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Preparing for Interview Questions

November 11, 2013

During an interview is no time to be caught off guard-questions that would be easy to answer normally can cause you to be speechless when asked by a potential employer. Thinking about an interviewer’s possible questions ahead of time and considering some possible answers can help you feel calm and comfortable before and during your interview.

It’s likely an interviewer will want to know how well you interact with co-workers or customers and will ask you about your ability to work with others. Consider past instances of how you have worked in teams or collaboratively on projects. Being able to give a concrete example of updating the safety manual as part of the safety committee will better let the interviewer understand your interpersonal skills than just saying you enjoy working in a team environment. Think of a few teamwork examples ahead of time to have them fresh in your mind.

Examine your resume and be honest with yourself-is there anything that an interviewer may be concerned about? Be prepared to explain a short tenure at position. If you left a company after 6 months due to conflicts with your manager, be prepared to be asked why you left after only 6 months. Keep in mind that now is not the time to vent about a previous employer. Diplomatically saying it was not a good fit is better than saying your past manager was unreasonable. Consider succinct explanations of periods of unemployment. If you took time off for personal reasons-taking care of small children, elderly parents, or other personal responsibilities that you need time off from work-explain briefly and note how enthusiastic you are to be returning to your career. Focus on how where you are now rather than a long explanation of your time away from your career.

You may be asked why you are leaving your current job or why you left your past positions. If you are changing to further your career, mention how much you learned at the position and how you are interested in growing and furthering your career. You are most likely leaving for a few different reasons. You could feel overlooked your current position. Instead of sounding negative, explain you are interesting in growing in your career and believe this position would be a great opportunity to do that.

Depending on the position, you may be asked technical questions. Be prepared to answer questions about hypothetical situations. I spent a significant part an interview describing how I would separate 2 similar molecules of interest using HPLC where the interviewer asked several follow up questions about the solvent system, and column selection. Once I began teaching, I was required to give a 10 minute mini-lecture on a first year general chemistry topic as part of the interview process. Consider the skills the job position requires and refresh your memory on what job skills you listed on your resume, and be prepared to discuss the technical aspects on what you would be doing and what you have done.

Preparation will help you be in comfortable during the interview and you will be able to showcase your strengths to potential employers.

This article was written by Sara Stellfox. After working in contract and pharmaceutical laboratories, Sara changed her career path and is now a free lance writer and chemistry instructor at the City Colleges of Chicago.


The Secret to Success may be to Fail Fast

February 20, 2012

It is important to design projects so the most critical experiments are performed as soon as possible. That way, if you are going to fail, you fail quickly – and cheaply. All failures provide information you can use to redesign your project. Alternatively, you can drop the project and move on to other things.

I learned this early in graduate school. My first research project in graduate school was supposed to be a “starter project” that I could complete fairly quickly. However, I had major problems with it and wasn’t making any real progress. While pleased with my determination, my Ph.D. research advisor gave me another project that went much more smoothly.

Successful people see failing as the path to success. Consider your “failures” as lessons, signposts helping you find the true path to success.

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison exemplified this. He kept excellent, well-detailed lab notebooks which we can look at many of them today. They provide clues about how his mind worked. When an idea didn’t work the first time, Edison made a note of exactly what he’d done and what materials he had used. Then he made a change in the experiment and tried again. And when that “failed” he made a note of that, made additional systematic changes and tried again. Thanks to the systematic nature of his changes and his careful notes, Edison kept learning from every experiment.

What did he learn? He learned all the ways the experiment wouldn’t work even though he was unable to discover why.  As Edison proceeded, he discovered all the chemicals and elements that didn’t fit together. Each failure drew him closer to finding a way that would work. For example, it took him approximately 10,000 experiments to invent a workable design for the incandescent light bulb.

Edison saw opportunity in failure. He once said, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” He did not give up even in the face of disaster. In 1914 Thomas Edison’s factory in West Orange, New Jersey, was virtually destroyed by fire. Although the damage exceeded $2 million, the buildings were insured for only $238,000 because they were made of concrete and were thought to be fireproof. The next morning, Edison looked at the ruins and said, “There is great value in disaster. All our mistakes are burned up. Thank God we can start anew.” Three weeks later Edison demonstrated the first workable phonograph.

This last lesson is relevant to chemists today. When Hurricane Katrina heavily damaged New Orleans, many of Tulane University’s chemical laboratories were flooded. Many research notebooks became illegible. The researchers had to pick up the pieces and resume their research.

Many Americans love sports analogies. Babe Ruth is still considered by many to be the greatest home run hitter in baseball. However, he is the biggest failure at the plate in that he struck out more than any other player in the 154 game season. He could be considered baseball’s greatest failure as a hitter, but that did not bother him. He once said, “Every strike brings me closer to the next home run.”

