Case Study: The Chemistry Lecturer’s Perspective26th October 2021
You may recall earlier this year we published our survey insight into how a sample of post-graduate scientists felt they faired when making the move from Academia to Industry. I recently had the great pleasure of talking with two experienced Chemistry Lecturers in the Department of Chemistry and Forensics at Nottingham Trent University, who are also no strangers to the industrial side of using their chemistry skills.
Quentin Hanley is Associate Professor for Analytical Chemistry. Prior to his time at NTU, Hanley has worked across oil, paper testing, environmental testing, and at one point was a licensed research nuclear reactor operator.
Mike Coffey is a Senior Lecturer mainly in Analytical Chemistry with some environmental modules. Coffey also came into lecturing from industry having worked as a technical author, an environmental consultant and a marine chemist and analyst in Environmental regulation.
With my background in QA for a Pharmaceutical Organisation, I was interested in talking with Hanley and Coffey as I had heard great things about their Chemistry degree course from a colleague.
What is it about the Chemistry Course at NTU that you think industry appreciates?
QH: Within the Analytical Chemistry strand in year 2 there is a run of lectures and workshops on Quality that Mike Coffey teaches, giving the students exposure as to what to expect within industry. It evolved from a 10-credit module on QA and LIMS that at the time was optional, but we moved it to the second year and made it compulsory… a reasonably unusual move.
MC: Hanley’s first year lab classes have a strict protocol which can initially surprise students. Good lab results can still get a lower mark, if it hasn’t got lab supervisor sign-off or hit the Quality aspects of the assignment. This is with the aim to teach students to get used to quality compliance and adherence, and to instil the attention to detail skills that industry requires.
LC: It is important for students to be aware that most, if not all commercialised scientific industries will have a Quality Management System to assure and control quality. Therefore, being able to work accurately within set compliance parameters will be an asset come future employment time.
The last 18 months must have been difficult to teach, how did you adapt at NTU?
MC: You can imagine lab-work was a particularly awkward issue to overcome. Staggering sessions and using evenings to maintain physical distancing when allowed back into the lab suites allowed a degree of catch up. Dry labs were used to teach the data analysis side. For 2nd year, chemistry labs were redesigned with (safe) kits sent out to students at home. Students prepared their samples and standards at home, using provided balances and solvents, then posted their solutions to the lab for analysis. Data was then uploaded and collected remotely by the students for their subsequent steps.
QH: Thanks to a great technical team, Analytical students got all their labs in with nearly all done in person even if it meant rescheduling in evenings, the end of term, or over the summer.
MC: Several aspects of the Labs@Home worked well and so we have retained the approach this year too. Only this time they get to not only prepare reference standards and samples, but can load onto the instruments themselves, program the instruments and use complex excel spreadsheets to take their data further. They also get to do something that will be very useful in industry – problem solving. Students do their first batch then based on the outcome can refine and improve, spot where things are going wrong before running it again on a second batch.
LC: Problem solving is a great skill for industry and this fits nicely with what our industry acquired postgrad survey found – the skill most appreciated once working in industry was their growth mindset, continuous learning approach to their work. Some have highlighted that one of the issues facing industry today is, how do you balance retaining those problem solving skills within your workforce with compliance to your QMS.
Finally, what would you like to see change with employment opportunities in the future?
QH: Our course does a good job of preparing students for employment and I see a lot of CVs pass my way. Seeing students getting hired in team environments such as restaurants and pubs, and particularly if they are returning there each summer, tells me that person is instantly employable and can work in a team. This is something sometimes over-looked by employers who now seem to expect previous experience in something similar to the one they are interviewing for.
LC: Appreciating transferrable skills from employment history is something we coach with our clients as well as asking graduates to promote their course related projects in a skills focused manner on their CV. The age-old story ‘employers want experience but how do you get experience without experience’ is still an issue today, despite universities working closer with industry, offering industrial placement years (the value of which cannot be overstated) as well as let’s not forget, hiring lecturers that have previous experience in industry!