4Skills Taught in Chemistry Graduate Education

Publication Details

“We don't want folks who are very focused and narrow. We want folks who are broad-thinking, looking to contribute not only to their work, but to support their colleagues.”

—David Kronenthal, Bristol-Myers Squibb

Closely related to the goals of graduate education are the skills imparted through that education. This chapter takes a much more hands-on look at graduate education. It asks what skills have served chemists well in their positions and what additional skills would have been useful. It also considers the skills that will be in greater demand as the jobs in the chemistry field diversify and evolve.

This chapter divides the speakers who offered perspectives on skills into five broad groupings: new faculty members, industry representatives, new industrial chemists, chemists in nontraditional careers, and a venture capitalist. While some of the useful skills they cite overlap, others differ from person to person and sector to sector. Chapter 6 compiles these ideas, along with those in chapters 3 and 5, into a single list.


Teaching as a Career

Julie Aaron, a second-year professor from DeSales University, teaches at a purely undergraduate institution and works with undergraduates rather than graduate students. She received her PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in May 2010 and her undergraduate degree at McMaster University in Canada. She was a chemistry major, taking the majority of her classes in chemistry and not writing a single essay as an undergraduate. She regrets that now, but “you want to do what is easy because you feel successful at it. We have to force ourselves to do things that aren't easy.”

Her advisor at University of Pennsylvania was not supportive of her decision to go to DeSales and instead urged her to do a postdoc. However, many of the other people she knew who were doing postdocs had been doing them for three or more years. She took a chance on pursuing a teaching career and says that she is glad she did. “Teaching is truly what I believe I was meant to do, and I really enjoy it.” She teaches between four and five courses a semester and is the only biochemist on the faculty. She is in charge of putting together the curriculum and laboratories and preparing for accreditation. She also is heavily involved in recruiting students into the major. She mentors a student doing undergraduate research and advises 25 or so students who are health-related and science majors.

Her experience as a teaching assistant was “tremendously important” in laying the foundation for these skills. During two of her years as an undergraduate, she was a teaching assistant for an undergraduate freshman chemistry laboratory course as well as a calculus course. In particular, as preparation to teach calculus, she took a course in which a faculty member taught teaching assistants how to teach math. A similar course in teaching chemistry would be an extremely valuable addition to graduate school, she said. It should be designed for students who are in their later years of graduate school and are planning to go into teaching.

Despite her experiences with teaching at University of Pennsylvania, Aaron had to develop several critical skills at DeSales. She was not prepared to design curricula and was challenged to put together two semesters of a biochemistry lab despite never having taken a biochemistry laboratory as a student. She had to learn in her teaching how to break down concepts and explain them in terms that diverse groups of students could understand. She also needed to be able to mentor and advise students, prepare proposals, manage her time, and prepare assessments.

She was supported by an NIH fellowship at University of Pennsylvania, which had both pros and cons. It enabled her to develop and pursue interests outside her research area of crystallography, in part by taking classes in the medical school. She also had monthly meetings with other people receiving the fellowship and organized symposia funded partly by the grant. But it created tension with her advisor who “wasn't exactly thrilled that I was doing all this other stuff on the side, but he kind of let it go. I didn't talk to him about it too much, and we had this great relationship where I think in the end he was really glad I did it, but as long as it didn't interfere too much with the lab.” Her advisor encouraged her to attend meetings, present posters, and give talks, which helped her learn to speak in public. He also encouraged his students to write their own papers, which he then edited with them in an iterative process.

Also as a graduate student, she traveled to other universities and to several synchrotron facilities to work with other groups and collect data. And she mentored an undergraduate student while completing her PhD.

She regretted having only cumulative exams and not a qualifying exam. She also missed out on forcing herself through the challenging process of putting together a research proposal. “I would have benefited from that.”

