Working at science, science at work

How can students best prepare for an actual career in life sciences? DDNews columnist Peter Kissinger attempts to sort out that tricky question.

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A DDNews reader recently asked me what students could do to prepare for the current life-science realities. A subject of heated debate for decades is whether academia adequately prepares students for a career in industry. Given that a large majority of students find productive employment and succeed, the issue could be viewed as much about nothing. Why, then, does the debate continue?
Academics have little relevant commercial experience, and most don’t feel they can contribute much in a busy science curriculum. The career opportunities span a huge range in the commercial world from petroleum to food, pharmaceuticals to metallurgy, plastics to adhesives, medical devices to analytical instruments, clinical chemistry to forensic science, environmental labs to cosmetics and medical school to the patent bar.
Furthermore, the size of organizations range from headcounts of a few to 100,000; some with science as the central strategic theme, but most where R&D is in a supportive role. New employees must be oriented and the best of companies do that well. Stated requirements for student readiness include the ability to work on teams, respect people, follow directions and demonstrate good oral and written communications. In addition, some request that new employees understand XYZ regulations (XYZ = FDA, EPA, SEC, USDA, OSHA,…). These are topics best learned by experience (experiential learning), not by course work. Students lucky enough to have had summer jobs or internships will absorb some of it. The “regs” can take a year or more of training, a costly investment. In academia, we make students aware of this challenge, but we can’t effectively teach what we don’t know. Besides, these topics are soporifics, and it’s hard enough to get folks in their early 20s out of the sack.
The prestigious journal Nature has been running a useful back section on careers in science. Here is a quote from a recent article (Peter Fiske, Nature, Vol. 512, August 28, 2014, pp.457-458):
“Expertise is the foremost qualification for a job inside academia, but in the outside world, attitude is at least as important to potential employers. In academia, a researcher can spend years focusing on a single problem or technical area. But in other, profit-driven sectors, employers know that priorities, opportunities and technologies change quickly. As an employee, adaptability and willingness to learn more are more important to career success than is technical expertise.”
While there is wisdom here, generalities are no more useful to an individual than a blockbuster drug is to all patients. Each of us needs to think in a more personalized N=1 manner or we may fall to the tyranny of averages. For example, few will be hired in academia if they can’t express enthusiasm both for their subject and the institution. Many faculty members flit about like butterflies from one research topic to another, while others stay narrowly focused. Those who “communicate their enthusiasm” will have an advantage in any environment, whether academic, nonprofit, government or industry. In all environments, communications skills and people skills always trump technical mastery, while the very best have both. A salesperson will need more of the former, while a quality control chemist can deliver results less gregariously. Few thrive who don’t respect their colleagues no matter the environment. I disagree with the term “profit-driven sectors” expressed above. Successful businesses must be “customer-driven sectors.” Profits are a requirement to encourage investment in the assets needed to please customers. Universities also are customer-driven, but their capital does not come from private investors expecting a financial return, but rather from taxpayers and donors who expect broader societal benefits.
The real difference between work in industry and academia is the flow of work needed to support the strategy. Who decides? Academia attracts people who love to teach, to guide students and to convey knowledge using innovative approaches. There is some theater in it along with the duties of a social worker, doctor, sports coach or religious guru. Academic research also attracts people who are driven to be independent, to make their own decisions and to be their own boss. Many are too quirky for the real world, and it is good there is a place for us.
In the commercial world, as a new employee, you are paid to accomplish tasks set by others. You are a foot soldier, not a general. The big picture may have been set years ago by people no longer with the firm, whether it be in consumer products, energy, food, semiconductors, instruments, pharmaceuticals or agricultural chemicals, to name a handful. Under these broad categories come the current subsidiary details, and well under those will be your assignment, whereby you must deliver more value than you cost. That’s just fundamental thermodynamics. In the business world, you are on a team (together everyone achieves more), perhaps a rather large one. Large firms are compartmentalized in silos with names like accounting, sales, marketing, manufacturing, customer service, quality control, human resources, procurement and research. In some firms, science is central to the strategy, while in others it is supportive or tactical (e.g. in food or semiconductors). A new graduate joining a commercial firm will have to get acclimated to new jargon such as supply-chain management, lean production, six sigma, quality-by-design (QbD) and much more. Does it make sense to introduce such concepts in a science curriculum? I think not. Nevertheless, the students interested in a commercial career can subscribe to trade magazines and absorb a lot on their own; doing so will provide a competitive advantage. Reading DDNews will keep you on track.
In academia, we ask candidates what research s/he plans to pursue. In business, you ask what you can do for your firm to achieve strategic goals. In academia, “management” does not decide and direct very much day to day. That’s the differentiating strategy. A common source of coffee-pot gossip in both academia and business are complaints across the silos. In the best organizations, it is realized that all functions are needed for success, and they earn our respect. Trouble occurs where rules appear arbitrary and unexplained. The best environments have leaders not tyrants. It is a good life when our personal strengths are best employed, and we can be passionate about serving customers whether they are internal or external. If not, move on.

Peter T. Kissinger is professor of chemistry at Purdue University, chairman emeritus of BASi and a director of Chembio Diagnostics, Phlebotics and Prosolia.

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