Dressing to Get the Job

March 31, 2008

Although fashionistas everywhere will pronounce this list as trivial, derivative, cautious, and conservative; here is a simple guide to dressing for an interview.

Dressing for an interview is more about getting a job than self-expression. In chemistry, conservatism rules, and dress attire is the norm for an interview. People choosing not to dress the part run the risk of appearing uninterested, contemptuous, insincere and/or sloppy. The process of dressing up for an interview is seen as a sign of respect for the employer. To not dress up is one of disrespect.

Men: In general, guys should stick to “the uniform”, a navy jacket, khaki pants, a white or light blue shirt, and a striped tie. A nice suit is also acceptable. Although boring, the standard uniform is both respectful, and expected.

Women: Ladies have a bit more flexibility with their basic outfit. Simple styles work best. Go for straight lines and basic color combinations. Like the guys, navy, white, black, khaki and brown work well. Avoid overusing bright colors, dramatic cuts, and plunging necklines common in haute couture.

  1. Spectroscopists should never dress alone. We’ve all seen the alarming results of this debacle. Fuchsia, lime green, and bright orange should never be worn together during an interview—never!
  2. Avoid trendy or extreme fashions. It is okay to be expressive, but you don’t want your interviewers to be talking about your outfit after you leave. You want them to remember the creative and innovative ways that you approached the science.
  3. This is not an opportunity to wear your collection of bride’s maid, or prom dresses. They didn’t look good then, and they still don’t. Besides, taffeta is highly flammable, and soluble in most organic solvents.
  4. Choose outfits that travel well. Your clothes will wrinkle. The kid next to you on the plane will throw his Cheerios at you, and at some point, will manage to unscrew the top of his tipsy tumbler. Cotton/polyester blends generally avoid wrinkles, and stain-resistant fabrics can easily shed Kool-Aid.
  5. Toss a lint brush or roller into your bag. That way, you can duck into the restroom at your destination, and reappear moments later dander-free.
  6. Avoid making political or cultural statements through clothing choices. It is true that people have cultural biases; however, the interview is not the time to address them. After you get the job, you can more effectively influence the culture of the organization.
  7. Pockets are nice, but avoid overloading them. Carry a nice portfolio, brief, or bag instead. Putting too much in your pockets will result in unsightly bulges. Extensive pocket inventories also make it less likely that you will be able to pull the right item out of your pocket at the right time.
  8. Bulging biceps, curvaceous contours, and taut six-packs are great goals for the gym, but they should not be emphasized by clingy or stretchy fabrics. On an interview, you should express your chemistry professionally, not personally.
  9. New hairstyles are often adopted in times of change, and they can sometimes give you a boost to your self-image during times of stress. However, be cautious of coiffures involving topiaries, to utilizing bright and unnatural coloring. Such styles generally go bad in the early morning hours before an interview resulting in a bad hair day and much unneeded stress.
  10. As an accoutrement to dress, many people anoint themselves with colognes and perfumes; however, fragrances should not be used flagrantly. Use them in moderation. Allergic employers will be grateful.

Ultimately, the style that you adopt will be a reflection of you; however, a compromise is sometimes necessary when it comes to interviewing. Remember to dress sharp, but conservative for your big day. Landing the job must be your primary goal.

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

Scientific Research Jobs in the Federal Workforce

March 24, 2008

The U.S. government is hiring in many areas of science as employees from the Baby Boomer generation begin to retire. Below are some resources and tips to use in the Federal application process.

#1 Source. The number one source for all federal jobs is http://www.usajobs.gov where you can search all advertisements for every level and type of service. Students (high school, college or graduate) might prefer http://www.studentjobs.gov/ to locate internships, coops or temporary jobs. Both sites allow you to conduct advanced searches, post resumes, apply online for posted jobs and track your application through the system. You can also receive notification of new listings.

General Schedule Salary. Most federal service workers, the science fields included, are employed on the General Schedule or GS scale. Salary ranges from $20K to more than $150K depending on the level. Internships are usually between GS-1 and GS-4. Most college graduates start at the GS-5 level with promotion potential through GS-9. Postdoctoral research positions usually begin at GS-11. Permanent scientists begin at GS-12 and go through GS-15.

Attention to Keywords. Knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) are essential to determine whether your qualifications (experience and education) match the requirements of the job. Most scientific jobs have KSAs to evaluate candidates. If a job posting has KSAs listed, you must supply a narrative description of the experience and/or training that demonstrates your possession of a particular element. If the KSA lists experience in High Performance Liquid Chromatography, you should write it out in your response: “High Performance Liquid Chromatography” not HPLC and not LC or chromatography. The evaluator (human or computer) may not know the acronyms or the definitions. Keep in mind that the primary supervisor only sees screened applications so your application has to make the initial cut based on what you submit electronically or in hard copy.

Ask yourself. Can the evaluator/supervisor see your qualifications within 15 seconds of looking at your resume? Does the critical information (KSAs!!) leap off the page? Take some time and use keyword headers on your resume. Don’t be redundant and don’t write science fiction. Your supervisor will, in all probability, be a scientist and can spot it. Do convey your willingness to learn new skills.

