October 29, 2007

When I was asked to start this column approximately a year and a half ago, it was done as filler. “Write a few words on careers to promote the website.” Now that people have found it, there is pressure to change.

The more that people read the column, the more people seek control of its content. In a way, it is doomed by its own success. “You’ll offend someone with that statement.” “That’s not funny enough.” “This is a serious column. Remove the joke.” The pressure is to make the articles more generic, more like the status quo.

Under this kind of pressure, it is hard to be one’s self. As a result, I have written several entries of late that you will never see. For example, I drafted one column about being kicked off the bus. Although based on the truth, I over-dramatized it for effect, and took artistic license with the plot—not a good thing. The changes to the story were too great, and the lesson was lost. It also lost its authenticity, becoming unbelievable in the end.

Okay, so what I know is that I have to be me whether I like it or not. As much as I would like to be someone else—funnier, more intellectual, more respectable—I can’t be. In the end, I am stuck with me, and so, you are too!

This is not the first time I have been pressured to be someone else. In school, on interviews, in presentations, I have felt pressure to be something that I am not—something better. Unsure of my exact endpoint, I generally stretched my personality in the wrong direction expanding a weakness instead of a strength and landing flat on my face.

Popeye the Sailor had it right when he said, “I yam what I yam.” For best results, we really do need to be aware of who we are, what we want, and what we can contribute to the team. So be prepared. At some point, I am sure to offend at least one of you. I will probably get a few things wrong. But I will always strive to provide the best information and advice that I can while still being authentic.

As for you, the best gift that I can give is one of self-awareness. When we are under the microscope and receiving continuous feedback, it should be easy to do the right thing, but it is not. In these times of high pressure, it is best to turn inward, assess your position and strengths, and then play to your advantage.

Generally, you will be able to accomplish the goals that have been set before you, but the best results will be achieved by taking a path of your choosing. I should also add that the road ahead will probably not look too different from the one behind. Being authentic to yourself means to consistently live up to your values and beliefs, remaining worthy of your reputation.

Project Management – Is Your Goal to Set Goals?

October 22, 2007

Chemists can do all sorts of things – and most of them don’t involve a lab bench or a white coat. The following is a profile of Roy Simmons, Ph.D., MBA, PMP – a chemist who’s taken some interesting twists in his career.Roy works for Integrated Project Management Co., Inc., a project management consultancy based in Chicago. His current assignment is the management of several drug development projects at Pfizer’s Global Biologics R&D Center in St. Louis.As a project manager (PM), Roy’s primary responsibility is to track project spending and resource allocation. He helps project teams develop and maintain project plans, manages team meeting schedules, and coordinates the cross-functional activities that are key to the success of complex projects like drug discovery. Roy interacts with “people along the whole spectrum of disciplines needed to bring new drugs to market, including synthetic and analytical chemists, biologists, regulatory experts, business people, accountants, lawyers….the list is truly endless.”Roy got started on this path about 10 years ago, when he moved from the lab to a company-wide “New Product Development Methodology” initiative. He was interested in the new methods, and saw an opportunity for career growth. Roy had “always been pretty good at getting things done and figuring out the easiest path to a goal, and at challenging others to think about doing things in different ways. When the opportunity appeared, it looked like a good fit.”According to Roy, PMs need exceptional organizational, interpersonal, and communication skills. Roy’s MBA and business development experience help him understand business issues that are often ignored by technical teams, such as the importance of following the money, and the impacts of delays and cost overruns on the eventual health of projects. Since biological processes and analytical methods are still rooted in chemistry, the ability to understand complex technical issues is also important.Over the past decade, Roy has moved from chemicals/plastics into pharmaceuticals, based on his project management experience. Because project management is still a relatively new field, Roy feels his future options are wide open. Eventually he plans to look for more senior positions where he can affect how entire organizations execute projects. An example would be project portfolio management, where he would influence the actual projects selected for execution.If all this has piqued your interest in PM as a career, Roy suggests that you “find a company that understands the value of applying the PM discipline, get on a project team, and get some training.” Most universities include PM courses, and the Project Management Institute (PMI) offers classes and a certification exam.Project management is a not career path that you might choose at the beginning of your career, but rather something you will be exposed to during the course of your career, and might gravitate toward. So keep your eyes, and options, open. Sometimes the best opportunities come from unexpected places.This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants. A more detailed version of this article appears on her Career Development for Scientists blog.

