Political Chemistry

May 27, 2008

I’ve never wanted to be “The Guy.” You know, the person sitting behind the desk where the buck stops. No, I’d rather be “The guy who makes The Guy (or The Gal) look good.” I’d rather be the wise counselor than the public face, the source of information rather than the mouthpiece.


Understanding the difference between being the “Big-G guy/gal” and the “little guy/gal” is important to finding peace and satisfaction in whatever career path you choose. If you strive to be the Big G, you’ll need to cultivate your networking and public speaking skill. You’ll need to develop a thick skin and the ability to delegate authority and resist the temptation to micromanage. You’ll want to insinuate yourself with the powerful in your field, and at your company or university, and you’ll most certainly need to fine-tune your political senses.


None of that is for me, which is why I’m a little g-type guy. Instead of learning the fine details of networking and schmoozing, I’ve focused on developing my research skills; when the Big-G wants information, she always wants it sooner rather than later. And forget about delegating authority – little g’s take responsibility and run with it.


I’ve found myself thinking about this lately because recently someone asked me if I’d be interested in running for our local school board. This person thought my background as a scientist and my understanding of many things technical would add an important perspective to a school board filled with business folks and lawyers and former liberal arts majors.


I considered this offer for about 20 microseconds before declining, because I know in my heart that I’m a”little g”, and elected office is not for me. But I also threw in that if the school board was ever in need of an advisor on science and technology issues, I would jump at the opportunity to serve my community in that way.


So what does that have to do with careers and chemistry? Bear with me.


Nearly 32 years ago, on a frigid Friday afternoon over a beer at the Badger Tavern in Madison, WI, one of the wisest people I’ve known was commenting on recent inauguration of Jimmy Carter as the 39th President of the United States.


In response to a wisecrack about how amazing it was that someone with a bachelor’s degree in science and a former nuclear engineer was about to become the President, Heinrich Schnoes, now an emeritus professor of biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin, said in his typical droll way, “Just think how much better off this country would be if 50% of the members of Congress had science degrees instead of law degrees.”




As much as I’d like to see more scientists and engineers run for Congress, I doubt that’s going to happen any time soon, and I think it’s because the vast majority of scientists and engineers that I’ve known are “little g’s”, not “Big G’s”.


But there are huge opportunities today for technically-minded “little g’s” to make a career as a science advisor to all those politically minded “Big G’s” out there. If that’s something that appeals to you, both in terms of intellectual curiosity and the ability to influence public policy without having to run for office, this is the time to approach your local candidates to see if you can help the one from your favored political party.


“Little g’s” of the world unite! We can – and do – make a difference.


This article was written by Joe Alper, a freelance science writer and technology analyst in Louisville, CO, who writes frequently for the ACS Journal of Analytical Chemistry.

Follow Your Dreams

May 19, 2008

Where would we be without our dreams?


As the father of a 13-year-old, I hear my daughter talk about her dreams of playing goalkeeper on the Olympic soccer team, owning a horse, becoming a biologist, and studying African wildlife. I wonder which of her dreams will come true, which will fall by the wayside, and which will motivate to achieve great things or take her on paths unimaginable today.


Regardless, I see her dreams affecting the choices she makes regarding the electives she’s taking (French vs. Spanish, for example, because there’s not much of the latter spoken in Africa) and how she spends her free time (working on her soccer ball juggling instead of reading books 24/7).


When I was a boy growing up in suburban Chicago, I dreamed of curing cancer and playing professional baseball. I dreamed of traveling to exotic places and owning a soft-serve ice cream machine.


I never became a cancer researcher, or the starting catcher for the White Sox, but pursing my dreams took me to the University of Illinois, where I planned to major in some type of science. There, I took first-year organic chemistry from Douglas Applequist, now an emeritus professor of physical organic chemistry, who opened my eyes to the beauty, logic, and excitement of The Central Science. That led to a new dream, of becoming the first in my family to go to graduate school, which I did at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. A serendipitous discussion during a softball game there led to a new path, one away from bench science to a career as a science writer.


Too often, we dismiss our dreams as just that, dreams.Too many of us, burdened by the pressures of school or career, start thinking that “follow your dreams” is advice for children or for someone nearing retirement, not for the rest of us responsible adults. Who has time, after all, to chase after dreams?


You do. It just takes careful planning. And action.


