Great Expectations

December 26, 2007

With a title like “Great Expectations” you may be expecting a semi-autobiographical novel of literary renown, but you would be wrong. I only have 500 words and I’m no Charles Dickens, so you’ll have to be more realistic.

It is easy to lose perspective with the onslaught of distorted information and communications hurled at us everyday through television and the Internet. Commercials and pop-up ads promise the impossible and an expectation of entitled grandeur seeps into our psyche. Impossibly thin people with UV-activated smiles also prey on our insecurities making us think that others are getting ahead—cheating us out of the life that we deserve.

The reality of the situation is that U.S. chemists have got it pretty good. Surveys of ACS members peg the unemployment rate for chemists at 3.1% which compares quite favorably to that for the general public at 4.6%. Our most recent job fair held during the ACS National Meeting in Boston also bodes well for the profession. With 913 positions available to a pool of 1,526 job seekers, the odds were pretty good: 1.7 job seekers per position. But when you are unemployed or looking to make a career transition, it is easy to lose sight of the figures. That’s when it is necessary to take stock and put our lives in perspective.

The numbers above represent national employment trends, but local situations vary. Odds for someone in the Midwest might be significantly worse than for someone in the “Biotech Corridor” along route U.S. 270 in Bethesda. Likewise, the call for theoretical chemists is not as loud as that for medicinal scientists.

The expectations of employers also play a role in our potential to be hired. Employers are not looking for “us” as we see ourselves. They are looking for an amalgam of dreams and wishes expressed by those involved in their hiring process. Line managers look to output potential, while R&D managers look for innovation. To be successful, we must be willing to repackage ourselves in the wrapper they dictate. Otherwise, we will not get their attention.

Chemists, especially those with experience, have many skills and talents of which they are unaware. A careful self-dissection can be helpful in the discovery of undiscovered strengths. A look through the lens of interpersonal relationships to see how you influence others may reveal traces of leadership, innovation and teamwork.

It may also help to switch perspectives from one technical field to another. For example, a synthetic inorganic chemist viewed through a biotechnical lens might have applicable biochemical knowledge. After all, heme complexes of metal ions have more to do with biological systems than inorganic chemistry.

As chemists, we are familiar with breaking molecules down into the atoms of their composition. We are also familiar with ways to recombine the same atoms into new structures. When employment factors change around us, we must be equally adept at transforming our images into those demanded by the market.

Knowing what we should expect in a job search and what others will expect from us is the best way to shape our expectations.

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 Sept. 10, 2007.

The Imagination Files

December 26, 2007

I am often asked where my ideas come from in areas where people regard me as creative. The answer of course is from my imagination. And although they know it to be true, people are never quite comfortable with the explanation.

Adults are not supposed to be reliant upon their imaginations. That part of their brain was to have been disconnected during the first semester of “How to be a Grown-Up School”. As adults, we are supposed to be grounded in reality—thinking of deadlines, mortgages and monthly reports. Our thoughts are to be supported by references (the documented thoughts of others). Original thought or expression is frowned upon and discouraged.

Luckily for us, there are some outliers—rogues. For some unknown reason, the imaginations of these people refuse to be terminated. They just keep thinking up the craziest of ideas. Unless well-established, our society tends to refer to imaginative people as daydreamers, crackpots, or worse yet, actors. However, once they have developed a reputation for success, the world is more tolerant. Derogatory adjectives are replaced with terms like thought-leader, genius or laureate.

If it has been a while since you stretched your muscles of imagination, it is unlikely that you will synthesize fully-articulated visions on the fly. However, no matter how repressed you may be, an occasional creative thought will float through your brain. The key is to learn to recognize these thoughts. Instead of inhibiting your creative spirit, learn to nurture it.

When I see something funny, or wake up from a thought-filled dream in the middle of the night, I write down my thoughts and place them in a file. At first my idea file consisted of a manila folder filled with scraps of paper. Each scrap had something different: a sketch of a ligand, a molecular-orbital diagram, or a phrase I had heard someone say. Eventually, I transferred the thoughts into electronic files in my computer. As my collection grew, I organized them into folders by topic.

