Correcting the Notion of a Self-Correcting Career

January 28, 2010

A lot of people are angry and frustrated with their careers these days. They played the game and obeyed the rules, and still, they’ve been blindsided by circumstances that have battered their security and self-respect. They expected their career to be able to accommodate the situation, but it let them down. They thought their career was a self-correcting system, only to discover it needs a guiding hand.

There’s been a lot of commentary about the career prospects of lawyers these days, so let’s take a look at that profession as a case in point.

According to news reports, the number of people taking the law school entrance exam rose dramatically in 2009. Not surprisingly, law school applications did so, as well. At schools ranging from Washington University in St. Louis to the University of Iowa’s College of Law,
applications were up from 20 to over 40 percent. Having evaluated their prospects of success in other occupations (including their own), more and more people have apparently decided that becoming a lawyer is a smart idea.

The New York Times, however, featured a report that suggested exactly the opposite is true. It introduced Daniel Lukasik, an attorney who runs a Web-site called lawyers with Depression, and described what he has encountered:

“Mr. Lukasik recently received a call from a man who said he was a fifth-year associate in Manhattan who complained that he felt expendable even though he was a top performer. He said to me, ‘What more do I have to do?’” Mr. Lukasik recalled. “’I’m billing a large amount of hours, I’m a team player,’ but he said it’s very possible he might lose his job. And he was a Yale graduate, at a top-20 firm.”

The associate was paralyzed by his sense of betrayal—by the feeling he had that his occupation and the economy had let him down. He assumed—he believed—that because he was doing all the right things, the world of work would treat him right. He was simply unable to comprehend or accept that the workplace is not governed by physics-like laws of mathematical certainty and predictability. It is, instead, a frontier that cannot be manipulated into orderly behavior or preferred outcomes.

How Can You Deal With Such a Situation?

Careers are not self-correcting systems so they have to be guided into a state that provides you with security and satisfaction. And, career activism is a strategy for doing so. To become a career activist, however, most of us will have to change our outlook. In the case of the lawyer, for example, he would have to accept the responsibility for managing his own career. He must be willing to work as hard on his personal future as he does on his legal briefs for his employer.

He must stop worrying about his job security and start working at his career security. With that commitment to himself in place, he could take the first step toward independence in the workplace. He would set aside the time to ask and answer a frank question: Is his current profession—is the law—employing him at his talent or is he working, instead, to reach some idealized lifestyle? The fact that he is performing at a high level doesn’t ensure that he also loves what he is doing. And no lifestyle—regardless of how plush and comfortable it may be—can justify employment at what another lawyer called “an absolute torture shack.” There is no standard of living worth employment by water boarding, in the law or any other occupation.

If the law isn’t employing his talent, it is his job—his most important job—to find an occupation that will. If, on the other hand, the law does in fact enable him to express and experience his gift, then the next step in managing his career would be to assess, as accurately and candidly as he can, if he is performing at his peak. If he isn’t, it is also his job to fix those aspects of his work where he is falling short.

If he is doing his best work, then it is up to him to create options for himself. He should:

  • assess whether he is being fulfilled in a big Manhattan law firm and, if not, where he
    would be better able to pursue Happiness in his profession.
  • if working in a big firm is the right place for him, he must take steps to protect himself should his current employer be unable to sustain his employment. He must work to
    increase his visibility and stature among other potential employers to ensure that he,
    rather than his current firm, can determine the state of his employment.
  • if working in some other sphere of the legal profession—in a boutique firm, the
    government or the not-for-profit sector—is better aligned with his talent, he must initiate
    and develop a robust network of contacts that could facilitate his move into that kind of
    work at a time of his choosing.

Such career activism is already on the rise in the American workplace. A 2009 Executive Mobility Survey conducted by BlueSteps, an executive search firm, found that an astonishing 75 percent of currently employed executives describe themselves as likely or very likely to consider taking a new job in 2010, despite the lingering effects of the Great Recession. They don’t see themselves as anchored to their current employer and they are looking ahead to alternative employment opportunities that would better serve their career goals. Assuming they act on those plans, they will have corrected their careers.

Even with a recovery from the recession, the global marketplace is too unstable for us to return to the halcyon days of the past. Our careers, therefore, will continue to face disruptive threats and roadblocks. But those situations can defeat us only if we let them. Each of us has the capacity to correct the course of our career. We just have to make the commitment to do so.

