Making the Most of Your Review

April 21, 2014

It’s that time of year when many people will be having their annual review with their managers. For some, it may be exciting to hear what their raise is or learn whether they have received a promotion. Others may dread receiving criticism or being reprimanded for poor performance. Whatever the case may be, everyone should strive to get the most out of the annual review process. It is a time to reflect, redirect, and look to the future. There are simple things you can do to prepare for an effective and valuable review.

Documentation

Each year, you should document your achievements throughout the year. Don’t assume that your manager will remember or even be aware of everything you do. Keep track of all significant contributions, especially those that extend beyond your job requirements or goals. Providing this to your manager will also help him or her prepare for the review, and it shows that you are focused on your own performance.

Reflection

Look back at the year and think about what you liked, disliked, excelled at, and struggled with. This will help you identify your skills and weaknesses, as well as reveal which challenges excite you. And that will help you determine where you want your career to go.

Review your manager

The review should be a conversation that goes both ways. Any manager worth their title should be open to listening to your opinion about how the two of you can work together more effectively. Think about the ways in which he or she has helped you reach your goals, as well as what could be done to increase your motivation or productivity. My manager always asks what he can do differently ­– what do I like about our interactions and also what is not helpful. It can be a difficult question to answer, but it also gives you a chance to see things from a manager’s perspective. They have to be prepared to provide constructive criticism and suggestions for improvement, and you should be ready to do the same if requested.

Check your ego

Unless you are absolutely perfect, there is always room for improvement. It is part of your manager’s job to identify ways you can improve and then deliver that message to you. Be prepared to listen to criticism and take in all in without responding defensively. If something annoys you or you disagree, give it a minute to sink in. Then, ask for more explanation. You may find that you and your manager were not on the same page regarding your priorities. Ask questions until the other perspective is clear, and then discuss any issue that still bothers you. Remember that giving criticism can be just as hard, if not harder, than receiving it.

Shape your future

How would you change your job? What do you think your goals should be? Tell your manager how you think your time is best spent. If a more flexible schedule would improve your productivity, say so. If you want to delegate certain tasks to redirect your time on other priorities, make a suggestion. Your goals and objectives for each year don’t have to be handed to you; they can be something you help shape and define. It’s your job – show an interest. Your initiative will be noticed.

 

This article was written by Sherrie Elzey, Ph.D., a chemical engineer and freelance technical writer/editor. Sherrie has a background in nanoscience and nanotechnology research, with experience in academia, government, and industry positions.

 

 

 

 


Chemistry Lessons from Art

April 14, 2014

In the past year, I have had the opportunity to visit two different art museums, and see in person paintings that I have admired in reproductions for a very long time. In one case the painting was physically much larger than any reproduction I had ever seen, in the other case the original version was tiny, but both made a big impression. In each case, I was struck by how much more wonderful the real thing was. The colors were more vibrant, the detail more apparent, and they pulled me in, as the reproductions did not.

The same thing can happen with a new job, or a career transition. You think you know what it’s going to be like, but until you’re actually in it you don’t know for sure. The closer you can come to actually doing the tasks the job requires, the less of a shock you will be in for when you get started.

So what can you do to experience the job before you begin it?

The easiest way is by reading about your potential new career. Check out the relevant professional society web site, and career web sites like College to Career (https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/careers/college-to-career.html) or ScienceCareers.org. Make sure what you’re reading is current and still relevant – science changes fast, and what was sufficient background or education may not be any more. For example, regulatory affairs jobs used to be filled by internal candidates who moved over from the lab and learned on the new job. Now, there are many degree programs in this field, and employers are looking for experienced candidates.

The next step would be find someone who has the job you are interested in, and talk to them about what it’s really like. You can ask them what they do on a daily or weekly basis, what skills and training is needed, what other things wish they had, and where they see the future of this particular career. You’re not asking for a job, just trying to learn what it would be like.

If you talk to several people and are more convinced than ever that this is the right place for you, it’s time to preparing yourself to move in that direction. Take a class at a local college or on-line, ideally one with lots of hands-on activities and projects. Not only will this give you a better understanding of the details of how things are done, but it will demonstrate to potential employers that you are serious about the move.