It’s worth a look. Read the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has a guide entitled, “USAJOBS Ten Tips for Letting Federal Employers Know Your Worth”.

This article was written by Victoria Finkenstadt, Ph.D., a research scientist in the Plant Polymer Research Unit at the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research (USDA) in Peoria, IL.

Career Renewal: Answering a Call for Teaching

March 17, 2008

Teaching high school chemistry has turned out to be a calling for me. However, if someone had told me ten years ago that I would be teaching today, I probably would have looked at them square in the eyes and laughed.

Upon graduating from college, I had big ideas of making lots and lots of money. I had just received a degree in chemistry—one of hardest and most respected sciences at Tougaloo College. I knew that something was out there, and I was the right person to fulfill that need.

In my first job, I worked as a research and development chemist for Alcoa Industrial Chemicals. This was an exciting career. I had the opportunity to make new products, take part in the building of new processes, and actually see what was going on inside those tall tanks I used to see and wonder about as a child. I was actually doing what I thought I wanted to do. In this position, I gained a vast amount of experience in managing people, finances, and other resources.

Wanting to build on my strengths and broaden my horizons, I made a career transition to Reckitt-Coleman where we specialized in household cleaning agents. I was responsible for making sure that everything we made was doing what it was supposed to be doing. I was also responsible for seeing that the quality lab was being managed in an efficient and effective manner.

As time progressed, I tried my hands in the field of neurophysiology, studying how the brain grows and responds to certain stimuli or lack of stimuli. Nonetheless, a voice inside of me kept saying that I was supposed to do something else with my life and my talents. In all of my experiences, people always saw me as a teacher. I just never saw this in myself. I never wanted to be bothered with anyone else’s children, but I felt that I could no longer ignore this burning desire to see what everybody else was talking about. I kept asking myself, why I couldn’t see the teacher in me that everyone else saw. It was puzzling, but I overlooked those feelings of doubt, prayed about it, took some tests, and applied to become a chemistry teacher.

I also took time to evaluate and partake in the Hach Scientific Foundation’s Second Career Chemistry Teacher Program which furnishes scholarships to talented chemists interested in pursuing either a Masters in education or teachers certificate. As they say, “the rest is history.”

Since I have started teaching, I have never been happier with my career. I now feel as if I am really making a difference. I now see that my life was not supposed to be about me, but about educating a generation of children that needed me. I can now experience the joy of seeing young children move on through life and be successful.

Before getting into education, life was a routine, but now it is exciting and filled with new challenges on a daily basis. I encourage anyone to accept the teaching challenge, and I dare you to change a life for the better.

This article was written by Kevin L. Gaylor, a chemistry teacher at Jim Hill High School in Jackson, Mississippi.

Job Searching with Positive Outcomes

March 10, 2008

It is often hard to keep a level head during the job search process; however, those that can do so fare better than those that don’t. Failing to keep your equilibrium can set you up for an emotional roller coaster.

In the childhood story of Chicken Little, a hen is hit on the head by an acorn falling from the sky. Thinking the worst, she jumps to the conclusion that the sky is falling. Her premise is quickly confirmed by the other farm yard animals leading to hysteria.

Optimistic people are generally perceived to be more productive and able. They are also more fun to be around. This second factor should not be underestimated in importance, since a hiring manager and new hire will typically spend extensive amounts of time together during training and orientation sessions. Additionally, people who see a silver lining behind every storm cloud are also more likely to weather rejections by potential employers better than those with a negative outlook.

In today’s economic climate, it is easy to believe that the sky is falling; however, leading and lag indicators for the chemical enterprise remain positive. The unemployment rate for chemists in 2007 was at the lowest level since 2001 at 2.4%. In a telephone call with Rich Pennock of Kelly Scientific Resources he stated, “The demand for chemists and biochemists has remained steady in the U.S. for the past 24 months.” This is significant, because staffing agencies are usually the first to see increases or decreases in employment requests as a result of economic drivers. Multinational chemical companies with global operations are also performing well in today’s dubious markets; although it should be noted that primarily domestic companies are experiencing significant downturns in stock prices.

No one really knows what the coming months will bring, but occasionally pulling away from the job search to refocus your energies in the ways listed below can help you to cope.

  • Social Support. Formal sources of support such as mentoring programs, as well as informal support groups like friends & family, and face-to-face or online discussion groups, can provide you with people with whom you can talk, seek advice, commiserate, and ease perceptions of isolation.
  • Coping Style. You may need to reevaluate your coping style. Try reinterpreting events in a positive light. You may also try breaking down your overall situation into a series of distinct and more solvable problems. It’s a challenge, but adjusting your outlook will change how you react to stressors and help prevent them from harming your health. Sometimes, just finding the humor in a situation can provide the spontaneous relief that you need.
“It’s not the stress that kills us. It is our reaction to it.” – Hans Selye
  • Make Time for You. It sounds like a cliché, but believe it or not, 20 minutes a day of solitude will make a lot of difference in stress relief and mental balance. Read a fun book, meditate, or just stare out the window.
  • Exercise and diet. Exercise and eat a balance diet to release stress and increase your resistance to stress and stress-related health problems.

