Career Advice Nuggets on the Web

July 28, 2008

When I started contributing this blog a few months ago, I did what was intended to be a one-time Google search to see what bloggers were offering regarding career advice. I was astonished by the fact that there were over 1 million hits on “career advice blogs” and nearly 8 million hits on “career advice,” but I was and continue to be surprised by the fact that among the great heaps of drivel – “get a job that you like,” offered one oh-too-serious blogger; “remember to dress for success,” offered another – there are a few nuggets that I found. I thought I’d pass along some of my favorites.’s career advice blog ( is generally excellent, as you might expect from the Web’s leading job search Web site. One recent entry (July 11, 2008), “The Right Way to Leave a Job,” struck a cord because of this sentence:

“The way you leave a company says as much about your caracter and the kind of employee you are than all of the work you did during your time with the organization.”


If you’ve ever been to a networking type function and find that the next day you can’t remember if Bob from DuPont was the guy who liked to fish or if was Linda from Dow, the May 22 entry on the same blog offers some great advice that I’m going to use in the future.


Never having had a pointy-haired boss, I sometimes find Dilbert a little unbelievable, but Scott Adams offered some great career advice on the Dilbert blog last June ( In particular, this nugget stayed with me:

“If you want an average successful life, it doesn’t take much planning. Just stay out of trouble, go to school, and apply for jobs you might like. But if you want something extraordinary, you have two paths:

1. Become the best at one specific thing.
2. Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things.”

For me, I was better than most people at learning and understanding science (but not at working in the lab) and at writing. What are your two great skills and how can you use them to craft an interesting and rewarding career?


For the ultra-competitive among you, the Brazen Careerist blog offers this tongue-in-cheek advice (

“Now you can blame your co-worker for your tanking career and science will support you: A candy dish at work can make you fat. But a candy dish that is more than 6 1/2 feet away from you will be less tempting. Measure your co-worker’s dish. If it’s too close, move it every morning before she gets in. She’ll never notice.”


And finally, I’d like to point you to a new blog that I stumbled on recently. The Alternative Scientist blog ( discusses alternative and mainline career options for scientists. The July 20 posting, for example, presents a great description of the types of jobs available in the pharmaceutical industry, while the July 15 posting talks about the basic of networking, a foreign concept to many of us. Check it out.


This article was written by Joe Alper, a freelance science writer, technology analyst, and admitted hardcore Web searcher in Louisville, CO.



If you would like to be a contributor, please email Liane Gould at


Flexibility Key to Good Health and Career

July 21, 2008

Last week, my doctor told me that I needed to work on my flexibility. I’ve heard that before – I’m a life-long jock who’s nonetheless always had a hard time touching my toes – and I’ll probably dust off my yoga tapes and work at it a little. But I long ago accepted the fact that my body just isn’t that flexible.


In contrast, I’ve always known that when it comes to work and school, and life in general, I’m a pretty flexible guy. In fact, if there any molecular biologists out there searching for the “career flexibility” gene, you might want to look at my dad’s family. I come from a long line of career-flexible individuals.


My dad’s parents were farmers, or peasants as they called them back then in rural Russia.  When they emigrated to the U.S. at the turn of the 20th Century, there’s wasn’t much call for peasants here, so my grandparents made a career change and became shopkeepers. My dad followed suit. He got his B.S. in chemistry after serving in the Army in World War II, and when he couldn’t find a job at a chemical company – anti-Semitism was rampant in the industry in those days – he made a career change and became a salesman. Later, he switched careers again, become a social worker. You’ve got to be flexible in your approach to work, my dad told me then.


That advice served me well. In 1978, when I was finishing graduate school, science jobs were in short supply. Fellow grad students who were far more motivated than I was were having a tough time landing a good job, and the prospect of being a poorly-paid lab technician in an academic lab didn’t sit well with me. But a chance conversation opened my eyes to a relatively new profession – science writing – that would let me use my hard-earned chemistry background in a completely different way. With no trepidation at all, I took that fork in the road and thus was born my career explaining chemistry and other areas of science to the masses.


Flexibility was the key then, and it remains the key in my professional life. Want to write about child psychology? Sure, even though my only exposure to psychology was in a pass-fail class I took my last semester of college. How about authoring a light-hearted column for a women’s health and beauty magazine? Okay, how hard can that be? (Very, actually.) Would you take a job as head of corporate communications for a biotech company? Sure, though I now refer to that experience as a three-year brain spasm. How about blogging? Can you develop a program in nanotechnology for us? Want to do podcast? Yes, yes, and yes. Why not!


Being flexible when it comes to job opportunities can be scary, no doubt about it, but it can also open doors that you don’t even know exist. At a time when job security is a thing of the past, flexibility can make a big difference. And when a non-linear opportunity arises, keep one thing in mind – you’re smart, you have a well-trained brain. If you can master chemistry, you can learn most anything.