Though her relationship with her advisor was good, Aaron noted that many graduate students she knew had challenges with their advisors. These students usually had nowhere to go to talk about their problems. “We need to work on having a better way for students to deal with potential conflicts.”

Returning to Graduate School from Industry

Jennifer Schomaker, an assistant professor in the chemistry department at the University of Wisconsin, worked at Dow Chemical for almost eight years before going back to graduate school, which gave her a somewhat different perspective on graduate school. Schomaker was good at multitasking, both because of her industry experience and because she went through graduate school with children. Many graduate students would benefit from a more disciplined approach, she said. “I am not saying we need to push them to ridiculous levels and say you must work x number of hours. But I think it is fair to say you are preparing for a professional career. This means you don't read Facebook whenever you feel like it. You treat your colleagues professionally. There is a certain standard of behavior that you should be exhibiting even in graduate school.”

Her advisor in graduate school gave her a lot of independence, which is important in becoming an independent scientist. “As an advisor, you … need to let people find their own path. You need to let them come up with their own ideas even if you don't think they are good ideas. They need to work through this process.”

As a graduate student, she learned how to distill her ideas into a single central theme. Some people are already good at that, but graduate school does not necessarily teach people to do that. She, too, did not write a research proposal in graduate school, but she now sees it as crucial. “You need to be able to generate an independent idea. You need to be able to communicate that to a broad audience. You need to be able to defend that.” Graduate students also need feedback from faculty members on how to make their proposals better.

She had cumulative exams in graduate school and considered them a positive experience. However, as education becomes more interdisciplinary, it is hard to know what constitutes base knowledge. She also said it was important to mentor undergraduates. To have complete mastery of a subject and to communicate with a wider audience, graduate students need experience mentoring someone for whom science or chemistry is a completely new language.

As a professor, Schomaker tries to set goals with her students. What do they want to accomplish in six months? How are they going to do it? Students need to know that they are doing something important and should take their science seriously.

To counter the balkanization of graduate school, she encourages her students to explore other fields. Going to a seminar in a different field is not a waste of time, she said. She encourages her students to learn things that she does not know herself. “I don't want them to be clones of myself.” Rotating through several different laboratories as a first year graduate student can help students select an appropriate research advisor and allows them to explore different areas. Professors are eager for new graduate students to choose a research topic and get started, especially when they see an especially talented student, but this is a disadvantage for many students, who have a tendency to keep working in an area where they worked as an undergraduate. In addition, rotations build relationships that can be helpful throughout a career.

Students should be encouraged to give talks and should get feedback about what they did well and areas where they could improve. Students also need exposure to different careers. Schomaker said that she works very hard, and some of her students are put off by that. But a graduate degree does not mean that people need to be like their advisors.

Mock interviews and student-run seminars can give students skills they will need in any career. Training in managing people also will prove useful no matter what students do, especially in unanticipated situations.

Finally, as did several other speakers, Schomaker emphasized the critical importance of safety. Students need to realize that safety will be part of their life, especially as safety provisions become more prominent in academia. Thinking about safety also can help them think about the best experiment to do. “You can panic in grad school and just run lots and lots of reactions…. You need to pick the best experiments to do. You need to take the time to think.”

Strengths and Weaknesses of Graduate School

Samuel Thomas, an assistant professor in the chemistry department at Tufts University since 2009, was a graduate student at MIT and did a postdoc from 2006 until 2009. Graduate education and his postdoc were superb technical training, said Thomas. The experience also provided excellent training in public speaking, working in groups, and publishing scientific papers.

He felt less well prepared for mentoring students. As a graduate student, he felt compelled to focus on his own research rather than taking the time to mentor an undergraduate. That would have been a useful experience, he said, because the students he has now need information in a wide variety of areas, including safety, responsible conduct, and data recording.

He also could have used more exposure to managing people, including managing personalities, distributing credit, and inspiring students to do their best. Running multiple research projects at the same time also was something he did not do in graduate school.

