Interviews and Rodeos

November 26, 2007

When I was a kid, the highlight of the year was to watch cowboys take turns trying to stay on a bucking bull or bronco for at least eight seconds. It was a game of endurance, preparation and practice. Interviewing is not that different.

Each year my dad would take a long lunch break the last week in December to be one of the first in line to buy tickets for our family to attend the Sandhills Stock Show & Rodeo, the first stop on the Wrangler Pro Rodeo Tour for the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association. Competition on the last night of the rodeo was fierce, and tickets sold out fast.

Inside the rodeo, bulls bred for muscle, girth, and bad attitude would grunt and writhe as cowboys attempted to climb onto their backs. As the gate to each chute opened the cowboy would be flung to and fro like a tassel at the end of a whip. His fate was decided in 8 seconds or less based on the amount of preparation and practice devoted to this moment.

On an interview, it is important to remember that being prepared is your best asset. Apply early and take the time to proof your application with great care. If you need to present a research talk, write it in advance and present it to a group of your lab mates, friends or family. Choose people who will ask critical questions that will help you hone your presentation and interview skills. Anticipate the questions that you are likely to receive from interviewers and formulate an answer for each. Through repeated presentation of your talk, your degree of comfort will increase, so you will appear more relaxed and more competent.

Research is an important part of your preparation for the interview. Check the annual reports and the long term, financial stability of the organization. Ask your host in advance for the names of your interviewers. Prepare for the interview by searching your interviewers publications; research; and any other details about their relation to the organization so you are well informed prior to your meeting. Sites like Linkedin.com may help you to map common interests and contacts. Your job during the interview will be to demonstrate what you can add to the organization. The more connections that you make, the stronger your chances of getting a job.

On the day of the interview, dress sharp. How you dress for the interview will be judged as a sign of respect, or a lack thereof.

During the interview, ensure that the banter is two-way. In bull riding, the cowboy can be disqualified if he falls off the bull, or if the bull refuses to buck and spin. The cowboy is responsible for spurring the bull into action as necessary. You should have a set of questions ready, so that you can pull the interviewer back into the conversation as needed. Any preparation that you have done regarding the interviewer or the company will come in handy.

If you are well prepared, the interview process should be a fun, learning experience. It will be one of the few times that you will have an opportunity to meet such a divergent group of people, as well as a rare opportunity to see and ask questions about the inside operations of a company and its people. Even if you don’t end up with a job offer, or decide not to take the job when offered, you will have learned about how the company works.

As in bull riding, it is the persistent and the prepared that prevail.

This article was written by David Harwell, Ph.D., assistant director of the ACS Department of Career Management & Development.

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Hereford Culture

November 24, 2007

During graduate school, I took on many different jobs to make ends meet, but none was as educational as working on a cattle ranch in North Texas. There I was introduced to Hereford culture, and I must conclude that cattle are stupid.

I am very thankful for the financial support I received through teaching and conducting research in graduate school, but there were some days when I needed more. Desperate times called for desperate measures. So when my budget got tight, I would take on an extra job. One such venture involved herding cattle into a stockyard so that they could be dehorned and vaccinated.

This may sound simple, or even romantic, but it wasn’t. Cattle lack the drive and focus necessary to adhere to a strategic plan. Their lives are genuinely centered on gastronomic fulfillment. Cows eat the grass at their feet until it is gone, and then they move on to the next clump of foliage they see. This is not a planned event, nor is thought given to long-term objectives, so it is difficult at times to convince cattle of the need for change.

On the other hand, I was very compelled and my mission was clear. Drive the cattle into the pen, give them their meds, trim their horns, and collect my cash. I dressed appropriately in a baseball cap, an old tee-shirt, jeans and my boots. I was also given the keys to an old pickup truck, so that I could “nudge” the cows along if necessary.

The round-up proceeded smoothly. Yelling, honking the truck horn, or waving my arms wildly was generally enough motivation to ensure buy-in from the herd; however, there were two hold- outs: a cow named Bessie and a bull named Frank. They had recently given birth to a love-child which was hidden in a clump of mesquite trees.

I was told by the lead man, Bubba, to grab the calf and stand in the back of the pickup while he drove slowly toward the pen. This plan was meant to incentivize the herding process for Bessie, who in turn would incentivize the process for Frank. However, Bessie was more concerned about the grass than she was about her calf, so I was told to “twist the calf’s ear a little bit, so that it’ll talk to its mama.” Bubba killed the truck to make the calf’s wail more audible to Bessie. 

