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Tooling Up: Doing, Knowing, Judging: One Man's Quest to Link Academia and Industry

Earl Wagener is a true believer. His true belief is that it is possible to train young scientists to make smoother transitions between academia and industry. He has embarked recently on a federally funded discovery project to prove it once and for all.

As a former executive with more than 25 years at the Dow Chemical Co., Wagener has seen many scientists leave the ivory towers and stumble because of what he considers to be cultural issues. "It frustrated me to no end," Wagener said in a recent interview. "Despite what they were being taught at the university, these scientists entered the central research labs at Dow with the preconceived notion that 'science is science,' no matter where it occurs. This just isn't the case." No matter where Wagener went as a manager, he saw difficulties with this academia-to-industry transfer.

"I saw the same problems with the new employees in Asia," Wagener adds. "Later, as director of research for our European business, it was the same thing once again. I have been thinking about this problem for years. At Dow, I developed certain modules that I used for internal training, and they were quite effective. I have long felt that many of these topics needed to be covered at the university, in order to prevent the cultural shock waves that scientists encounter when they go to companies, large or small. Unfortunately, this kind of training doesn't come naturally for these institutions."

Wagener had years to develop his training modules while at Dow, but when he left the world of the large corporation, he didn't think he'd use these tools again--that is, until he met Katherine Covert, a program officer for educational grants at the National Science Foundation (NSF).

"It was Kathy who suggested that I apply for an NSF grant to get this running as a semester-long class at Clemson. We're now past the halfway point with our first group of students, and we're hearing some very positive feedback about their experiences," he notes.

The Coursework: "Career Success in Science and Engineering"

Wagener is a chemist, and most of the 28 students in his class are chemists, biochemists, or chemical engineers. After transitioning out of the Fortune 100 world, he started a small technology-transfer company to manage the commercialization of research coming from Clemson University. His firm, Tetramer Technologies, has grown to 12 employees. Wagener's days are already busy with the chores of running his own business. Despite this, he has committed the hundreds of hours necessary to develop this program and teach his new 1-credit-hour class.

"I developed the program to include three separate components," he says. "The first piece is the classroom teaching, around topics I have used for years in my modules from the Dow training." Wagener's course includes information on how to prioritize research, giving and receiving performance reviews, the career-plateau trap, the Myers-Briggs type indicator, career ladders in industry, and skills in networking and interviewing. That's a long list in itself, but it's only about a third of what Wagener squeezes into a single semester.

Students selected for the class must meet several requirements; one is that they must be working on a research project, either a graduate thesis or a senior research project for an undergraduate. With this work going on in the background, students are asked to review their research plans along with their advisers, using newly learned skills in industry project review. Does their research meet the guidelines that a company would use to make a "go" or "no-go" decision for a project?

"This has been the most challenging aspect for me and potentially the most rewarding element of the class for my students," says Wagener. He has found that although 80% of the professors have been amenable to helping students review their research within these industry parameters, there have been difficult times as well. "Not every faculty member is open to change. I've had some wonderful cooperation from the younger staff, but there is an element of resistance that I am continuing to encounter."

That Wagener feels resistance isn't surprising. After years of training seminars at the university level, I can count on one hand the number of faculty members I remember attending meetings about the differences between academia and industry. Luckily for Wagener, he's developed relationships with eight supportive professors at Clemson who are working with their students on these new project-review tools.

The final component of "Career Success in Science and Engineering" is the piece that typically comprises a university's entire career-assistance efforts. That is, Wagener has invited a number of successful scientists and engineers from industry to talk about their careers and what they've learned. "These special guests will help my students meet role models and get a number of viewpoints on the same topics that they've been practicing here in class," he says.

A Student's View

Jamie Norton is a graduate student at Clemson, back in school after working in industry for a number of years. As a Ph.D. student in the chemistry department, she is unusual in that she has already experienced some of the "culture shock" that others in her department are just hearing about.

"I got my B.S. in chemistry and a master's in environmental systems engineering and then went to work. After some time, I determined that I would have better career opportunities if I were to get the Ph.D. behind me," she says. Jamie saw a campus e-mail announcing the new class and decided to take Wagener up on the offer despite the fact that she had already experienced some of the transition she would be learning about.

"I'll be sitting in that class," says Jamie, "and suddenly it comes to me, 'Wow, so that's why that happened!' I am certain that the class will prove to be very useful in the long run, as I've had a number of those eye-opening experiences already. I knew even before I signed up that there was a lot I could still learn about my fit into the working environment of industry." What she likes best about the class is how the interpersonal exchanges take place. "It's mentoring across the board," she says. "Dr. Wagener teaches it much like a group-mentoring project, and those of us with experience mentor the undergraduates at the same time."

The Circle of Doing, Knowledge, and Judgment

At first, I wondered if there's enough in this topic to fill an entire semester. But browsing through the archives of Next Wave shows that a class like this could go on for 2 years. Asking Wagener what he believes to be the single biggest lesson from the wealth of available subject matter, he describes the "difference between the two careers in the way that science works or, as I call it, the circle of doing, knowledge, and judgment."

Wagener is passionate about this one. As he describes it, all science starts out by doing experiments, followed by the knowledge that results, and then a personal judgment about what has been learned. In academia, he says, one is rewarded by the development of the knowledge base. The difference in industry is that one is paid for the judgment.

"One scientist makes a judgment call that can make a company millions of dollars, and another makes a judgment that results in additional knowledge. While they are both worthy, there's an inherent difference in thinking that sometimes takes many years to learn for the young scientist," says Wagener.

Wagener isn't the first brave soul to enter the ivory tower with the goal of helping smooth the academia-to-industry transfer, but he seems to be the first to integrate all the topics written about in Next Wave into a single semester-long course. (Michael Zigmond and Beth Fischer of the University of Pittsburgh have done wonders in spreading the same kind of training throughout the country, as a result of their " Survival Skills and Ethics Training" efforts. However, these often end up as seminars and special events instead of for-credit classes. Zigmond took a professional risk in starting this program as a faculty member. Wagener comes from the outside as an adjunct professor.)

When I asked him if he was personally satisfied with what he sees his students learning, Wagener told me of his single biggest challenge: "Now, all I've got to teach them is to call me Earl. After all, industry works on a first-name basis. The most difficult lesson seems to be to stop calling me 'Dr. Wagener.' "