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Teaching Doctoral Students About Industrial Careers

"I would strongly advise that every graduate department give a good course in industrial chemistry, including field trips and some attention to such matters as patents, activities of chemists in industry, etc." - Comment by a Ph.D. working in industry, 1947.

The above quotation, taken from a 1947 report by the Committee on Professional Training of the American Chemical Society, laments that doctoral education in the United States fell short in preparing Ph.D. chemists for a career in industry. Sadly, things have not changed much--for chemists or Ph.D.s in any field of science--in the past 55 years. In the words of a major industrial employer, "most recent doctoral graduates do not have the foggiest idea of what industrial research is all about." Yet, according to recent National Science Foundation statistics ( Characteristics of Doctoral Scientists and Engineers: 1999), about one-third of Ph.D. scientists and engineers work in the private-for-profit sector. A quarter of life scientists, almost half of physical scientists, and about 60% of chemists and engineers are employed by industry.

Our current doctoral education system does a very good job of preparing scientists to do independent research. However, doctoral programs have largely avoided any responsibility to improve the preparedness of scientists and engineers to transition from an academic environment to an industrial one. The 1995 report by the National Academies' Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, Reshaping the Graduate Education of Scientists and Engineers, recognized this when it defined three major outages of new doctorates entering industry:

  • Communication skills (particularly making effective and persuasive arguments through presentations and reports),

  • Appreciation for applied problems (particularly in an industrial setting), and

  • Teamwork (particularly in interdisciplinary settings and with people whose languages and cultures are different from their own).

There are several ways students can develop the skills that will facilitate the transition from graduate school to industry. Industrial internships, preferably after at least 2 years of a doctoral program to allow an experiential comparison of academic and industrial research, are particularly valuable in this regard. Doing thesis research in a multidisciplinary team or working on a project sponsored by, and preferably in conjunction with, industry can also help develop key skills. And a small number of departments at several universities have initiated courses aimed at preparing students for life after the doctorate.

In this latter context, the Department of Chemistry at the University of Cincinnati has initiated a course on "Being Successful in Industry." This course is offered pass-fail to students in their third year or beyond in the doctoral program. It is taught by an adjunct professor with 31 years of industrial experience, together with a tenure-track faculty member, and makes liberal use of outside speakers. The course covers three main topics:

  • What chemists do in industry,

  • What skills and knowledge are needed to succeed in industry, and

  • Honing skills needed to find an industrial job.

What Do Industrial Chemists Do?

The course begins with a comparison of careers in industrial and academic research: purpose of the research, type of work, degree of independence, lifestyle, recognition, and possible career paths. Because so many scientists find employment in the pharmaceutical industry, a thorough discussion of pharmaceutical research--from drug discovery to Rx approval--is presented. Examples of careers in all of the major chemistry disciplines are provided by outside speakers, as are discussions of jobs in product research and process development. Speakers also describe careers with small companies and government laboratories. Jeni Thomas, a student in the course, found these speakers particularly helpful. "I now have a better understanding of the responsibilities and extent of specialization associated with different types of labs," she explains.

An important component of this section of the course is a case study that follows the development of a product from idea conception to commercialization. Students are given background material, divided into teams, and asked to develop answers to questions based on what they have read. Team answers are discussed and put into the context of what actually happened in the real-life situation. This approach is taken iteratively, as students work together through the development of the product, up to and including the development of a marketing plan. Students enjoy the team approach to problem solving illustrated by the case study and get a real appreciation of the value of approaching a problem as a multidisciplinary team.

Skills and Knowledge Needed in Industry

The emphasis here is on communication, both written and oral. Differences between academic and industrial presentations are discussed. Particularly important is a writing exercise on advocating a position--something that is very different from the technical writing to which students are exposed in graduate school. Sections are presented on patent law and intellectual property, OSHA/safety requirements, and good laboratory practices. Another key aspect of this section of the course is a discussion of ethics in science (using, in part, the AAAS video vignettes on Integrity in Scientific Research ). The issues arising from industry-sponsored academic research, including the intellectual property questions that can arise from such arrangements, form an important part of the ethics discussion.

Finding a Job in Industry

Landing a job consists of three steps: targeting potential employers, getting through initial screening, and receiving an offer after visiting the employer. Many aspects of the job search are different between academe and industry. The skills important to each step of the industrial job search are covered, with a particular emphasis on developing an effective résumé, preparing an industrial seminar, and learning interviewing skills.

All students are given a mock interview to practice their skills. They learn a lot about themselves during these mock interviews as they think about questions that might never have occurred to them before. Many students see a dramatic improvement in their interviewing ability simply by knowing the types of questions to expect. Thomas feels confident that she "can compete with more experienced interviewees and will have an advantage over applicants who have not received similar instruction."

"The things I learned in this course really hit home," says Dustin Starkey. At the time he was taking the course, Starkey was in the job market. Emphasizing the value of the course taught by a team that included an adjunct with many years of industrial experience, Starkey says it was "great to have a resident expert available to you when going through the process." The course "made things go a little more smoothly" during a company visit and interview trip.

When asked to cite one element they would not eliminate in future presentations of the course, students unanimously pointed to the interview training and mock interview. Comments such as "an excellent course with outstanding content and presentation--I feel much better equipped to pursue an industrial position," "very, very useful class," and "a great experience" lead us to believe that the course is filling a need among Ph.D. students preparing for careers in industry. As Starkey summed up his experience, "the topics taught in this course are some of the most important for students preparing to enter the workforce; however, they're rarely taught anywhere else."

To learn more about the "Being Successful in Industry" course, write Joel Shulman at

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