Take a moment to print this article and file it under “I” for imaginative, ingenious, and insightful. Then, at least once a day, add a file of your own to the folder. Don’t worry about what others might think of your ideas. Don’t worry if your thoughts are incomplete. What is important is that you cultivate your mind and plant seeds for the future. Because if you do, you will surely reap the benefits. This article will serve as a buffer for the times when you feel intimidated. It will also serve as a reminder of what you are to do.

As your idea file grows, your thoughts will begin to congeal. You will also notice more and more ideas as your recognition skills sharpen. Eventually, you will feel confident enough about your thoughts that you will feel comfortable sharing them with others.

In the end, it won’t matter that your thoughts — or my thoughts — were weird or eccentric. It will only matter that we contributed to the science and to society through original thought.

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 July 23, 2007.

Training with a Capital “T”

December 17, 2007

For quite some time recruiters have referred to the background of an ideal candidate as being shaped like a capital “T”: having a broad background in chemistry with a deep area of specialization. While this description remains primarily unchanged, recruiters are asking that the top of the training “T” be broadened to include business skills as well as knowledge of the related sciences.

At a recent conference of the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology (CPST) titled, “Can We Compete”, I was visiting during a break with a panel of recruiters. I asked them what they looked for in a job candidate. Without prior coordination, they all said the same thing. “We need someone who can handle the science of their sub-discipline and serve as an expert in the area whether it be synthesis, spectroscopy, theory or glycolysis. But, we also need them to know about the related sciences. We have multidisciplinary teams, and our new hires have to be conversant with biologists, physicists and physicians. We would also like for them to understand the principles of business: customer relations, risk assessment, and return on investment (ROI).” It is unlikely that a job candidate will have all of these attributes, but any that they do have will set them apart.

So broadening of the “T” is taking place in two directions: towards multidiciplinarity and towards business. Nowhere is this phenomenon more pronounced than in the area of pharmaceuticals. All of the major producers of medicinal chemicals in the U.S. have announced plans for realignment. They are making a strategic shift away from traditional methods of synthesis to biotech sources. This shift has and will continue to cause unrest as personnel are redeployed. Similar to an airplane, it will be those with a broad wingspan who will best be able to weather the storm.

Companies are also increasingly global. They are dealing with people from around the world as clients and as colleagues. This type of interaction requires a multicultural mindset, and those who have studied abroad, or who speak languages other than English will have a leg up on the competition.

Recruiters are also looking for general business skills. People with business acumen will look toward the bottom line avoiding waste. They will also pay more attention to customer needs and wants as they design products and processes. In recent years we have seen the advent of chemistry programs which include courses in ROI calculations, risk assessment, green chemistry and atom economy. Having a business course under your belt, or practical knowledge through experience can only strengthen your portfolio.

So, as the lights in the break room began to blink indicating the next session was about to begin, I asked the recruiting panel, “What about chemistry? What role does it play?” The answer was quick and easy. Chemistry is essential to every process in industry. With respect to the “T” it serves as the central support. But it never hurts to broaden your base.

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

An Express Lane to Careers in Proteomics And Genomics

December 10, 2007

The biotech industry hungers for talent. According to a 2004 report (the most recent available) from the U.S. Department of Labor Employment & Training Administration, because of the rapid growth in the industry, the demand for skilled workers exceeds their availability. Not only that, but the demand is projected to exceed even the number of workers that are currently in training programs.

This week’s employment story in C&EN looks at one way this demand is being met. Keck Graduate Institute of Applied Life Sciences (KGI), a member of the Claremont Colleges consortium in California, educates students to pursue careers in the biosciences and to meet the needs of bioscience companies for skilled workers. The school offers a Master of Bioscience degree in one of five focus tracks: biomedical devices & diagnostics, pharmaceutical discovery & development, bioprocessing, business of bioscience, and clinical & regulatory affairs.

Sheldon Schuster, KGI’s president, was on the faculty at the University of Florida, Gainesville, and director of the biotechnology program there. Schuster told me the hybrid degree produces graduates who understand both the business and science aspects of industry. It’s also a very hands-on, team-based curriculum.