Your career

When thinking about your career, don’t be cast down by a lack of success or failures. Learn from the mistakes and failures, redesign your career and move on. This may require you to acquire new skills, alter the way you interact with others, change your job assignment, or change jobs. The key is to learn from your experiences and apply these lessons in the future.

John Borchardt is a chemist and freelance writer who has been an ACS career consultant for 15 years. He is the author of the ACS/Oxford University Press Book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers.” He has had more than 1200 articles published in a variety of magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias. As an industrial chemist, he holds 30 U.S. and more than 125 international patents and is the author of more than 130 peer-reviewed papers.


Increase the Accuracy of Your Supervisor’s Reviews of Your Performance

February 13, 2012

Accurate reviews of your job performance are critical to job promotions, raises, and annual bonuses. Therefore, it is essential that both you and your supervisor get it right. However, many bosses, including some good ones, may be out of touch with your overall performance and forget to acknowledge some of your accomplishments. What should you do if to prevent this from happening to you?

Prevention – worth a pound of cure

Prepare a list of your annual accomplishments and send them to your supervisor. Ask him or her to consider them when preparing your written performance review, advises John Hoover, who leads the executive coaching practice at Manhattan-based consulting firm Partners in Human Resources International. Focus on your major accomplishments and don’t bury your manager with a deluge of minor tasks. The phrase “you can’t see the forest for the trees” is an accurate one and applies to this situation. Too much information will actually obscure your major accomplishments. Hoover comments that managers usually appreciate receiving these as it saves them time when preparing your performance review.

Does your organization incorporate a 360-dregree performance review process?  This is where your direct reports and peers, working closely with you and team leaders, prepare their evaluations of your performance and send them to your supervisor.  If so, be sure those closely involved with your work are among those evaluating your performance. When I headed new product development groups that worked closely with customers developing new products and conducting field trials in their facilities, I decided customers I worked with during the review period could provide performance evaluations of me.  Their input proved to be positively valuable to my review.  I sent these individuals copies of the standard evaluation form and asked them to complete the forms and send them to my supervisor. Not only did customers provide valuable perspectives on my performance, but I believe their input indicated to my supervisor that I was confident in my performance and showed I had a great working relationship with my customer base. After receiving the forms, my supervisor began telling his direct reports to suggest to their customers they do the same. Subsequently my direct reports did the same and had our customers send evaluations of their performance to me.

Some tips

Provide your supervisor with frequent information on your performance; don’t wait until the annual review. For example, I often see people encounter their manager in the hallway. The manager asks, “How’s it going?” The staff member replies something like “really good” and leaves it like that. Don’t delay talking about your accomplishments with your manager.  Provide more information than the simple response of “really good.”  Instead, you might say, “Really good. We completed the synthesis of Intermediate 1 two weeks early and are pressing ahead.” At the cost of 5 seconds you’ve given your manager excellent news and a good impression of your performance.

Report information in the way he or she likes to receive it. For example, does your supervisor prefer detailed written reports or short oral ones?  Practice getting to the point quickly.  One of the running jokes on the TV show NCIS is how forensic scientist Abby Sciuto reports information to her boss.  Abby will start with a detailed explanation of the method she used or scientific details of her analyses. Her boss, Agent Gibbs, will interrupt and say something like, “Get to the point, Abs.” Only then does Abby provide Gibbs with her conclusions clearly and succinctly. Far be it for me to criticize super-scientist Abby Sciuto, but she really does need to understand how to communicate the way her supervisor likes to receive information.

Reacting to performance reviews

Remember that your supervisor is evaluating your work performance and not you as a person.  You shouldn’t take your supervisor’s feedback personally and react defensively to what is said during the review.  Instead, try to understand his or her point of view and focus on the items that came up in the review process that you can work on for the coming year.  Performance reviews can be a stressful experience for both you and your supervisor. Being an active participant in the process by following this advice will increase the accuracy of your performance review; open the lines of communication, while reducing the stress level for you and your supervisor.

Performance discussions are a two way street, meaning an open conversation between the manager and the employee.  As I mentioned before, these conversations should be engaged in constantly throughout the year. Neither of you should be surprised about the results during the performance review discussion.

John Borchardt is a chemist and freelance writer who has been an ACS career consultant for 15 years. He is the author of the ACS/Oxford University Press Book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers.” He has had more than 1200 articles published in a variety of magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias. As an industrial chemist, he holds 30 U.S. and more than 125 international patents and is the author of more than 130 peer-reviewed papers.


The Times They Are A-Changin’

January 30, 2012

What a difference a few years makes!  I recently found an article from 2008, when the big concern was how companies were going to find enough people to replace all the baby boomers who were just about to start retiring in massive amounts.  In “As Baby Boomers Retire”, William G. Schulz predicted that “the U.S. workforce will be shrinking from now until about 2050. Perhaps the biggest contributor will be the waves of retirements of people in the baby boom generation…”  Companies were focusing on capturing their knowledge, and how to hire and train large numbers of younger workers to replace them.