Thanks for reading,


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Peter Weddle is the author of over two dozen employment-related books, including Recognizing Richard Rabbit, a fable of self-discovery for working adults, and Work Strong, Your Personal Career Fitness System.
© Copyright 2010 WEDDLE’s LLC. All Rights Reserved.

What Water Do You Live In?

January 27, 2010

I was recently invited to teach a workshop on Career Management for Scientists at the University of British Columbia.  I was thrilled to add an international aspect to my speaking career, and very much enjoyed the lovely scenery, warm weather, and friendly people there.

However, the most interesting thing to me happened after the workshop was over.  As we were taking a tour of the city, and seeing all the venues at which the Winter Olympics will be held, my host, Liz, was looking for a mailbox.  She had a letter to mail, and mentioned that they had been removing mailboxes in preparation for the Olympics (to prevent terrorist acts), and it was getting harder and harder to find a place to mail a letter.

When I asked her why she didn’t just put it in the mailbox in her house, for the letter carrier to pick up.  It turns out in Canada the letter carrier does not pick up outgoing mail.  It never occurred to me that other places did not have daily mail delivery and pick-up like I do.  I have since learned that in England they deliver twice a day, in Belgium it’s 5 times per week, but in neither of those countries do they have regular home pickup.

For each of us, it’s the way things are done, and we work within the systemic parameters.  Each system has advantages and disadvantages, and I’d love to how the different systems evolved…..

In thinking about this, I realized this was a good example of how different culture have different parameters, and I should not assume everyone else lives in a world like mine.  What is easy for me might be significantly harder for someone else, because of the system in which they live.  I will think about that next time I ask someone else to do something. Is there something in their environment, culture or background that makes this more difficult for them than I think it’s going to be?

Unless you really take the time to understand the other person’s environment, you don’t know what it’s like to be them.  And you may never understand what it’s really like unless you live in it for awhile.  This is why travel and international experience is so valuable – it lets you experience, just for a little while, other ways of doing things.

The flip side of this is what aspects of your life are not fixed by physical laws, but instead by culture, tradition and habit.  Remember, fish don’t know they’re living in water.  It’s just what’s always been around them, and the way things always are.  What is the “water” in your life?  If you open your eyes and look around, can you find new and better ways of doing things, as well as appreciating the differences in the way others do things?

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants. Lisa is a scientific communication consultant and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press (2007).

Workplace Stress – How to Reduce it for You and Your Employees

January 27, 2010

We all experience stress in our lives, but “there is no definition of stress that everyone agrees on, what is stressful for one person may be pleasurable or have little effect on others” (The American Institute of Stress) . While stress is highly subjective, all  experimental and clinical research confirms that the sense of having little or no control is always stressful.  Stress becomes dangerous when it “interferes with your ability to live a normal life over an extended period” (American Psychological Association).  It can cause you become tired, unable to concentrate, irritable, and can damage your physical health.

We all know that losing a job is stressful.  These days, having a job can be just as stressful.  Besides the worry about layoffs, there’s the added pressure of doing the work of others who have been let go. Specific stressors can include lack of control (particularly problematic), time pressure, deadlines, lack of communication, excessive travel, fear of layoffs, and so on. These stressors can cause  psychological (depression, anxiety) emotional (dissatisfaction, fatigue, tension), or mental (concentration and memory problems) symptoms. Stressors are highly personal.  What is stressful for one person may not be for another, and what is stressful one day may not be stressful the next.

According to The Leader’s Guide to Managing Workplace Stress, available from Profiles International, 62% of Americans say work has a significant impact on their stress levels, and 61% list heavy workloads a significant impact factor.

As chemists, we are always concerned with health and safety, but how often do you think about the effect of stress on your health?  And do you know how to reduce it?

First of all, learn stress management skills before things get too bad.  Build up your network of trusted peers, from whom you can get ideas and feedback on possible solutions.  Take control, by taking breaks, saying “no” to unreasonable demands, prioritizing, and stepping back for an objective look.  Recognize that when you are in the middle of a crisis, you may not be thinking at your best.  You can push yourself to work beyond capacity for a short period of time, but you cannot maintain that pace for long.

