Amanda Leone with her advisor, Anne McNeil

When graduate students look forward to what lies ahead in their careers after completing their PhDs, it can raise conflicting feelings. Transitioning to a career in industry is exciting and brings rewarding experiences for new graduates, but challenges and obstacles are sure to be present as well. Recent graduate students who have successfully navigated the transition to industry can be help current students understand what lies ahead.

Amanda Leone is one such student, having completed her PhD in chemistry at the University of Michigan with Professor Anne McNeil in 2018. After graduating, she joined 3M in Minnesota as a Senior Research Chemist and has been working there for over a year. Leone’s experience offers insight into how to tackle the transition from graduate student to industry research scientist.

Leone’s expertise is in the formation of polymers--long chain molecules that are built from repeating units of a smaller molecule called the monomer. When the monomers are mixed together in a solution, rarely do they self-assemble into the desired polymer. Catalysts are often used to initiate the reaction called polymerization, like jumpstarting a car. Leone’s thesis work at U-M centered on evaluating various nickel and palladium catalysts to initiate formation of complex and efficient polymers for organic electronic devices.

Leone’s work at 3M still focuses on designing initiators for polymerization reactions, though she now works to synthesize polymers for adhesives and dental composites. While the exact molecules she focuses on are different, she still aims to answer the same question she did in graduate school: “Why is this initiator better than that one for synthesizing this type of polymer?”

When Leone began her graduate studies at U-M, she knew she wanted to pursue a career in industry research and development. It was not until she joined McNeil’s research lab that she discovered her interest in polymers. She is particularly inspired by chemistry research projects that naturally lead to real world applications. 3M develops new polymers for a wide range of applications, so the research position at 3M was a natural fit for Leone.

When she began her new position at 3M, Leone first noticed some similarities between her new position as a professional research scientist and as a graduate student. Working at 3M’s “discovery level,” she spends much of her time reading literature to scout new reaction mechanisms and conducting experiments to design her own mechanisms.

She credits her graduate school experience at U-M for making her transition into her industry career easier since she was able to learn both how to work independently and work in a team. She also believes the advice she received from Prof. McNeil to read a broad range of literature and attend many seminars was extremely helpful in preparing her for working at 3M.

Leone is surrounded by many subfields of chemistry at 3M, but it does not overwhelm her. "I have been exposed to lots of chemistry and can understand what other people are talking about, at least at a base level, and ask educated questions,” explains Leone.

How her industry work differs from grad school

Leone also noticed some differences from being agraduate student in academia to becoming a research scientist in industry. At 3M, she is working with new polymers, new initiators, and new applications she had never worked with in graduate school. Although she had plenty of literature to learn in this new subfield of polymer research, it was still expected that she could take her knowledge of designing and executing experiments for her previous thesis work and apply it to this other subfield that was new to her. Leone points out though that her colleagues have been extremely helpful in catching her up to speed.

Industrial scale operations are also quite different than a typical graduate school experiment. Synthesis quantities are larger, research budgets are higher, and glassware and supplies are near limitless. At the end of an experiment, Leone focuses her time on writing patents rather than research articles, a new skill she has learned that is not common in graduate school. Leone states, “Submitting a patent is just the beginning of the product,” so even when the experiment is over, her work has only just started before the product hits the shelves.

Advice for current students

For students currently in graduate school, Leone recommends spending a lot of time researching jobs online and scheduling informational interviews. While looking for a job can be a lengthy process, the time and effort is worth it when you find one you really enjoy, Leone believes. And even for students who do not want to continue in their current field, there are many alternative career paths in science besides working at the bench.

From her experience at 3M, Leone notes that career paths within the company are also quite flexible. “Some people do stay in discovery labs their whole career, but others transition to be closer to launching products, customer-facing jobs, patent attorneys, or managers,” explains Leone. Scientists at 3M also have the option of going on sabbatical, whether it be in a different research group or even a different country.

Leone advises that what’s most important for current students is to spend their time learning how to do science and enjoy their graduate school experience.