Years ago (like 15 years ago) companies like Nestle, Unilever and General Mills made most of the processed shelf-stable food products. Those companies would hire food scientists right out of school and there was no confusion about how to find them and what their role or job description would be in the company. Food Scientists didn’t need to look to hard to find a job because once you were in the “inner circle” recruiters would just – find you.
Fast – forward to 2015 – times have changed and there are many small food companies out there that desperately need food scientists to help them bring their product to market. Unfortunately, food scientists have been tucked away for so long, in the secret world of big, food companies that no one except the big companies really understand what we are, what the job descriptions should be, and how to integrate us into their commercialization process. Yes – commercialization, that is the term used to describe the path that we take to bring a concept from the CEO’s mind to the supermarket shelf.
What Is a Food Scientist?
What is a food scientist anyway? From a degree standpoint, a food scientist is someone who has a BS in Science, but focuses their last two years in school on understanding how basic science applies to food. A typical undergraduate degree will include Chemistry, Microbiology, Physics, and Biology the first two years and the last two years more focused courses like “Food Microbiology”, “Food Chemistry” and “Food Processing”. We have specific textbooks designed to teach us the ins and outs of manufacturing and the science behind food ingredients. Food Science is an applied science and we are “scientists” (although, I think in Europe the term “technologist” is more commonly used for anyone that does not have a PhD). There are also higher degrees in Food Science and someone with a Masters will have more knowledge on a specific topic that they did research on—for example, I got my MS from the University of Illinois in Food Microbiology. I spent two years studying Listeria and its virulent enzymes. There is lots of crossover in the other sciences, for example, someone can get an undergraduate degree in Chemistry or Microbiology, but then get a MS in Food Chemistry. The PhD’s will spend years working on one specific area and their research is usually funded by private industry, the FDA or USDA.
How To Find a Food Scientist?
Entry-level food scientists are easy to find. Simply go to the IFT website (www.ift.org). From there you can find a list of approved Food Science programs and contact the University to post your job. You can also obtain other information from www.ift.org about the national conference (all the students attend the show – many who are graduating and looking for jobs) or even post a job on that site. The competition is fierce for these recent grads – meaning there are more jobs than food scientists, so it is in your best interest to offer a fair and generous package! LinkedIn has made it easier for jobs and applicants to connect, but I still see a slew of badly written job descriptions designed to attract food scientists. If you were looking for a lawyer, would you write “law firm seeks someone who knows how to argue and write legal stuff… and… You know” – Unfortunately I see similarly confused postings for food scientists since no one really understands how food products are commercialized and they don’t understand what we study or our area of expertise– they also don’t understand how to properly recruit us. I can’t help but roll my eyes when I see job postings like “seeking emulsion expert” or “molecular gastronomist” or “food whiz”. Here are a few correct descriptions:
- Food Scientist: A general jack of all trades, someone who can formulate, source ingredients, conduct shelf life studies, connect with suppliers, do sensory analysis. Level of experience may vary.
- Food Microbiologist or Food Safety Microbiologist: Someone who is experienced and well versed in food safety. A Food Microbiologist may be trained in HACCP or understand the deep details on the quality and safety aspects of your food product.
- Food Chemist: This is a very specific term used to describe someone that does specific chemistry research like manipulating proteins, creating flavors, or are experts in certain ingredients like oils, carbohydrates and other chemicals. Don’t use this term if you want to hire a general food scientist to help you formulate, a food chemist is more specialized.
- Food Engineer: A food engineer is often used to describe a food scientist. I always imagine a food engineer as someone who measures the flow of food through pipes and understands heat transfer but I do see that the term is often used to describe a general food scientist.
- Research Chef: A unique individual who has experience and training as both a food scientist and culinary arts. They may be certified by the RCA (certified food scientist, or certified research chef) This person should be hired for creative roles that require an understanding of processing and industrial ingredients.
- Use these specific terms and hashtags when trying to recruit a food scientist. We are out there but it is difficult to know what you really need without the right terminology.
A startup company should try to hire someone with experience since they probably won’t have anyone on their team who can mentor and train a newcomer. However, even a few years of experience in the food industry can go a long way. If someone has spent even two years at one of the big companies like Kraft or Unilever, you know they have been trained well and by the best scientists in the field.
Hire The Right Person for the Job
If you want a food safety expert or someone to set up a HACCP plan, hire an experienced food microbiologist. If you want someone to create a flavor for you, hire a flavor chemist, if you want a general food scientist to do formulations and run the lab, find someone with at least 3 to 5 years experience. If you want entry-level, make sure you have a more senior person who can guide them in their first job. If you want someone to create fake meat and eggs, check with a food science department, find a professor who specializes in that area and ask if they have any former students who worked under them.
Please understand, not all food scientists are the same; we have different levels of experience and expertise. Someone with a BS and 2 years experience is not qualified to run your safety and quality program, but they may be a good fit to do formulations on the bench and monitor production runs. Someone with a PhD is going to be very research oriented and may not be interested in making cookie prototypes. The goal is to find the person who can do the best job with the least amount of effort and learning curve.