Dad vs. Career

January 28, 2008

Taking care of elderly parents can be a stressful proposition. Yet it has its rewards. As our general population ages, more and more of us will deal with this challenge. Finding a balance between their needs and yours is the optimal solution.

As I write this blog, I am sitting on the terrazzo floor of terminal B in the DFW airport. The terminal is not usually so crowded, but several flights have been canceled today and the remnants of the debacle are deposited in the seating areas along the corridor.

I helped facilitate a conference this past weekend in Dallas, and am taking a couple of days to fly home to see my father. He turned 81 this year and is doing well cognitively, but has encountered several mobility issues during the past few months. He is no longer able to lift his arms higher than his shoulders, and he shuffles as he walks. Last year he fell four times, once breaking two ribs in the process. Yet he is fiercely independent and has no intention of coming to live with me or my siblings. To my dismay, he still drives and “fixes” things around the house. Reluctantly, he has agreed not to attempt anything involving ladders, but I have not convinced him to part with power tools. Although we have discussed moving my 87 year-old aunt into an assisted living home, his tone becomes hostile if I try to turn the conversation around to him.

He has furnished me with a to-do list for this trip via email. There are three main items that he wishes to address.

  1. Find a contractor to roof the house.
  2. Fix/Install a heater in the bathroom.
  3. Remove area rug from den and install linoleum flooring.

This will all need to be accomplished in a day and a half. I will also be required to go through his tax and medical records.

Reviewing the tax records will be relatively easy. He has been using the same accountant for years, so they will have winnowed through his shoebox of papers, receipts and tattered envelopes by now, and will have kept what they need, and shredded the rest. Finding trustworthy and competent help for distant parents can be a big stress reliever for a care-giving child.

With respect to his medical records, I will need to do a bit more. As has been done for my past several visits, Dad has set up a series of appointments with his doctors. We will see his general care physician, cardiologist, rheumatologist, and various other specialists in succession. My role will be to listen to their diagnoses and dictate my prescription to each for Dad’s healthcare. Later in the evening, I will explain what they said in terms that Dad can understand and write out his treatment plans on the yellow tablet that he keeps in the drawer by his bed.

Taking care of Dad can be stressful. Since Mom died ten years ago, Dad has been reliant on me for all of his major life decisions. Although one of my brothers moved back home, Dad resists his help. Because I am the one with an advanced technical degree, I am the only one he will trust with negotiating his health care and finances.

I feel guilty each time I leave him to go back to my job in DC, but there is no way that I could find a comparable job in the small town where I was raised. Life is hard in an oil field community, and opportunities to apply technical training are rare. Dad knows this and does not begrudge my opportunities in the big city. Still I know that he would rather I spend more time with him.

It is time to board the plane, and I am directed to fall in line behind a little old lady with big red hair—this is Texas after all. I wonder where her kids are and how they care for her. Living life involves many difficult decisions, and helping your parents to live theirs involves many more. By sharing life’s challenges with each other, you can manage the balance, but it requires that both parties be willing to acknowledge the needs of the other.

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

Make Your Contacts Count – Networking Know-How for Business and Career Success

January 14, 2008

Networking is a necessary and often derided skill. To most, its rules are ambiguous and the concept overwhelming. In their fifth book, coauthors Anne Baber and Lynne Waymon explain the rules of the game.

I met with Lynne Waymon last week to discuss networking and her new book, “Make Your Contacts Count”. She told me a little about her background through an anecdote. Her story was short and sweet, but it gave me the basics of who she was. It highlighted her tenacity, adaptability and knowledge in the areas of training and group dynamics. After all, she was preparing to facilitate a training session later that afternoon for another association in town.

As she explained, “Your job is to teach people about who you are, what you need and what you have to give.” The best way to explain all of those things is through a story. You need to be able to tell your story at a moment’s notice, and it should demonstrate something about your character and competency straight away.

That’s when she turned the tables on me by asking for my story. I told her that I didn’t have anything prepared. I wasn’t ready. I was coming to interview her, not the other way around. With a gentle smile and a lilt of her head, she quickly put me at ease. She said, “That’s where the rules of engagement come into play. By following a few simple steps, you can easily move past your intimidation of talking to a stranger.”

Most casual conversations revolve around three basic questions, or moments as Baber and Waymon describe them. There will be a name exchange, “Hi, I’m Dave.” Someone will ask, “What do you do?—I’m a chemist.”, and then finally you’ll get the inevitable, “How are you today?—Fine.” Just as quickly as the conversation was initiated, it is over without a real connection.

The key to initiating a connection is to be ready to answer these questions in a meaningful way. “A good story gives your contact a vivid picture of what you do,” said Waymon. “It doesn’t have to be long, but it should give insight to your character and your competency.”

To compose your story, think back to your childhood. Children’s stories have four basic parts:

  • The beginning: Once upon a time…
  • The set-up: suddenly…
  • The turn-around: luckily…
  • The ending: …happily ever after.

For your story, think of a key moment in your life when you saved the day, served a customer, demonstrated commitment, or solved a tricky problem. These are the kinds of stories that will demonstrate your character and competence, and that is what will make you interesting to others.

According to Waymon, most people know about 250 people. However, few people have cultivated their contacts into the networks that they need to succeed. To help you, your contacts must trust you and know of your abilities, success stories and your challenges. Furthermore, you must know theirs. You have to realize that your network is an investment of your time and of yourself. It is really about getting to know people.

