Some of us undergraduates travel across the country to take part in internships. Others just graduated and are moving on to the next chapter in their lives, be it grad school, a career, or something else. And, of course, some of us are at home on our couches watching the newest episode of MythBusters, waiting for the fall semester to roll around (not me, of course!). The one thing we have in common, however, is that we all wonder what exactly it means to be a chemist. Throughout college, we train in labs to identify compounds using NMR or mass spectroscopy. We learn in introductory writing how to write an essay on a Charles Dickens novel and how to calculate triple integrals in multivariable calculus. But despite that solid foundation of math, science, and the writing elective, have we actually learned what it really takes to be a chemist? Popular culture suggests the greatest chemists are brilliant or math whizzes, and of course there are the typical stereotypes of being introverted or geeky, not to mention know-it-alls. But are those the same traits I need to get hired as a chemist for a commercial company or in academia? What about in the government?
So, who better to ask than a chemist? I asked three experienced chemists what they look for when they hire a chemist. To gauge the breadth of positions, I spoke to one chemist in industry, one in government, and one in academia. But early in my search, it became clear to me that I may have had the wrong idea. It turns out that verbal, as well as written communication skills, are particularly sought in practicing chemists across the spectrum of occupation. Karl Haider, Ph.D., a Research Fellow at Bayer MaterialScience LLC and developer of novel polymer technologies, mentioned the importance of a chemist’s presentation skills for a non-expert audience. A question he typically asks himself while conducting a job interview is “how well can they communicate, especially to non-experts?” Of course, it is important to be well versed in the field; to know the ins and outs of thermodynamics, or the importance of Grignard reagents, or even why ice is less dense than water. But Haider places more value on the ability to consume and digest that material and deliver it in such a way that a non-scientist can understand. Haider says “in industry and business, that is a critical skill.”
JoAnn Milliken, Ph.D., Acting Director of Strategic Programs in the Department of Energy (DOE) and developer of efficient technology to support sustainable and renewable energy, agrees. From the government standpoint, she says it is crucial to have chemists with “the ability to interact with people, other chemists, scientists and engineers, then leadership and eventually members of congress.” So, not only is the full grasp of the technical material significant, but the translation of that work to a more layman’s level of understanding is equally essential.
Apparently Albert Einstein was right, “if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” With this idea, it also important to mention that Karl Haider, JoAnn Milliken as well as Richard MacPhail, Ph.D, the Associate Chair of the Chemistry Department and Co-Director of Undergraduate Studies at Duke, all agree that not just depth, but a solid breadth at that is an absolute must. MacPhail declares that “holes in the knowledge base are a killer.”
That doesn’t mean these chemists only value speaking and writing ability. In addition to communication skills and a plethora of strong interdisciplinary understanding, another desired trait all three professionals mentioned is the ability to adopt leadership skills while maintaining a team work environment. Although much of the work in the chemistry department at Duke University is team based, MacPhail says “you at least need some people who can take care of business,” as he winks, shrugs his shoulders and smiles. Milliken, on the other hand, argues that team work is the backbone of progress. She says “the loner inventor has long past, and that is not the type of person we are looking for in our organization.” That said, she believes it is possible to do both and suggests that “flexibility is another thing we look for in the Department of Energy.” Haider’s approach to this is “Can Do. Will Do. Fit.” Do they have the technical abilities, the knowledge and communication skills? Will they be motivated to do it? Do they have the passion? And lastly, do they fit into the job environment?
In retrospect, for what exactly are these managers looking? In one sentence, the applicants they seek are team oriented people who possess the ability to lead and communicate their vast knowledge and findings to the greater masses. So, what aren’t they looking for? Fortunately, I asked them what some unacceptable quirks or traits may include. Among others, arrogance was discussed frequently, which inevitably ties into the previously mentioned communication skills and team work ability.
You might be wondering, when am I going to mention grades? I am not. “By the time of the interview, grades don’t matter” or “no perfect grades are required” or “I don’t think grades are something we worry about horribly” all say the same thing: study to understand, be passionate about your science, search for the truth, work hard for the sake of the knowledge, or of scientific progression, but don’t obsess about your transcript because its not always about the grades. In fact, all three chemists say it’s the recommendation letters, as well as the interview, that make all the difference.
So what does this mean to the undergraduates still discovering their place? First, and foremost, get out of the library occasionally. Spend some time in campus groups or off campus taking part in activities that demonstrate your ability to communicate science with the public and work with others. Form relationships with advisers who can write you excellent recommendations. To those of you watching Mythbusters, watch how they communicate scientific principles and see what you can gain from it. And those of you who have already graduated and are looking for work, don’t let a bad grade in physical chemistry discourage you. That matters less than your ability to, you know, actually work with people to do the job.
So, future chemists of America, here’s your call: get out there and show that you have the communication skills, teamwork ability and passion for chemistry to get the job!
(Editor’s note: for more tips and tricks, see the ACS Careers blog)
Aisha Hilliard just graduated from Duke University with a Bachelors of Science in Chemistry. Throughout her undergraduate career, Aisha enjoyed working in various research laboratories as well as the pleasure of being published. Before coming to the United States, Aisha lived in Berlin, Germany and plans to return this summer to engage in writing, poetry and painting.