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 chemistry.org newsletter on Feb. 20, 2007.

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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 chemistry.org 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 Chemjobs.org 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 chemistry.org newsletter Jan. 29, 2007.


Eating Right During an Interview

October 7, 2007

I am not aware of anyone ever being fired or refused further consideration in an interview just because they used the wrong fork during a dinner, but I have spoken to plenty of people who were paranoid about it.

For that reason, I am dedicating this column to a discussion of what to do and what not to do during dinner. I am sure that your mother already told you these things, but since you probably weren’t listening, here goes again.

Rule #1 Skip foods with red sauces, honey, broccoli or poppy seeds. This one should not need explanation, but here goes anyway. Red sauces will always end up on your shirt or blouse. Honey will find its way to your elbow, and broccoli and poppy seeds are sure to ruin your smile 🙂

Rule #2 Bibs are not appropriate unless you are under the age of three-years-old. That includes when ordering lobster, because you shouldn’t have ordered the lobster in the first place. It’s too expensive. You’ll look like a pig. What were you thinking?

Rule #3 Clothing should fit well: not too tightly or loosely. It should not be possible to tell the exact value of the change in your pocket. Likewise, other people at the table should not be concerned that part of you is likely to pop or fall out of your garment during dinner.

Rule #4 When choosing a utensil, go for the one toward the outside of your place setting first, moving in one place each course. Generally, the salad fork will be the left-most with the fork used for the entrée between it and the plate. Dessert utensils will be above the plate toward the center of the table.

Rule #5 The rule regarding bread plates and glasses can be trickier. The official rule is that your glass will be on the right, and your bread plate on the left. Remember this according to the number of letters in the associated words. Food and left both have four letters, while drink and right both have five letters. If your host grabs the wrong glass or plate, reverse the rule and insist that they are correct!

Rule #6 The only thing sauced during a business lunch or dinner should be your entrée. If liquor (even beer or wine) is offered politely turn it down. This rule applies even if your host is drinking. Remember, they may not be the last person that interviews that day. Additionally, hangovers on the second day of the interview are frowned upon.

Rule #7 When sharing food such as an appetizer, do not double-dip. If the food is saucy, pour some onto a plate and dip from there. If this is not possible, be sure to dip from the main dish only once with any given piece of food. Backwash into the main serving dish will never win you points.

Rule #8 During dinner conversations you should avoid inappropriate topics. Certainly, discussions of religion or politics can put you on shaky ground. But you should also avoid subject matter that others find distasteful such as recent medical procedures, or any sentence starting, “When I was little my brother…”

Rule #9 Fingers are only allowed with foods with endo- or exoskeletons. Only eat these foods if they were ordered by your host. Whole shrimp is messy as are ribs. You’ll want your hosts to remember you for your witty repartee, not the way you sucked BBQ sauce from under your fingernails.

Rule #10 Wrangle the conversation. Remember it takes two for an effective exchange. That’s two minutes for them and two minutes for you, back and forth. Don’t monopolize the conversation; but equally important, you’ll need to be ready to wrestle it back your way if your host forgets you are in the room.

While this list is not exhaustive, it covers quite a bit of territory. Remember, meals on interviews are meant to be a means of seeing how you interact with others. They also serve as a slightly informal time to talk about things less technical. Eat well, eat properly and have fun. It’s what your mom would want you to do.

This article was written by David Harwell, Assistant Director of the ACS Department of Career Management and Development.  Originally published in the chemistry.org newsletter on Jan. 16, 2007.


Maintaining a Work-Life Equilibrium

October 7, 2007

Its 6:30 a.m. and I am heading into town on the METRO train traversing the underworld of federal politics. The trip is made shorter by the musical stylings of a woman sitting across from me who is singing along to the earspray of an all-too-loud MP3 player implanted in her ears. 

Still, my mind is preoccupied by the piddle puppy that I left behind. Today will be a long one and I am worried that I won’t make it home before her biological clock sounds an alarm to empty her personal flood gates. I’ll have to remember to call the kid across the street to ask if he can let her out for a little play time and relief on his way home from school.

These days there are many things that compete for my time. And sometimes I just can’t get it all done during working hours. For those items that will wait, I will. But some tasks like this article have firm deadlines that cannot be moved, so I’ll just complete them at home in the times that I would normally consider personal. It’s just the way things work. It’s the way I work.

Gone are the days when life could be compartmentalized neatly into leak-proof polybags each segmented and hermetically sealed. With the advent of cell phones, crackberries, and instant messaging, I am open to the world at any time—available 24/7. But I don’t mind most of the time, as long as I’m allowed the flexibility and tools to integrate these work activities with my more mundane tasks like laundry and yard work. It is actually very similar to the way that my grandparents lived a century ago in the agrarian age.

In those days, as my Dad often recounts, everyone lived on a farm. Life began before dawn feeding chickens and milking cows. Kids went off to school and both parents set into their chores. When the kids came home they started into other work like plowing fields, washing clothes and finally, after dark, doing homework. It was a complete integration of family, work and life.

As we look toward the future, we are likely to see more of the same. Futurists predict further integration of work and life with some people choosing to telecommute at least one day per week. Others will split their time between projects in Chicago and Beijing using the Internet to fold time and space. Whatever your fate, there are a few things that you can do to ease the transition.