In graduate school, he did a lot of proposal writing, which was important, since he learned as a postdoc that not every good idea equals funding. “Everybody has good ideas.” But additional training in how to write for reviewers and for other audiences, along with more experience in grantsmanship in general, would have been useful.

Financial management would be useful to teach to graduate students, such as budgeting and indirect costs. “I am not saying that graduate students should be involved in constructing five-year budgets, but [they should have] an idea of what some of the challenges and constraints are when it comes to federal funding.” Also, as a graduate student he knew virtually nothing about the organizational structure of funding agencies. “How to interact with those funding agencies would be great lessons that wouldn't take a huge amount of intellectual capital or time from departments and faculty and would be a useful endeavor.”

Mentoring Workshop

Later in the workshop, Robert Lees, a program director at NIGMS, described a mentoring workshop for new faculty supported by the institute. Universities and funding agencies make a large investment in new researchers, Lees observed. The Mentoring Workshop for New Faculty in Organic and Biological Chemistry is designed to help increase the proposal success rate for new faculty to that of establish faculty members, even in the face of intense funding competition.

The annual three-day workshop brings together six to eight experienced academic scientists as mentors, approximately 30 assistant professors, and three to six NIH staff. Assistant professors receive instruction in proposal writing, the building of unique and productive research programs, and the development of skills for success in other academic and professional activities. The workshop is highly interactive throughout, featuring mock study sections with real NIH applications and research presentations by attendees followed by constructive critiques. Participants also discuss case studies submitted by attendees involving managing and motivating research groups, collaborations, professional ethics, publishing and reviewing, navigating departmental politics, teaching challenges, project selection, and mentoring. In addition, the program emphasizes the diversity of participants and safety issues.

Eight workshops have occurred to date, with approximately 250 participants altogether, and the response from both mentors and attendees has been highly enthusiastic, Lees said.



ExxonMobil recruits about 35 PhDs per year, said Thomas Degnan, manager of Breakthrough and New Leads Technology at the company's research and engineering arm. Out of 83,000 total employees, 2,000 are PhDs, and about half of those come from the chemical sciences. ExxonMobil has a central research laboratory and spends $800 million to $1 billion annually on research.

Degnan said that ExxonMobil believes that universities are doing a very good job of preparing PhDs to solve problems outside an academic setting. However, Degnan added that the company has adjusted its recruiting policies, focusing on 20 to 25 schools with strengths that match what the company needs. The schools have been chosen based on a past history of recruiting and relationships with particular professors or programs that tend to produce students with interests well aligned to those of the company. “We do provide other routes for PhDs,” Degnan said, “But the highest likelihood for success in hiring is to come in through those universities or through an intern program.”

The PhD experience teaches people to analyze problems deeply, understand the basic scientific context, and thrive in an industrial environment, according to Degnan. The company looks for graduates with broad knowledge, the ability to work as part of a team, and the drive to help that team reach a higher level. New hires generally do not have just one area of focus during their tenure at the company, so the ability to adapt and learn new skills is important.

The interview process at the company focuses on critical thinking, creativity, communication skills, and work ethic—the qualities that go above and beyond technical proficiency and mark a standout candidate. “Identifying the best of the best requires that companies spend a lot of time working with the universities,” he pointed out. “Often when we see individuals come in from larger groups working on focused programs, a key question is, what part did you actually do? What part of the creative work that came out of that is attributable to the individual? Without the company's intimate understanding of those programs, it's very difficult to parse that out.”

Chevron Phillips Chemical

Bill Beaulieu, manager of polyolefin catalyst and product development at Chevron Phillips Chemical Company, briefly described the company, which was formed from the chemical assets of Chevron and Phillips but exists independently. A lack of government funding for polyolefin production and catalysis has led to a dearth of students in that area. However, the production of shale gas will likely drive petrochemical development in the next one to two decades, which could rejuvenate the U.S. petrochemical business.

