Shampoo and snack bars, washing powder and toothpaste ... surely there can't be much work for real scientists in the world of fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG)? Certainly the sector does not have the same aura as the pharmaceutical industry, which is often seen to be in the business of "saving lives." However, industry is hungry for talented, creative scientists who can come up with products that will leap off the supermarket shelves.

A Scientific Challenge

"The popular perception of FMCG is that it is easy and low-tech," laments Neil Macgilp, director of corporate research at Procter & Gamble's (P&G) Egham site in the UK. But he argues that being high-tech is the only way to satisfy customer needs, while simultaneously meeting the demands of human and environmental safety, price performance, novelty, and noninfringement of competitors' patents.

"The most difficult [part] is to attract people at the beginning," says John Purcell O'Dwyer, corporate HR director for research at L'Oréal in Paris. However, newly recruited PhDs realise that serious research is actually carried out in industry once they see that some of the research is being published in peer-reviewed journals (see the profile of Cindy Gerhardt). "We want to be known as scientifically sound in the area of skin and hair," O'Dwyer explains. L'Oréal, in fact, has a large team devoted to fundamental research. The company aims to be seen by the scientific community as a purveyor of quality research. PhDs working for its advanced research section address questions such as: What is hair made of? How is it affected by the environment? How does it grow?

Nonetheless, the majority of FMCG research is applied, directed towards the conception of new products. What makes research in the industry different is that "scientists in development and applied research are in front of marketing specialists every day," says O'Dwyer. Their role is to translate into scientific terms the new needs that marketers have identified or created among consumers. Such experience opens the door to some of the industry's scientists to move into a more managerial role. At P&G, for instance, employees have the choice, after 5 years in research, of becoming technology managers, which means focussing more on bringing a specific product to the market, and less on actually doing research.

Wanted: Technical Skills AND Personality

The skills required to develop the latest innovative products are not that different from those required in other industries, according to O'Dwyer. For example, to develop a nail varnish, scientists need to address issues related to friction and adhesion. These are typical of the problems tackled by R&D teams developing new materials in, for instance, aeronautics. The resulting intersectoral competition for the best scientists is something that PhDs can play in their favour when negotiating their contracts.

But being an excellent scientist is not enough. "Besides skills, I also look at other activities," explains Margien Mutter, of human resources at Unilever R&D for the Netherlands. At L'Oréal, too, candidates who have interests other than research in their lives are sought after. "We look for people with a different view on things," confirms O'Dwyer. Indeed, such a profile is a key factor in the recruitment process at L'Oréal, which prides itself on valuing and exploiting the creative side of its scientists as part of its philosophy to unite science and art. "Our challenge is to find the common subjects that interest scientists and make them express their individuality," O'Dwyer explains.

According to Mutter, one of the perks of the job, and its most exciting aspect, is working in a multidisciplinary and multinational environment. PhDs in academia often work in small teams, and going into industry gives them an opportunity to work in large multidisciplinary teams where they need to call on a lot of different skills. Moreover, explains Mutter, 30% of her new recruits for Unilever's large Dutch research centre come from outside the Netherlands.

Indeed, across the sector's R&D effort, the European community of researchers already exists. Within P&G's five European research centres, which employ about 2000 scientists, about 30% of new recruits are drawn from the UK, with the remainder coming from France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. By contrast, only about 15% of the scientists working for L'Oréal's in France are not French.

What all these multinational companies have found is that recruits from different countries have different strengths depending on the educational system they went through. In-house training means that new recruits are infused with the corporate culture while differences in working habits among various nationalities are slowly erased. This means that scientists from all the research laboratories can work together independently of their location or country of origin.

Ups and Downs

No job is perfect, so what are the downsides of the FMCG sector? Well, for a start, investment in R&D is relatively low: Unilever ploughs only about 2% of its turnover back into research and development, while the equivalent figure for L'Oréal is 3%. For comparison, the pharmaceutical industry spends about 10% to 15% of its turnover on R&D.

Similarly, "What people could be frustrated about is that they work on a project which is not necessarily pursued after a while because other priorities are set due to the demands of the market," points out Unilever's Mutter. Keeping up with consumer whims means that the rises and falls of particular lines of research can be almost as fast moving as the goods themselves.

And there's a possibility that, having opted for FMCG, you could find yourself stuck there. The work can be very specialised, which might make it difficult to move on. O'Dwyer points out that most people in this sector need to have made the conscious decision to move into such a niche. "People working in our industry make a certain choice," he explains (see the profile of Sandrine Decoster). This could explain why staff turnover is quite low. John Crompton, head of UK and Germany R&D recruitment for P&G, has observed that "people who leave tend to do so for even more senior posts in smaller companies." After a while, some people may feel that working for a multinational is rather like being an anonymous link in a very big chain.

But, points out Macgilp, an industry where R&D programmes don't last more than 3 or 4 years can offer opportunities for versatile scientists. Frequent changes of focus mean that P&G is not particularly interested in recruiting specialists for a specialist's job. Above all, what matters is the ability to use science to solve problems, allied to good communication skills. In a nutshell, "we are looking for people who are able to develop the next breakthrough," explains Crompton.

Who's Hiring Who?

Candidates are selected according to a set of criteria. For instance, Unilever recruits people to fit its 11 core competencies such as 'passion for growth', 'breakthrough thinking', and 'organisation awareness'. Competitors P&G select candidates according to a similar set of criteria ranging from leadership and collaboration to problem solving and ability to take risks. They all need team players--which involves being able to delegate and develop ideas in common with others.

FMCG: The Recruitment Sites

There are a number of ways to find R&D jobs with companies producing FMCG. Here are links to a few of the bigger employers in Europe:

Broadly, a company like Unilever recruits master's-level engineers for product development and PhD scientists to carry out applied research to create new products. At the moment, the trend at Unilever is towards recruiting more graduates than PhDs. L'Oréal's team of 2700-plus scientists at sites in France, the United States, and Japan is growing, meanwhile. "We are hiring about 80 scientists per year," says O'Dwyer.

A sector like FMCG is always going to be at the mercy of changing market conditions, and in an uncertain economic climate P&G are not recruiting a great deal at the moment. However, "We offer R&D courses to PhDs to give them a flavour of what it is like to work in the company's research environment," explains Crompton. These preselected candidates then have the highest chance of being recruited, should any positions arise. The scheme is held around Easter in Germany and the UK with places for 32 PhDs in their penultimate or final year of study. In addition, a 12-week summer internship in Belgium, Italy, Germany, or the UK is open to undergraduates.

But above all, the key to making yourself appealing to this fast-moving industry is to avoid labelling yourself. "The problem with some PhDs is that they assume that the only thing they know how to do in life is the topic of their PhD," remarks Macgilp. The great majority of work opportunities are in bright, creative, technically sound projects rather than in a narrow PhD topic. "I don't see why scientists don't realise that they are analytical thinkers, problem solvers, and have the potential to realise themselves in other fields," he concludes.

Sabine Louët is a freelance writer based in Dublin.