Doing Your Due Diligence

October 26, 2009

In a competitive job market, you need to do everything you can to make yourself stand out from other candidates. Especially when you get to the interview stage, you know you are competing against other candidates that are also highly qualified.

So in preparation for the interview, you take your suit to the cleaners, arrange transportation and lodging (if needed), and practice, practice, practice your research presentation.

You’ve heard that you should do some research on the company, so you spend an hour or so looking through their web site, clicking semi-randomly on pages and links that may be of interest.  You don’t learn much, but at least you feel good that you did it.  Right?

I often ask hiring managers what candidates should do that most of them don’t do.  Almost every time, the answer is “do their homework on the company before the interview”.  I’ve had some tell me they want the candidate to know everything that’s on the company web site, and at least one thing that is NOT on the company’s web site.

I was reviewing some industry analysis reports from the financial world today, and it struck me that the questions they proposed for use in evaluating companies for monetary investment were very similar to the ones you might want to ask before a job interview.

  • The first thing you want to research is their products – What specifically do they sell?   (For example, pharmaceutical products can be prescription or over the counter, innovator or generic, and so on)?  What do they currently have on the market, and what is in development?  A company’s products, and its pipeline of future products, are its lifeblood.  A solid pipeline of products is essential for success.
  • Have their past research and development efforts been successful?  What portion of their operating revenues are spent on R&D?  Is that part of the company growing or shrinking?  Research and development are key to finding those new products to fill the pipeline.
  • Have they been involved in any recent mergers, acquisitions, or other partnerships?  While these may increase stock prices, in the short-term they can have a negative impact on employee morale, internal efficiency, and cause customer confusion.  You may not want to discuss this with the interviewer, but you certainly want to keep your eyes and ears open during the day for possible problems.
  • What does their international profile look like?  Have they just opened new facilities overseas?  Have they closed local facilities?  This may indicate long-term stability of the facility at which you are being offered a position.
  • What do their financial statements, or SEC filings, say about their sales growth, profit margins, earnings…?  Are they making capital investments, or maintaining the status quo?  This is further evidence of the company’s long-term strategy and success.
  • What is the background of the company’s managers? You want strong, capable leadership that is knowledgeable in the industry.
  • With whom will you be interviewing, and working? You can ask for a copy of the interview schedule in advance (it’s usually available if you ask), then use Google and LinkedIn and scientific literature searches to learn about their background, interests and experiences.  The more you know about your interviewers, the better questions you can ask, and the more likely you are to connect with them.
  • What is the corporate culture?  If you’re lucky, they publish it right on their web site like Merck does. To ensure long-term satisfaction, you want to work in a corporate culture that is consistent with your values. Values you might want to look for include commitment to innovation, quality, excellence, professionalism, teamwork, diversity, continual improvement, organizational learning, and so on.

Some of these questions you have probably  looked into before you applied for the position (hopefully!).  However, just before the interview is when you really want to make sure you have all the information you need to ask intelligent, probing questions that will allow both you and the company to evaluate your fit for their needs.

The financial/investment community is expert at determining the value of companies, and conducting extensive research and due diligence on specific companies and industries. Their systematic approach to company valuation is exactly what you do before you invest in a company – either with your money, or  with your time by seeking a job there.

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). She blogs on Career Development for Scientists.

What Are The Chickens in Your Life?

October 19, 2009

I recently heard a great story from a friend.  Seems he once had a summer job working on a farm, where some people had the job of moving live chickens from one place to another.  They had to collect 4 live chickens, 2 under each arm, and take them from one place to another.  My friend said that quite often he’d watch someone who got ahold of 4 chickens, started to move them, and then lost control of one chicken and it got away.  In almost every case, they would start chasing after the one they dropped, and in the process they almost always lost control of the other three.  They ended up with no chickens at all, starting all over again.

I have seen people do something similar during the course of their career path.  They have a job they enjoy, that matches their lifestyle and other values, and overall suits them quite well. Then something changes, and the job now has some parts that are not quite so much fun.  In some cases it’s a major change, like re-locating across the country, in other cases it might be relatively minor like now having to write extra reports.  Their first reaction is to jump ship, and start looking for a new position

By just focusing on that one new bad thing, they can lose sight of how good the fit is overall.  In some cases, they go so far as to leave that job for a new one, that may not be as good of a fit overall.  After the initial excitement of the new job wears off, they realize some of that is not as much fun as they thought, and they are off on the hunt again.

It does not have to be this way.  I don’t know anyone who loves every aspect of their job, but most of us realize that it’s the overall fit that is most important.  If we are lucky enough to enjoy what we do on a daily basis, and feel proud of our contributions on a regular basis, we can put up with a little unpleasantness every now and then.

So the next time there is a sudden change at work, stop and think before you react.  Evaluate if this is really a bad thing in the long run, or might it be an opportunity for you to learn a new skill, or grow in another way.  If not, then you can make a change.  If it is, you may find yourself not only with the four chickens you started with, but with something even better.

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).  She blogs on Career Development for Scientists.

Self Chromatography: Analyzing Your Interests, Skills, and Personality Traits

October 12, 2009

During the very stimulating “Industry Forum” session in February with former ACS President William Carroll, the following exchange took place. (If you want to check out the entire conversation, which I highly recommend, it’s available as an mp3 audio file or text transcript.)

* * *

Joe Alper (host): Let me ask you a question that came in from one of our web-based participants, who’s trying to decide which area of chemistry she wants to pursue.  She’s trying to decide between the oil energy sector and the ag sector, and she’s wondering, in your crystal ball, if you see which one of these might have better prospects in the years ahead?