Next, admit that there are things that stress you.  Identify them, and eliminate as many as possible.  Easier said than done, right?  Perhaps your current major source of stress is a big project with a looming deadline.  It may be that your stress comes from one piece of the project that is outside your skill set, that you could trade that section to a colleague who has the needed skills.  Perhaps the deadline has some wiggle room, and some parts can be completed later.  Maybe other projects are preventing you from working on the big project, and you can either delegate them elsewhere, or prioritize them all and decide (with your supervisor) what is not going to get done.

And speaking of your supervisor, part of being manager is being responsible for assisting employees to be maximally productive, and part of that is reducing their stress.  Ideally, the employee will let their supervisor know when they are having problems, and will provide several constructive solutions to the problem.

If you are the manager, listen to your employees, and be open and supportive.  If there are non-work issues, you can’t solve them but can be sympathetic.  If there are work-related issues, identify positive changes that will reduce the undesirable stressors – sometimes as simple as giving the employee more control over their schedule, or prioritizing projects.  If you have to make major changes to a project or department, explain when and where changes are going to occur, and the reasons for them.

Everyone has stress, in both their personal and professional life.  It’s unavoidable, but also a good reason to have a variety of interests – a have a job you love, and also to have friends, family, volunteer work, and hobbies.  That way if you feel stressed in one aspect of your life, you can turn your attention to something completely different, that is going well.  Just seeing that there are things you can control, and realizing your world is bigger than the current problem, can be a great stress reliever in its own right.

See also APA Stress Tip Sheet

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants. Lisa is a scientific communication consultant and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press (2007).

National Ionic Bonding Month?

January 25, 2010

January is NOT National Ionic Bonding Month, but it IS National Mentoring Month.  And the relationship between a mentor and protégé is just like (well … sort of like) the relationship between an anion and a cation in an ionic bond. (You’ll have to use your “chemagination” to fully appreciate this metaphor.)

One member of the relationship—the mentor or anion—has something to give or share.  The mentor has plenty of experience, wisdom, and contacts.  The anion has plenty of electrons.  See where I’m going with this?

Mentoring is one of the building blocks of career success in chemistry, just as it is in almost every other area of life.  The website for National Mentoring Month  offers a long list of celebrities talking about who mentored them and helped them achieve success. 

It’s a shame they haven’t included a celebrity chemist or scientist on the list, because that would make it a more useful and inspirational list for you and me.  I’d love to know more about the mentors for some of today’s leading chemists. (If you want to nominate some celebrity-chemists and their mentors for such a list, just use the “Comment” link at the end of this article.)

One goal of National Mentoring Month is to encourage each of us to become a mentor in our community.  If you want to be a mentor in the chemistry community, there are plenty of ways to get involved.  Here are three places to start:

1)  Project SEED  

This American Chemical Society program, now in its 41st year, opens new doors for economically disadvantaged students to experience what it’s like to be a chemist. You’ll want to watch the short video about Project SEED, which can be found on the program’s website.  (When you watch the video, you might want to have a Kleenex or Kimwipe handy.  When I watched it, I displayed some lachrymal behavior.) If you want to mentor a Project Seed student, please contact ACS at or (202) 872-4380.

2)   MentorNet  

This organization, established in 1997, hosts an E-Mentoring Program that’s designed to meet the mentoring needs of young scientists and engineers—from college students to untenured faculty members.  Through careful assessment, protégés are matched with mentors who have work experience. Currently, mentors from more than 1200 companies participate in MentorNet’s programs.  One active chemistry-related company, 3M, has over 120 mentor volunteers involved.  Although the program’s original focus was on diversity issues in science and engineering, it’s open to both women and men of all backgrounds. To get involved, go to

3)   Articles and books about mentoring

Here are links to some publications you might find helpful:

Give mentoring a try. Whether you’re the mentor or protégé—the anion or the cation—you’ll find the relationship rewarding.  Whoever said that “mentors are the salt of the earth” truly understood the ionic nature of this important career tool.

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.

Want a Career in Sales? Guess What – You Already Have One

January 25, 2010

Recently, I had occasion to interview several scientists whose careers are technical sales.  They sell different types of products, have different territories and experiences, but they all agreed on several things.

Firstly, technical sales, or the selling of complex, scientific products, is different from the other types of sales jobs.  The potential customers are chemists and other scientists who are not interested in pretty, fluffy marketing pieces.  Instead, they want facts, technical details and specifications that will tell them how the product will work in the real world. It is not the hard sell of repeated advertising, but the softer sell based on earned trust and respect.

