Succeeding as an industrial chemist involves moving faster, scaling up, and learning to be a diplomat
After my Ph. D. in organic chemistry (Ohio State), I went for a postdoc in Germany (Albert-Ludwigs Universität Freiburg), then a national lab (Pacific Northwest National Lab), before taking a position at a chemicals company (AMPAC Fine Chemicals). Across this spectrum of research experiences, I learned about the skillsets needed to succeed in different work environments. Grad school taught me how to deliver results and publications, teach basic science, and build up my chemistry toolbox. That was a great launching pad, but industry operates in a different way…
My post-doc at PNNL served as a stepping stone from the academic into the industrial laboratory. In the industrial laboratory, the client has a prominent presence in many aspects of the project. While I can see it now, as a grad student and as an academic post-doc, the professor kept many of the bureaucratic aspects of science away from my desk. While at PNNL, I was fully involved in writing the deliverables beyond the publications, like regular updates and quarterly reports to clients and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).
Industrial research is all about the deliverables. For our work, it can range from a development report, a risk assessment or memo documenting how a chemical behaved in an experiment, to shipping several kilograms of a target compound for further testing by the client. I have been on a project that was cancelled because the team failed to deliver on time. We could not scale up a target successfully due to issues with its design, whose the synthetic flaws were hidden by the promising early performance testing results. Similar failures are seen in pharmaceuticals, because a process cannot be executed, or a compound has issues with toxicological or clinical trials. Industrial projects are simply larger in scale, and an expansive skillset beyond what was learned in the lab will help the project reach a successful conclusion. The most important skills are time management, communication, and teamwork.
My mentor at PNNL taught me the importance of time management, and applying cost-benefit analysis to the use of time. The work is divided up so that more ideas can be quickly scoped or scouted, and work is assigned based upon ability and expertise. While there is time to learn in an industrial laboratory, not as much time is afforded to learning as in an academic setting. Time pressures and deadlines are more concrete, while consequences for not fulfilling tasks can rise to project-breaking levels, including the loss of a client. I felt in academia that time was not particularly an issue, but that is not the case in industry. A failed experiment, or issues with instrumentation can be a setback to having results for the weekly conference call or internal meeting. A lost week can make the difference between on-time and delayed projects. Such delays incur penalties on the company, which can be especially detrimental for smaller ones like contract manufacturers and biotech companies.
I moved into a contract development and manufacturing organization (CDMO), AMPAC Fine Chemicals, based in Rancho Cordova, California, a suburb of Sacramento. Here the scientist is the jack-of-all-trades. Regular, clear communication is paramount to success. I am responsible for client interactions in all aspects, I am the technical lead on multiple projects, and I have to facilitate discussion between all departments at the company. Here is where communication skills can make or break you, as most people around you do not speak “Scientist,” including clients at times. In a given day, I will speak to operations, engineering, quality assurance, procurement, project management, and the client. The teaching skills learned in grad school have come in handy more than once, because I am explaining chemistry to a diverse audience each day.
Between my time at AMPAC and PNNL, I have learned to work and thrive in a collaborative team environment. This skillset is highly sought after by companies, because a solid team can punch above their weight on projects, while a weak team will collapse under the weight of issues external to the project. In both roles at PNNL and AMPAC, I had the mentality that the scientist is a diplomat. We are the champion of the project, we go between groups, speaking different languages, and we must negotiate between parties to get what we want or need for success. Teamwork is all about cultivating relationships. Often I have seen a meeting break down or a project get delayed because two or more parties were not in good standing. My role as an industrial scientist has been to steer both internal and external parties to solutions. It takes soft skills to get the team on board with a solution, and going to a meeting with a clear agenda can be the difference between a muddled and productive outcome.
In summary, the job of an industrial chemist is not vastly different from what you might be used to in an academic setting. But the skills you learn outside of the lab will prove to be more important than the chemistry toolbox you are currently working on. Often I am solving problems outside the lab rather than inside, and as you career evolves, you will find more of your responsibilities will pull you away from wet chemistry. Get involved in writing beyond publications, and dip into your teaching experience when considering how to communicate, since your audience will vary in their understanding of chemistry. Consider your fundamentals carefully, something seemingly simple as heat management is not so simple once applied at industrial scale. Always be cognizant of the time it takes to do something, the scales are literally weighted against working quickly, because what takes minutes in the lab can possibly take hours at scale. At the end of the day, your work in industry will produce real world applications that you can be proud of.