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

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.


4 Responses to Self Chromatography: Analyzing Your Interests, Skills, and Personality Traits

  1. Excellent post! I agree, self-analysis is hard (especially for scientists who are used to dealing with hard numbers and facts). The Bolles book and workbook can be a great place to start figuring out what you want to be when you grow up – no matter how old you are.

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