How to Succeed in Industry by Really Trying

Taken for Granted

Kelly Krause, AAAS

Who are the scientists that industry wants to hire? "Brilliant people who are creative and curious and can communicate," says William Banholzer, chief technology officer and an executive vice president of Dow Chemical Company in Midland, Michigan. 

That's the short answer. Banholzer's longer answer, revealed in both a March presentation to the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) and an April interview with Science Careers, suggests ways that early-career scientists who aspire to industrial careers can prepare themselves to compete for those jobs.

I don't think you can recover from [giving] a bad seminar. If you screw up your seminar, people kind of dismiss you because they equate bad communication with a faulty thought process. 

—William Banholzer

First, candidates should expect the competition to be stiff. Speaking to PCAST as a representative of the commission of prominent chemists who authored the recent, excellent American Chemical Society report on graduate education, Banholzer expressed pride that the group recognized "the elephant in the room: … there are too many Ph.D.s being granted in chemistry for the … jobs out there." As a consequence, postdoc appointments have become "a capacitor to try to buffer between" the oversupply of scientists and the available opportunities, he said. 

But you'll notice that a history of postdocing is not among the characteristics that appear in Banholzer's description. "I don't think I need to hire postdocs," he told PCAST. A Ph.D. earned under an excellent professor is sufficient education, he says, because Dow provides newly hired scientists its own training for the work that they will be doing. "They sort of get their postdoc on the job," he notes.

Industry values the Ph.D. because it teaches "how to create new knowledge, pose an original research question, analyze the literature, generate an hypothesis, generate an experimental validation plan, and draw an appropriate conclusion," Banholzer tells Science Careers. But for success in industry, scientists need something more: an ability to "differentiate between interesting research and practical solutions to society's problems, … between what's possible and what's practical."  

But many scientists don't do this, he has observed. Through years of graduate study, they can become "so deeply immersed in the nuances of [their] particular research that they can't put it in a larger perspective" and judge its relevance to providing workable solutions for real-world needs. "In industry you have to answer three questions. What do people want? What will they pay for? What can they afford?" Banholzer explains. Industrial research must succeed on a technical level, fit within economic parameters, and provide practical benefit to customers. It can also serve a higher purpose, he adds: finding feasible answers to large problems such as energy supply, climate change, and improved nutrition and health.

Looking for breadth and perspective

When Banholzer chooses scientists to meet these challenges, particular expertise matters less than candidates' intellectual ability and approach. "You hire someone for 20 or 30 years. I don't know what we're going to work on 30 years from now, or even 15," he says. But, because "smart people are creative, if I give them a new problem, they may not be immediately up to speed, but they'll learn what they need to." Of course, "I don't try to take a plant geneticist and turn him into a chemist." But, Banholzer believes, the ability to venture beyond one's expertise, to explore new ideas and information, and to integrate unfamiliar material and approaches are marks of a scientist with the potential to succeed in industry.

"If you are an expert in cell metabolic engineering, I might ask [in an interview], what do you know about particle physics or dark matter or the thermodynamic efficiency of photovoltaic cells compared to combined cycle turbines?" The "Renaissance science" people whom he seeks to hire have "curiosity beyond the field [they're] in" and the ability "to step back and say, 'Why do I even want to do cell engineering? What am I trying to do and what are the other alternatives?' " 

Banholzer's off-topic questions aren't probing for expertise in those other fields but for evidence of intellectual flexibility and breadth. "Science," he says, "happens at the interfaces, to people who move into new areas." He believes that "students need to be personally accountable" for their own careers and intellectual development. Whether their advisers encourage them or not, Banholzer thinks that that they will benefit from cultivating interests outside their thesis area, for example by reading journals like Science that broadly cover research, attending seminars in fields other than their own, and delving into different areas of science.

Beyond science

And it's not just science. Communicating effectively, both orally and in writing, is essential for success in industry, where scientists interact not only with fellow researchers but also with many nonscientists. Whether those skills are acquired through reading, practicing, or taking courses, "you'd better be able to be very effective communicating with your fellow scientists, but you'd better also be able to understand your audience. The less technically astute your audience is, the better you should be at communication," he explains.

Anyway, he warns, without getting your ideas across effectively and understandably, you won't land a job in the first place. "Nobody should ever go to a job interview unless they've had multiple practice sessions." This is important because "I don't think you can recover from [giving] a bad seminar. If you screw up your seminar, people kind of dismiss you because they equate bad communication with a faulty thought process." 

In addition, knowledge beyond science—especially of business subjects—gives applicants an edge. "If you and I do great science, but you also took some business classes and communication, … you're more employable," he says. Ancillary studies, though, won't compensate for mediocre dissertation work. "Great science" is always the nonnegotiable requirement.

Seeking standouts

To find employees who can do that great science, he seeks people whose originality and creativity have made them stand out. "I want to see what's novel, what wouldn't have happened if you hadn't been in that group, if somebody else had been there and been given the same problem. … Where did you come up with something that was so original that your professor was just shocked by [it]? Where your colleagues thought, 'Holy cow, I wouldn't have thought that would have worked, or I wouldn't have gone that way, or I wouldn't have drawn that conclusion?' " The fact that grad students may work in large collaborative groups doesn't mean that each can't make an individual contribution, he says. "We're all part of a collegial team, but I can still tell you on a baseball team what the batting average is of the pitcher and the first baseman."

He especially seeks scientists whose research shows an ability to work on hard—even "disruptive"—problems rather than building incrementally on a professor's work. "If it were easy, people would have done it by now. I look for people who take on hard problems and solve them."

A final element of Banholzer's formula for starting an industrial career is studying at an institution that ranks high in your field. "If you want to get a job, you'd better go to the best schools because that's where the best faculty are, that's where the best research is done. It doesn't mean there might not be a world-class, creative, capable person at a lesser school, but I've got to work so much harder to find them." Dow recruits at the roughly two dozen schools at the top of their fields; the particular institutions vary with the disciplines. An outstanding candidate from a lower-ranked school can still apply but faces much longer odds of getting noticed and hired.

Banholzer believes that large companies offer their scientist-employees a big advantage over smaller companies: Bigger companies can afford much larger risks than smaller firms. "If you do world-class science [at Dow] and it doesn't work out, you get another chance to turn world-class science into a world-class product. In a small company it may mean you don't have a job anymore." 

"The reason I'm in industry is that I want to solve society's problems," Banholzer says. For aspiring scientists desiring to join him in this endeavor, his advice is straightforward. "You've got to figure out how to distinguish yourself from others. That means you'd better go to a prestigious university, you'd better work on some disruptive thesis, you'd better be outstanding at communication."

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