As instructed, I twisted the calf’s ear; it simultaneously squealed and became incontinent. Hearing her baby in distress, Bessie sprang to the rescue jumping half-way into the pick-up. The truck lurched and I slipped on the now wet bed of the pickup toward Bessie. Luckily, Bubba restarted the truck and drove it toward the mark. With calf in hand, Bessie in pursuit and Frank trailing along behind, we completed our mission according to plan. I got my money. Bessie was reunited with her calf, and surrounded by a herd of heifers, Frank was also content.

Don’t be like the cattle in this story. Set yourself apart from the herd by planning for your future. Consider where you want to go, what you want to accomplish, what will motivate you to change, and how you will encourage others to help you in your plan. 

This article was written by David Harwell, Assistant Director of the ACS Department of Career Management & Development. Article originally published in the chemistry.org newsletter on July 2, 2007.


Did You “No”?

November 24, 2007

Negotiation skills are essential in the workplace. But most people aren’t very good at applying them. People generally shy from taking a stance on the issues that concern them. Perhaps it is the fear of confrontation, or of making a critical mistake. For most, it’s just too much pressure.

When I think of successful negotiators, I am reminded of my late uncle Louis. Jovial and gregarious, he was a stocky little man with too much hair and too many teeth. He had a perpetual smile and he almost always had a cigar smoldering in his left hand. He kept his right hand free for shaking hands, signing deals, and pinching babies.

Each year, he and my aunt Alice would roll into town for the family reunion. They never left town in the same car in which they came. Somewhere along the way, Uncle Louis would sell his vehicle and buy another — doubling his money in each transaction. With him, everything was up for negotiation. It was in his blood.

Uncle Louis grew up making deals. Although he was born August 23, 1920, my grandmother always said that he should have been born the day before. He just refused to come out.

Growing up on the family farm, he was famous for buying dessert from one or more of his siblings at dinner. Bidding always started at a nickel for a slice of pie, but could go as high as a quarter depending on the variety of offerings and availability. He made his money for these deals by subcontracting his brothers and sisters’ services to neighboring farms. The siblings would do the work for what he promoted as an honest day’s wage and he would keep a standard negotiating fee in exchange for promoting their services.

In WWII, Louis signed up with the Navy, but he didn’t see much time on the seas. He couldn’t shoot a gun and he got sea sick easily. So he talked his way into running PX operations in Japan. He quickly became the man to know if you wanted to buy or sell anything in the Pacific Theater.

Later in life, Uncle Louis made his money by developing many of the cities and towns in what is now the Greater Houston Area. He lived a good life and he had fun living it.

When Mom and I visited him for the last time in the hospital, he sat up on the side of his bed, removed the respirator tube from his throat, and took a deep breathe. He placed his index finger over the hole in this larynx and said, “I’m done. I’ve reached no.”

He always said that it’s only a good deal if the other guy says “no”. Once you get to “no,” back off bit-by-bit until he says “yes” again, and you’ve got a deal.

The next time I saw my uncle was at his funeral. Held in a church of his choosing and officiated by one of his closest friends, the service was just as he had planned. He had made all arrangements in advance. He won again—the man always got what he wanted by passing “yes” and going directly to “no”.

This article was written by David Harwell, Ph.D., assistant director of the ACS Department of Career Management & Development. Article originally published in the chemistry.org newsletter on July 16, 2007.


College Teaching as a Second Career: From Learning, to Doing, to Teaching

November 18, 2007

The transition from one career to another can be extremely difficult, but by having a vision, a plan, and some good fortune a transition to a rewarding second career is possible. After 32 years of service as a Senior Principle Scientist at Kraft/Nabisco, I retired and started a second career as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Chemistry at Hofstra University.  Now, I have a very active undergraduate research program and many rewarding experiences as a teacher.

 

My passion for teaching chemistry started when I was a senior teaching fellow at Adelphi University back in 1968. After receiving my Ph.D. from Adelphi, I completed my military obligation in 1971 and tried to get a college teaching position, but to no avail. However, I did receive a job offer from industry.

 

I received an offer from Life Savers Company. They hired me as a polymer chemist to work on various polymers used in chewing gum and other confections. I remained in industry for 32 years with the same company (different owners).

 

However, in 1988 Life Savers was part of a big conglomerate RJR/Nabisco and the company was undergoing a leverage buyout. At that time, the reality of losing my job became a big fear, so I decided to prepare myself for a transition.  I began taking certification education courses at night to become a high school chemistry teacher.

