Technical Poster: Graphic Marketing Tool

February 25, 2008

Applying basic marketing concepts to your next poster presentation could make a difference between time well spent and a lost opportunity.

You know the drill. You work hard to represent your research with a series of text-laden PowerPoint slides, print them up, put them on a poster board, and then watch everyone walk past as they search for the shortest beer line, or their best bud from grad school. It is not a very fulfilling experience. What if this time you shook things up a bit? What if you tried something new?

At the many ACS technical meetings this year, there will be thousands of posters presented. Most will gain only a cursory glance, others may not warrant notice at all. In marketing, posters are used very successfully as graphical tools to convey concepts quickly and effectively. Applying basic marketing concepts to your next presentation could result in significantly higher retention rates for you and your poster.

Consider your poster as a marketing tool. Look around at posters that you have seen on your commute into work: movie posters promoting the latest flick, or billboards lining the highway. Think also of the illustrations in textbooks. The successful ones will feature one or two main points with a dynamic graphic and minimal text.

In marketing, text and graphics are two very different tools that convey different types of information. Graphical campaigns are designed to convey a single thought quickly—in a glance. Heavy text is seen as the kiss of death. People just won’t take the time to read voluminous text as they wander down an aisle.

As you design your next poster, think of the one concept that you want to convey more than any thing else. Visualize it and determine the best way to illustrate it without any words at all. The graphic could consist of two molecules docking, a transformational isomerization, a key analyte, or an exploded view of an instrument. Think beyond stick figures to 3-D representations, and use color for dramatic effect. The graphic should also imply motion where possible.

Utilizing these simple concepts you can make your poster much more attractive to passersby. The changes might even result in a conversation that you can use to make a connection for collaboration or networking. Whether you are looking for a job or a grant, you need for others to notice you and your work.

Secondary concepts can be illustrated through smaller panels surrounding the main graphic. For each panel, the relationship to the main graphic should be readily apparent, text should be minimal, and the secondary graphics should add to the primary graphic’s impact. In most cases, the primary graphic should dominate with smaller panels for secondary concepts.

Since people are most likely to search for your poster online, be sure to use keywords in your title and abstract that are common to your field. Consider names for classes of compounds or processes rather than more specific terms.

Lastly, be cognizant of your body language when you are standing in front of your poster. Avoid crossing your arms or legs. Try smiling—even if you don’t want to. You will be seen as more approachable.

If these tactics seem cheesy or trite, reconsider why you chose to present your work in the first place. If you want people to notice your work, and recognize its relevance, then you must first get their attention. In the end, you will have to be more attractive than beer or an old friend if you want others to say, “What’s this all about? I’d like to know more about your work.”

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

Machiavellian Volunteerism

February 19, 2008

Sometimes the best way to help yourself is to help others. Volunteering can help you build your professional network, will allow you to develop new areas of competency, and it can give you a sense of accomplishment when you might otherwise be feeling down.

I spent the past weekend in Ft. Lauderdale with 58 of my closest friends—the ACS Career Consultants. This very passionate group of volunteers freely gives of their time and advice to ACS members without compensation, because they have all faced the challenges of going through a career transition. By giving back to the Society through service, they have gained many contacts in their networks as well as a great deal of insight into the chemical industry and its hiring practices. Therefore they have not only given back to their community, but they have also enriched their own opportunities for professional advancement.

When moving from one place to another or changing jobs, the trauma of leaving friends and family behind can be very challenging. However, becoming involved in local organizations through volunteer service has given me access to new friends and support in every place that I have gone.

Whether staffing a benefit for AIDS research, helping pack groceries at a food bank, or volunteering for the ACS Younger Chemists Committee, I was able to find others with similar values and interests. The activities involved with each program also provided me with opportunities to explore leadership roles, as well as skills development outside of the scope of my professional duties. I have chaired committees and task forces, designed and programmed websites, served drinks to celebrities, and worked side-by-side with some of the most innovative people on the planet. I have been able to list the skills gained from each activity on my resume, and I use many of those skills in my job today.

However, the best thing about volunteer service is the feelings of self-accomplishment and pride I feel from giving to others. I know this is selfish—perhaps even Machiavellian—but it is true. Through volunteering, I am able to replace feelings of self-pity for being alone, insecurities about my abilities, and frustrations with work projects gone astray with those of camaraderie, accomplishment and pride.

Sharing stories about the people that we have been able to help and the challenges that we have faced throughout the last year with my fellow Career Councilors has been a fulfilling and inspiring experience. I have been rejuvenated.

If you are feeling bogged down by your daily grind at work, or in between employment opportunities, consider giving more of yourself through service. The world will benefit, and so will you.

The ACS Career Consultant Program is a free service available only to members of the American Chemical Society.

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

Best Guesses & Intelligent Failures

February 11, 2008

When I was a kid, I remember people in my home town professing to have degrees from the School of Hard Knocks. They would say it in jest of course, but implied was a pride in taking risks and learning from mistakes to shape their futures.

In a world of persistent innovation, being perfect at what you do may be safe but it isn’t good enough. To never make mistakes is to stop changing, learning and growing, and closes the door to innovative possibilities. Allowing ourselves to make mistakes is important if we are to gain awareness of our world and the changes within it.

Innovation requires experimentation, and in some cases, failure. When I was doing synthesis in the lab, I knew that the reaction pathway that I wrote inside the front cover of my laboratory book was not likely to hold up to the experiments that would follow. The hypothetical pathway represented my best guess for the synthetic target—my goal. It was understood that I was setting off on a transformational adventure in which a set of starting materials would be converted through a series of steps into the final product. It was also understood that nine out of ten of the experiments that I would try along that synthetic pathway might not work as I had planned, and that I would need to make numerous tweaks to my methodology along the way. With each failure I would learn more about the chemistry of the system, and draw closer to the solution.

