Calling All Mentors

Academics and industrial chemists: share your experience and advice with young scientists. We must motivate more students to enter the analytical sciences.

By Charles Lucy, Professor Emeritus and 3M National Teaching Fellow at the University of Alberta, Canada.

September 2017

It is the start of a new school year here at the University of Alberta. My office window rattles with the thumping music that accompanies the herds of eager new students wandering our campus. Chatting with students, I learn of their career plans to be a doctor, engineer... rarely a chemist. And never an analytical scientist. As I wipe the tears from my eyes, I ask, “Why don’t students want to be analytical scientists?”

When people choose a particular university degree, the four driving forces are: career motivation, intrinsic interest in the subject, the opportunity to help others, and the desire to get an easy degree (1). Those choosing medicine are motivated both by the desire to help others and the belief that there are careers in the field. Students enter engineering based on its career opportunities, while their intrinsic interest in the field is sadly low. Science students are driven by interest in their field, while the possibility of a science career has not factored into their decision. Not surprisingly, they don’t perceive science as easy.

So why do I bring this up? Because there is a high demand for analytical chemists in industry. Analytical chemistry is the largest category of employment for chemistry in the United States (2) and many other countries. Knowledge of career options would motivate more students to enter the field. Unfortunately, most academic analytical chemists, such as myself, have little industrial experience, so are ill equipped to advise students about careers in the analytical sciences. That is why I am calling on you!

At the University of Alberta we recently established a seminar course that models some of the ways that practicing analytical scientists can make a big impact on students and their career plans (3)(4). The primary component is a weekly one-hour seminar by local industrial and government chemists (often our alumni) who share their career paths, briefly introduce their company and laboratories, talk about the science they are working on, and discuss career opportunities in their industry. Students come loaded with many questions, and the speakers are eager to share their experiences and their advice.

The course also includes tours of local industry, which are always a highlight for the students, who are amazed both at the industrial scale, and the discovery that there are chemistry jobs in their local area!

Our course culminates in a mock interview. Practicing chemists provide a job ad typical of an entry-level chemistry position in their company, and students write a cover letter and resume tailored for that position. The industrial chemists come to interview the student in their company’s typical interview style and then provide confidential feedback. The students find this experience invaluable and the interviewers enjoy it, too. Some companies also do recruitment interviews based on the same job ads. Last year, about a dozen students received job offers.

But it is the informational interview that has been most influential for students – and it requires little time or effort from the professional chemist (5)(6). The student meets with someone with industrial experience to learn about the industry, the company, and about careers in the field. We also have the students do informational interviews with returning industrial internship students, with graduate students who have industrial experience, and, most valuably, with local alumni. Such interviews can be as simple as a conversation over coffee, but are nonetheless invaluable to the student.

In conclusion, I encourage academics to reach out to their alumni and their local industrial colleagues to meet with their students. Similarly, I encourage industrial chemists to reach out to your alma mater or to your local college, and offer to share your experience. These “sharings” can be as simple as a chat with a class or as formal as a tour of a lab. Academics, rest assured that your request will be met with enthusiasm – I have yet to have an alumnus turn me down. Analytical scientists, rest assured that what you do is cool, and that you work with some really awesome toys. Students will be fascinated by what you do. And seeing that there are interesting and important jobs in the analytical sciences will encourage students to consider a career in the field.

  1. A Skatova & E Ferguson, Front Psychol 5, 1244 (2014).
  2. L Wang, Chem Eng News 93, 42–43 (2015).
  3. CA Lucy, Anal Bioanal Chem 409, 5185–5190 (2017).
  4. Chem 300: Introduction to Industrial Chemistry. Available at: bit.ly/2wBcWEa,. Accessed September 4, 2017.
  5. How an informational interview can help your career. Available at: bit.ly/2xLmxXC. Accessed September 4 2017.
  6. The informational interview [video]. Available at: bit.ly/1RwsMS4.

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