Dr. William Carroll: I have to tell you the biggest disservice that I could do for that questioner would be to pick one of those two and tell her to go there.  And the reason is because… there are actually two reasons:

  • Chasing a hot sector makes about as much sense as chasing the hot number on a roulette wheel. 
  • The real question that you have to ask yourself is, “What do you like?  What kind of chemistry turns you on?”

Every sector will have good times and bad times, but you’re going to have a career 40 years.  I can tell you that there’s nothing worse than waking up at the age of 45 and discovering that you picked the wrong career, partially because you went after it for reasons other than your love of the work that you were doing. The world will always pay for the best in the field, and you stand a better chance of being the best in a field you love.  So my response is, interview, study, look at the work that’s being done and pick what turns you on.  And, remember, it’s probably not the last career choice you’re ever going to make and you can make changes.

Bill Carroll’s question—“What do you like?”—is absolutely essential.  And it sounds so simple…

If you’re anything like me, however, you’ve found that this simple question can be difficult to answer.  I’m not that good at accurately reading my own mind, heart, and gut.  What I’d really like is a printout with a careful and thorough quantitative analysis of … well, of me.  I want answers that are precise, accurate, and repeatable, with very small standard deviations. 

If this were an analytical chemistry experiment, I’d dissolve myself in a solvent, pour myself into the top of a chromatography column, and collect all the different fractions that emerge.  Then I’d use the most reliable analytical techniques—from IR and NMR to mass spec and electrophoresis—to identify and quantify my interests, passions, dislikes, values, strengths, weaknesses, skills, and personality traits.

Armed with these results, I’d then feel much more confident about answering Bill Carroll’s question.

When I went through this self-analysis process for the first time, I was trying to decide which direction to head with my career after grad school.  Even after using Chem Abstracts to thoroughly search the scientific literature, I still couldn’t find the type of chromatography column that would help me quantify the self-discovery process.  

But I did find a book that was very helpful—What Color is Your Parachute? by Richard Nelson Bolles. In particular, the book gave me some exercises, quizzes, and activities that jump-started my self assessment.

This best-selling classic has been updated, revised, and expanded annually since the first edition was published in 1972.   I think it’s even more useful and accessible today, with an especially helpful website (  At this website, you’ll find links to a number of resources that will get you started on your self-analysis, from interest inventories (including vocational tests based on Holland’s Theory of Career Choice) to transferable skills tests (including a test called the “Motivated Skills Test”) to personality tests (including Myers-Briggs-type tests and the Enneagram).

Time to slip into your lab coat, put on your safety glasses, and get started on your experiment of self analysis.  The analytical laboratory is just a click away.

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 (, in 1992.  His blog, “The Alchemist in the Minivan” (, looks at the intersection of science, parenting, and daily life.


The State of Nanotechnology

October 5, 2009

Nanotechnology continues to make news as a bright spot for business growth—and jobs. The National Science Foundation, for example, has forecast that the global market for nanotechnology products and services will balloon to more than $1 trillion by 2015 and will employ some 2 million people.

 Some groups pooh-pooh such figures, saying they are waaaay out of proportion with reality. (See Yet even most skeptics allow that sooner or later, nanotechnologies will transform many aspects of our lives.

How to get in on the action?

 A good place to start is to check out what states and regional groups are doing to support nanoresearch and industrialization and to provide information to entrepreneurs and employees. You may want to explore the NSF’s National Nanotechnology Initiative, which, among other things, provides a list of links to state and regional programs. (See

 You’ll read about what’s going on in North Carolina, where at least 69 companies already are working with nanotechnology. (See The companies range from small startups using nanotechnology as a core part of their manufacturing processes and services to large firms using nanotechnology as part of their broader operations. Be sure to check out how one company has developed new nanotech coatings for critical car engine parts that are allowing NASCAR racers to boost their horsepower. (See

 In the Northeast, the Massachusetts Nanotechnology Initiative seeks to encourage research, foster commercial ventures, and create new jobs by harnessing the state’s university and industrial base of nanoscale science and engineering. (See For a good example of university-industry collaboration, look at MIT’s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, which is working with the U.S. Army and several industrial partners—including Raytheon, DuPont, and Partners Healthcare—to use nanotechnology to give the nation’s fighting forces what they need to be lighter, faster, more versatile, and more easily deployable on short notice. (See

 On the Left Coast, several groups are nanofocused. The California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA is a research center devoted to encouraging university collaboration with industry with an eye on rapid commercialization of discoveries in nanosystems. (See Some of the institute’s efforts were featured in the July 15, 2009, New York Times. (See

 Among other activities, the institute sponsors a series of “incubator” seminars. The latest seminar, for example, focused on giving entrepreneurs a look at what information technology may be useful in a startup company, how to avoid the risks associated with such technology, and how to keep costs in line with that bane of most fledgling companies—limited funding.

 In the Northwest, the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute hosts a variety of programs—in research, industrial collaboration, and educational outreach—to put nanotechnology to work. (See In one nanoproject, University of Oregon chemistry professor Darren Johnson and Portland-based Crystal Clear Technologies are developing a water filter that uses nanoparticles to cleanse industrial wastewater while harvesting valuable metals trapped in the water.

 In an announcement for a recent “micro-nano breakthrough conference,” the institute captured a common spirit in the field: “In these turbulent economic times, one thing remains unchanged: innovation-driven productivity advances are the only basis for prosperous, high-wage regional economies, and commercialized scientific research is the best and most durable source of innovation advantage.”

 Many of these Web sites offer assistance to fledgling entrepreneurs and information about which firms and universities in their areas are beefing up manufacturing or research—and thus may be adding to the job supply.

 Nanobits of food for thought.

 — Tom Burroughs is a freelance writer based in Chapel Hill, N.C.