Aging in America

October 18, 2007

It’s Saturday morning, and I’ve just gotten out of the gym. After being beaten up by my trainer, I’m feeling a little older than I should and maybe a little grumpy. I’ve come to the food court in a local mall (excuse me, fashion centre) for the fast-food version of a stir-fry buffet. It’s healthier I tell myself. I drown my sorrows in water with an ibuprofen chaser, and assure myself that the aching will stop soon.

A baby coos across the table from me. She is bald and fat with pink bows glued to the sides of her head. Her parents have brought her to have a picture taken with a grotesquely over-sized purple mammal with huge incisors and lanky feet. Fearsome as this ordeal has been, she survived. Sucking and gumming on an animal cracker, she drools down her forearm as her parents compare photographic prints handed to them by a boy dressed in a large yellow egg with a crack down the side.

Sure she had a rough morning, but I am reminded of just how good life is for her now. As she ages, expectations placed on her by herself and others will surely grow. A life of bubbles, tickles and kisses will yield way to exams, report cards and eventually graduation. She will enter the job market, but her landing is expected to be soft as the fertility rate for the US and other developed countries continues to decline. Coupled with increasing demands for skilled workers and decreasing enrollments of domestic students pursuing graduate science degrees, she stands to place well if she chooses to pursue a technical career.

The rub comes for those unemployed later in life. In 2006, 13,569 new cases of age discrimination were filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). This number has decreased steadily from its high of 19,921 total cases in 2002, but the public’s perception of those in their prime is still dangerously skewed toward the young.

In the past couple of years, the aging Baby Boomer population is starting to change all that through their collective buying power. Television commercials more frequently feature older Americans living active and productive lives. Dennis Hopper, the rebel from “Easy Rider,” is doing investment banking commercials and Donovan’s music accompanies earth-friendly alternatives from G.E.

The good news for us—employers are starting to see the need to retain experienced scientists. Eli Lilly joined forces with Procter & Gamble to found an innovative new staffing agency providing “seasoned” professionals opportunities to tackle significant scientific challenges. The federal government is also realizing the impact of the Baby Boomer retirement brain drain by targeting retention and recruitment efforts in “Engineering and Science” as well as four other highly-skilled fields. More than 50 % of federal employees are within five years of retirement and 70 % of all senior managers will be able to retire by 2009.

The ibuprofen has started to lift my spirits, or maybe it is the outlook for the future. In either case, I plan to be back at work on Monday with my head held high. After all, I have a lot of skills and experience that the little girl across from me has yet to discover. If she is nice, I’ll take time to transfer some of the knowledge to her, but I think I’ll wait until she passes the blowing-bubbles-with-her-nose phase.

This article was written by David Harwell, Ph.D., Assistant Director of the ACS Department of Career Management and Development. Originally published in the newsletter on April 23, 2007.

If People Had Warning Labels

October 14, 2007

As I walked down the street today I noticed a boldly emblazoned message on the front of a T-shirt. It said, “Don’t even talk to me ‘til I’ve had my coffee!” It would be nice if everyone at work wore a similar shirt warning of potential political and sociological pitfalls.

Almost everything that we come into contact these days is labeled with some kind of warning. Coffee cups from your corner latte pusher are likely to state, “Caution: Contents Hot!Prescription drugs have so many warnings that it is often difficult to find the instructions for use. And the food and beverage industry must label every ingredient of every product with ingredients, nutritional information, and allergy alerts. However, people come with very few warnings. Misjudging their status can be hazardous to your health not to mention your career.