If you’re still in school, look for internships or co-op positions that will let you work closely with people doing this job, so you can observe them on a regular basis.

If you can’t get a paying position, is there a volunteer job that will let you practice this new skill? For example, if you want to move into management, maybe you need to volunteer to organize a large event, which will require you to supervise others motivate them to help realize your vision.

If you can’t find an official position, you can create your own project. If you want to learn how to program databases, you could build a database system to track all your music. Even if you’re the only one who will use it, doing a real project (with real deadlines) will provide real experience, and give you something to talk about in interviews.

At some point you will take the plunge, and move into the new field. Hopefully, you will be sufficiently prepared and pleasantly surprised when the real thing turns out to be even better in person – and you can turn it into your own work of art.

 

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

 


Where Do You Fall?

April 7, 2014

These days you are probably working with at least one person whose background is very different from yours.  They may act differently, make different assumptions, and maybe even make you uncomfortable. By realizing that there is a range acceptable behaviors, and learning where you prefer to be within that range, you can help yourself manage your expectations and work productively across cultural boundaries.

Communication Styles

Do you prefer to be loud and direct, or are you more soft-spoken and deferential?  Do you address every member of a team, or only negotiate with the senior person?  Do you consider feelings when making decisions, or only objective facts?  In many cultures, people are loath to say “no”, or sometimes even to use negative language.   For example, you need to know if your boss’ comment that you “think some more about that idea” means you should keep developing it, or that it’s a bad idea and you should move on to something else .  Sometimes this means asking for specific clarification, maybe even pushing for it, other times it means couching your own responses in terms that will make it more palatable for the other person.

Time

How important is punctuality and planning?  In some cultures schedules are inviolate, requiring precise punctuality and significant advance planning.  In others, meeting times are only a suggestion, and arriving hours late is perfectly acceptable.  It’s best to begin in a new are by always being punctual, and relax later as local custom allows.

Timelines also differ. English-speaking people will put the past on the left, Arabic-speaking people on the right, and Mandarin-speakers put it on the bottom.  When you’re creating graphics for a diverse audience, make sure labels are clear so everyone can follow.

Professionalism

When you meet a new group, do you assume the person in charge is the oldest (most experienced), male, most educated, best dressed…..It may be just the opposite.  Don’t make assumptions about relative ranking based on ideas from your own background.  Treat everyone with respect – which includes using their title and surname until invited to do otherwise.

Similarly with clothing – if you’re not sure what to wear, err on the side of formality.

Mixing Business With Pleasure

Do you prefer to get right down to work and keep business relationships professional, or do you want to make friends with your co-workers?  In some cultures negotiations are all about business, in others a significant amount of socializing between the parties is expected before business begins.  And in some cultures, negotiations continue even after the contract is signed. Knowing what is standard, and thus expected, in that culture can help avoid surprises.

In the end, culture is not just geographic.  No matter where you are from or where you are working, your style will differ from your colleagues in many ways, sometimes to the point where one or more people are uncomfortable. Realizing that there are many ways to get to the same endpoint, and asking for clarification when needed, can help you reach a middle ground where both parties are comfortable, and you can then focus on the work at hand.

 

Get involved in the discussion

The ACS Career Tips column is published the first week of every month in C&EN. Post your comments, follow the discussion, and suggest topics for future columns in the Career Development section of the ACS Network (www.acs.org/network-careers)._—brought to you by ACS Careers.


Tips for Writing Letters of Recommendation

March 31, 2014

One of the things I like best about teaching is seeing my students succeed and move onto new challenges. When they are in the process of doing that, they often need references and letters of recommendation. I am happy to be asked and want to help. However, when I sit down to write a letter of recommendation and am facing a blank page, I start to wonder where to start. It’s something I didn’t really consider when I asked professors, and managers to write reference letters for me for school and job applications.

Here are some tips I have put together for myself when I need to write a letter of reference:

  • Make sure I know enough about the person and about the job, school, or scholarship the person is applying for. What information is the person who is reading the letter going to want? Does he or she want to know about academic performance? Attendance? Leadership qualities? Extracurricular activities?
  • State that I am recommending them in clear, strong language in the opening paragraph.

