Careers in an Industrial Giant Unplugged

BASF has certainly stood the test of time. Founded in 1865, this chemical industry giant currently has 87,000 employees worldwide. The company’s biggest and most important plant is located on the outskirts of Germany’s Rhineland city of Ludwigshafen. With almost 40,000 employees it is effectively a city in its own right. And if you’d like to become one of them it is worth keep in mind that, although BASF is firmly rooted in chemistry, its product portfolio ranges from performance products, plastics, agricultural products, and fine chemicals to crude oil and natural gas.

So how does this translate in terms of the kinds of expertise the company requires? Next Wave spoke to head of scientist and engineer recruiting, Rainer Bürstinghaus (pictured here),

about career prospects for natural scientists at BASF. Chemistry graduates make up about three-quarters of the 80 natural scientists recruited by the Ludwigshafen site each year. But, in addition, this steady intake, apparently unaffected by global economic fluctuations, includes biologists, physicists, mineralogists, toxicologists, agricultural scientists, and nutritionists. More than 90% of the new graduates have a Ph.D. when they start at BASF.

These scientists generally follow one of two major career paths. The largest proportion, approximately 80% of new employees, join an established R&D team as laboratory leader. From there they can progress to the positions of senior scientist, group leader, and for some, research fellow. This last is the most senior, with employees relieved of day-to-day managerial duties and, for example, “engaged in activities such as university guest lecturing,” explains Bürstinghaus. Most of those on the research career track at BASF entered the company already equipped with a Ph.D., but in some cases it is possible to undertake a doctoral research project as an employee, in close co-operation with a university.

The other career road of most interest to scientists may be technical marketing. However, it’s quite rare to walk straight into such a role. The majority of BASF’s technical marketers have at least a couple of years of in-house research experience behind them. External candidates with a few years’ professional experience in the field are also considered. Technical marketers are engaged in communicating the value of products but also in delivering so-called system solutions. Bürstinghaus elaborates, “Let’s say, for example, that you are the marketer for a chemical coating. Your task might be to find out how this product can be adapted for a customer so it is suitable to coat a car.”

For many it may seem a challenging task to join such a massive firm, but Bürstinghaus stresses that BASF pairs every new employee with a personal mentor. “The mentor’s role is to help the new employee integrate into the company, find partners in other sections, and get an insight into the various areas of the business,” he explains. In addition, project work is transdisciplinary, so that, he adds, “a researcher will get the opportunity to appreciate the demands in marketing, environmental safety, production.”

About 20% of science-related jobs are filled by women, approximately reflecting the proportion of women in Germany who have PhDs in chemistry. The company is open to the idea of job-sharing, says Bürstinghaus, and the advantage of working for such a large organisation is that the pool of positions is generally big enough to make such arrangements possible.

What other insights can he relay to would-be industrialists?

First, make sure you have a solid technical background. “Whether someone has a master’s or Ph.D., has studied at a traditional university or an applied university ( Fachhochschule), isn’t of primary concern to me. Of greater interest are good grades and a relatively short study period,” he claims. He also values graduates who have a broad background in their subject: “I always tell young people to get a solid basis in their subject, whether it is chemistry, physics, or biology, and to specialise afterward,” he explains.

When it comes to personal attributes, entrepreneurship is valued. More explicitly, Bürstinghaus looks for people who “can identify opportunities and realise them, are analytical and strategic thinkers.” But without prior professional experience, how can someone actually demonstrate this? He is looking for potential recruits to “give examples of scenarios where they have managed to achieve both day-to-day and long-term objectives,” he says, for instance, involvement in an organisation such as Junger Chemiker Forum (the student wing of the German Chemical Society). Needless to say, demonstration of team playing, communication, and conflict-management skills are also clearly at the forefront of the recruiter’s mind.

And the final words of wisdom from an experienced professional: “Be proactive.”

Editor’s note: Interested in reading about the firsthand experience of two chemistry postgraduates who visited BASF and four other major companies? Claudia Halter and Mark Barratt describe their industrial tour in a recent.

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