Do you dream of moving into management but think that your chemistry degree isn’t going to get you there?


Do you dream of switching research fields but believe that you’ve been pigeonholed?


Do you dream of teaching chemistry at a small liberal arts college but can’t imagine how you’d handle the pay cut?


In reality, identifying your dream job is half the battle to achieving it. Next, you’ll have to do your homework. Spend some time every day defining your dream, perhaps while you’re coming home from work or instead of playing a couple of rounds of Minesweeper on your computer.


Search the Web for stories of others who have had a similar dream. Read their stories and learn from their experiences. From those tidbits of information, map out a plan to achieve your goal, with milestones you can hit along the way. Develop a budget for your plan. Then, establish a start date for pursuing your plan.


And remember, people make their dreams come true all the time. So can you.  Love to hear from you on what your doing to make your dream come true. 


This article was written by Joe Alper, a freelance writer in Louisville, CO, who writes frequently for the ACS journal Analytical Chemistry and was the editor of Chemistry Magazine when it succumbed to old age.


Finding Your Career Guru

May 14, 2008

Coach, advocate, champion. They are best-known as mentoring.  Whatever name you put to it, a mentor can be the most important asset in your arsenal for career advancement.  So, what is mentoring?   

The US Department of Labor’s Dictionary of Occupational Titles “asserts  that mentoring is the most complex type of human interaction, being more complex than teaching, counseling, supervising or coaching.”  

Reading this can scare anyone and about now you are thinking of the lateral move to putting the whole idea aside.  Before you put this one aside, let’s let the numbers convince you.  Fran Sepler, president of Sepler & Associates Inc., an organizational development firm in Minnesota, noted that “of the 1,200 top managers in Fortune 500 firms, two-thirds say they utilized mentoring relationships at some point in their careers.“  

Sepler went on to say that “there is a direct correlation between soaking up knowledge from a mentor and reaching a higher level of compensation and more promotions.”   If your career is stagnant and needs a little assist, finding a mentor may be the way to go.

Your company may have a mentoring program, so check with your Human Resource Department.  If not, here are some tips to help you get started.   

Before you commit to a long-term relationship, let’s define traits you should look for when selecting a mentor.  The Dreyfus Model for Becoming an Expert in a Dedicated, Focused Field” describes five levels of characteristics of a mentoring from expert to novice.   For our purpose, let’s look at the top three tiers:

Expert         Has at least 10 years focusing on a field.  Experience is broad and deep.  Aware of important variables in any new situation.  Able to use different paradigms and heuristics to solve problems quickly and creatively.  Reflective practitioner who self-assess what works and doesn’t.   Engages in “forward” reasoning to solve a problem.  Typically, this person developed the rules that serve a Guiding Principles to prevent problems and enhance success.    

 Proficient  Has at least 5 years in field, with some varied experiences.  Still “rule-bound” to other people’s rules when solving problems.  Becoming a reflective practitioner. 

Competent Has repeated experience doing the same thing.

When on the hunt for your next “career guru,” you may want to target a person that emulates the top tier.  Picking the friendly guy that hangs out at the water cooler just won’t cut the mustard.  You need to look for someone who is proactive in both criticism and support, and will be more challenging in helping you reach your goals.

Some mentoring relationships occur naturally with a person you “click” with and these can be the best.  A priority is to find a mentor who has the time, personality and talent to educate.  Look around your social or professional circles.  You may be drawn to someone similar in age, gender, race and experience. 

But these may not be the best pick.  You may have to look outside your comfort zone.  The ideal age difference is around 15 years with greater experience and is an “Expert” in the areas you want to pursue.   You may not be able to find every trait you want in one person.  Consider having more than one mentor, especially if you have varied interests and/or are highly specialized. 

Once you have that person(s) on board with you, both parties need to outline expectations.  Don’t be afraid to utilize this relationship to its fullest potential.  Use the mentor for long-term development that will have sustainability for your careers.  Mentors have a life-cycle so don’t cling too tightly.  As you grow and develop so should your network and one day you may find yourself in the “Career Guru” hot seat.   Anyone out there have a mentor or thinking of pursuing this avenue?  I would love to hear your experiences.

This article was written by Liane H. Gould, Manager of Career Services of the ACS Department of Career Management and Development.