In the last five years, Beaulieu has hired ten PhD chemists. “For me, that's a lot.” Most new hires come through advertisements on the ACS website, which drew 140 applicants for a recent position. The company typically hires U.S. citizens or those with green cards.

All the candidates the company wants to hire have strong chemistry skills, but the soft skills—such as communication ability and teamwork—differentiate between a successful applicant and ones who will not make it past the first round. “You have to be able to work with the engineers, with the administrative assistant, with the manufacturing guys, with the marketing and sales guys. We all have to see the objective the same way at the end of the day.”

Beaulieu said that the partnership between academia and the chemical industry could be much stronger. “There are a lot of things that the academic community offers that industry doesn't have or won't invest in,” he pointed out. “With a view of how we can do things across broader functions, we could be more successful than we have been.”

If a new hire comes from a great university, that person is not necessarily going to be a great contributor in an industrial environment, said Beaulieu. Some PhDs spend their time working on a project their professor devised rather than developing their own ideas.

Finally, Beaulieu pointed out that academia has recently placed more of an emphasis on safety regulations, which are a major area of focus in the chemical industry. Many employees spend time writing safety documentation, which is important to the company but may be an unfamiliar area for academics.

Merck, Sharp and Dohme

Sander Mills, vice president in discovery and preclinical sciences at Merck, Sharp and Dohme Corporation, said that chemists in leadership positions at the company agree across the board that new hires need rigorous training in chemistry, strong problem-solving and critical thinking skills, and the ability to innovate. “Assessing people's collaboration skills is really a challenge when they have worked mostly on their own in academia,” he said. “We always really like it when we can see evidence that they are comfortable and productive in a team-based environment.” Leadership is another desirable trait, along with enthusiasm for translating academic training to industry. In medicinal chemistry, new hires are expected to learn about many disciplines—such as biology and physical chemistry—and much of that training happens on the job.

The company looks for versatility in the way that potential hires address problems, he said. It also looks for evidence that their scientific training and chemical judgment have matured during their training. In addition, the ability to adapt will benefit their work in drug discovery.

Merck looks for new hires with the ability to grasp all the various areas of drug design so they can more quickly contribute their own ideas. In this vein, he said, the company often looks for candidates who have demonstrated creativity during their PhD work or are working on a project that lines up with the company's interests.

As the other industry representatives pointed out, communication and collaboration are crucial. Merck prioritizes problem-solving and experience, but soft skills will always give candidates an advantage in the industrial environment.

Bristol-Myers Squibb

David Kronenthal, vice president of chemical development at Bristol-Myers Squibb, echoed many of the previous panelists in listing desirable characteristics for new hires. The company looks for people who are highly trained, with a strong understanding of fundamentals but also the ability to go beyond that training. “We have a very selective process for recruiting and hiring,” said Kronenthal, who is responsible for a department of 95 people, mostly chemists. Recruiters try to measure curiosity and leadership potential in candidates as well as their ability to multitask. Employees may not work on multiple projects, but they need to be able to consider what is happening in other departments.

“We don't want folks who are very focused and narrow,” Kronenthal said. “We want folks who are broad-thinking, looking to contribute not only to their work, but to support their colleagues in the department.”

The company bases career advancement on both achievements and behavior, he said, in an attempt to emphasize a positive culture. “Our feeling is that once you have these attributes, you can teach the rest.” Chemists participate in interdisciplinary projects, branching out over the course of their career. The company also places great emphasis, as people become more senior, on mentorship, so that it continually brings along the next generation.

During the discussion period, Robert Bergman from the University of California, Berkeley, asked about the advantages and disadvantages of a tight job market. “I know it's good for [industry] to have 100 people applying for one job,” he said. “It's not so good for us.” In response, Kronenthal said that a broader set of skills helps give students the resources they need to be creative when fewer positions are available.


