Who Sat Next to You in Chem 101?

June 29, 2009

When you’re building your professional network, it’s a good idea to go back to college—at least for a brief online visit.

Using the internet, I recently took a stroll down memory lane and was overwhelmed with the rich networking resources I found.  Both my undergraduate and graduate schools keep good track of alumni (I know because I receive fundraising phone calls and letters from them several times a year).  And the information is stored in a searchable database just a few clicks away.

The alumni directory database at my undergraduate college can be searched by major, class year, occupation, employer, and location.   To test it out, I searched all the chemistry majors who were on campus the same years I was and who now live in my metropolitan area.  I was surprised to learn that one of them lives just a few blocks away. In fact, I walk by his house nearly every Summer evening as I’m exercising. 

I next decided to search for all alums who work for Cargill, a major employer of scientists in my community.  The list was long, and as I scanned it I noticed two division presidents. They would be great contacts. Narrowing this search, I asked for all who had been chemistry majors.  I discovered that a chem major who graduated seven years after me is now a senior scientist in a research area I’d like to learn more about.

Even though I don’t personally know these individuals, I’m sure they will be helpful members of my network.  Because college was such an important and formative time in our lives, we’ll no doubt share many memories—of certain favorite professors, of the tasty cinnamon rolls at that coffee shop just off campus, and of the odd chorus of our college fight song (“Um! Yah! Yah!”).

My graduate university is 1400 miles away, but they have an active alumni group in my city.  I try to make it to an alumni event at least once a year, and they recently launched an excellent and informative website.  Even my high school has an alumni web site that’s been helpful for networking. And don’t forget to search on Classmates.com (it’s not free but the cost might be worth it to you).

Many colleges and college organizations (sororities and fraternities, clubs, athletic teams, and music groups) also maintain groups on social networking sites, such as LinkedIn, Facebook, or MySpace.  While updating my LinkedIn profile so that former classmates can find and contact me, I spent some time searching through groups affiliated with my alma maters.  I noticed, for example, that one of the research groups in the biochemistry department had established a LinkedIn group—an excellent idea. 

And it’s not just about professional networking.  As the memories came flooding back, I found myself wondering about certain long-forgotten classmates.  With the help of the alumni databases and Google, I located several long-lost friends and roommates.  I was especially surprised and delighted to get back in touch with one very special friend.  I remembered interests, skills, and dreams that I had forgotten or neglected.   These memories helped me place my current career situation—which, like yours, is fraught with financial worries, to-do lists, and looming deadlines—in a broader perspective. I found myself refreshed and energized.

And now I have that crazy college fight song stuck in my head.

* * * * *

Randy Wedin blogs from Wayzata, MN. After spending a decade working for the ACS and as a Congressional Science fellow, he launched a freelance science writing business, Wedin Communications (www.wedincommunications.com), in 1992. His blog, “The Alchemist in the Minivan” (www.alchemist.pro), looks at the intersection of science, parenting, and daily life.

Challenge Yourself

June 23, 2009

I spent the past weekend cabin camping with a boy scout troop.  The point of the trip was to take the boys on a challenge course.  They spent all day Saturday facing various physical obstacles, learning to work as a team, thinking creatively, and solving challenging problems.  For example, in one challenge they had to get all 7 members of their team over a 12 foot high wall, using only each other.  In another, they all had to walk across a 20’ log that was suspended several feet off the ground.

In the afternoon, they got into safety harnesses, climbed up a 8” wide ladder, and then walked across logs and wires 30 feet above the ground, with only a “ground buddy” yelling encouragement.  I am proud to say that every scout made it all the way across, with no one falling off or needing rescue.  While some did have more extreme coaching from the ground, every one made it all the way to the end, where they angel-repelled back down to the ground.

Did I mention this entire day was spent outdoors, with a temperature that never got above 30 degrees Fahrenheit?  And we had a light dusting of snow in the afternoon?

It was amazing to see teenage boys so nervous and cautious as they walked the high wires, then collapsing with relief as they reached the ground at last. They accomplished something they were not sure they could do, and you could see them swell with pride when they looked back up and realized what they had done.

That night, as I lay in my sleeping bag in the cabin, I thought about how well the smaller challenges on the ground had prepared the scouts for the larger ones on the high ropes.  By taking on the smaller challenges and successfully completing them, they built both their skill level and their confidence, so they were ready for the big challenge when it arrived. I had plenty of time to think, as the cold breeze made it hard to sleep. 

In the morning, I found out the cabin window near my cot had been cracked open, and that was the source of the cold breeze.  The irony was striking – here the scouts had risen above all sorts of physical challenges, but I couldn’t even be bothered to get out of my warm sleeping bag to find and eliminate the source of my own discomfort. 

Sometimes we are like that in our careers.  We get stuck in a rut, doing the same thing because that’s what we’ve always done, and it’s safe.  We may not like it, but can’t be bothered to step out of our comfort zone and learn a new skill, explore a different field, or try expanding our horizons – even when we know doing it would improve our situation in the long run. 