“I believe that Jane Doe would be an asset to your company as she has been here.”

  • Introduce myself towards the beginning of the letter-maybe even the first paragraph. The reader should know your relationship to the applicant, how long you have known him or her, and how you are qualified to evaluate the applicant.

“I met Jane Doe when she was a student in my Fall 2012 Chemistry 101 class at Blank College where I am a professor of chemistry.”

“As John Doe’s supervisor, I have worked with him for the last 5 years at Blank Chemical Company.”

  • Explore the reasons why you recommend the applicant in the following paragraphs. Try to give concrete examples of the applicant performing well to support your recommendation.

“John has strong leadership qualities. As part of the Chemistry Club, he organized a volunteer tutoring program for chemistry students.”

  • Compare the applicant to his or her peers. Where does her grade fall compared to the rest of the class? How did his performance review stack up among other chemists in the department?

“Jane has consistently exceeded our expectations for level 2 chemists in each of her performance reviews, making her one of our top chemists in the company.”

  • I like to finish the letter by once again recommending the applicant and briefly restating the reasons.

“John is one of the top students in his class who has shown himself to be a leader through his volunteer work.”

  • Most importantly, I make sure to know the deadline for the letter and to meet it!

Being able to assist people when they are moving onto the next stage of their lives-starting new jobs or starting a new school program-is a great feeling. It’s exciting to see people changing jobs or even careers, transferring to a new school or program, or going back to school. It’s even better when you have a plan on how to write the letter.

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.


What is Your Story?

March 24, 2014

Whether meeting someone new at a conference, or explaining to a potential employer exactly how your background prepares you to meet their needs, scientists are often asked to tell their professional history.  While it is hard to condense a lifetime of professional experience into a few minutes, it can be even harder to do it in a coherent way that makes sense to the listener.

When you stop to reflect on your career history (which you should do on a regular basis), do you see that your career followed a straight trajectory, with each job leading logically to the next one, until you retire exactly when and how you had planned?  I didn’t think so.

Most people’s careers take many twists and turns, as they take advantage of unexpected opportunities, and deal with unplanned disasters.  The problem comes when you try to turn that succession of steps, each of which made sense at the time, into a single, coherent story that others can understand.

When you start thinking about how to tell your professional story, start with the easy part.  What elements have remained consistent throughout the majority of your career?  Have you always used the same techniques, worked in the same subject area, or worked for the same type of company?  Have all of your jobs involved seeing things in terms of how they relate to the big picture, or were they more making sure the details were correct? Finding a common theme that runs through your entire work history will make your story “hang together” when you tell it, and convey a sense of continuity and stability to your background.

Next, think about what changed at the major transition points in your career.  Did you take the same skills but start applying them in a new field?  Did you expand your skills and learn new techniques, while remaining in the same field?  Or did you take the lessons you’d learned at a large company and bring them down to implement in a small start-up? Can you divide your history into a few major transitions, and other more minor transitions?

Think about what you have learned and how you have grown in each of your career segments. What did you learn about yourself, or your field?  How have your interests and abilities grown and changed over time?  What situations trigger your career changes?  Can you use those insights to frame your career transitions?  Being able to talk about you why you made the changes you did, and how you grew with each transition, will emphasize your flexibility and broad background.

Finally, think about where you want to go next in your career.  Whether you are happy in your current position or are actively looking for something new, you should have an idea of where you would like to go next.  Whether it’s a new type of project in your current job, or an entirely new career, you need to tell people where you want to go, so they can help you get there.

Summarizing your entire career path in a succinct way, that connects the dots in a logical manner for your listener, is not a trivial exercise.  While it may not have felt logical while you were living it, in hindsight you may be able to see how you were preparing for the change, even if you didn’t know it at the time.

Once the whole story makes sense to you, you can tell it to others in a way that will make sense to them.  While it won’t start with “one upon a time”, it will hopefully end with “happily ever after.

 

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


Casually Job Hunting

March 17, 2014

People rarely stay at the same company for the length of their career anymore.  According the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of January 2012 college graduates 25-34 yrs old spend a median of 3.1 years at an employer. Workers are changing jobs every few years and sites such as linkedin make it even easier to always be casually job hunting. It seems like we are always, at least casually, job hunting. To keep your options open without doing a full job hunt, you can keep your professional contacts and keep your online presence current.

