PAT in Perspective: Are We Being Spoiled by Success and the Internet?

NIR expert Emil Ciurczak thinks prosperity and the Internet are making today's graduates far too complacent and out of touch for their own good. Networking and professional societies are at risk, he says, and drug manufacturing will be worse off for it.

By Emil W. Ciurczak, Chief Technical Officer, Cadrai Group

The “in crowd” has a saying, coined by the Duchess of Windsor, that “you can never be too rich or too thin.” Too much is never enough, but “too much” can be dangerous, or even fatal. After all, the Roman Empire fell because its citizens became too well-to-do and complacent. The Visigoths may not be at our gates just yet, but there are some parallels at play in pharmaceutical manufacturing today.

When I went searching for my first “position” after I received my sheepskin (who still uses that word to describe a diploma?), I sent my first wave of letters to prospective employers. I mailed over 100 letters and resumes to chemical and pharmaceutical companies across New Jersey. To my relief, I actually received one, whole positive reply. [It was Ciba in Summit, where I started in 1970 and the rest, as they say, is history.]

At the same time, I spent many, many hours in the Rutgers library going through chemical abstracts for my Master's research. While the work was tedious and boring, it saved me from repeating work that had already been published by others (which would have voided my thesis). As I began to publish journal articles, I delighted in digging out classic articles by people such as Stokes (from the 19th century) to show that my work was based on firm precedents.

Let’s fast forward to the 1990s and that decade’s horrible, crushing wealth (good thing Clinton was impeached!). In my mind, two things mark this period:

  1. unprecedented economic prosperity
  2. the Internet.

With the boom of the times and actual budget surpluses, chemistry students, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels, merely had to breathe to receive job offers. I know of several (average) graduates who received 8-10 offers without even traveling to the companies for interviews. They met representatives at job fairs and “bingo” — they were offered positions. It was certainly “a seller's market.”

PAT in Perspective: photo of a would-be Visigoth
We must beware of becoming as indulgent and complacent as the Romans during the Empire, Ciurczak urges. The Visigoths may not be at our gates just yet, but there are some parallels in pharmaceutical manufacturing today.

Now, I am sure the parents of these students were quite pleased by this turn of events, but it sowed some seeds of bad habits. Recent graduates did not have to learn interviewing techniques, they did not have to network, and they did not have to become a little desperate for a job. As a consequence, one hears horror stories of subsequent interviews (“Do I get my own office?” as a first question).

Worse yet, professional societies are drying and withering on the vine. When young scientists do not even know of “networking,” they see meetings as expensive dinners and a weeknight wasted (they might miss the latest edition of “Lost”). As a “self-fulfilling prophecy,” this is a classic example. Since attendance at meetings is drying up, there is little chance of future interactions. Both people with jobs to offer and those who need them stop attending.

And, since these “newbies” never had to sweat out waiting for a job, dozens of interviews, or “temporarily” working as a sales clerk, they didn’t appreciate what they had. A side effect of this is viewing this first job as a stepping stone, not a career opportunity. Tenure doesn’t seem to happen as often anymore. The companies are saving a fortune on 25-year pins and dinners. [In fact, more and more scientists are looking at their places of employment as a “job” rather than a “career,” but that is a topic for another column.]

Now, what is this “double-whammy” of the Internet? Well, first, it allows the younger scientists to post their resumes (along with those of several thousand of their closest friends) on places like Monster.com without ever coming into contact with peers. This allows their people skills to further deteriorate and limits job opportunities. What is the second good-bad news about the Internet? It is replacing the library.

Why is that bad? Well, simply said, not all research is listed on the Internet (plus, non-refereed material is there, too). The consequence is that much work is missed and many projects are simply repeats of earlier work. One example of this occurred at my last full-time place of employment. A young Ph.D. was interviewing at the company and his thesis was involved with near-infrared. Logically, the VP of R&D asked me to look at the work and comment upon it. The first thing I noticed was that the oldest reference was from 1995! [It seems to me that even I was publishing NIR pharmaceutical papers in the 1980s.]

When I checked his actual thesis work, I was impressed by the thoroughness and usefulness of the project. The unfortunate part was that it mimicked work published in 1986 by a friend at Upjohn Pharmaceuticals. Of course, the original paper was published in an obscure journal: Analytical Chemistry (!) I have a button that states, “Six months in the lab can save you an hour in the library.”

Just as iPods are generating a generation of isolated teenagers, the "Net" seems to be undoing several centuries of professional societies. I shudder to think what will happen when this “WalMart” puts local merchants (professional societies) out of business, then closes up shop.

From looking at the questions on the NIR message boards, it appears that most of these could be answered over an entrée at a local meeting. Instead, we post all over the Internet hoping to snare an answer that the chemist next door could give in person… if the questioner bothered to go to a spectroscopy meeting.

Do I hear a knocking at the door? Oh my. Are fur caps and swords “in” this year?

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