In the war between psyches a realistic, but positive outlook wins every time. After all, the only real control any of us have is in how we react.

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

It Has Begun*

March 7, 2008

I cribbed that title from Paul Krugman’s New York Times blog* today but I think he’s right. It has begun.

“It” is a recession, and its official start will either be December 2007 or January 2008 once the numbers are evaluated to everyone’s satisfaction. This is the second recession of the Bush Administration, by the way. The first one was the dot-bomb recession in 2001, which was followed by a jobless recovery.

Payrolls were down in 22,000 in January and today, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) announced 63,000 jobs were lost in February. The unemployment rate dropped from 4.9% to 4.8%, reflecting a shrinking labor force as some people gave up looking for work.

In December, Krugman wrote that people remember the last recession as brief and mild. But that’s an artifact of the way the National Bureau of Economic Research defines recessions — basically as periods when everything is going down. Once something starts going up (usually GDP), it’s labeled a recovery. But in the last two recessions the thing that matters most — employment — kept falling long after the official end of the recession. What finally created a convincing recovery was the housing boom. But that turned into a bubble, which has burst big time.

McClatchy Newspapers reported last month that employment figures, released in late January, showed a 52-month streak of job creation ending with a loss of 17,000 jobs in January. The administration acknowledged the contraction, but pointed to the national unemployment rate of 4.9% to say that the labor market wasn’t a harbinger of recession. (But then the administration didn’t consider the possibility that gas would hit $4 a gallon this summer either.)

A closer look at unemployment data by McClatchy, however, found that jobless Americans are spending more time looking for work and that those who can’t find work now make up a greater share of the unemployed. Several measures of unemployment, in fact, show that the workforce is under the kind of stress not seen since March 2001, when the U.S. economy entered a nine-month recession, followed by a so-called jobless recovery.

Like much in economics, labor statistics are vexing because they can be seen as a glass half empty or half full. In this case, it’s definitely half empty: “A weakening job market, combined with lower home values, higher fuel bills and stricter lending rules, raises the odds consumer spending will keep slowing,” according to Bloomberg.com.

On March 2 I gave a talk at Pittcon about the employment outlook for chemical scientists. BLS is projecting that employment for chemists is expected to grow 9% between 2006-2016. I also reported that the job market was looking pretty good for the coming year, based on my conversations with employer reps and department chairpersons for our Employment Outlook issue.

I’ll be curious to see how things fall out as the year progresses.

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

Preparing for Interview Success

March 3, 2008

When deciding what to wear for an interview trip, it is important to call ahead, or check the weather forecast for the place you are visiting. It is also important to take a few precautions with respect to your presentation materials.

Growing up and going to school in the Southwest, I have to admit that I was ill-prepared for my first interview trip to Kent State several years ago. I did not have an appropriate coat, and I did not know what to wear.

Even thought it was winter, conditions were warm in LA. Since I knew that it would be a long flight, I wore a comfortable T-shirt and a weathered pair of jeans. I grabbed a jacket on my way out the door, but it was hardly enough for the blizzard conditions in Cleveland. It didn’t help that my luggage was lost in transit. I had definitely not made smart decisions with respect to my attire.

When I landed, the Chair of the Chemistry Department met me at the gate. This was pre-911 when it was easier to get around in airports. He was dressed in a suit and tie with a sharp looking trench coat draped over his arm. It was obvious that he was not impressed by my appearance, but he was gracious in his welcoming remarks. My lesson learned was that the interview begins the minute you leave home. Instead of dressing comfortably, I should have dressed respectfully, because you never know who will pick you up at the airport, meet you for dinner, or escort you on a tour of campus. You also don’t know for sure that your luggage will go to the same place that you will.

The ride out to Kent was chilly. When my host dropped me off at the hotel, he gave me a copy of my interview itinerary and said that he would pick me up the next morning at 7:30 a.m. It was 12:30 a.m. and I had no idea where my luggage was. To make things worse I was standing in over a foot of snow, and the wind was blowing fiercely from the north. I made my way inside the shelter of the hotel and up to my room.

It was imposable to sleep, because I had nothing to wear for my interview the next day, and the overheads that I planned to use for my chalk talk were in my suitcase.* I turned to the phone lines to track down my bags.

Luckily for me, my bags arrived at the hotel by 4:30 a.m. giving me time to clean up, dress up and eat prior to my ride to campus that morning. My research presentation and my chalk talk went surprisingly well, and I even managed to look lucid; although I had not had a moment of sleep the night before.

The process could have been disastrous. I now know to be better prepared for interviews, especially those involving travel. Here are the key concepts that I learned:

  • Dress appropriately for your interview.
  • The interview begins the moment you step out of your door.
  • Carry all of your presentation materials with you.
  • Check the weather ahead of time, to ensure that you have clothing that is warm or cool enough for the place you are going.

Interviews are stressful enough. There is really no need for added drama.

In the end, I received an offer from Kent State, but I did not go. I chose to accept an offer from the University of Hawaii instead. It was a better career path for me.

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

* Unavoidable reference to ancient technology used prior to LCD projectors and PowerPoint presentations.