More chemistry graduates leave science than stay in it… what can we do about that? Stuart Brown thinks that increased collaboration between industry and academia is key in developing and keeping the next generation of scientists…
The 2018 What do graduates do? report from graduate careers experts Prospects found that only 16.6% of chemistry graduates left university to be hired in science roles, with 19.9% entering the job market in unrelated sectors.
While some of this divergence will of course be by choice, it’s a real concern that so few are leaving university to enter chemistry professions. If our industry wants to attract and retain the brightest and the best, it’s incumbent upon universities, business and government to explore what can be done to get more graduates into chemistry jobs, and quicker.
It’s my experience that one of the most rewarding aspects of working in chemistry is passing on your knowledge to, and learning from, the next generation. That’s why I’m passionate about improving the relationship between universities, students, the private sector and government in order to increase the chances of chemistry students succeeding in industry.
As the corporate landscape in the sciences has changed from a few major companies with extensive industry placement schemes to an ecosystem of innovative SMEs who – due to their limited size – are able to offer fewer placements, experiences in industry for STEM students are much in demand. At my own company, we are proud to welcome university students into our labs, supporting them in their careers while providing training that plays a key role in the delivery of valued services to our clients.
To maximise the recruitment potential for chemistry students it is essential that graduates leave university with the relevant lab experience and skills that the industry requires. At a time when university education is increasingly expensive, it is imperative students emerge fully equipped to put their learning into practice in the workplace. It’s important to recognise that industry has a part to play, and for businesses to commit to working with universities to help students gain vital experience. This makes the students more attractive for future recruiters, and also encourages them to learn and develop through real life industry challenges. The extra resource it provides to SMEs such as ourselves is also crucial, and allows the acceleration of work that is being undertaken.
It is imperative that the government and scientific bodies support programmes that encourage SMEs to provide industry placements to allow more students to gain vital experience
The gulf between what a workplace demands and what is taught at degree level can be improved by the private sector and universities working together to develop syllabuses that will result in more work-ready students. Today, many universities teach courses that strive to produce well rounded scientists that have multidisciplinary knowledge such as, say, both organic chemistry and biology.
While there are benefits to this in many areas of modern science which works at interfaces between traditional divisions, it ultimately means students come into the marketplace with a more general knowledge of science as a whole, but not the depth of understanding required in a niche lab environment. A company like ours needs organic chemistry expertise and we recognise we can help provide this through the intensive learning in a specific area of an undergraduate placement.
Safety and business
In both academia and industry, safety is paramount and needs to be understood and respected by anyone working in the lab-based sciences. Teaching this in an undergraduate course is often a challenge as students are under time pressures to complete practical lab assessments and the scientist may not do the full hazard assessment themselves but follow a safety protocol set out for them.
In a research environment, hazard assessments must be carried out ahead of undertaking any lab work and, by definition, often involves previously untried experiments. For a new placement student, it’s important to invest a significant amount of time training them on safety assessment procedures and train them on how to set up and execute experiments in the lab.
Developing skills not explicitly related to science is also important. For companies that rely on close liaison with the people we work for and the building of relationships, inter-personal intelligence is key. The client facing work is hugely important in understanding what it is that needs to be delivered at the bench and how that may change as the project evolves.
Students should also have the option to take courses that would allow them to build business acumen, covering topics such as leadership, entrepreneurship and management. In order to operate a successful scientific business what happens in the lab is only half of making it a success.
The relationship between universities and the private sector is not just one way. We will, for example, soon be working with the University of Lancaster to sponsor a research chemistry project completed by one of its masters students. While in this instance the project will be completed at the university, the student will have the opportunity to be seconded to us in order to gain industrial insight into how the work they are undertaking within academia will be translated into industry.
Money where your mouth is
This is a perfect example of how, as SMEs grow they can look to support the next generation of chemists. However, it is imperative that the government and scientific bodies support programmes that encourage SMEs to provide industry placements to allow more students to gain vital experience in an industry environment. It is not just in the interests of industry and students for such practices to flourish, but the continued development and growth of the science sector as a whole.
Therefore, I would encourage government and industry bodies to further explore funding options for such initiatives. My own career received a kickstart thanks to my involvement in a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP), which saw me move from academia at the University of Edinburgh to a small business in Manchester. As part of the KTP programme there were business training modules that allowed me to develop a greater understanding of economics and allowed me to develop the skillset that would eventually lead to my current role as commercial director. This is a great example of the holistic approach to learning that is so important in science today.
It’s not fair to expect new recruits to be fully up to speed on all a role requires before they arrive – that’s true of any job, and it’s the role of established professionals there to guide them through their personal development. Helping students develop their knowledge and skill is the responsibility of those of us who already work in science, but it also has huge benefits for business. The extra resource provided by welcoming placement students can enable a company to accelerate projects. In our case, it allowed us to provide a resource for higher risk research projects that would have otherwise been difficult to fund.
Our experience with undergraduates has been hugely positive, and I would encourage colleagues across industry, academia and government to explore ways in which they further support the next generation of chemists in developing rewarding and lasting careers.
Stuart Brown is Commercial Director at Apex Molecular