So, where are the “cold breezes” in your career?  What can you do to stop them?  Is there a class you can take, a new project you can ask to work on, or a meeting that you can attend to challenge yourself to learn something new – and perhaps make your own situation more comfortable in the long run. 

This article was written by scientific communication consultant Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants, and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press (2006).

How About Some Good News?

June 15, 2009

With all the bad news we’ve been hearing lately, I thought it was time for some good news. I looked around for some, and here’s what I was able to find.  

For those looking for a second career, or a way to keep busy with a little income after retirement, teaching has always been a viable option.  In fact, many places are now looking for more math and science teachers.  While teaching is certainly not for everyone, for those with the interest and aptitude it can be a great way to give back and share your love of science with the next generation.  

Other areas are hiring as well.  In this time of increasing globalization, Foreign Service Officers and junior officers are in demand, to work for the United States Government and help build self-sufficient governments in other parts of the world, in many cases by serving as a technical resource or transferring basic scientific knowledge from one area to another.
This has also been a Good Week for Green Jobs – those positions involved in supporting the solar, wind, biomass, hydro, hydrogen and fuel cell industries, many of which require scientific expertise and backgrounds. In fact, the newly formed Presidential Middle Class Task Force initially focused on how the creation of “green jobs” can help fuel the economic recovery and bolster the middle class. As more federal attention is paid to these issues, the number of opportunities can only be expected to increase.

If neither of those appeal to you, there may be a surge in interest for
Careers in Science Writing, Editing, Broadcasting, and Public Relations. While good communication skills are required for almost every job, in some cases you can make a career out of those skills alone.  

And finally, if you don’t get all the self-satisfaction you need from your day job, how about finding a second job that lets you explore other passions? Office Hand by Day; Rock Diva by Night talks about several people who get additional satisfaction, and a little extra money, by indulging their passions. For example, if your passion is movies, how about combining that with your scientific expertise and look into the Science & Entertainment Exchange, a program of the National Academy of Sciences to provide “entertainment industry professionals with access to top scientists and engineers to help bring the reality of cutting-edge science to creative and engaging storylines”.

Having an interesting second job or hobby can also help when you get that Interview Question:  What do you do in your spare time? Giving some thought beforehand to what you have learned from your hobbies, or how they are related to the job for which you are applying, can help you stand out from the crowd of applicants who “watch TV”.

Finally, if you are young and looking to get experience in a new area, a something new on the horizon is Internships for Sale. While you will hopefully be able to gain experience without having to pay for it, it’s nice to know that there is a fallback option.

This article was written by scientific communication consultant Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants, and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press (2006).

Clean Up Those Cards

June 8, 2009

If you are anything like me, you came home from the recent ACS meeting with a stack of business cards collected over the week in Salt Lake City. With some of them, just glancing at the card instantly brought up the memory of who they represented, where I had met them and what we talked about. With others, I had been smart enough to jot a few words on the back of the card that reminded me of the person.

But once you have the stack of cards back home, what do you do with them?

You could leave them in a pile on your desk, collecting dust, until they get “accidentally” thrown away. You could put them in a drawer, or a other filing system, and trust that you will remember where to find the card for the guy you talked to at the YCC party, who worked for that instrument company…..what was its name?

Or, you could enter the data into your addresss book. Enter not only the name, company, and contact info, but in a comment field include where you met them (“ACS Spring 2009 SLC”, for example), what you talked about, and anything special you learned about that person. Their work area, hobbies, kids, volunteer role with ACS, or anything else you learned about them during your interaction. All those little details that you recall so easily now will fade with time, so the sooner you get them down on paper (or in silicon), the better.

Several of the cards I have collected at this meeting are memorable in their own right. I noticed many more are starting to use color, which does make the cards look more professional and less homemade. As the cost of color printing, and printing in general, continues to decline, this is going to become almost a requirement. One of the cards had a list on the back of “5 Things To Remember About Christin” – a great way for her to summarize what makes her stand out from every other chemistry graduate student at the meeting. Another card was from a chemist/author, and included a picture of the cover of his book. Instantly recognizable, very memorable, and I knew exactly what his interests were by the title of the book.

Now might be a good time to take a few minutes and critically evaluate your own business cards, and make sure they reflect the image you want to convey.

Does your name stand out?

Are the fonts clean and large enough to read?

Is there a professional logo or image?

Is there enough white space for both layout clarity and for the recipient to write notes?

Does the card feel nice, with a high quality, thick paper?

Would judicious use of color or an image make it stand out more?

Whether it’s your card or someone else’s, the information on it only matters if it is in a usable format. Suppose in a few months you meet someone and they mention they are thinking about making a career change into public policy. Will you be able to do a quick search of your electronic rolodex and and pull out the name of the person you met at the last ACS national meeting who has done just that, and might be able to provide advice for your new contact? Or will you have to look at the pile of dusty cards on your desk and say “I think I might know someone ….”

This article was written by scientific communication consultant Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants, and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press (2006).