Fast-forward to 2011, when the Wall Street Journal reports that there are more than four million Americans ages 55 to 64 who want but can’t find full-time work, double the number from just 5 years earlier according to the US Department of Labor (Oldest Baby Boomers Face Jobs Bust).  In fact, in 2011 almost 2/3 of people ages 55 to 64 either had jobs or wanted them. While Schulz may have been right about the size of the US work force shrinking, it has not been due to voluntary retirement of baby boomers, leaving vast numbers of openings for younger workers.

Instead, what we’re seeing now are people who don’t want to retire, because they aren’t sure their savings will last the rest of their lives.  They may want to work fewer hours, or at a less stressful job, but they are not ready to completely step out of the work force.  Many of them move into and out of the work force, as opportunities arise and their personal situation permits.

At the other end of the spectrum, we’re also now seeing younger workers changing jobs more frequently than in the past. In 2010, the average job tenure for people ages 25 to 34 was 3.1 years (BLS data).  While specific reasons were not reported, anecdotal evidence suggests younger people move to positions with increased responsibility or as temporary placements end.

While being aware of trends such as these is important, knowing what they mean and applying that information to your personal career path is even more important.  While it’s interesting if one person says something is going to happen, it’s noteworthy when two independent people say it, and after the third or fourth time you’d better start figuring out how it’s going to affect your career trajectory.

What the trends described above tell me is that changing jobs, or even changing careers, is something that everyone should expect and be prepared for, at all stages of life.  You never know when a great opportunity will arise, or when circumstances will force you to make a change.

This means not only having a current version of your resume, but knowing what you can do, and where you want to go in your professional life.  You are more likely to find an opportunity if you know what you’re looking for, and are even more likely to find it if you share that information with your colleagues and friends so they can be on the lookout as well.

While you need to be aware of trends, and temper your career aspirations with reality, you don’t want to go too far the other way and plan your entire future based on predictions.

I often have students ask me what major has the highest starting salary or what careers are going to be in demand in a few years, so they can tailor their studies to that area.  But as we’ve seen, those predictions are often wrong, meaning those students sometimes spend years studying something they don’t like, only to find out that by the time they graduate no one wants to pay them to do that anyway.  And since they don’t enjoy it, they don’t put forth their best effort, and end up very unhappy.

While I’m not suggesting you ignore the market forces and pursue a position chasing your passion of manufacturing a specific widget, at the other extreme you should not chase popularity without consideration for what makes you happy.  Paying attention to marketplace trends, and deciding how you are going to respond to them, gives you power over your future.  Simply refusing to acknowledge that the world is changing will not make it stop.

Not all of us like change, but we all have to live with it.  Change can bring new opportunity, and let you see old things in a new light.  Learn how to see the opportunities in change – if people are now working longer, can your company’s products be adapted to appeal to this aging population?  Since employees are changing jobs more frequently, can you learn about new opportunities when your friends move companies?

The only thing that is constant is change, so you might as well get used to it – and use it to your advantage.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC.  Lisa is a technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press.


Facilitating and Managing Meetings: An Advanced Soft Skill

December 26, 2011

As they work increasingly in teams, laboratory managers and their staff members spend a considerable part of their working hours in meetings. Given this fact, it is important that this meeting time be as productive as possible. Meeting facilitators help improve meeting productivity. Meeting facilitators are particularly useful when meetings are highly interactive.

What meeting facilitators do

Meetings occur because they are an effective means to share information, set goals, and both analyze problems and develop possible solutions (brainstorming). However, these types of collaborative decision making can be a complex process. Meetings often involve complex interpersonal interactions. There may be disagreements over goals and how to achieve them. Meetings may dissolve into several simultaneous discussions rather than remaining focused.  Even with an agenda it can be difficult to keep a meeting moving smoothly on schedule.
Meeting facilitators  can play a role in solving or, better yet, preventing these problems. This often begins with the facilitator working with the person presiding over the meeting to prepare an agenda that will assist in accomplishing the goals of the meeting and keeping it focused. Each item on the agenda should have a clear reason for being there and a specific time allotted to discuss it.

During the meeting the meeting facilitator observes and, as needed, directs the discussion – and disruptive individuals – back to the matter at under discussion. This enables the person running to the meeting to remain focused on the agenda and accomplishing the meeting goals rather than getting sidetracked by behavioral issues.

Meeting facilitator skills

Meeting facilitators need to be diplomatic individuals who remain quietly observing most of the time but insert themselves into the meeting to take action as needed. To do this effectively, they should be someone the meeting attendees will respect.

The facilitator should work with the meeting organizer to set the agenda. The topic, opportunity or problem should be clearly defined. Each agenda item should be important and have a clear reason for being included in the agenda.