Often, you can hear about good opportunities in your field from a colleague. Make sure to keep in contact with previous coworkers and managers. Sending an email to catch up every few months or once a year is a good idea. It’s better to keep the lines of communication open and not only contact people when you are actively job hunting and want something from them. When using social media, you should make a point to send a personal message to people. General updates to your account do not make quite the same impact as sending a direct, personal message. If you have left coworkers at a previous company, chances are in a year or two they will have moved on too and may hear of openings at their new company. Former coworkers may also be able pass along job prospects they have heard about it from their other contacts as well.

Having a professional online presence with your social media accounts can allow headhunters and HR departments to get in touch with you easily without you pursuing a specific job or company.

Make sure to keep any information about your career up to date-do not keep your job title from 2 promotions ago as your current title and add any skills or training as you gain them. Any updates or comments should be kept professional-do not give anyone a reason not to take a second look at you. Keep in mind that your current manager and coworkers may be looking at you online as well, so if your plan is to quietly or casually job hunt make sure to not be too obvious about looking with your social media accounts. Do not make updates on job hunting or listing reasons why to leave your current position.

If you are contacted by a headhunter or recruiter, check on either that person or the company before responding. How did they hear of you? Were you recommended by a former coworker or friend? Did they just find you by searching key words on a site? Most importantly, make sure you are genuinely interested in the opportunity before pursuing it. Take stock of how you feel about your current position and compensation and your possible future at your current company.

With most people changing companies every years, and most people keeping their eyes open for new opportunities, if not outright job hunting, you should make it easy to hear about interesting job prospects.

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.


Getting Along with Coworkers

March 10, 2014

People spend a lot of time and money on education to gain knowledge and skills in a specific area. We take these skills into the work force and use them to perform well on the job. However, a large part of our performance at work has nothing to do with our ability to do the job well ­– it is based on our ability to get along with coworkers. Few people seek out training on how to get along with others at work. It may seem that we should acquire these skills through life experience, but time and time again managers report that the ability to get along with coworkers is a difficult skill to find in an employee.

Why? There are two main reasons: (1) When people get emotional, whether it’s anger, humiliation, jealousy, frustration, etc., they resort to instinctive behaviors. Some people get defensive and treat coworkers with disrespect; others avoid conflict rather than dealing with the issue. Neither approach is productive. (2) While these behaviors may have been accepted by others in our personal lives, they are not tolerated in the work place. Family members and close friends re-enforce negative behaviors by tolerating them, and thus people have not been challenged to use self-control in emotional situations. In our personal lives, if we don’t like others, we simply don’t hang out with them or minimize our interactions. This is not an option at work. We are required to work closely with all varieties of personalities, and we are expected to be respectful and resolve differences.

Everyone knows this, but many still struggle with how to control themselves or confront others in the heat of the moment. There are numerous resources devoted to advising people on this issue, including articles, seminars, coaching sessions, and quizzes to help you determine your ability to work well with others. I have found one simple trick that can work well, if you implement it at the right time: pretend that your boss or your HR rep is standing beside you. How would you speak to your coworkers if you knew that your boss or HR would hear everything you say and the tone of voice you use, as well as see that smirk on your face. The reality is that other coworkers may hear or see your interactions, and anything you say may very well get back to HR. Therefore, make sure you are able to stand behind all your words and actions at work if you have to explain yourself.

Keep in mind that “interactions” extend beyond face-to-face encounters. Emails and gossip can spread rapidly, and these can also reflect poorly on your ability to get along with coworkers. We all know those people who complain about others or talk behind people’s backs. I naturally assume that those people speak the same way about me when I’m not around. It can be tempting to “vent” about things that annoy or frustrate you, but at least try to wait until you get home. Or better yet, confront the issue to resolve it, while pretending that your boss and HR are standing beside you, of course.

 

This article was written by Sherrie Elzey, Ph.D., a chemical engineer and freelance technical writer/editor. Sherrie has a background in nanoscience and nanotechnology research, with experience in academia, government, and industry positions. 


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