Moving with a freshly minted degree to industry involves more than swapping out faded jeans for freshly pressed khakis. My new job responsibilities seemed overwhelming, but I soon realized that my role as a senior chemist at DuPont still encourages me to do what I love: solve problems using chemistry and curiosity as my guides, but this time with concrete customers.
Recent hires reflect on the industry experience
An early lesson came from unique firsthand customer interactions. In school, I studied fundamental material properties to solve problems. My findings served the entire scientific community, which was my “customer.” Now, in an industrial environment, I directly engage with DuPont customers, tailoring products to meet their needs. However, doing what customers want while understanding what they are trying to achieve are two very different objectives. By accomplishing the latter, one becomes a valued partner and can develop more impactful products.
These interactions also taught me how to use chemistry within limits, meaning solving requests within the customer’s range of competencies and facilities. Sometimes, this effort involves innovation by improving existing solutions and not just inventing new ones, which is the more common academic route.
My advice to new industry hires is to remember your scientific training: take time to listen to your data, especially as timelines shrink, because your team, and especially your customer, will depend on your conclusions. Their gratitude will be the best motivation you will find. You may have traded in your jeans, but your lab coat remains with you.
Starting out in the biopharmaceutical industry is both challenging and rewarding. In my early career, these three pieces of advice have helped me the most:
1. Know the basics. Don’t know anything about medicinal chemistry? No problem; you’ll learn that on the job. What you need coming in is a mastery of chemical fundamentals. Drug development is the art of applying basic chemical concepts to extraordinarily complex systems. A strong knowledge of these basics—molecular interactions, conformational analysis, common organic transformations—is the best preparation.
2. Learn from your colleagues. You’ll have hundreds of questions at the beginning, and your first reaction might be to read a book or paper in search of answers. But at your company, you’ll be surrounded by experts in drug discovery who are very willing to answer your questions and share their expertise. These discussions with your colleagues will accelerate your learning, and you’ll develop a valuable network of personal relationships.
3. Give yourself permission to fail. Starting out as a medicinal chemist is a humbling process. You’ll go from being one of the most knowledgeable and senior members of your academic lab to the newest hire at your company. In fact, many of your colleagues will have more years under their belt than you’ve been alive. At first, you may feel inadequate and will definitely make mistakes. Remember that failure is an integral part of the learning process, and your ability to take failures in stride and learn from them will, in large part, determine your success.
Having been an industrial scientist for 2 years, I have realized that because of the rapid evolution of industry, the desire to build your career, and the perpetual need for new discoveries, schooling is only the beginning of your education.
Industry is in constant flux. Therefore, it is crucial to pivot. I started my career at a large technology company, where I translated my small-molecule background into semiconductor fabrication. Now, as a process chemist for Amgen, it feels like I learn new techniques every month. The key is to embrace uncertainty. This alleviates our self-imposed blockades.
While I pivot for my company, my company builds me. It is important to recognize your accomplishments while always seeking to improve. Asking for constructive feedback is critical, as is effectively evaluating yourself. Set short- and long-term goals for measurable progress.
The world needs ever-evolving chemistry. Researchers at my previous company developed creative solutions to make chemistry relevant to the computer industry. In my current role, I face uncharted challenges in large-scale organic synthesis, some of which my seasoned colleagues can assist with, and others for which I need to develop new technologies. Communicating what we learn from these experiences enables us to continue making germane discoveries.
Traverse the unknown in your career, set goals, and push yourself and your chemistry into the future. When you reach the room with many doors, open the most exciting one. Your continuing education will congeal and become the most powerful and adaptable tool on your lab bench.
In college, there was always homework to complete, classes to attend, experiments to set up, on-campus jobs to run to, club activities to plan, professors to meet with, group meetings to prepare for. It’s a familiar pattern for any upper-level chemistry major.
For me, every meeting, event, and assignment was in a planner, ready to be checked off when completed. There was no time for abrupt changes or last-minute meetings, and if one came up, I would feel flustered for the rest of the day.
Now that I have been working in a small biotech company for the past year, I have learned how to manage adjusting to daily changes and how to roll with the punches when projects take a new direction.
I start my day with a plan of assays to run. Halfway through the day I get an email about a data meeting, and the next thing I know we are moving the project in a different direction with totally new experiments to conduct.
Learning how to let go of a regimented day was difficult when I first started working in industry, but now it’s a skill I am grateful to have. My advice to current students is to welcome changes and new directions, and don’t get flustered when your schedule has to change on the fly. Just roll with the punches that science (and life) throws at you!
“Stakeholder management” is a new phrase I learned in my first few days working at Dow. In graduate school, life was simple: happy adviser, happy life. The work is challenging, relationships get strained, but the structure is relatively simple. There weren’t multiple stakeholders. Success hinged only on “adviser management.”
Life in industry is very different. The work is still challenging and the underlying science is just as interesting as science in graduate school, but an understanding and mastery of the chemistry isn’t enough. You have to turn the work and understanding into products. You need others to succeed. Stakeholder management becomes very important.
Stakeholders come in many forms. My people leader is different from my project leader. Both of them have bosses that care about the project. Everyone needs updates. Short, concise updates for some, and longer, more detailed updates for others. After a year in a traditional R&D role, I felt I had mastered stakeholder management.
Then my project moved to manufacturing. I encountered operations and production teams for the first time. My list of stakeholders ballooned as the intricacies of the manufacturing environment became clear. At every turn, I heard, “You should have talked to us sooner.”
What I’ve learned is, “Always ask, ‘Who needs to know? Who should have input? And who has the skills I need to make this project successful?’ ”
I graduated nearly 2 years ago, and while it was scary leaving the comfort of my familiar graduate research position, I was ready to move on.
Working in industry has opened doors to new opportunities and lessons. The basics of science and research stay the same: you solve problems, following the trusty scientific method as a guide. But instead of focusing on what project is more likely to get grant money or publication in high-quality journals, you focus on what is financially smart and applicable in the real world.
In graduate school, you can pursue an interesting or unexpected result until you find an answer. In industry, you have project deadlines that may not always allow that freedom. But it’s rewarding to see your work implemented in solving real-world problems.
My advice to future scientists is to power through; it will be worth it in the end. Take all the knowledge you have gained and be ready to apply it to different systems with out-of-the-box thinking for innovative solutions. For example, I took my knowledge of how to control the optical properties of nanomaterials and applied it to developing a fast and simple detection method for low levels of ions based on fluorescence quenching.
Scientists tend to be problem solvers by nature, and if your solution makes a difference, that’s the best result of all.
As a first-year R&D lab technician in the polymer industry, I assist with requests about our products’ physical properties. My work comprises short-term projects where I prepare samples and measure properties such as tensile strength, adhesion, and oxygen transmission. I was trained on different analytical techniques as needed, but my training focused more on the hands-on process than the theoretical knowledge and understanding.
Eventually, I repeated these tests so often that I started working mindlessly. The work was easy, but I didn’t fully understand what I was doing. I realized that I needed to take responsibility for my learning. I blocked time to study the company’s product literature and learn from relevant online resources. Some companies provide free webinars, white papers, and technical notes about specific topics and discuss their industrial relevance and application.
I typically study near the end of the day after I’ve completed my daily tasks. In addition to developing my industrial knowledge, I’m also building other technical skills, such as using statistical software. The best way for me to actively learn is to practice with experimental data and refer to the online support guide.
I encourage others who are entering the industry to take initiative and stay proactive with learning. Continually improve yourself by expanding your depth of knowledge in your field, and strengthen your critical thinking and problem-solving abilities. These skills will always be valued wherever you go.