Joydeep Lahiri, division vice president and senior research director of organic and biochemical technologies at Corning, commented on the importance of teaching students how to choose where to direct their focus. People are generally hired with a project in mind, he said, but at Corning, a 160-year-old company with a centralized research approach, those who advance are the ones who spend time considering new angles and ideas.

Lahiri also talked about emerging skills for chemistry graduates, touching on the role of “value networks,” a concept introduced by Clayton Christensen. In the corporate world, a free market helps balance redundant value networks, which occur when innovation slows and there is a performance oversupply, but there is no equivalent mechanism for academia. “What we find is that, for certain disciplines, we have an oversupply, and in certain disciplines we have an undersupply,” he said. More dialogue between industry and academia could help balance supply and demand.

Lahiri added that soft skills can be taught without sacrificing depth, potentially by letting scientists work together on proposals and practice submitting proposals to business colleagues. “There are things you can do in the basic infrastructure of chemistry education,” he said. “You don't have the luxury of many more years of education. But there are small, very significant changes that one can make that would be very impactful for a sustainable chemistry education in industry.”

In responding to a question about transitioning between jobs, Lahiri pointed to the importance of working on interdisciplinary teams. Being able to explain chemistry to people who do not have a background in science provides adaptability in the job market. He also commented on the role of technology within companies. “One of the things we should do as a community—and this extends beyond chemistry—is to make sure that there is greater education of the value of technology among non-technologists, because it influences the financing of science and technology in the organizations. It's a heck of a lot easier to convince a CEO who is technically savvy about the value of science than a person who has no technical background.”

DuPont Central Research and Development

DuPont technology, said talent acquisition manager Rajiv Dhawan, has three major platforms: advanced materials, agriculture and nutrition, and industrial biotechnology. Scientists at the company focus on increasing food production, decreasing fossil fuel dependence, protecting lives and the environment and growth in emerging markets.

New hires need strong technical skills as well as other assets, and those other assets—creativity, communication skills, and a willingness to collaborate—are the ones that differentiate standout candidates. This is especially important, Dhawan said, given that innovation is happening more and more at the intersection of disciplines rather than in distinct areas.

All principal investigators in central research are expected to come up with proposals every year, and those proposals involve working with business colleagues, marketing professionals, and managers, all of whom have different communication styles. Fluent communication is therefore a crucial skill, as is familiarity with a wide range of different areas. “It's about these chemists actually being scientists,” Dhawan said. “You need to have that deep knowledge in one area. But to be able to be conversant in others is very important.” Reading an array of journals, he suggested, contributes greatly to this diversity of knowledge.

DuPont expects its new hires to be able to think independently and originate research ideas. “Part of being a PhD is being able to come up with your own ideas and not just simple extensions of what your advisor told you to do.” In addition, the company has recently emphasized hiring people with the entrepreneurship skills necessary to transform ideas into business.


Thriving in Industry

David Tellers, a senior research fellow in the department of medicinal chemistry at Merck, Sharp and Dohme, agreed that problem solving skills are essential for an industrial position. In addition, he discussed three other skills: the ability to work in a team environment, the ability to communicate, and the combination of flexibility and resiliency.

Teamwork he defined as the ability to recognize your role within an overall program. That means working with both the upstream parts of a program and the downstream parts.

Communication skills include the ability to recommend actions in a succinct manner. The more quickly a conclusion is made, the more quickly the program moves along. Newer researchers also need to be ready to recognize and acknowledge better ideas, while later in a career it becomes more important to sell your ideas to people who are not chemists.

Resilience and flexibility connote changing as a task or project changes. “You can't come into it thinking, this is what I did in graduate school and this is what I signed up for. That will change definitely, and it will probably change a lot sooner than you think it will.”

Graduate school helped Tellers to communicate by providing him with opportunities to present his results to the entire research group and to his advisor and other professors. Honest feedback from his advisor on what he was doing well and not doing well and on his career decisions was also important. He appreciated being told that an idea was bad or that he should do a postdoc in a particular place to get an industrial job in a particular area.