  1. Schedule time for family and friends. Don’t rely on happenstance to bring you together to share your lives and experiences.
  2. Set limits on your availability. Use the auto-off functions on your personal communications devices rendering them harmless at the end of the day.
  3. Set personal goals for creativity and fitness. Every once in a while you have to give the left side of your brain a little R&R letting your right-brain pick up the slack. The same is true for your body. It was made to move.
  4. Fight entropy with organization and prioritization. Doing tasks as they come along is the surest way to fail. It’s a bit like making the “minimum” payment on your credit card balance each month.
  5. Take your life back. Every intrusion that work makes into your personal space should be balanced by something fun at work.

This is the time of the year that most people set resolutions that they never plan to keep. As we begin 2007, I hope that you will make the commitment to bring your work-life balance into equilibrium. Remember Le Châtelier’s principle which states that an equilibrium system, when stressed, will shift its equilibrium to alleviate that stress? Just ask yourself, “What would Le Châtelier do?”

This article was written by David Harwell, Assistant Director of the ACS Department of Career Development and Management.  Origianally published in the chemistry.org newsletter on Dec. 18, 2006.


Learning New Ways to Develop Your Career

October 7, 2007

I had a bubble change earlier this year. I am no longer in the 30-something bucket, and I’ve started to hear the phrase, “As you get older…” quite a bit. I have to say, I don’t like it, but I’m getting used to it. To adjust to the change, I will have to retrain my #2 pencil to search for a new home. Once that is done, I’ll need to reexamine the way that I prepare for the future.

As you get older you build less muscle mass and repairs to muscles and joints go at a slower pace. Hormone levels change resulting in the movement of hair masses. Fat deposits occur in unsightly places, and people begin to address you differently.

Recently, I was at the gym working with one of my favorite trainers, at least she used to be. As I was trying to complete yet another torturous exercise, she said “You’ve got to go for the burn if you want those buns of steel”, and I though buns of silicone might be more appropriate. They would provide more cushioning during long meetings, they are installed more easily and they have a lot less angst associated with them.

There was a bit of truth in what she was saying that applies to life in general. She said that muscle growth and reparation plateaus if you do the same routine each time. To stimulate growth and development, you have to try something different learning new ways to grow.

The same can be said of our professional development. As we grow older, we generally become more complacent and we lose our edge in the job market. It is easy to get comfortable with what we are doing, and there are many different ways to occupy our time. Work has become more demanding in the last few years. Kids need to be transported from event to event. Dogs must be groomed and lawns must be mowed. So how can we find time to try something new?

Even with all of these diversions, it is important to remember to set aside time for new modes of professional development. If you normally learn about new trends in chemistry by reading journals or books, try attending a short course or ProSpectives conference. Try joining an online community or listserv. Consider attending a local section meeting, or other technical meeting. The key thing is to try something new. Stretch your mind and use a new muscle that you have neglected for years. The exercise will make you stronger, more versatile and more balanced in your approaches to solving problems.

My role model in these efforts is my Dad. At twice my age, you might assume that he knows it all, or at least that he knows as much as he cares to know. But that is not correct. He emails his friends, has become active in his community, and he is learning new things by taking courses at his community college. When I complained to him about my bubble change this year, he said, “Try moving your pencil over to the right-hand column. A lot of forms don’t even have a place for someone my age. That’s why I always respond to surveys online; so that I can type in any year I want.” He also added that “At your age, you should be doing a bit more exercise and trying something new. You’re starting to get a bit soft.” —Thanks Dad.

This article was written by David Harwell, Assistant Director of the ACS Department of Career Management and Development.  Article originally published in the chemistry.org newsletter on Nov. 27, 2006.


Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

October 7, 2007

It’s been just over 100 years since Dr. Seuss was born and more than sixteen years since he wrote Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, but the primary context for the book still rings true. Life will present you with many paths forward and a few that are back, but it is the ones to success you should plan to attack.

The ACS careers theme for October is “going places”, and upon reflection, I was reminded of a book one of my professors gave me when I got my Ph.D. With 44 pages of illustrated text, I would classify the book, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss, as an easy read. Some might even say that it is on an elementary level, but I would argue that it has one central lesson that few adults choose to learn. Here is a quote from page two that drives the point home.

“You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
Any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.”

My perceived lesson from the book was that we must all be responsible for the choices that we make in life, and that the success or failure of our careers depends most strongly on us. We will face disappointments, challenges and stumbling blocks, but there is always a path through, over or under if we can bring ourselves to find it. This interpretation was reinforced by a presentation that Dr. Katie Hunt recently gave at ACS HQ in Washington, DC.

During her talk, Dr. Hunt spoke about the path that she chose in life as the daughter of a chemist who discouraged her from a life in science to her current role as the incoming President of the Society. At every step she made decisions and chose to remain aware of her environment. She said that she consciously thought about each decision point in the context of what she wanted for herself and for her family.

The one time that she let her guard down was during a stint at a manufacturing facility. She had moved away from corporate headquarters and lost touch with the network of analytical scientists and managers that she had come to know. She had become absorbed in her new role as a process chemist, and knew nothing about the company’s need to downsize operations. She was laid off.

In the months that followed she said that she quickly rebuilt her network, and found out about the new directions of the company. Through her analytical colleagues, she found out about the company’s need to integrate proven analytical techniques into their manufacturing processes, and she positioned herself as someone with a proven record in both platforms. In her words, she “woke up, and she rebuilt [her] network.”

Success is about decisions that we choose to make. We must remain conscious of our environment and be sure of our next step.

“Step with care and great tact
and remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act.
Just never forget to be dexterous and deft.
And never mix up your right foot with your left.

And you will succeed?
Yes! You will, indeed!
(98 and ¾ percent guaranteed.)”

This article was written by David Harwell, Assistant Director of the ACS Department of Career Management & Development. Originally published in the chemistry.org newsletter on Oct. 17, 2006.