, both RSC and GDCh students, we were given representations of real lead compounds from Pfizer?s history of research into drugs for combating such ailments as asthma and AIDS. We were told about the beneficial aspects and problems of the lead molecules and had to improve them based upon the information we were given.

Astonishingly, at almost every step in the exercise, one of the groups hit upon the improvement that was actually implemented by the drug discovery team. This made for real involvement in the process and was a great way of breaking the ice between all the participants before our well-deserved dinner as one group. (By the way, the food was excellent during the tour and we were enjoyably pampered throughout.)

The next day, Monday, started early with a bus tour to Quest International. Quest produces fragrances for many very well-known perfumes and we were given the opportunity to smell many of them, and also the raw materials. The research at Quest uses mostly familiar enantioselective synthetic methods, but the research directions seemed to be intuitive. Decisions are made by highly trained smell specialists who design molecules based on predictions of how they will smell. The specialists work in offices surrounded by small phials of raw materials which they mix together in recorded proportions. They then use their own sense of smell to evaluate the results, rather than sophisticated analytical equipment, as one might imagine. Consequently a tour of Quest International is an olfactory experience to be remembered forever.

That evening saw the poster session. Everyone presented a poster about his or her work to representatives from Quest International, Eli Lilly, BASF, and Degussa within a stopwatch-regulated 5 minutes. Your 5 minutes started when the bell sounded, and you had to talk fast! It was a nerve-racking experience to justify your work to senior researchers and answer questions under time pressure, and not far removed from the experience of working in industry. Fortunately there was a prize for the best posters.

The industry representatives kindly joined us for dinner, so we had plenty of opportunity to quiz them about all the topics in which we were interested. In fact, some of them joined us in the bar until quite late, contributing to the very informal and relaxed atmosphere that was maintained throughout the trip.

Tuesday was another early start. Not everyone made it to breakfast but everyone got on the bus in time for our visit to Eli Lilly. The site we visited is located in the idyllic surroundings of Erl Wood Manor. After several presentations about the history of the company and its record in medicinal chemistry, we were guided around the site. We got a good impression of the close co-operation between the different parts of the company and the informal atmosphere. It was also a pleasant surprise that all scientists at Lilly spend time working in the lab regardless of seniority, and that the company allows their employees time for academic pursuits such as writing chapters of books. This seemed like an unconventional way of working and gave us hope that it was possible to progress in a chemical company without sacrificing lab work and academic pursuits completely.

After another excellent meal, we left for London Heathrow Airport to catch our flight to Frankfurt. The travel arrangements all went like clockwork and we arrived at the Dorint Kongress Hotel in Mannheim. As at the Renaissance Hotel, we were given luxurious rooms to ourselves. After a fine meal at the hotel some of us chose to visit some local bars, ably guided by our German colleagues. Mannheim is beautiful at night and has some wonderful places that certainly won?t be forgotten by our tour group. Much was learned of Weissbier, Pils, and the Reinheitsgebot.

Wednesday was spent at the BASF site in Ludwigshafen, which was incredible. BASF is one of the biggest chemical companies in the world and operations in Germany are concentrated in this one site, 7 square kilometres entirely composed of interlinked factories, eliminating the need for storage of intermediates. Since it was founded in 1865, BASF has followed its Verbund strategy, where "Each production facility would be linked to other plants so that the products and leftover material from one plant could serve as raw materials in the next."

The site is nothing less than a town, with its own bus and train services, and numerous red bicycles, which carry most of the population on their travels. The site is similar to Bourneville and Port Sunlight in the UK in that it is all run by one company. Unlike the British sites there are no workers? homes at BASF, and the site was not planned, instead growing organically out of BASF?s early headquarters. The Verbund strategy results in integrated sites which maximises efficiency and minimises waste and is very impressive. They work on the principle of a "Chemis-tree" (small number of 'root' products, some more in the 'stem' and a great variety of products in the 'leaves': the products they sell). This would definitely be an interesting place to work.

