Cultural Differences Provide New Opportunities

September 28, 2009

With all the bad news around lately, it’s nice when something positive shows up.  Perhaps that’s why my interest was piqued when I saw an article entitled American Graduates Finding Jobs in China in the New York Times recently.

According to this article, there is a new wave of Americans moving to China to be part of the entrepreneurial boom there.  With lower unemployment (4.3% in rural areas in China, as compared to 9.4% in the United States) and a gross domestic product that rose 7.9% in the most recent quarter (as compared to the same period last year), China looks to be a land of great opportunity.

In reading through the article, and the individuals mentioned therein, several things struck me.  First, several people mentioned being hired for their “familiarity with Western modern dance”, their ability to “communicate with the Western world”, or their understanding of the social and cultural nuances of the West.

Almost all of these people are being hired to facilitate relationships between Chinese companies and Western markets.  Their knowledge of how things work in Western societies is their most important skill, and the particular domain expertise is secondary.  Building relationships between companies in different cultures can be difficult, and the people involved need to have intimate understanding of at least one of the cultures, and some immersion in the other culture as well.

Another thing mentioned in the article is that the educational systems in the two countries are different, and tend to reward different personality traits. These different educational styles, combined with societal influences, mean that people from different backgrounds tend to approach problems differently.  In recent years, we have realized that having people from different backgrounds on project teams is extremely helpful – everyone brings their own way of approaching the problem, as well as their specific technical expertise.

Since we now work with people around the world on a regular basis, we have learned to take advantage of these differences.  While others may have different ways of approaching problems, they just might see old problems in a new way.

Anyone who has a small child knows that one of their favorite questions to ask is “why?”. Why do you do this or that, and why do you do it that way, or in that order?  While sometimes there is an explanation, often the answer is “I don’t know” or “because that’s the way I’ve always done it”.  And upon reflection, you may realize there is a better, or different, way that would work just as well.

People not familiar with your culture can do the same thing for you.  By constantly asking “why”?, they make you think about what you are doing, and why you are doing it that way.  And sometimes, by making you stop to think about it, they just may make you come up with a better way to do something.

So even if you don’t want to move across the world to experience another culture, you can learn from people with different backgrounds – not only how they approach things, but maybe even how you do.

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

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Networking – It’s Not a Numbers Game

September 21, 2009

Back when I was in high school (and dinosaurs roamed the earth), everyone knew who the popular kids were.  They hung out together in groups, oozed self-confidence, and had a whole second layer of people who just wanted to be close to them, to be popular by association.

Today, high schoolers have a whole new way of tracking their popularity.  Online social networks such as MySpace and Facebook let you track how many “friends” you have.  By comparing your number to your friends’ numbers, you can tell how popular you are relative to them.  In some groups it becomes a contest, to see who can have the most “friends”.  In fact, there is now a place where you can buy up to 5,000 Facebook friends for $654.30, or up to 10,000 Facebook fans for $1167.30.

LinkedIn, the professional social networking site, has a similar connection-based operation.  You make “connections”, and can follow their status changes, discussions and other professional activities.  But does having a large number of connections on LinkedIn mean you have a vibrant, healthy professional network?  Or does it just mean you are good at asking for connections from everyone you run into?

One way to test this is by looking at your list of connections, and asking yourself “Would this person take my phone call?”  An even better question – “If I lost my job and called this person, would they merely sympathize, or would they go out of their way to look for leads and opportunities that matched my background and professional goals?

To turn it around, how many of the people in your professional network have you talked to lately?  How many have you done a favor for, or passed along a tidbit that you thought might help them out?  How many do make contact with on a regular basis?  Or do you look your list of connections and try to remember where you met them, and why you wanted to connect in the first place?

Connections, whether tracked online, in an electronic database, or in an old-fashioned paper Rolodex, go stale with time.  Online systems make it easier to keep current contact information, because they update their information when they change companies, but just because you know how to reach someone doesn’t mean you have a real connection with them.  After all, it’s not hard to find the phone number for the White House, but would President Obama take your call?  It takes time and effort to maintain real connections with others in your professional network, just like any other type of relationship.

NOW is the time to take a look at your network, solidify the relationships that are important to you, and build on your new, tentative connections.  Delete people whom you can’t even remember (they probably can’t remember you either).  For people you haven’t talked to in awhile, make contact.  Send an email, write a card, or pick up the phone.

People who have large, strong networks know who to call when they need help.  But that’s because they have prepared ahead of time, by building relationships and helping others out.  After all, they way to measure the strength of your network is not by how many people you know, but by how many people really think about you.