Having a broad exposure to chemistry and other fields does not necessarily make a person a problem solver, Tellers emphasized. For example, he would not have wanted to work in three different areas during his graduate years—that would have felt like a survey of different areas. “I personally found my most rewarding time in graduate school to be my last three years. I struggled my first two years to understand the science, and my last three years were the most fun because I felt like I had control of my discipline. That was where I made the most contributions to the science, not just the learning of the science, but the execution of the science.”

Nevertheless, he now wishes he had more exposure to work outside his own discipline. Though he went to presentations outside his field, it was not required or highly recommended, and he wishes that this exposure would have been more formal. Interacting more with the non-chemist on his thesis committee, and having an attorney on that committee, also would have been useful.

In addition, he wishes he had interacted more with the surrounding community while in graduate school. “That might be my responsibility, but at the same time I think the department owes it to itself, in the epoch four that we are in today, to force students to go out and meet not just high school students but people in retirement homes, and justify why we need chemistry.”

Finally, he wishes he had access to more descriptions of career opportunities in graduate school. What skill sets do you need if you want to go into the petrochemical industry, into pharmaceuticals, into academics? Videoconferences with former students who had gone into each of these areas, talking about their jobs without faculty members present, would have been extremely useful.

Developing Contextual Understanding

Siddhartha Shenoy, a senior research chemist at DuPont Central Research and Development, said that PhD students need to understand where their area of expertise is and how it fits into the broader context of science. This contextual understanding is vital during collaborative exercises. Otherwise, graduate students can think of only one way to solve a problem, which leads to self-selection of ideas and concepts and stifles innovation. People need to know how to work within a team that transcends a single field.

This becomes especially important during brainstorming sessions, when a group of people with different backgrounds break a problem down into first principles. Because of their different backgrounds, the people in the group break the problem down in different ways. “When you reconstruct that problem as a collective, you end up coming up with a very unique solution.” Similarly, understanding where one fits on a team helps in writing proposals involving people in different departments, which is “where the problems of tomorrow lie.”

Shenoy reminded the participants that the term “doctor” in Latin means teacher, and graduate students need to learn how to teach. Many graduate students look at teaching as a burden, but this mentality should be abandoned. Teaching builds invaluable skills, such as deconstructing a problem and teaching someone the same concept in different ways. “I do this on a day-to-day basis in DuPont when I propose my own research. The way I engage people in hitching their wagon onto my ideas is by teaching them what I think is the way to do it.” Also, teaching a subject in front of 300 people forces a graduate student to really understand that idea. Graduate students should know how valuable those skills will be later in their careers, no matter what they do.


Regulatory Science

Heather Gennadios, a chemist in the Division of Manufacturing Technologies at the Center for Veterinary Medicine, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said that one of the most valuable things she learned in graduate school was how to learn a new skill or technology quickly. This is a great skill to have in her current job, where she looks at a wide variety of products using different types of science and technology.

Time management was another valuable skill to learn. In graduate school, she had to prioritize to accomplish everything that needed to be done in the time available, which is also very applicable to her current job.

Interpreting data was emphasized in her graduate education. Is this a valid experiment? Were the correct controls utilized? Do the data look real? She uses the same skills in reviewing applications from industry at FDA.

Being comfortable speaking in front of an audience is another important skill to learn in graduate school, Gennadios said. It would have been even more valuable to learn to speak in front of a broad audience and write for nonspecialists, since she often does both at FDA but did not have an opportunity to do that in graduate school.

Like Tellers, she emphasized the importance of learning about career options in graduate school. “When I was in grad school, I really wanted to go into industry, … but I ended up working for the government. At the time I didn't know that was even an option. Communicate with the students and tell them, if you don't get your first choice, what alternatives or what other fields are out there that are applicable to their degree. I think that would be very helpful.”