Confidence is the key to being flexible. Be confident in your ability to learn and translate knowledge into action. Your career can only benefit.


This article was written by Joe Alper, a freelance science writer and technology analyst in Louisville, CO, who won two National Awards for Magazine Writing from the American Psychological Association after learning to write about psychology.


Being “The Best” Isn’t Always The Best Recipe for Success

July 14, 2008

Albert Einstein. Pablo Picasso. Willie Mays. Michael Jordon. Viswanathan Anand. Most every Nobel Laureate. These luminaries succeeded in their respective fields by being the best at something.


But as I keep telling my 13-year-old, being the best is not necessarily the best path to success.


I wouldn’t say that I’ve ever been the best at anything, but most everyone I know says I’ve had a very successful career at a science writer. Certainly, I’ve managed to thrive in my adopted career despite the ups and downs of the journalism business, even as long-time colleagues – many better writers than I’ll ever be – have been forced to change professions as magazines and newspapers went out of business or dramatically pared their staffs. What’s helped me is that I’m very good at a writing for a wide variety of media and for a variety of audiences.


I have a cousin who’s a synthetic organic chemist, and he’s been at one large chemical company over 30 years now. Every time his company announces another reorganization or wave of layoffs, I expect to hear that he’s looking for a job, but he’s never the one to receive a pink slip. Why? He’s not the best synthetic organic chemist in the world, or even in his company, but he’s very good at it, and he’s demonstrated that his knowledge is general enough that he can adapt to any new project thrown his way.


My wife, known in her field as the Monoclonal Queen, was certainly one of the best at making monoclonal antibodies to virtually any protein, but that only helped her career to a limited extent. When her small startup merged with a larger biotech company, which was subsequently bought by an even bigger one, her skills were less valued. Eventually, being the best at making monoclonal antibodies was something she could be proud of, but it ended up doing nothing for her career prospects with her new bosses. So much for being the best.


I have a friend who was among the best glycobiologists around when we were finishing graduate school. Fat lot of good it did him, because nobody at the time gave a hoot about glycobiology, and for a while it looked as if he was destined to be a career postdoc. What saved his career was that with each postdoc position he took, he became good at another area of biochemistry, and eventually, he was well-rounded enough to secure a faculty position. Of course today, glycobiology is a hot field and my friend’s expertise there serves his well now, but what’s really distinguished his career to far is his emphasis on chemistry and cell biology approaches – things at which he’s good, but not the best – to the field of glycobiology.


The lesson here, I think, is not to stop trying to be the best – I would never discourage anyone from that goal. Instead, I advise students that while striving to be the best that they not forget to become very good at more than one thing. If your very good at being a chemist and very good at communicating what you do – or very good at understanding the business or legal side of the research world – you’ll increase your odds of career success.


This article was written by Joe Alper, a freelance science writer and technology analyst in Louisville, CO.  

What Does My Dog Have To Do With Anything?

July 7, 2008

I was interviewing recently with a potential new client when one of the senior staff in the room asked me, “What would you do if you’re dog starting talking to you?” The serious look on my inquisitor’s face told me she expected a real response, so I answered, “Ask her why she keeps chewing on my sandals.”

My answer must have been satisfactory, because I got the assignment, but I left that interview wondering what the point was of that off-the-wall question. I asked a few of my friends if they’d ever been asked something like that, and they all looked at me as if I’d been hidden away in a cave for 20 years. One buddy, who’s been in senior management at a biotech firm for almost a decade, explained the logic to me. “It’s one way we assess how well a candidate can think on their feet.”

With the proliferation of Web resources available to help job seekers prepare themselves for interviews, employers need to work harder to sort the wheat from the chaff among job candidates. Tricky questions are one approach to getting beyond canned answers in order to gain some insights into a job candidate’s creativity and ability to handle stress.

Given that odd-ball questions can be about virtually anything, the best advice for dealing with them is to relax, and to take a moment to think about the question. Remember, there’s no right answer to “What would I find in your refrigerator?” or “If you couldn’t be a chemist, what other profession would you like to pursue?” These questions are supposed to test your ability to think, so take a few moments before responding.

And don’t panic. Look thoughtful. Smile. Nod in that, “Hmmm, that’s a good question” way.

Years ago, in high school, I was a candidate for a job on our school radio station. One of the seniors asked me, “How do you deal with pressure?” I couldn’t for the life of me think of a good answer, so in an attempt to stall for a little time, I calmly asked, “You mean, like this situation?” That, it turns out, was the best answer I could have come up with – I was given the position right then.

In fact, many veteran interviewers say that a good strategy for answering odd questions is to let your mind go and reply with an odd or silly answer, one that preferably demonstrates your ability to think out of the box. And remember that employers are not looking for pat answers, but responses that demonstrate you can communicate your thoughts, that you are intelligent, that you have self-confidence, and that you can adapt when thrown a curve.

This article was written by Joe Alper, a freelance science writer and technology analyst in Louisville, CO.