The first year of the program is the same for all students, technical courses, and lecture courses in business and bioethics. The students round out their first year working in a paid summer internship at a bioscience company. Students are offered an average of two to three internships and about 35% convert those internships into full-time jobs.

In the second year, students select their concentration and teams of four to five students work for an entire year on the Team Masters Project with sponsoring companies to solve real scientific and business problems at the companies. Companies like Amgen, Amylin, Gilead Sciences and Applied Biosystems return year after year to participate (and they pay $55,000 for the privilege).

The KGI faculty have extensive academic and industrial credentials. Deb N. Chakravarti, who is part of this week’s story, worked in the vaccines research division at Wyeth in Rochester, N.Y., where he was in charge of proteomics research in the biotechnology discovery research group. Prior to that, he was an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Alabama, Birmingham. He received his B.Sc. in chemistry, and an M.Sc. and Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Calcutta, India. He received a D.Phil. in biochemistry and immunochemistry from the University of Oxford, England, studying under Nobel Prize winning biochemist Rodney R. Porter.

Chakravarti immerses his students to learn how proteomics and genomics relate to drug discovery and development. They learn, for example, how to separate complex mixtures of proteins, such as bacterial extracts, by two-dimensional gel electrophoresis (2-DE), gel image analysis, and high-throughput identification of proteins by tandem mass spec. They are trained to operate a liquid chromatography-electrospray ionization ion trap MS (got that?) to carry out collision-induced dissociation. Students also learn about the scientific and regulatory processes that are part of vaccine discovery and development.

KGI’s corporate partners are equally enthusiastic about the program. They say the key difference between KGI and a traditional graduate program is that students have the opportunity to learn first-hand how biopharma operates and interact with company executives, managers, and scientists. At the same time, the companies have ready access to a source of talented individuals. Said one company executive, “They graduate head and shoulders above their colleagues coming out with a pure science B.S. or M.S. degree.”

The total cost to attend KGI full-time is not cheap: tuition for the 2007-08 academic year runs nearly $37,000 and add to that other costs such as housing, books, and a laptop computer, and you’re looking at a bottom line of nearly $60,000. However, the return on that investment is in the placement rate. KGI president Schuster says that within six months of graduation, 97% of graduates are employed in the life sciences industry in a diverse mix of positions from marketing to the lab. Starting salaries for last year’s graduates were in the mid-$60,000s. This is higher than the median starting salary of $60,000 for new Ph.D. graduates (but below the median starting salary of $75,000 for new Ph.D.s in industry).

Corinne Marasco is Senior Editor for ACS News & Special Features at Chemical & Engineering News.

Women Don’t Ask – Negotiation Strategies

December 10, 2007

You know a business idea has made the big-time when it appears in a Dilbert comic strip. In the 2007 October 17 strip a female employee complains that her male colleague has a second monitor, while she does not.  The boss responds by telling her that research shows men ask for more, so men get more, but she can complain if she wants.


Much of that research is cited in the book “Women Don’t Ask: The High Cost of Avoiding Negotiation–and Positive Strategies for Change” by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever (Bantam Books, 2007).  This well- researched, highly readable volume is loaded with details of scientific studies on gender, negotiation, compensation, and much more.  It is balanced with anecdotes that personalize the issues and show how they play out in both corporate and personal interactions.


The research cited shows that women (in general) do not ask as often, don’t ask for as much, and settle for less.  Women expect life to be fair, are more likely to be satisfied with what they have, and expect others to notice and reward their accomplishments. Men are willing to ask for what they want and think they deserve, and will push harder to get it.  Men tend to treat negotiations as a competition, where they are trying to get the biggest piece of the pie for themselves.    Women tend to have a more collaborative approach, sharing information to find out what each side really wants, then finding ways to enlarge the pie so each can get what they need.


The final chapters talk about positive changes women and men can make to improve their negotiation skills.  Men and women can learn from each other’s styles, and use their own strengths to their best advantage.  Overall, a fascinating book with valuable insights. 