Facilitators shouldn’t take the meeting over from the meeting organizer. However, during the meeting they may need to invite comments from the meeting participants and encourage them to remain focused on meeting goals, and record and display key comments and conclusions. Despite this last comment, facilitators should not be responsible for taking notes and writing the meeting minutes. Doing so would take their attention from the dynamics of the meeting. In doing this, the vacillator is guiding the pacing of the meeting.

Even large companies seldom need to have people working full-time as facilitators. Meeting facilitators who are full-time employees often have other duties in addition to facilitating meetings. Because meeting facilitators are seldom needed fulltime, companies may wish to bring in consultants as meeting facilitators. Using accomplished retirees as meeting facilitators can solve the respect issue.

When meetings involve individuals from different organizations, they often pose challenges for meeting organizers and meeting facilitators. The attendees are not unified by a single workplace culture and may not have fully bought into the meeting goals. The same is true for volunteers working for membership societies such as the ACS.

John Borchardt is a chemist and freelance writer who has been an ACS career consultant for 15 years. He is the author of the ACS/Oxford University Press Book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers.” He has had more than 1200 articles published in a variety of magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias. As an industrial chemist, he holds 30 U.S. and more than 125 international patents and is the author of more than 130 peer-reviewed papers.


Effective Decision Making: A Key Career Skill

December 19, 2011

Making good decisions is perhaps the most important management skill. “Nothing is more difficult, and therefore more precious, than the ability to decide,” Napoleon once said. (He made some excellent decisions and a few monumentally bad ones during the course of his career as the leader of France.) 

While some may believe decision making is completely innate or only gained through long years of management experience, it is also a skill that can be learned and perfected. Management strategies and tactics can aid effective decision-making. These include scenario planning, cutting your losses, individual decision making, and group decision making.

Scenarios can aid decision making

Wise decision making can be facilitated by following scenarios developed long before decisions must be made. Shell Oil made the use of scenario planning famous (Fortune Magazine). Company planners had developed various scenarios of future crude oil prices in event of a shut-off of crude oil supplies from the Middle East. They developed plans for how the company should respond to each scenario. Before the 1973 Arab oil embargo effectively doubled crude oil prices for its oil refineries, Shell already had plans in place and calmly moved to execute one. In a sense, no decisions had to be made. They were already planned when the scenarios were developed.

Today many firms in many industries use scenario planning to help guide their decision making.

Cutting your losses

A common decision making error is not to cut one’s losses soon enough. Early in my first industrial research job, I was fortunate enough to learn (in hindsight) an important decision-making lesson from observing the mistakes of others. A research project had continued for several years progressing to the point where a 50,000 pound per year pilot plant was built. Two problems became apparent when operating the pilot plant. The first was that the properties of the polymer produced in the plant were inferior to those produced in the lab. The second was that the product was too expensive to achieve the targeted sales volumes, particularly if the properties could not be improved. For three years the program was continued in a fruitless effort to solve these problems.

It became apparent that the company was throwing good money after bad. Millions of dollars were involved. The laboratory manager could not be persuaded to give up on the project and direct resources elsewhere. Finally the lab manager was replaced.

The new lab manager quickly killed the project and shut down the pilot plant. Some staff members and the former lab manager lost their jobs. Interestingly, the chemist who had originally developed product and process had moved onto another research program a couple of years earlier. By avoiding involvement in the bad decisions, he kept his job while others lost theirs.

Individual decision making

Some decisions are made on the individual level. Many individuals do not examine every possible alternative but rely on experience and rules of thumb to make decisions. This can lead to cognitive biases – systematic mistakes when making choices between options. In the case of the example above, it may have been a systematic bias towards optimism that resulted in the research program being funded year after year without the critical problems being solved.

Another non-quantitative, non-analytical tool used in decision making is intuition. More than just gut instinct; intuition often is the result of pattern recognition capability. Well honed, it can be a powerful decision-making tool and is often involved in making breakthrough decisions resulting in development of a revolutionary new product or process.

Group decision making

Decisions are often made by teams. Are teams smarter and capable of making better decisions than individuals? The answer can be yes if an important pitfall, “group think,” can be avoided. Group think can occur when the group discussing decision options is pressured, often subtly, into conforming to the view of a powerful individual.

Another problem is if there is little synergy between team members. This results in each team member making a decision independently rather than reaching a consensus together. One sign of this occurring is if the group tries to come to a decision by voting on options with little discussion.

John Borchardt is a chemist and freelance writer who has been an ACS career consultant for 15 years. He is the author of the ACS/Oxford University Press Book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers.” He has had more than 1200 articles published in a variety of magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias. As an industrial chemist, he holds 30 U.S. and more than 125 international patents and is the author of more than 130 peer-reviewed papers.


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