The Vocabulary of Professionals

November 11, 2007

Today as I was riding into work on the train, I read a newspaper advertisement aimed at people trying to find a job. Some of the words were hard to make out, because the woman holding the paper kept shifting in her seat. She’s not really into sharing. But the headline that caught my eye was, “Learn the 40 Words that Professionals Use”. Amazed that they only use forty, I wanted to know more.

Generally, I don’t read from the woman in front of me, because frankly, her tastes don’t match my own. Lately, she has vacillated between exploitive entertainment-industry rags and paperbacks filled with romantic woes. I never found out how the previous one ended, but in the last passage I read Camilla and Thor were racing away from the castle of her torment on a thunderous steed with rain pounding down upon their ravaged bodies clad only in… Well, you get the picture.

Words can say a lot about you:

  • the ones you use in conversation,
  • the ones you choose to read,
  • and the ones you write.

Limiting your vocabulary to say, forty words, can stunt your development, socially and professionally. Restricting syntax to that of your profession provides transitional barriers as well. To be successful in an upwardly mobile lifestyle, you will need the use of words and phrases that relate your experiences, feelings and intentions to others. It should also be noted that those “others” who lead us and set policies may not be chemists. For many, our futures lie in the hands of MBA’s or, shall I say it, marketing specialists.

These creatures of the outside world seldom care about thermodynamic equations, even though they may someday face entropic death. They speak of real cats, not those trapped in theoretical boxes, and the only retro-synthesis they have experienced is the post-modern fashion flashback to the 70’s.

The most common relational denominators typically deal with societal trends and fads. Places to look for help include sports, movies, or if you’re really desperate, “American Idol.” Even if you don’t watch the TV show, knowing that Sanjaya’s hairstyle weekly evolves into gravity defying configurations can give you an entrée into a conversation.

Knowing the language of other professions is also helpful. In addition to speaking English, Spanglish and broken German, I have training in finance, project management and IT. Coming from a background in the “central science”, learning how to speak like others seems old hat. Goodness knows I’ve already had to learn the lingo of biology, physics and medicine just to ensure that my research projects went smoothly.

Ultimately, the best tool for the expansion of your vocabulary is reading, and although it may sound like a foreign phrase, “reading for pleasure” will yield the best results. Certainly, you should be reading technical articles and books for your professional development, but they are unlikely to incorporate the plethora of vernacular used in common language.

In closing, I challenge you to flex your linguistic tongue, by learning the 40 words used by professionals. If the lady in front of me would move her thumb, I would read them to you. As it stands, I guess you’ll have to search them out yourselves.

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 on April 30, 2007.

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Job Markets & Cloudy Crystal Balls

November 5, 2007

Predicting what the job market will do is an imperfect undertaking. For example last Friday’s edition of the Wall St. Journal reported that the job market was perhaps weaker than it looked, based on an expectation that nonfarm payroll employment in October would grow by a modest 80,000 jobs. When the Bureau of Labor Statistics released the numbers that same day, employment had in fact grown by 166,000 jobs. It just shows that despite our best efforts, the crystal ball is sometimes a little cloudy yet we keep trying.

Each year, C&EN publishes its Employment Outlook issue in which, to the best of our ability, we try to figure out just where the job market for chemists and chemical engineers is headed in the coming year. The outlook for 2008 appears in this week’s issue. Additionally, we look at various facets of employment in the chemical sciences.

In C&EN’s annual story on demand, interviews with recruiters, company representatives, and university department heads suggest that 2008 will be a good year for chemical scientists and engineers looking for jobs. Two factors are fueling the increase in demand: company growth and pending retirements.

Department heads describe an increase in inquiries from recruiters about their students. According to one department chairman, companies visiting the department to interview students have openings to fill this year compared with last year, and some companies are returning that haven’t visited in a couple of years.

The industrial representatives reported seeing an increase in the number of employers at career fairs and interviewing on campus. Industrial employers are seeking chemists with synthetic organic chemistry, polymer chemistry, materials science, biochemistry, and analytical chemistry skills, while demand for chemical engineers remains high in the petrochemical industry.

For foreign nationals who want some work experience in the U.S. before returning home, cultural misunderstandings can hinder their chances of success in the job market. “Assimilating into a new culture doesn’t happen overnight, and many foreign-born chemists say that the key is to start early,” Associate Editor Linda Wang writes. “Graduate school may be one of the best places to practice.”

Scientists who are interested in moving from bench research to management can learn some tips in a story about people who have made the transition. News Editor William G. Schulz describes how chemists can make the transition and, more important, how to prepare for it. Although an MBA is not a prerequisite to work in management, courses such as project management or budgeting are very beneficial to building up your skills base.

Finally, when industrial scientists begin to yearn to do research that isn’t tied to market needs or corporate strategy, they often look to academic institutions for a change of pace. Senior Editor Susan Ainsworth reports that breaking into the university setting can be difficult, but some who have made the shift offer advice on how scientists can use their industry-honed skills to successfully compete with candidates who have never left academia.

Corinne Marasco is an Associate Editor at Chemical & Engineering News in the ACS News & Special Features department.