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

Career Advice for the Holidays

December 7, 2007

 I’m a big proponent of reading as much as I possibly can because you never know where the inspiration for a story will strike. The upside is I use a lot of different sources: newspapers, magazines, blogs, even interview transcripts from television and radio. The downside is that sometimes I find myself wracking my brain, wondering exactly where I read a particular nugget of information that I’d like to use or pass on.

One of my resources is the Wall Street Journal. I don’t agree with their editorial page but their news reporting is very good. For example, the Journal had a page 1 story yesterday on the future of big pharma (hint: it doesn’t look good) that I thought complemented this week’s C&EN cover story written by my colleague Susan Ainsworth.

What people might not know is that the Journal also has useful career content posted at at no cost (access to the online Journal is by paid subscription). It may not be specific to chemistry or chemists but there’s always career advice that transcends professions.

Recently columnist Perri Capell fielded this question: “What advice do you have about how to approach the job market during the holiday season?”

Her response: “It’s a myth that hiring slows down between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. Many offers are made during the holiday season as managers try to fill jobs before their budgets expire.” By staying active, you’ll have an advantage over candidates who decide to take a holiday break from their job searches.

Capell adds: “Hiring managers prefer to find candidates through referrals or chance meetings, so they don’t need to advertise or employ recruiters to fill openings. Your goal as a job hunter should be to personally meet as many potential employers as possible at this pre-advertising stage. By meeting and talking with current and new contacts, you may receive important referrals or an inside track on potential opportunities.

“The process is networking, of course. And it’s easier to do it during the holidays than at other times of the year because people tend to be more open and relaxed than at other seasons. Many organizations hold annual holiday events, and attendees often are encouraged to bring guests. Ask friends or relatives to invite you to December gatherings of such groups as the Chamber of Commerce, Rotary Club or Toastmasters. Also attend meetings of professional groups in your industry or function, neighborhood gatherings and church open houses where you can mingle.”

Here are three top rules that job seekers need to keep in mind for any networking scenario: Thank the person who provided an introduction for you, and update him or her on your progress. Be clear about exactly how contacts can help you and what a potential benefit could be for them. Avoid last-minute networking—build relationships before you need them. When done well, networking can yield dividends for your job search.

Corinne Marasco is Senior Editor for ACS News & Special Features at Chemical & Engineering News.

Valuing Intangibles

December 2, 2007

What makes you valuable? It is not your chemical composition, and has very little to do with the physical assets we value in each other. It is those things that are harder to see: knowledge, skills, commitment, loyalty, passion and courage.

For National Chemistry Week, we once had a T-shirt with the phrase, “I’m Worth Millions” followed by a list of elements found in the human body. The implication was that the sum of the commercial value of the elements listed would be in the millions of dollars, but in reality, the physical makeup of the human body is not much different than any other living organism. In reality chipped beef, or chopped liver could be equal in value. Therefore, it must not be our physical constitution that makes us valuable, but the intangibles that give us value in the workplace, community and family.

In Alicia Keys’ song, A Woman’s Worth, she discusses the relative value of trustworthiness, fairness, bravery and passion in comparison to tangible gifts bought with money, and she comes to the conclusion that it is the intangibles that truly determine a person’s worth. It is the intangibles that color a person’s character and values.

Intangibles can also be used to guide us in our decisions. It is sometimes said that passion is contagious, yet it cannot be bottled or synthesized. You can’t drink it nor can you buy it. Passion exists within a person’s core, and it is highly directional. It can only be extended in the direction of an object or concept that is deeply valued.

Passion, or lack thereof, is one of the strongest indications that you are on the right or wrong career path, but people overlook its diagnostic utility. If you are passionate about a project, you can spend extended hours, devote energy and resources, and you can be creative in your approaches to finding solutions. But if you are dispassionate, the world seems to drain you, entropy prevails, thinking becomes difficult and time drags on. Passion is a necessary component of success.

When stressed, people tend to focus on the tangibles: money, titles, parking spaces and office/lab space. But these things don’t really matter, at least not in the long run. Some of the richest and most successful people of our time echo this sentiment. Jack Welch often states that it is your gut instinct that makes the difference between success and failure, and it is Warren Buffet that said, “Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.”

The next time you are faced with a decision about which path to take along your career path, choose the intangible one, and the tangibles are sure to follow.

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