Among the other topics in the book, Baber and Waymon discuss the characteristics of the ideal network, conversation do’s and don’ts, stages of relationships, and the types of contacts.

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

Cheerleaders and Mentors

January 7, 2008

Going through a career transition can be one of the most stressful endeavors that we face in life. Having people to support you through this challenging transition makes a huge difference in how you come through the process.

On the Holmes and Rahe stress scale, losing a job and retiring from a job rank eighth and tenth, respectively. The only events that rank higher on the scale are losing a spouse or close family member, going to prison, or divorce/separation. No wonder so many country western songs have been written about these topics. My personal favorites would have to be those by Johnny Paycheck.

Losing a job, by choice or not, can lead to the same stages of grief that people go through after losing a loved one:

  • Denial: This can’t be happening.
  • Anger: Why me? This isn’t fair!
  • Bargaining: What can I do to stay?
  • Depression: It’s not worth trying. Why bother?
  • Acceptance: It’s going to be OK.

While these stages can not be completely avoided, having a voice of reason and support can make them easier, and in most cases can make the transition feel more manageable.

For many of us, support in our early years comes from our parents and our siblings. My parents have never understood science much less chemistry, yet they have always been supportive of my chosen path. They were and are the greatest cheerleaders that I have ever had. However, as life progresses, the influence of one’s parents generally decreases.

My mother has passed, and my father’s life and way of living is increasingly different from mine. Currently my friends and colleagues provide me with the mainstay of my support—listening to woes and cheering me on. For most, our cheerleaders in mid to late life will be our friends, spouses and life partners. Whatever the case, it is important to stay open to their support and avoid the temptation to withdraw from outside counsel.

Mentors, both formal and informal, can also help to ease our transitions. Formally, they can offer advice, serve as a voice of reason and stability, offer advice based on their experiences and knowledge. My formal mentor network includes my current and former supervisors, as well as my graduate and postdoctoral research advisors. In each career transition, I have gone to them for guidance. However, it is my informal mentors that have facilitated my transitions the most. Observing their choices and observing their career paths has made my journey more enjoyable.

I would wager that in most cases my informal mentors never knew that they were offering assistance and helping to shape my career path. Some of the best career advice I have gained has come from people that I haven’t really liked, but they have nonetheless had a major impact in my decisions to seek or keep a job.

As you go through a career transition, take a moment to inventory your cheerleaders and mentors, past and present. Make a note of their contributions, and look for the advice that resonates with your current situation. If you need a further voice of clarity, consider talking to a career consultant or adviser. ACS members can take advantage of free career consulting through the Society’s online programs. Others may find advice through university/college career services, state offices, community groups and/or churches.

On average, finding a new job takes six months to a year. Be prepared for the challenge by reaching out to the people that can help. I don’t know of anyone who wouldn’t benefit from a little cheering sometime.

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

Résumé Diagnostics

January 1, 2008

We advise chemists and chemical professionals daily on job search strategies, formatting of résumés, interview techniques and other career change topics. One of the most frequent problems we see is a résumé that does not showcase the candidate to their best advantage.

If your listing in the ACS Careers Jobs Database is not resulting in any inquiries, the problem is most likely your résumé. It may be the format, the content, or you might not be highlighting your accomplishments in the right way.

If you have a long work history, don’t think of the résumé as a chronicle of your life journey. It is a marketing tool to highlight your accomplishments. It should be a quick read in bulleted format – no more than two pages. Most recruiters will spend no more than 30 seconds skimming your résumé. If they aren’t instantly hooked, they will be on to the next.

If you are just entering the job market, you will most likely use a reverse chronological listing of your accomplishments, but don’t limit it to a listing of classes you attended. Think hard about the things that make you special. Think about what sets you apart from your peers. Have you shown leadership through the ACS Student Affiliates program? Were you innovative in the lab or in your studies? Did you score higher or go further in a particular area than your classmates? If so, call out these achievements up front.

Make sure you cover the basics.

  • Create a Highlights section at the top with 3 bullets describing your most relevant achievements, skills or attributes.
  • Keep it short – two pages maximum.
  • Use bulleted text with action verbs to describe your accomplishments.
  • Keep it simple. Fancy formatting may interfere with computer prescreening of your résumé.
  • Have someone else proof your résumé for misspellings and other grammatical errors.

When highlighting your achievements use action verbs that imply an outcome. For example, “determined” is a better verb choice than “studied”. Anyone can study something, but it does not mean that they reached a conclusion. On the other hand, if you determine something, you have made an analysis and come to a conclusion.

Where possible you should also use quantitative or qualitative measures in your arguments.

  • Identified and optimized new synthetic route for aminated oligosacherides resulting in 10-fold greater yields with less waste.
  • Created new automated method for the analysis of sulfur in solids capable of running 24/7 with a 10 sample per hour throughput.

These examples are obviously made up to illustrate this concept, but you should notice that they are written to promote a person’s ability to produce results.

When you are being evaluated by a company, they are looking for what you will be able to do for their business. They will not necessarily be interested in a listing of things that you have done. This is a subtle but important distinction. Take a moment to put yourself in the shoes of a recruiter and re-read your résumé. Does it sell your abilities?

ACS members qualify for free career advice and résumé reviews through the Career Consultant Program. Our consultants are ACS members, many of them former recruiters. Add your ACS membership number to your profile to gain access to this program.

Visit for additional career advice, resources and information from the American Chemical Society.

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