 

As it turned out, I did not lose my job at Nabisco, but actually got involved in the most exciting and most rewarding project of my life. The project was the synthesis, characterization, and commercialization of a novel low calorie fat. I had worked on this project from concept thru development to FDA approval as a GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) substance for use in foods. This family of low calorie fats was called Salatrim and eventually was branded as Benefat. The project ended in 1994, the same year that the chairman of Hofstra University asked me to serve as an adjunct instructor for an evening laboratory.

 

I stayed on as an Adjunct Professor at Hofstra, while I worked full-time at Kraft/Nabisco, with the thought that upon retirement I would transition to my second career as a college teacher.  In 2003, I retired and started to put more hours into teaching, and doing research with undergraduate students. My experience taught me that family and character matter in life. It is also important to have a career development plan and an alternate plan if things don’t go the way you originally planned. Never lose hope or your dream. It will happen someday.

 

 Dr. Ronald P. D’Amelia retired in 2003 from Kraft/Nabisco as a Senior Principle Scientist. He is currently an Adjunct Professor of Chemistry at Hofstra University.


My Second Life

November 12, 2007

There are many ways to connect in the virtual world. You can use social networking sites to find collaborators and friends, publish research articles, and build your reputation. However, user accounts on most systems are searchable, and nothing is truly confidential.

On a recent trip to the ACS Booth on Drexel Island in Second Life (SL), I encountered many different people/avatars. The experience was fairly mundane, like walking down the sidewalk in any seaport community around the country. Palm trees rustled in the gentle breeze and the sound of ocean waves breaking in the background could be heard. What made it different was that I didn’t know who anyone was. Everyone in SL has an alias. Mine is “Lussac Merlin”.

Lussac Merlin in Second Life Lussac Merlin in Second Life

Using an alias can give people a sense of anonymity emboldening them to step out on the wild side. In most cases this is okay, but since you don’t really know who you are talking to most of the time, or who might be viewing your avatar, it is best to mind your manners online as well as off. Life has a funny way of introducing you to the same people time and time again.

Another differentiation from first life is that people in SL can fly and teleport from one place to another. This is especially important when you are late for a meeting. I have an appointment with Kate Sellar, a.k.a. “Finola Graves”. She is giving me an introduction to SL career fairs. At the present time, there is not much available to job seekers in SL, but that is starting to change.

Finola Graves in Second Life Finola Graves in Second Life

Manpower, a staffing agency, has set up shop in SL, and is offering placement services for virtual job seekers. Employment options in SL include real estate, architecture, sales, marketing, design, couture, and consulting. There are also small business owners running stores, bards, dance clubs and more. Job opportunities related to chemistry are still in short supply. One of the few money-making opportunities for scientists is The NanoLands Challenge from the UK’s National Physical Laboratory (NPL). They are offering $400 or $700 to build projects illustrating nanoscience or nanotechnology.

Kate has introduced me to Andrew Lang, a.k.a. “Hiro Sheridan”, who is a mathematics professor at Oral Roberts University. He is also a consultant in SL. His specialty is building objects with scientific meaning or function. For example, he has built a couple of varieties of molecular rezzers and has also created ACS virtual objects including an ACS t-shirt, lab safety goggles and an interactive 3-D Periodic Table. (Contact Finola Graves in-world if you’d like these freebies.)

Hiro Sheridan with 3-D Periodic Table Hiro Sheridan standing in front of a 3-D Periodic Table

Jean-Claude Bradley, a.k.a. “Horace Moody”, is an organic chemistry professor at Drexel University. In SL, he is also a professor in SL. On Drexel Island, you can watch clips from his lectures, take practice quizzes, or look at 3-D molecular models. On the day I visited, Jean-Claude was not there, but a couple of his students were. Tucked away in virtual kiosks, they were studying conformational isomers of 1-bromopropane.

Drexel Island Organic Chemistry class on Drexel Island

ACS is currently building an island in SL, but it is not open for business yet. If you have questions or would like to join the SL ACS group, please contact Finola Graves in-world.

This article was written by David Harwell, Ph.D., assistant director of the ACS Department of Career Management and Development.


Ta-dah!

November 11, 2007

Almost every leadership or management book that you pick up these days points out the fact that we do not devote enough time and effort to celebrating our successes. With ongoing pressures in the workplace, it’s just easier to check another item off the list as done, and move on.

My neighbor is the best at celebrating achievements of anyone that I have ever met. She has led a truly successful life. She has a house, a cook, a chauffeur, and a host of people to attend to her every need. At two years of age, she’s made it!