Scientific Publishing

Jake Yeston said that graduate school was excellent preparation for his job as senior editor at Science magazine, though he ended up in publishing through an “accident.” One day, when he was finishing a postdoc, he was looking at the classified job ads in C&E News and saw that Science was looking for a chemistry editor. “That really wasn't a job that had been on my radar at all. In the back of my mind, I understood that there were people who were editors. Some of them were professors who did it part-time. Some of them were people for whom that was a full career. But I hadn't really played out that idea…. But when I looked at the ad, I thought, actually, I would be pretty good at that.”

At Berkeley he had two advisors in different fields of chemistry, so he had learned two very different research paradigms. Exposure to multiple fields turned out to be valuable at Science, which publishes papers from different fields as well as interdisciplinary papers. Learning to communicate across disciplines in graduate school, as well as doing a postdoc in Germany and helping other chemists express themselves in English, helped him edit at the magazine.

Unfortunately, he said, there are relatively few jobs in scientific publishing. Many graduate students are interested in the career, but not many jobs become available at any given time. Also, the profession is currently in a state of flux, as are all areas of publishing. But “the science publishing world as a whole is certainly not going to go away.” Graduate students should know more about the field: Who does it? What is the right publishing model? Is it good to have professor-edited journals? Is it good to have independent career people editing journals?

Yeston added that one thing that could use improvement in graduate education is safety expectations. Safety needs to be a constant consideration, much more cultural, and much less pro forma.


Graduate education is not preparing students sufficiently for the entrepreneurial workplace, said David Berry, a venture capitalist from Flagship Ventures, which is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Flagship Ventures, which invests mainly in life sciences and sustainability companies and currently has about 70 companies in its portfolio, runs its own laboratories in which it can develop technologies to address big problems, such as energy security, food security, and a cure for cancer. The Flagship team iterates the ideation, innovation, intellectual property generation, and implementation phases until a protocompany is ready to launch. The process has resulted in about 24 companies over the past decade. Berry himself has started companies valued at about $2 billion that have created about 1,000 jobs, 300 of which he has hired himself.

People who have come right out of PhD programs are incredibly deep experts in a very narrow subject area, said Berry. They work independently and are driven by credit in the form of papers and patents. They tend to dislike experimental risks and know what experiments they should do. They are functionally smart people but individual contributors.

But in an entrepreneurial ecosystem, the status of a technology or a company six months into the future is uncertain. The companies Berry founds are based on ideas no one else is pursuing, which means that subject matter experts do not exist. “If I find someone who is a deep subject-matter expert, it tells me that I should shut down the company because I don't have anything that is actually innovative.”

In such a situation, deep experts tend not to have the broad skills that are needed. Instead, Berry looks for what he called “athletes”—people who are smart, team contributors, willing to go beyond their comfort zones, eager to tackle any sort of problem, goal focused, and incredibly creative.

Flagship Ventures tries to build the culture in its companies that being wrong and admitting mistakes is as important as being right. In unexplored scientific or engineering spaces, the no answers are often more important than the yes answers. The company, rather than any specific project, needs to succeed.

Berry said that new hires from traditional PhD programs in the sciences take about six months to unlearn their graduate school behaviors and become a highly functional member of a company. “As a result, we have very significantly reduced the number of people who have that attribute from our hiring pool.” For example, a company Berry is running with 20 employees has changed its business plan two times in the eight months of its existence. “I can't afford to spend six months training people to break old habits when companies are growing that fast.”

Master's Degrees

Along the continuum from bachelor's degrees to PhDs, Flagship Ventures has hired the most people from the master's level. These students have spent more time learning broad subject matter. They may have dropped out of a PhD program for some reason, and as a result they tend to have a “chip on their shoulder,” said Berry, which they can channel into entrepreneurial activities. They want to do so something profound rather than deep, and they want to prove themselves. “We love bringing these people in. They haven't had the time to develop some of the bad habits of individualized behavior. They sit there and they are inspired. They work very closely with the team. They love direction. They love to learn.”

