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The ins and outs of hiring pipelines

Whether they’re fair or not, these established networks give some job seekers an advantage

by Chemjobber
September 10, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 36


An illustration of a job seeker standing in a maze of pipes.
Credit: Shutterstock/C&EN
It's tough navigating the maze of industry-academic connections.

Every fall, a steady stream of student and postdoctoral résumés flows into the inboxes of hiring managers across the chemical industry. After email exchanges and Skype calls, job seekers will make their way to on-site interviews. And then something very predictable happens: certain companies will hire people from the same universities they always have, leaving behind those who don’t fit the companies’ desired pedigree.

I began thinking about this phenomenon of established pipelines after reading an article about the late US Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia. In a conversation with a law student, Scalia admitted that since the student did not attend an elite institution, it was unlikely that she would be hired as one of the few clerks that Supreme Court justices assign to help write opinions. Scalia also mused that although one of his best law clerks was not actually from one of those elite law schools, he would never have accepted him if he hadn’t inherited him from a retiring justice.

It’s no secret that top graduate schools have strong pipelines for hiring into large chemical and pharmaceutical companies. Large companies will send senior managers to their alma maters; these schools will host the managers, who will visit professors and choose the graduate students who will be offered on-site interviews. Year after year, the students will flow seamlessly from Professor X at University Y to Company Z. It is not just august universities located on the coasts that have these pipelines—there is often a geographic connection, with a steady flow of alumni from a specific school to a nearby employer.

I can’t blame organizations for having established pipelines for hiring. No one wants to send a top scientist or manager to troll the halls of every academic department, looking for the perfect PhD student to hire. It’s much simpler and less risky to seek out your old friend from graduate school, call her up, and ask her if she could recommend four or five students that you could interview the next time you’re in town.

As a job seeker, what are you to do? If you have access to an established pipeline, use it and use it wisely. Yes, it’s unquestionably an advantage. Perhaps I am a meritocratic idealist, but I suspect the boosting effects of this pipeline are only temporary, and its impact over a career is not especially large. In the long run, I believe true excellence and creativity in scientists will be revealed.

What if you don’t have this particular advantage, and you don’t have regular campus visits from Fortune 500 companies or a well-connected professor who can put your CV in front of search committees? For those companies that have a particularly impenetrable pipeline, you may have to extend your training and, for example, take a postdoctoral position at one of these key connected institutions. But the chemical enterprise is larger than just these select universities and companies, and while I don’t yet have quantitative data, I wager that many of us employed in the chemical industry simply answered open advertisements and (eventually) gained employment.

And to those of us­­—myself included—who are part of these established pipelines, what should we do? We owe it to ourselves, our companies, and the broader chemistry community to take a very hard look at our pipelines and identify bias and inequity. When it’s time to make our short lists for callbacks or interviews, let’s remember to take a look at the rejected applications and see whom we are excluding, intentionally or otherwise. We may continue to rely on these pipelines when we seek to hire our coworkers, but we don’t have to get stuck in them.

Chemjobber is an industrial chemist who blogs about the chemistry job market at Find all his columns for C&EN and suggest future topics at

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.


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