Competency Is Just the Price of Admission
By Dr. Thomas H. Lane, President, American Chemical Society, 2009
You are part of what I consider one of the grandest educational adventures a person can experience: graduate-level research and learning. You test your critical thinking skills daily. Your work requires you to look at problems from all sides, develop hypotheses, gather empirical data, evaluate it, and draw defensible conclusions.
All of this graduate-level training and learning is geared toward helping you develop the skills, intellect, and knowledge base you need in order to make meaningful contributions to society. In short, you are developing competency in your field of study.
BUT ― and this is a big― being competent is just the price of admission. You also need courage, collaboration, communication, creativity, commitment, and compassion.
Once called “soft skills,” these “Six Cs” are now considered essential skills. To be highly successful in today’s business and academic environments, you need to master these skills and add them to your professional toolbox.
This truth holds especially in today’s increasingly competitive job market. Many employers are looking beyond the type of degree you have and where you studied. They also want to know how well you work with others; how good you are at lateral thinking (thinking outside the box); whether you exercise the ability to visualize and explain novel approaches to research challenges; and how well you adapt to changing work environments.
Communication and Collaboration
These are long-time key components of scientific research. Rarely, if ever, do chemists and chemical engineers work in isolation. More often than not, we participate in multidisciplinary research groups. We must learn the language and acronyms of the other disciplines represented in our teams and in return, we must be able to explain the subtleties and critical nuances of our own area of expertise.
One of the great things working in a multidisciplinary setting is the diversity of thought it brings to the table. As an employer, I place high value on having a multidisciplinary team whenever I have a tough problem to address.
Obviously, successful collaboration begins with good communication. And good communication begins with good listening and meaningful feedback. Cultivate an inclusive attitude and keep your mind open to new ideas that your teammates might offer.
I also strongly encourage you to remember what management consultant Peter Drucker once said: “The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said.”
In addition to communicating with other scientists and engineers, you face an equally important need to describe the importance of your work to nonscientists. These will include family, friends, community leaders, policymakers, students — and yes, perhaps at some point in your career, even reporters.
I cannot stress too strongly the importance of gaining the ability to explain to people outside the scientific community how our work benefits their lives. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that this can pose a difficult challenge. As researchers, we feel comfortable in our own world of scientific jargon, formulas, and esoteric interests. However, we need to get out of our comfort zones (also known as coffins) every now and then and start talking in simple language to other people about the relevancy of chemistry to everyday life.
It’s imperative that we generate interest among the public for what we do by taking the time to explain the benefits of our research in plain, easy-to-understand words. By doing so, we open dialogues that can reap dividends for all of us, scientists and nonscientists alike.
And a final word on communication. When it comes to writing a successful grant proposal and gaining funding for your work, you’d better be able to communicate!
Creativity goes hand-in-hand with communication. It’s the ability to envision and express original ideas, solutions, or processes to do things that no one else has done.
Being creative doesn’t necessarily mean having a bunch of “Eureka!” moments. The creative process often manifests much more subtly. Perhaps you simply come up with a refinement to a process that improves efficiency and saves money. The truth is, creativity is typically more evolutionary than revolutionary. That isn’t to say that there haven’t been some great creative revolutionary achievements. There have been many. And many more lie ahead.
There isn’t any great secret to creativity. You don’t have to be “born with it.” To be creative, you need to be flexible, willing to entertain new ideas, and think just a little bit differently. In part, creativity stems from your attitude. Do you see an unexpected research result as a problem that will slow things down? Or as an opportunity for improvement?
I think young children are naturally creative. Listen to them sometime. They constantly ask, “Why?” “Why not?” “What if … ?” We can learn from their unabashed inquisitiveness and enthusiasm. R. Buckminster Fuller once said:
“Children are born true scientists. They spontaneously experiment and experience, and re-experience again. They select, combine, and test, seeking to find order in their experiences: ‘Which is the mostest? Which is the leastest?’ They smell, taste, bite, and touch-test for hardness, softness, springiness, roughness, smoothness, coldness, warmness; they heft, shake, punch, squeeze, push, crush, rub, and try to pull things apart.”
And I could not agree more!
I’m sure some of the world’s greatest achievements started with someone asking the same types of questions that children do. Newton wasn’t the first person to see an apple fall from a tree. But he was the one who asked, “Why does it fall to the ground rather than toward the sky?”
ACS underscores the importance of creativity to the scientific process via several of the national awards it presents each year. Here are a few representative titles.
The ACS Award for:
- Creative Advances in Environmental Science and Technology
- Creative Research & Applications of Iodine Chemistry
- Creative Work in Fluorine Chemistry
- Creative Synthetic Organic Chemistry
- Creative Invention
It takes courage to be creative, to be different, to find a more efficient way of doing things, or to draw different conclusions. Of course, courageous actions or ideas can also lead to controversy. But that’s okay, as long as the ensuing discussions remain balanced and rational while they help move science forward in a beneficial way.
Like creativity, courage isn’t something you’re born with. It’s an acquired trait, a skill you learn and refine with experience.
