Sciencegeist: Response to Closing the Skills Gap

Originally posted June 15, 2012

In the most current issue of C&E News, Linda Wang has a really important article on the divide between skills gained in graduate education and desired those desired by chemical industries. I suggest that you all read it. Modifying our educational process to better serve our students’ futures is a vital topic for all chemists to undertake. CJ has done a nice job of covering the article and moderating a truly terrific discussion of it on his site. As he continues to do, Chemjobber is THE place to go for discussions on how academia can better students for industry and how industry might better facilitate this process. (See posts here and here and here). I wanted to add my take as well. Below is the comment that I made on Ms. Wang’s post. I also expect to write a shorter version of this as a letter to the editor.


I love that you are covering this topic. I think that it (training and educating and employing) is one of the most important issues facing the ACS and its members. This is also one of the issues where the ACS should be taking the lead. That means using its full power/influence to: question as many faculty/hiring managers/CEOs/students as it can and it means generating REAL data on the current hiring practices that includes who is getting hired and why they are being hired. If the ACS has any real influence at all, this is one place where our society should be focusing them.

In your article you quote an executive recruiter in biotech as saying “Companies have very specific skill sets that they’re looking for, and they’re not willing to compromise. They’re willing to wait until they find the ideal person.” This is a really important quote. It seems to hint that, in this difficult hiring environment, there are specific things that we educators can be doing to prepare our students for the workforce. As a faculty mentor, one of my primary objectives is to help the students in my department find meaningful employment. If there are specific steps that I can follow in order to get my students hired, I am going to do that! I personally know that this sentiment is shared by many of my faculty peers in both graduate and primarily undergraduate programs. We want what’s best for our student charges. After reading this quote, though, there is no mention of ANY specific skills.

While I hoped that you would have pushed your interviewees more on this subject, it seems to be clear that corporations don’t have any specific changes that they can request from academia. Or, more precisely, it appears that corporations and hiring managers have very precise requirements for individual jobs in which they demand applicants do have very specific skill sets and experience on a very narrow research topic. But, industry as a whole are not able to prescribe general changes that might correct for current deficiencies in chemical education. In other words, one corporation wants what is best for it, a second corporation also wants optimal applicants for its openings, and there is no real overlap between the training that either corporation wants.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with companies having divergent needs. This, in fact, is what we should expect from industry. What I, and many others, find issue with is the call to fix or change the entire chemical education system in order to deliver graduates who can fill very narrow specifications. If a hiring manager or CEO wants to say, “We are in an employers market. We can afford to wait until the perfect candidate comes along,” that would be an acceptable portrayal of reality. But, instead, we see many quotes that state “we have job openings that no one is qualified to fill” where the only way to develop those precise qualifications is TO ALREADY HAVE WORKED IN THE EXACT POSITION THAT THE COMPANY IS HIRING.

These statements coupled with other statements coming from industry leaders that mention “chemistry graduates need broader training” lead me to believe that corporations only want a broader base of applicants in which to find a specific, ideal candidate.

To an educator, faculty advisor, and member of the chemical education enterprise, this point of view is untenable. It shows only complaint with no real directions for changing chemical education or moving it forward.

Your post seems to indicate that some industrial experience is a plus in the current hiring environment. But, if we want to better help more of our students, chemistry faculty need to work with corporations to create more opportunities to gain this type of experience. (I do wonder, though, if more students had industrial experience, would we still be hearing calls for better prepared graduates. Cynically, I think that we would still hear that).

Personally, I feel that there are several things that chemistry faculty need to do better. We need to do a better job of both nurturing and very specifically assessing: creative thinking, teamwork, problem solving, and adaptability. These are aspects that many of us advisors try to get a feel for. We also assume that, just because we put students in a research environment, our students will develop these qualities. But, can we show that this is the case? Are there any ways to measure a student’s capacity for these qualities? This is, admittedly, a very difficult problem. But I think it is one worth pursuing. I also think that there are ways to introduce our students to industrial project styles and organization.
As I said at the start of this long comment, understanding the current hiring environment and better preparing our students for life in academia should be one of the top priorities for the ACS. We should be having more open conversations about these issues. [Some recent examples of this are: George Whitesides advocating for changes in graduate education in discussions at the NSF. In that same NSF report, Robert Bergman stating “I know it’s good for [industry] to have 100 people applying for one job. It’s not so good for us.” Derek Lowe describing important transitions in mindset on moving from an academic environment to an industrial research environment. These and other anecdotes are very capably aggregated, introduced, and moderated on the blog] My hope is that we continue to have more conversations about this topic and, importantly, that these conversations are honest and open about what is expected and what is possible.

The field of chemistry has a wealth to offer our society. As current participants in this enterprise, it is our responsibility to ensure that our education accurately and effectively reflects the needs and direction of that enterprise.