Here are a few of the ones I would like to see labeled:

Passive Aggressive – Non-participant will claim to be on your side, but secretly plots to put you under. This pitiful pest is best handled through transparency and open communications. Keep all members on your team up-to-date on program milestones and ask for reports to the group. Group members who drag their feet quickly become apparent, and must report to the group. Remember: communicate, communicate, communicate, but not necessarily in that order.

Town Crier – This person is Gossip Central. You might as well send a broadcast memo with color pictures to all of your coworkers. Every workplace (except ACS) has at least one gossip, so be careful who you tell your secrets, or they might not stay that way. Turning tables on a gossip is easily done by telling everyone that you know who they are. You can also learn from the military and cut off their supply chain.

Microcontroller – Will swoop into any project at a moment’s notice and rearrange all processes to fit their needs, or at least to the way that they would have done them. If this is a supervisor, the solution can be challenging. This may be best handled by simply stepping out of the way. If you allow them to focus on the process that obsesses them so, can you work on other aspects of the program to produce a better product? If you can’t step aside, can you isolate their pet-peeve, so that progress is not delayed on the rest of the project? Either way, look for an opportunity to take advantage of their skill-base while also preserving a role for yourself.

Empire Builder – Caution: this person may claim credit for your work, or steal resources out from under your nose. Your advantage will be their paranoia. These folks tend to plot their evil plans in isolation and are frequently worried about those around them. After all, they have probably double-crossed or stepped on most of them while climbing to the top. They can be defeated through coalitions. Identify allies working for the better good, and pool your resources. Also, establish distance between you and the dictator de jour. You don’t want to be underneath them when they fall lest they take you with them.

There are many other people in the workplace that can help or hurt your career, and this is not meant to be a complete listing. However, it is my hope that you will look for representative people in your institution’s cultural structure. By figuring out their roles, you will be in a better position to avoid pitfalls and take advantage of everyone’s personal strengths.

This article was written by David Harwell, Assistant Director of the ACS Department of Career Development and Management.

Danger in the Comfort Zone by Judith M. Bardwick

October 7, 2007

The workplace environment has changed dramatically in the last few years, in many ways. The book Danger in the Comfort Zone by Judith M. Bardwick discusses where many companies used to be – a state she calls “entitlement”, where companies were expected to take care of employees for life. When companies were doing well and the economy was growing, they could afford to keep some less productive workers. These workers were often shifted to different areas, to keep them busy (but not necessarily productive). Their long-term loyalty ensured them virtually complete job security.

As the economy became more competitive, this model no longer worked. Organizations began massive downsizings, which meant letting go of “entitled” workers. Employees left behind were in a state of fear – it seemed that no job was safe. In reality, companies were starting to hold employees accountable for their performance, and needed to move past the fear and into a productive, “earning” state. Those people who did became more valuable to their own company, as well as more satisfied with their work and more employable by other companies.

Bardwick talks about how executives and managers can help their companies and employees move from entitlement, through fear and into earning. She gives specific methods, as well as case studies. Perhaps of most interest to the individual is her assertion that no one should stay in the same position for more than 3 years, and at least 25% of assignments should be new each year, to ensure professional growth. This may or may not work in the chemical enterprise, but it’s an interesting observation.

This book offers an interesting historical perspective, and some tips you just might use in your own organization.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants.

Vote Dave

October 7, 2007

With all of the leaders of the major political parties announcing their candidacies for office, I have decided to run as well. I realize that I will need to align my values with my constituency, and that I may have to make some compromises to get what I want, but I think that it is time that I stood up for my beliefs.

In this election, I will not be running for President of the United States. I am also seceding from the race for President of the Society. I won’t even be running for Chair of the local school board. Instead, I am going to be the President of Me! That’s me as in me, not ME as in Maine.

I am sure that you think this preposterous. How could I ever expect to run my life? What about my boss, my family, my colleagues — my word? Surely they will have some say in what path I will take? I shouldn’t expect them to sit idly by while I forge my own path — surely not.