This experimentation with a system is something that, as chemists, we readily understand. It is fundamental to the scientific method: define a hypothesis and then set out to prove it. However, we seldom give ourselves permission to experiment with our careers. We are supposed to have it all worked out perfectly from elementary school to retirement. We are supposed to know our path, and we are supposed to follow it. As the world continues to change and external pressures affect us through competition, the economy, and societal demands we are forced to evolve or lose our place.

Win Borden once said, “If you wait to do everything until you’re sure its right, you’ll probably never do much of anything.” He was right. As we progress in our careers, we must give ourselves permission to experiment with our future. We must push to try new experiences and reach beyond our comfort zones, because we never know when our current pathway might disappear. We must also be prepared for serendipitous opportunities, because it is these fortuitous, unplanned events that propel us onward to success.

I’m not sure if Louis Pasteur had a degree from the School of Hard Knocks, but I am certain that he got it right when he said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” By being aware of our environment, learning from our mistakes and expanding our knowledge base through our careers—we position ourselves to maximize the serendipitous events that evolve in the process along the way.

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

Why You? Why This Job?

February 10, 2008

Before interviewing or even applying for a job, you need to be able to answer these questions:

  • Why should a potential employer hire you for this job?
  • Why have you chosen to apply for this job?

Organizations need to know what you are bringing to the table. They also need to know that you are committed to their success as well as your own.

It is tempting to apply for every job that comes along regardless of whether you have considered your potential for success with the organization. However, these generic applications to company inboxes have a high probability of failure. A targeted résumé and cover letter is much more likely to succeed.

Before applying for a position, think about the skills, talents and accomplishments that you want to highlight. Each example chosen should point to a need expressed by your potential employer either through their job listing or through other organizational documents. Think of what you are bringing to the organization from the employer’s point of view—not yours. Also, remember that they have not lived your life, so they lack context for your achievements. You must succinctly connect the dots for them, so that they can see exactly how a person with your background would benefit their organization. If you can relate your experience to a process or a product of the organization, that is even better.

For example, if you are applying to a pharmaceutical manufacturer who specializes in biomedical polymers, you should emphasize any experience you may have with biological or polymeric systems. Starting with your résumé, highlight experiences with either type of system. Continuing in your cover letter, reflect the terms used in the original job listing connecting your accomplishments in each of the key areas listed. Lastly, compose responses to likely interview questions using relevant examples related to your experiences with biological and polymeric systems. Don’t force this strategy too far, but if you can draw a correlation, you certainly should.

In addition to selling yourself to the organization, you should also examine why you are choosing to apply. The last thing that an organization wants to do is to invest in a job candidate that can do the job, but does not want to. Accepting a job that you do not like should also be low on your list of career goals. During an interview, your potential employer will be assessing whether you will be a productive member of their team. If your values do not align with those of the organization, or if you would really rather be someplace else, you are likely to drain resources away from organizational initiatives. You also will not feel comfortable in the organizational environment. It takes a lot of time and effort to apply to each position, so you might as well focus on the ones that you like.

By thinking about the questions: “Why you?” and “Why this job?” you will force yourself to examine your fit with a particular job listing. You will also optimize your marketing strategy and be able to justify your motivations.

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

Planning for Retirement

February 4, 2008

Bill Gates recently retired from Microsoft and with his net worth of $56 billion; he will probably make out okay. However, they rest of us could do with a little more planning to ensure that we have enough to make it comfortably through our golden years.

When Bill Gates announced his retirement as chairman of Microsoft earlier this year, there was much fanfare. He was spoofed by colleagues and celebrities alike. He even had a little fun with himself during his final address to the Computer and Electronics Showcase (CES2008).

Bill Gates retirement announcement at CES 2008

The Late Show with David Letterman was also good for a laugh with a spoof on Microsoft Windows and the blue screen of death.

Bill Gates retirement skit on David Letterman Show – Warning: Some cursing/adult language.

When I retire, I doubt that there will be much of a commotion. I’ll be lucky to get a small party with frozen cake, nacho chips and fruit punch. If I adhere to the statistical mean, I can predict that I will have been with four to five additional employers and that my retirement accounts will be fragmented between several different financial institutions. It is also predicted that social security will be insecure by the time I reach the mandated full retirement age. This picture is further complicated if my career goes global, or if I decide to retire abroad.

There are many considerations to take into account when planning for retirement. The problem is that many of us just don’t take the time to do it—at least not until it is too late! The most important thing to do is to put away as much as you can early in your career to take advantage of compound interest. This is not easy for anyone, but the math is simple enough to understand. I have gotten off to a late start with graduate school, postdoctoral studies and teaching taking up the majority of my early earning years. However, I am trying to make up for lost time and income by putting away as much as I can each month through an automatic payroll deduction. Automating the process keeps the money out of my hands and lessens the probability that I will spend it on something less worthy.

Portability is also a key consideration when planning for retirement. While I was teaching at the University of Hawaii, I was able to invest in retirement accounts through TIAA-CREF. That is a good thing since all of the money that the university put away for my retirement in the state system was forfeited when I left. If I had not invested funds in my own account outside of the state system, I would have lost all of my retirement savings up and until that point.

If you haven’t started thinking about retirement or are confused about your options, there are plenty of good sources of information online. AARP and Yahoo both have excellent investment guides. Most financial institutions also offer advice, but be aware that they are trying to sell their products, so a neutral and unbiased source of information may serve you better.


In closing, it should be noted that I am not a financial expert. I’m a chemist. So, I would not expect you to take my advice any more seriously that Bill Gates has done. Then again, if he had invested heavily in Apple stock a few years back, he might have had a few billion more to spend.


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