The tour was comprehensive, as we were given the opportunity to see the Isophytol insect attractant plant and a pilot plant. The Isophytol plant showed us how chemistry looks on a huge industrial scale which, while impressive, is difficult to take in. The pilot plant allowed us to see the chemistry on a much smaller scale, between that of the lab, which we are used to, and the industrial scale, allowing us to better understand the large plant. After another excellent lunch we spent the afternoon looking around Mannheim, which is as pleasant in the daytime as it is at night. In late November the Weinachtsmarkt (Christmas Market) is open around the water tower, and that was an extremely enjoyable place in which to spend some time.

The evening was spent at a careers event at the BASF casino, where Dr. Barbara Jessel and Dr. Rainer Buerstinghaus from BASF told us what industry is looking for in students as prospective employees, the situation on the labour market, and their economic situation. Over 90% of German diploma chemists decide to do a PhD after their studies, only 5% entering professional life directly.

About half of PhD chemists go into industry, so what are enterprises looking for? Of course, prospective employees need chemical competence and technical skills, but there are also other requirements: As the professional world grows more international, the knowledge of foreign language, especially English, is essential. Future leaders also need social competence, entrepreneurial and financial aptitude, and need to be open-minded, mentally and locally flexible, and also good team workers. Scientists mostly need to have a PhD, so it is difficult to achieve advancement without one.

On entering a company researchers often receive further training on the job while working on a particular project and often move between projects in order to get to know the employer properly. Scientists often start in research and development and move on into management or other sectors later.

But how to get these jobs? An important point made at the meeting was that many jobs are filled by speculative applicants. Often enterprises only place advertisements when they are searching for people with a very particular set of skills, so young scientists just need the courage to send in a CV. Drs. Jessel and Buerstinghaus made a good representation of their commitment to recruiting the best graduates from around the world and their commitment to top-class research.

The second part of the event was dinner, with at least one representative from the company at each table so we could get a more informal perspective of the company and life in Ludwigshafen.

By Thursday morning we were all very tired, but it was off to our last destination, Degussa, a chemical company with a long tradition dating back to the first half of the 19th century. We visited the Industrial Park in Hanau-Wolfgang, where we were given presentations of the research run in biotechnology (amongst other research areas), especially in the project house for biotechnology.

These project houses are a speciality of Degussa, which bring together researchers from many different backgrounds to work on one research topic. We were talked through the catalytic engine of their continuous enzyme reactors, which are very ingenious. The subsequent tour was informative and educational, especially the fermentation plants, which introduced us to another of the many novel odours that we had encountered on the trip.



For me, the tour was a great opportunity to meet new people, both students and industry representatives, to learn more about the different aspects of chemistry, and to see the broad variety of career possibilities for chemists. The companies were very different, each one with its own character. In fact, it seemed to me that the differences between companies are based more on the type of company than its location, whether in the UK or Germany.

I had already thought of leaving Germany, but the tour made working abroad even more attractive. The tour really confirmed for me that chemists can work in a very broad variety of jobs so that everyone can find their most suitable position. I hope the RSC and GDCh will continue their collaboration because it was great to share this experience with the other students and RSC/GDCh members. The close contacts with the industry representatives are something you often can?t get at the university, especially in such a relaxed environment. That?s why I want to thank everyone involved in organising the tour, also on behalf of the other participants.


I had a wonderful time on the tour. It was an excellent opportunity to meet some great people. The overwhelming impression was that the companies we visited are determined to keep hiring the best graduates in chemistry to keep their research cutting edge, and they are committed to maintaining a pleasant environment in which to work. Each company demonstrated a different model of how a chemical company can work, and everyone we met seemed to be happy and satisfied in their jobs. All in all the tour was a great advertisement for a career in industry, both at home and abroad.

On a personal note, it was humbling to witness the German contingent?s excellent English, when the RSC contingent was completely lost in Germany. Our German friends were very helpful on that score, for which I?m very grateful.

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