Besides, running my life won’t be easy. There are matters of finance, relationships, diplomacy and leadership. What good am I at these types of things? If I were me, I think that I would much rather trust others with such onerous tasks. They’ll know what to say. They’ll know what to do. An external candidate should have a much better chance of winning that me.

But then I must argue that I am the best at knowing what I want. I have unique insights into the consciousness of me. I am the best positioned for planning my future, and if I think about it, I know what things I need and which ones I don’t. If I take the time and put in the effort to do it, I can build a better plan than any other person out there.

Unfortunately, like most of us today, I spend more time planning my annual vacation than I do planning for the future. It’s just too hard, frustrating, no fun. It is much easier to let my life be dictated by others. I generally take the free electron path, the path of least resistance.

However, this year I am taking the road less traveled. I will support the internal candidate, me. In this way, I will truly know that the winner of the election will have my best interests at heart. I know that I am the only one that I can truly take care of me.

So for whom will you vote? In the end, it should be you. As Shakespeare would say, “to thine own self be true.”

This article was written by David Harwell, Assistant Director of the ACS Department of Career Management and Development. Originally posted in the newsletter on Mar. 19, 2007.

Experience Does Not Equal Wisdom

October 7, 2007

In common vernacular, experience is often equated with wisdom, but in reality, the two are not the same. Wisdom is the result of lessons learned through experience. Take away the learning, and you are left only with experience — not a wise thing to do.

My grandmothers present an interesting study in contrast. Although they are both gone now, I remember them fondly.

Fundamentally different people, they had several similarities. They were both old, wrinkled and funny. They wore strange clothes, had glasses, and removable teeth. They also lived through the same time period moving West in covered wagons as little girls, and living through WW I, WW II and the Great Depression. However, that is where the similarities ended.

My mom’s mom was fiercely independent. That was an unusual characteristic for the time period, especially in Texas. She said things as she saw them, and she didn’t have a problem telling someone to, “Go butt a stump!” if she didn’t agree. She was also incredibly inquisitive taking nothing for granted. She loved reading, Elvis and all things new. She was the first to own a car in Parker County, and she drove it to town the first day. As she told the story, the trip to town was fine, but after putting the car in reverse to pull away from the curb, the gear stuck leaving her to back all the way home. Her lesson learned was to park parallel, so that she never had to use the reverse gear again. She also added that reading the owner’s manual before operating complicated and unfamiliar machinery was a good idea.

My dad’s mom was different. She was a wonderful person and very proper. She was tall and thin with curly white hear like the little old ladies depicted in greeting card illustrations. Her house was filled with lace and smelled of naphthalene and chocolate chips. She took life as it came, and although she never seemed to get a break, she was resigned to accept her fate. She had a routine from which she did not wander, and her only source of outside information was the Merkel Mail which was delivered once a week.

Of the two, it was always my mother’s mom that taught me the most. She was an advocate of experiential learning. She encouraged me to eat my first and only bug, a rollie pollie. It was not a pleasant experience, and I spit it out yelling “Yuk!” Her response, “Well, now you know.”

If you are wondering why our family tree is so crooked, it is because I am trying as hard as I can to lean toward the branches on my mother’s side. I hope to be wise someday — not just weathered.

Learning, the source of wisdom, is only available to us when we are willing to extract it from our experiences. In some cases we will be able to schedule these growth opportunities, and in other cases they will come unannounced. In either case we must be willing and ready to cultivate our wisdom. Passive observation is not enough.

This article was written by David Harwell, Assistant Director of the Department of Career Management and Development.  Originally published in the newsletter on March 5, 2007.

Taking Flight

October 7, 2007

Business travel isn’t always easy, but there are a few things that you can do to make it better. Keeping a sense of humor, planning ahead and packing light are but a few of the steps you can take toward a trip to nirvana.