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


In Demand and Growing Green

September 14, 2009

CNN recently published a list of the Most Lucrative College Degrees. Twelve of the top paying 15 majors were various forms of engineering, and the remaining 3 were computer science, actuarial science, and construction management – all of which require a significant degree of math skills. According to their numbers, engineering and computer science make up only about 4% of all college graduates, while social science and history each comprise 16%. Simple supply and demand means that employers who need graduates with math skills will have to be willing to pay more for them.

The same is true of careers for chemists. In recent ACS salary surveys, the unemployment rate for chemists is usually about 65% of the national average unemployment rate. (However, long-term trend data suggests that this gap may be narrowing.)

While you certainly should not choose a major or a career based on what is currently most lucrative, it is encouraging to see that the math and science that we love is also a good place to make a living – better than average, in fact.

It is also encouraging to note that one of the few job sectors experiencing growth is green technologies, which according to the United Nations Environment Programme Green Jobs report, involves “work in agricultural, manufacturing, research and development, administrative, and service activities that contribute substantially to preserving or restoring environmental quality. Specifically, but not exclusively, this includes jobs that help to protect ecosystems and biodiversity; reduce energy, materials, and water consumption through high-efficiency strategies; de-carbonize the economy; and minimize or altogether avoid generation of all forms of waste and pollution.” Do any of these sound like they could use the input of chemists and chemical engineers?

So if you have these highly desired math and science skills, how do you go about moving your career in a green (or any other) direction?

Start by learning as much as you can about the new field. What terminology do they use? Are there certain certifications or educational requirements that are required for particular positions? What skills and abilities do they value, and how similar are they to ones you current have? Basically, you want to do background research on your possible new career, and do a gap analysis to determine the difference between what you have to offer, and what they need.

Next, figure out how to fill or bridge that gap. Are there books you can read, conferences you can attend, or classes you can take to obtain the missing knowledge? Can you use your current skills in another field to obtain a position related to your new field? Once you have a toehold in the new field, it will be much easier to move further into that field.

Figure out what accomplishments you have that will be relevant to the new field, and how to sell yourself. Companies are hiring you to do something, and the best way to prove that you can do it for them is by showing them how you have done just that (or something very close to that) already.

Finally, use the contacts you made while doing your initial research into the field to identify companies and departments that might have need of your particular skills.

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


Getting the Most from Social Networks

September 2, 2009

These days the career advice I hear most often is “go online and join a social network if you want to find a job”. While it is true that many people are finding jobs online through sites like LinkedIn, Facebook and the ACS network, it’s also true that just starting an account is not going to cause employers to beat down your door. To make the most of networking sites such as these, you must make them an integral part of your professional life, as well as a great online advertisement for YOU.

First, decide which ones you are going to join, and use. If you just set up an account and never visit the site again, you are wasting your time. Just like sending out resumes, determine where you are most likely to have success, then concentrate your efforts in that area. Surf around, or lurk on, various sites for a little while, and you’ll quickly figure out which are personal, which are professional, and which ones will work best for your particular purpose.

Once you decide to set up a professional profile on one of these sites, make sure it is a good one. Fill in as much information as possible about your current and past positions, career-related volunteer activities, knowledge, skills and abilities. Include all keywords that an employer might possibly search on, and a photo that represents the professional you. Include contact information – you don’t have to include your home address, but at least a reliable email address that you check and use regularly. In summary, make sure the entry is as complete and accurate as possible.

If possible, go beyond the basic profile. Include recommendations for and from peers and colleagues, links to additional information about your work, and join groups relevant to your professional interests. (Note that not all site have all these features.)

Next, start building your network. Find current and former colleagues, and connect with them. Don’t forget bosses, clients, and people you volunteer with outside of work. Watch the site for news of your connections connecting to others, and you’ll be surprised at how often you know the new person also. Send them an invitation to connect – but instead of using the boilerplate invitation, personalize it a little. Remind the person how they know you, and your acceptance rate will go up.

Don’t stop at just making connections. Update your status on a regular basis, letting people know what you are working on – without giving away any proprietary information, of course. Think about what new skills and responsibilities you want others to know about, and highlight those in your updates. Pose questions, and provide answers, in the discussion groups to which you belong. Over time, the information you post will provide followers with a picture of who you are, and what you can do. It becomes you personal brand, your online persona.

It goes without saying (but I’m going to say it anyway) that you should never post anything you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the New York Times.

Finally, don’t let your information go stale. Revisit the site on a regular basis and update your profile as your situation, or your professional responsibilities, change. Remember, this is your online resume, so you want to keep it as current as possible. After all, you never know when someone out there may need exactly what you have to offer – so make sure they can find you.

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