Looking Back and Moving Forward: Meet Bill Carroll

Bill Carroll shares what he's learned in his years in industry and shares wisdom with young chemists
building skills

What are the non-technical skills that helped you most throughout your career in industry?

They were the skills derived from the years of speech and debate, theatre and radio in high school, college and grad school.  In high school, one of the competitions was “Group Discussion” wherein you had to participate in or lead a group.  In essence, it was a meeting.  Learning how to be a good meeting leader was invaluable in a number of situations.  Speech and debate came in handy in my days as a corporate spokesperson/issue manager. 

For a young chemist considering a career in industry, what should they be thinking about in terms of whether to pursue a Ph.D.?

To be blunt, as Don Henley once wrote, “How bad do you want it?”  Getting a Ph.D. is less about being blindingly smart and more about refusing to be denied.  There are a million hurdles—some scientific and some administrative—almost none are totally insurmountable if you work hard enough.  If you want to be in research, are you the kind of person who is only interested in a few things but very much wants to explore them?  Then academe is probably for you.  You can work on whatever you want, so long as you can get funded.  On the other hand, if you’re the kind of person who can get interested in lots of different topics, then maybe industry is for you.  Remember, in industry you trade your scientific freedom for a better salary and better hours.  And at the Ph.D. level, you put yourself in a position to manage and direct some of that research.  That opportunity is less likely for someone with a BS or MS.

But I don’t want you to think that the opportunities are limited to research.  Depending on the business, there are a number of roles in industry for people with technical degrees.  They range from sales and marketing to information services, to regulatory compliance and beyond.  What’s most important is that in your degree program you’ve learned how to teach yourself the next big thing you need to learn.

What is something you got seriously wrong at some point during your career in industry? What did you learn from it?

One day I went into my boss, the EVP of my division, and told him I needed a funding decision, and I didn’t have much time.  He said, “Well, if you need to know today, the answer is no, and it doesn’t really matter what the question is.  You need to figure out how to give me more time to make a decision.”  I never forgot that, and it colored both the way I worked with superiors and my reports.

You are an ACS Career Consultant. On what subject are you most often asked to provide advice? And how do you generally respond?

Probably whether industry is the right place for that person.  And I pretty much answer as I did regarding the nearby question regarding the pros and cons of pursuing a Ph.D.  I really enjoy teaching how to construct a great resume and how to interview, and there’s nothing that means more to me than when a student sends me a note and says “I got a job, and I couldn’t have done it without you.”  Of course, that’s not true—the student made his or her record, and that’s what got them the job.  But I helped package it a little and it’s great to know it helped.

You have served ACS for many years in a number of roles. Did the volunteer service make you more effective in your ‘day job’?  If so, how?

Probably has taught me more patience for dealing with a non-hierarchal management structure.   On the other hand, I used everything I learned in 25 years of day job as ACS President and Board Chair.  Volunteering for ACS also increased the size and quality of my network for all the truly great scientists and volunteers I’ve had a chance to meet.

How is it harder for a mid-career industry chemist today than in the past? What advice do you have for them to thrive in this challenging environment?

In the days when you could expect to stay with an organization for 40 years, you probably didn’t need to nurture your career the way you do today.  Nothing was sadder to me than, in 2008, to see 50-year-olds out of a job with obsolete skills and no network.  These days, I think each of us is really a single proprietor business, carrying a toolkit with us wherever we go.  You need to be the sales force, the marketing department and the production unit all in one, and each of us needs to be a brand—a guarantee of quality and consistency.  Networking is about getting to know lots of people and to help them get to know you. Continuously adding to your skillset keeps you from being obsolete and gives you a leg up on your next opportunity—whether you choose to look for it yourself or the choice is made for you.  Keep your eyes open for the next interesting thing you can get involved in.  And don’t forget, every wonderful opportunity initially looks difficult and like more work.

You are a huge music fan – to the point where you invested thousands of hours to write a book, “Ranking the Rock Writers.” If I put you in a time machine and let you go back to watch any live concert between 1950-1980, what artist/year would you select and why?

I can think of two criteria for picking: music and history.  Musically, I’m not sure any concert I saw stands head and shoulders out of the crowd, although it’s really tough not to like Steely Dan for sheer musicality.  But history is more intriguing.  Of the concerts I saw, the most historically interesting was Carole King, James Taylor and Jo Mama (mostly Taylor’s back-up band, but outstanding players) in February or March 1971 in Indianapolis.  James Taylor was hot as fire (and rain, I suppose), but nobody knew who Carole King was, because Tapestry was brand new.  But she blew us away.  I think the three of them played over 3 hours.

Of the concerts I didn’t see, but would have liked to for their historical significance—#3 Monterey Pop, 1967: Summer of Love and everyone from the Who to Janis Joplin/Big Brother to Simon and Garfunkel, and a new guy called Jimi Hendrix; #2 The outdoor, Let It Be concert on the roof of the Apple Building, January 1969: Beatles and Billy Preston.  #1 How could it be anything but Woodstock?  Honorable Mention to Live Aid—the London show—if only for the Queen performance (now to be seen in the movie Bohemian Rhapsody) but also U2, Elvis Costello, Paul McCartney and others.

About the Contributor

Bill Carroll, Carroll Applied Science, L.L.C.
Bill Carroll, Carroll Applied Science, L.L.C.

Dr. William F. Carroll, Jr. holds a PhD in Organic Chemistry from Indiana University, Bloomington, IN. He received an MS from Tulane University in New Orleans, and a BA in Chemistry and Physics from DePauw University in Greencastle, IN. He retired from Occidental Chemical Corporation in 2015 after 36 years, and now heads his own company, Carroll Applied Science, LLC. He is also Adjunct Professor of Chemistry at Indiana, a Certified Professional Retirement Coach and both Past President and Past Chair of the Board of the American Chemical Society.

This article has been edited for length and clarity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of their employer or the American Chemical Society.

Copyright 2019 American Chemical Society (All Rights Reserved)

Bill Carroll Carroll Applied Science, L.L.C.