As I write this article, I find myself sitting on the floor of the Tampa airport in the “B” line of a Southwest flight which is soon to be headed off to Albuquerque with various pit stops along the way. Being in the “B” line precludes me from a seat in the exit row where I could open my computer without contorting my posture into pretzel-like positions. Luckily, I have recently started yoga and I am prepared. In today’s business environment it is good to be flexible.

For most airlines, including discount carriers, you can pre-register for your flight up to 24 hours in advance online. Doing so would have saved me time on the floor and assured storage space for my carry-on items. Registering in advance for other airlines is also beneficial, saving time in lines and giving you preference for upgrades or standby tickets.

When going through security, remember to smile and be courteous. Snarky remarks or any other departure from well-established security guidelines will result in significant delays and embarrassment to you. Generally, I don’t have any trouble going through security. I put any metal in the outside pocket of my carry-on bag, wear slip-on shoes that are easy to remove and put back on, and I place my laptop in its own tray leading into the x-ray belt. I also avoid liquids and gels.

The only times I have experienced trouble are when I travel through my home town. I must be on some secret list known only to red-neck TSA agents, because without fail the lady that checks ID’s for the gate always says, “Why bless your heart. Step right through here and talk to agent X.” Maybe it was the library book that I forgot to return in the 3rd grade, or the time that I filled my 6th grade teacher’s briefcase with purely organic fertilizer. My principal always said that those incidents would follow me for the rest of my life as part of my permanent record. Whatever the case, the pat-down and search are usually completed quickly.

When traveling cross-country touching down for a quick flight changes, I occasionally lose track of what airport I am in. But this time it is obvious. because the flight attendant is warning us to be careful when retrieving our “personnel bull-awnings,” so I’m sure that I’m somewhere in Texas. My flight into ABQ is delayed and I’ll be spending the next few hours switching from gate to gate as weather conditions worsen.

During flight delays, you can often talk your way into a perquisite such as a better seat, bonus miles or an upgrade. For best results, remain alert, know your options and choose the gate agent with the best hair. Mangled coiffeurs are often an indication of a day that started badly and has only gotten worse. Threats will not work here, but smiles often do. After being acknowledged, state clearly what you want and then chuckle lightly as though you were joking. You might be surprised by how far you get.

Happy trails!

This article was written by David Harwell, Assistant Director of the Department of Career Management and Development. Originally p ublished in the newsletter on Feb. 20, 2007.

Gift of Gab Counts for a Lot

October 7, 2007

As social beings we have requirements for interactions with others: friends, family and coworkers. Yet, many of us remain isolated from one another using work or being too busy as an excuse to avoid conversation. I know that I am certainly guilty of this.

However, it is our interactions with others that generally result in our most profound moments. Sharing the thrill of a discovery, telling about your child’s first steps, or helping someone through grief can be the most poignant. Still we resist.

My MP3 player is on an eternal and eclectic 80’s shuffle as am I. This morning it was playing “Dancing with Myself” by Billy Idol, and the song reminded me of a recent awkward exchange.

While on a visit to Texas A&M University to help review resumes and conduct interviews as part of a “Preparing for Life after Graduate School” workshop, I met a young chemist of remarkable talent. She was not yet finished with her Ph.D., but she had ten published papers in highly respected journals, awards from several groups, and won a fellowship from NSF!

Like most other people I counsel I was lucky to get two papers at her stage, my scholarships consisted of a small collection of bottle caps for free sodas, and my blue ribbon for winning the soapbox derby in the third grade stood alone in the awards category. I was humbled.

I stumbled on pretending to know what I was doing, and began the interview. The first question I asked was, “What was the purpose of your research?”

There was a long pause, and she said, “to study the surfactant-water interface.” And I said, “Why?” And there was another long pause…and she said, “I don’t know, but I want to be a patent lawyer.” And I said, “Why?” And there was another long pause…and she didn’t respond.

I stared at her blankly as she stared at me finally stating, “I guess I’m not very good at this. I just don’t know how to express myself.” I was flabbergasted. I asked if she was truly the person mentioned in the resume presented to me, and she emphatically said, “Yes.”