Berry has also noticed what he called “profound differences” among people who get a three-year PhD, a four-year PhD, and a five-year PhD. Many people who have gotten their PhDs in three years are absolutely stellar performers. Their subject mastery is not necessarily the key. Rather, they are able to use the laboratory environment efficiently and productively. They form collaborations and inspire creativity in others. They know something about marketing and salesmanship. They tend to function more like postdoctoral fellows, said Berry, because they draw on the talents of other PhD students. They view relying on others not as a failure but as a means of achieving success. Their skills are more important than the fact that they completed their PhDs in three years. “I don't know that we can engineer everyone to be the greatest student in a lab.”


Berry distinguished between science as discovering, engineering as problem solving, and “entrepreneuring” as building companies. It is not a common word, but he prefers an active word rather than the more static “entrepreneurship.” It involves bringing a discovery to the market in the context of a company. Successful entrepreneurs tend to use a multidimensional form of systems thinking that is coupled with selling a product and protecting market advantages. People who do very efficient PhDs tend to have these skills and are very desirable for small-scale companies.

Graduate school laboratories that encourage their students to do more engineering and innovation force those students to think about the relevance and potential uses of a discovery. Rather than a single solution, students tend to devise a set of potential solutions and figure out which solution can solve the problem. Also, thinking about the protection of intellectual property trains students to look for opportunity spaces, where science creates business opportunities and jobs.

Many new companies take insights from multiple disciplines to meet a challenge. For example, a Flagship Ventures company working on global nutrition challenges combines mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, biology, physics, chemistry, and other disciplines. “We don't actually have a single chemist on our team, but we have a lot of chemical expertise in various ways by people who have proven in their graduate education to be athletes, typically much more from the chemical engineering and biological engineering sides of things.”


Multidisciplinary PhDs are intriguing from an entrepreneurial perspective, said Berry. In this case, doctoral students would not be siloed to a particular area like inorganic chemistry but would know something about all of chemistry.

Many recent PhD students who Berry decides to interview are interested in selling and marketing, but they may not have learned much about these subjects in school. Taking classes in business schools is not necessary, but there are many lessons to be learned from professors who have succeeded as entrepreneurs.

Students should also have opportunities to interact with technology transfer offices and learn about intellectual property and other legal aspects of entrepreneuring.

The boundaries in traditional graduate education have led to a series of systemic problems, said Berry. “If we can start to eliminate those boundaries and let the sciences and engineering become much more fluid places, we'll see a lot of these opportunities for expanding knowledge bases.”

Being able to work in teams is critical. Flagship Ventures has a fellowship program for entrepreneurs that is oriented toward team-oriented problem solving. Groups of 20 or so people are divided into small groups and are given a problem to solve in eight weeks. Most people fail in this task, but the 5 percent who succeed “engage very actively in team behavior and are very active in knowing what they are good at and what they are not good at…. More often than not, they will come back with a solution, not to the problem that we proposed, but to something that's adjacent or to something that's bigger. In my mind, that's a behavior that we should all encourage.”

In response to a question about online courses, Berry said that the more entrepreneurial people will quickly find the courses and subject matter that they need to learn. They also are quick to suggest to company leaders that the company should invest in these resources. But not many people are trying to supplant traditional education with online courses.

Bergman pointed out that requiring a lot of courses tends to let students relax, learn the material, and take the exams, after which much of the material is quickly forgotten. Putting students to work on problems, even if broadly based, could help them learn to find out things for themselves. Having students write their own research proposals also helps them learn to think independently, he said.

Berry responded that much of education, from kindergarten on, involves listening to a talking head instructor rather than problem solving. “It's the way that we have learned to learn.” In contrast, educational programs that challenge students to solve problems can engage at least some portion of students much more actively, and the percentage could increase if this approach were more widely used.