Part of your graduate education experience involves learning how to be courageous. Professors and advisers constantly challenge you. They expect — perhaps even demand — that you think for yourself. The really great teachers want you to question them, not simply accept whatever they say. It’s the inherent give and take of graduate education that helps shape you as a scientist.
Without a doubt, questioning the reasoning or the conclusions of the people who hold so much sway over your goal of an advanced degree takes a lot of courage. It works the same way in the corporate world. Only there, a paycheck rather than a degree could be on the line. Nonetheless, to garner success in today’s business world, you need to acquire and refine the skill of courage.
While I encourage you to be courageous, I hasten to add that courage does not equal foolhardiness. Like everything, demonstrating courage comes with its caveats. For one: timing. As many have learned — sometimes the hard way — timing is everything. You need to learn when to speak up and when to bide your time. Another caveat: congeniality. This adage holds a lot of truth: “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.” Strive to be collegial rather than confrontational.
Finally, be brave enough to be visionary. Just be sure to base your vision on solid research. Conduct meaningful experiments. Interpret your own data critically. Then, stand with the courage of your convictions.
By now, you’ve learned that grad school is no walk in the park. It requires drive and focus to handle whatever gets thrown at you. Speaking from experience, I can tell you it’s no different in business.
Companies want researchers committed to helping develop and deliver the very best products to customers, on-time and within budget. Demonstrable enthusiasm for the task at hand really counts here.
There is no room for complacency in your skills inventory. Complacent employees cost companies money. They slow down production and inhibit innovation.
At the risk of sounding like a guest on some reality TV show, I must admit I have a problem with commitment. No, not that kind. I’m talking about commitment in our professional lives and even in our national approach to research.
Too often, it seems to me that commitment is reactive rather than sustained. Take for example the national reaction to the tremendous spike in oil prices last year. With the cost of a barrel of crude reaching record levels each day, everyone called for a renewed commitment to developing alternative energy. I remember hearing the same hue and cry back in the 1970s. This time around, I hope we make a sustained commitment to alternative energy instead of reverting to our old lackadaisical habits once we finish reacting to a crisis.
As chemists and chemical engineers, we must set the example for commitment. And we should not confine that to just the research lab or classroom. Be a proactive member of the ACS. Get involved and commit yourself to making a difference.
We must never forget what it means to be a chemist or a chemical engineer. It means helping other people. In fact, the ACS was founded in part on this premise. Our national charter and constitution state our purpose very clearly in:
“… fostering public welfare and education, aiding the development of our country’s industries, and adding to the material prosperity and happiness of our people.”
Chemistry lies at the core of just about everything. Anything you can see, touch, taste, or smell is a chemical. As chemists, we create things from these chemicals to improve lives.
Our science forms the backbone of pharmaceutical development. Percy Julian’s groundbreaking work on the synthesis of physostogmine made a huge difference in the lives of people with glaucoma. The research of Carl and Gerty Cori showed how our bodies metabolize glucose and laid the foundation for the development of new ways to control diabetes.
A multitude of products that make our lives more comfortable resulted from chemists looking for ways to improve people’s lives. Leo Bakeland led us into the age of plastic when he developed Bakelite. A collaborative effort among the U.S. government and chemists in industry and academia during World War II brought synthetic rubber to market — a critical achievement, given the scarcity of the natural rubber needed for the war effort.
Thanks to chemists, today we enjoy cotton clothes that resist wrinkles, textiles that retard fire, and batteries that power every imaginable electronic device.
What you and I do as chemists makes a difference. We help create things that improve lives. Just as we need to have passion for our science, so we need compassion for other people. They provide the reason why we do what we do, why you have devoted years of hard work to your studies. Ultimately, your dedication and sacrifice benefit other people. You can harbor no finer ambition than to help others. Never forget that.
A Final Assignment …
For those of you who are about to leave school and start your work careers, I strongly encourage you to read, or reread, the “Employment Outlook” feature, Thinking Creatively About Your Work, in the Nov. 3, 2008, issue of Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN).
As that article emphasizes, the 2009 employment picture remains a bit unpredictable, though weaker than last year’s. On the other hand, the accompanying articles in the magazine give you the inside scoop on what companies are looking for in job candidates.
In his editorial for that issue, C&EN Editor-in-Chief Rudy Baum underscores much of what I’ve been talking about in this newsletter:
“The employment outlook for 2009 is, without doubt, unsettled, but passion for your science and flexibility about your career path can make a world of difference in a job search.”
Baum also noted that:
“Companies are looking for well-rounded candidates, those who possess excellent technical proficiency along with good communication skills and the ability to work in teams.”
In an interview with C&EN, University of Delaware Professor George W. Luther perhaps summed it up best:
“Just because you’re a chemist doesn’t mean you’re limited to doing exactly what chemists are supposed to be doing. What’s critical is finding a scientific topic that you’re passionate about.”
Dr. Thomas H. Lane is the 2009 President of the American Chemical Society and the Director of Global Science and Technology Outreach and Sr. Research Scientist at Dow Corning Corporation.