Signal Before You Turn

May 12, 2008

Sudden changes without adequate forewarning can be jarring for people. Providing notification of what is to come can ensure a smoother transition for them and for you.

Sometimes I think that my fellow commuters are out to kill me. Other times I know that they are! This morning I was almost hit by a bus.

The bus driver’s scowl contrasted sharply with the large yellow happy face painted on the side of the door beneath his window. I am guessing that he was late in the delivery of the dozen or so adolescents being tossed about in the rear of the bus as he frantically maneuvered through traffic.

Luckily, I had noticed his approach in my rear view mirror. Alerted by car horns and foul language, I had glanced over to witness his path of carnage and I moved to the side of the road. Wildly gesticulating with a single-finger gesture, he zoomed past with a belch of black smoke.

If I had not been alerted by fellow commuters I would have been taken completely by surprise, because there were no other signals. I would not have seen the bus driver’s approach and would not have been able to anticipate his moves. The result could have been disastrous. As it turned out, my car and I came out of the altercation without a scratch, but I would not say that I have warm feelings for the bus driver.

When interacting with others, it is important to remember to signal any changes to come, so that they will have time to respond appropriately. This is especially true for time and/or resource-intensive projects, or when explaining difficult concepts.

People need time to contemplate their role in the plan and to prepare for time and resource demands. By signaling ahead, you are giving them the opportunity to align their priorities with yours, and you are allowing for opportunities of collaboration and synergy.

“Change has a considerable psychological impact on the human mind. To the fearful it is threatening because it means that things may get worse. To the hopeful it is encouraging because things may get better. To the confident it is inspiring because the challenge exists to make things better. “

King Whitney Jr.

It is a fact of life in large metropolitan areas that traffic can be hairy at times. However, driving defensively and using your signals to announce your intentions will generally ensure a safe commute. Signaling your intentions in the workplace can have similar results.

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

Every job seeker has weak points!!!

May 5, 2008

Think. Is there a time when you were perfect? You have no flaws and there isn’t anyone on the face of this planet that wants to hire you. Well, let’s face the facts, that day will never come. We all have shortcomings in one way or another.

If it’s not that we are too young or old, have too much or not enough experience, or maybe it’s that we are too right – left brained for the position. Maybe we are over/under credentialed, certified, degreed, JD’ed or PHD’ed? The list is endless. Many years ago, feedback from my headhunter was I didn’t get a particular job because the interviewer felt my sleeves were too long. With perception being everything, I switched tailors immediately.

Take it from me, we all have weak points. Things we want to hide, enhance, sweep away, conceal, or erase. It’s OK, we are human and that is the beauty of it all. As human beings we can overcome these obstacles and prevail. You need to focus on your strengths and not your flaws.

Let’s do a little paradigm shift. Let’s take a look at the “Donald”, Donald Trump that is. He has received much press coverage over the years from a multitude of “experts” and “critics” alike. With all the “buzz” it would be quite easy for him to go hide on an island somewhere and live off his wealth. But that is not for what he is made of. The “Donald” wears his persona like a coat of armor, deflecting, interpreting, disputing or just ignoring what comes his way.

He himself has admitted to having “handicaps” or “weaknesses”. He does not let even a bad hair day get him down. Many have commented on his chose of hair styles but he doesn’t care. If fact, he has owned it, made fun of it and made it his own. Mr. Trump has been quoted as saying, “The image of success is important, but even more important is the ability to focus on solutions instead of on problems. That way, you’ll never be thinking like a loser and you probably won’t look like one either.” As a job seeker you also need to keep a successful image and the best way to do that is to not focus on what you think are your handicaps. Remember, people view you as you view yourself.

The “Donald” also pointed out that he tries “to learn from the past, but I plan for the future by focusing exclusively on the present. That’s where the fun is.” When you are interviewing you need to stay focused on the “Present”. You should also be having some fun with your search. This is your time to go out and get what you want for yourself. You can’t do anything about the past, but you can direct your future by operating in the present. The present is where it is happening and that is what will drive you to your next exciting employment opportunity.

Everyone has an opinion; you need to decide how you want to internalize. You can let them take you down or you can be the “Donald” by putting on your wonder women bracelets and deflecting the negative. Keep the positive and make your future. It’s right here and right now.

This article was written by Liane H. Gould, Manager of Career Services of the ACS Department of Career Management and Development.