As it turned out, she was an excellent writer with even greater research prowess, but she just didn’t know how to talk to people. Like most of us, she had focused on her research at the cost of everything else. Like Billy Idol, she had been dancing with herself. Oooh, oooh, oooh, oooh. She lacked the gift of gab.

Talking to others takes practice. I guess we forget, because so many seemingly stupid people do it so well. If you get anxious speaking to people you don’t know the exasperation is compounded, and it only gets worse on an interview.

Here is a trick I learned. To take the pressure off, give yourself an assignment in advance. Start out small and graduate to something more. You could begin with collecting three business cards before calling it a night, and graduate to inviting a perfect stranger to a reception or party. But whatever you do, take a chance. Oooh, oooh, oooh, oooh.

This article was written by David Harwell, Assistant Director of ACS Department of Career Management and Development. Originally published in the newsletter Feb. 5, 2007.

Living through Times of Boom and Bust

October 7, 2007

Growing up in West Texas, I am familiar with cycles of boom and bust. During high school many of my friends dropped out to work in the oil fields where the work was hard and dangerous, but the profits high. 

Some were killed and many were mangled, but their pockets were filled with more cash than they could spend. Oil embargoes had pushed the price of crude to new highs, and oil companies could not find enough people to tap, drill, pump and refine the fuel of progress.

In only a year, our small town of 100,000 people doubled to nearly 200,000. Public utilities strained to keep up with the demand for water and basic necessities, and housing was hard to find. People built new homes that were palatial in scale, and sun-scarred, wind-blown faces bragged of conquests and adventure.

My parents were different. Seasoned by experience, they continued a modest lifestyle and invested additional earnings into our future through savings and investments. They had been through booms before, but more importantly, they had also survived times of bust. My parents lived through the Great Depression, WW II, and the dust bowl years. They survived by holding a steady course when everything around them was changing, by adapting to challenges as they came along, and by constantly refreshing their skill base through learning.

Within three years, the embargo was lifted and the price of crude plummeted. Almost overnight the pumpjacks stopped pumping, drilling ceased, and the refineries shut down. It simply cost too much to produce gasoline from Texas crude when compared to the going market price.

People were unable to make their house and car payments, and the shopping malls emptied of patrons. Many people went bankrupt, and my friends who had dropped out of school to ride the wave of prosperity were left high and dry without marketable skills when that wave crested and crashed. The population of the region dropped precipitously and buildings stood empty.

In more recent times, our economy has become more robust showing moderate to appreciable growth. Our unemployment rates have dropped, and economic measures indicate a positive future. However, challenges remain and bubbles of instability can be expected. One such bubble imploded last week with the shut down of Pfizer facilities in Ann Arbor, MI. Approximately 2,500 people are out of work in Michigan and 10,000 worldwide must now find ways to support themselves and their families while looking for another job.

Unlike my high school classmates, these former Pfizer employees have invested wisely in themselves and their futures. They are well trained and have valuable skills. However, their road will not be easy. Many will have to relocate diffusing into the Greater Detroit Area or beyond.

As a Society, it is our responsibility to help them through this transition. Those most impacted by this abrupt change in their lives know they can turn to ACS for the excellent guidance and counsel we have offered our members for over 130 years. 

ACS is responding with Career Workshops, Counseling, and access to the database. Additional resources concerning writing resumes, interviewing and targeting the job market are also available online through the ACS Careers Website.

My home town has recovered from the last big bust and is thriving under better economic times. However, scars are still visible both in the town and its people. Ann Arbor will recover as well, but it will take time and anguish before it is done.

It behooves us all to take a few simple steps to prepare for our future:

  • actively manage your professional development through learning,
  • keep your resumes up-to-date and
  • keep in contact with the people in your personal network.

This article was written by David Harwell, Assistant Director of ACS Career Management and Development. Originally published in the newsletter Jan. 29, 2007.