I remember not so long ago she was toddling around the yard, eating grass, and barking at my dogs. She was ferocious. She was also very uncouth. But that was yesterday and this is now.

She has become a woman of the modern world, of sophistication. She wears designer outfits, hosts parties where she is showered with gifts, and gives recitations on topics ranging from the color of the sky to the rampant theft of noses. However, she has never lost her enthusiasm for the celebration of accomplishments.

There is a certain amount of theatrics to her revelry which generally commences with a flailing of arms, the sputtering of spittle, and the shuffling of feet. Depending on her level of achievement, she may even burst into spontaneous song or speech. But the ceremony always ends in the same way when she utters the magic phrase, “Ta-dah!”

Greeted by laughter and applause, the celebration is complete. All who participate are uplifted.

I have to admit my celebrations are not so dramatic. I seldom say, “Ta-dah”, and I can’t remember the last time I broke into joyous verse. Over the years I have lost some of my enthusiasm and have become bogged down in the corporate mire.

Additionally, my sensibilities have been numbed through scientific training. I have been taught to deaden my emotional response to experimental results. Limiting my expectations of outcomes means that I have less to lose should an experiment turn out differently than predicted. University culture also discourages raucous displays for academic achievement. Ivory towers seldom shake with laughter or elation. Sports, on the other hand, are another matter.

Today, however, I am almost giddy. Eli Pearce, former ACS President and University Research Professor at Polytechnic, sent a note to say that he liked one of my articles. I know this doesn’t call for a parade with a big brass band, but I respect Dr. Pearce very much, and his note was all it took to brighten my day.

To celebrate I think that I will invite my neighbor and her entourage over for hot fudge brownie sundaes. And after I have devoured the last drop of syrup from the bottom of my bowl, I guarantee I’ll say, “Ta-dah!”

This article was written by David Harwell, Ph.D,, Assistant Director of the ACS Department of Career Management and Development. Originally published in the chemistry.org newsletter June 18, 2007.


Adapting for Inclusion

November 11, 2007

When most people see someone with a disability, they tend to discount the person focusing only on their limitations. But in doing so, both parties are losing out. I am lucky in that my disability is invisible most of the time. But when I have to confess it a stigma is always attached.

Recently, I attended a strategic planning meeting facilitated by an external consultant. The set-up for the meeting was amazingly high-tech with five projection screens and a transcriber providing real-time documentation of what was said.

Excited, I sat forward in my seat in anticipation. However, as we began to use the system, I realized that I couldn’t read the text. There was too much to fit in my field of view, and my dyslexia was at its mischievous best.

I requested a printout so that I could read the items to be prioritized. I didn’t want to make a big deal, and I was embarrassed to ask, but I wanted to contribute to the process. The response was immediately no. We were running behind and printing out the two-page document would take too long. So, staring into the faces of 32 of my closest colleagues, I acquiesced.

My fears were not without warrant. After being diagnosed with dyslexia in grad school, I was instructed to distribute an “official notice” to each of my professors, and to attend a student support group.

One of my profs reacted very badly to the notice. He looked at me as though I was mentally deficient, and spoke the words, “I c-a-n-‘t h-e-l-p y-o-u!” very slowly and loudly. He refused to answer my questions during office hours and avoided me during class. Rather than file a complaint, I buckled down, read every book I could find, and I looked through the literature until I found all of the source articles for his questions. I finished first in the class with a 98 % average, but to this day he looks the other way when our paths cross.

As for the support group, it was anything but. We were asked to state our names and disabilities as introductions went around the table. (I looked for a 12-Step poster.) Then, a councilor addressed the group explaining why we should all lower our expectations and asked each of us to state our intended majors. When I said chemistry, she chastised me for not listening to her advice. My only response was that I had already finished my undergraduate degree, and that I was nearly finished with grad school. I could hardly change my major once the diploma had been issued, but I digress.

At the first available break in our strategic planning meeting, I explained my problem more clearly to the facilitator, and she was able to furnish me with a printout. It was a good thing, too. The transcriber had transposed two of the letters in the title thereby spelling a word not commonly used in polite conversation.

To find out more about working with disabilities, visit the ACS Committee on Chemists with Disabilities webpages. They have published a variety of books and other support materials in accessible formats.

This article was written by David Harwell, Ph.D., Assistant Director of the ACS Department of Career Management and Development. Originally published in the chemistry.org newsletter May 21, 2007.