The successful technical salesperson takes the time to build a relationship with the customer, learning their needs and objectives.  Only then can they explain  what the product does, how it does it, and how it will solve the customer’s problems (or save them time or money).  Since many technical products are expensive and will be in use for a long time, the customer needs to feel confident that the relationship will continue with support after the sale as well.

You may be wondering what this has to do with you.  You don’t have a career in sales.  Or do you?

As you move through your career, seeking out new opportunities, what are you doing if not selling yourself?  You are building relationships with co-workers, colleagues and others, getting them to understand your strengths and abilities.  If you are successful, you get them to “buy” you as a valuable addition to their professional network and career, someone they can call on when the right opportunity comes along.

Adding a new person to a profession team is similar to buying a new product.  What/who is selected will depend on marketing (what you know about the product in advance, its reputation), and sales (what you learn during a close examination of the product in preparation for making a purchase).  If you manage your personal marketing well, the sales opportunities will come to you, and will be easy to close.

You will continually meet new people through out your career – it’s inevitable.  But how you connect with them, how well you market yourself to them, and how you maintain those connections over time (or don’t) is up to you.

Simple actions, such as forwarding news items that will be of interest to them,  can make a big impression, and gently remind them that you are out there, looking out for their interests.  By looking out for others, you will gently “sell” your own personal brand as a valuable professional, and ensure a future supply of “customers” for your own career.  As Tom Lane, ACS Immediate Past President, said at a recent Leadership Conference, “90% of any successful  transaction in life or business is selling yourself.”

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants. Lisa is a scientific communication consultant and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press (2007).

Science Writing as a Chemistry Mid-career Option

January 14, 2010

Science writing offers a rewarding career option for mid-career chemists interested in making a career transition. I myself began writing full-time in late 2004 after a thirty-year career as an industrial chemist. Science writing for the general public remains a rewarding career option today. The number of science writing jobs preparing articles for newspapers and consumer magazines are decreasing. However, science writing offers several other career options for chemists who are fast learners, write well and enjoy the writing process.

 Science writers may write articles targeted mostly at scientists and engineers and published in trade magazines. They also write corporate material such as press releases and manufacturing process instructions. Some write press releases for universities, professional science associations, trade associations and government agencies. Many large medical centers employ science writers to write press releases about medical advances achieved by their researchers. Science writers may also write articles, blogs and other documents for websites maintained by all these organizations. Another science writing job at many universities is helping faculty members write research grant proposals. Many science writers remain writers throughout their careers. Others eventually become editors. 

  Science writers may work as salaried, full-time employees of newspapers, general interest magazines, science magazines and trade magazines. Some work for broadcast media such as the major television networks, CNN and the Discovery Channel. Others work for membership societies for scientists, trade associations, companies and medical institutions. Some work for federal government agencies such as NASA, NIH and NSF.

 Rather than work for one of these organizations full-time, some science writers may work on a freelance (project-by-project) basis working for different organizations at the same time being paid when each project is completed. Freelance writers are running a business and must deal with important business concerns such as setting and negotiating fees, billing and collecting from clients, obtaining new business to replace completed products to maintain a steady income stream. They usually work out of a home office.

 Some science/engineering writers do much or all of their writing for corporations either as full-time employees or on a freelance basis. Work assignments include writing laboratory reports for researchers too busy to do so, editing reports and research papers for scientists for whom English is a second language and knowledge retention projects. Drug companies employ science writers to prepare regulatory documents for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

 Knowledge retention is a particularly fascinating field. The writer interviews scientists and engineers who being promoted, retiring, or leaving their employer for other reasons. These are much longer than exit interviews. Mine are a series of up to several two or three hour interviews. Usually but not always, the interview subjects have written their research reports. In these cases the conversation focuses on preparing successors to take over projects, what the researcher thinks could have done better and competitive threats to the employer’s technology.

 Teaching writing workshops are another option. My writing workshops for researchers for whom English is a second language are popular.

 Books that explore the craft of science writing include:

 Books that discuss how to conduct a freelance writing business include:

 The ASJA Guide to Freelance Writing: A Professional Guide to the Business, for Nonfiction Writers of All Experience Levels by Timothy Harper and Samuel G. Freedman

As a full-time writer, John Borchardt is the article of the ACS book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers” and more than 1,400 articles published in magazines, newspapers and online. He is also an ACS career consultant.

Hidden Work of a Different Kind

January 11, 2010

Once upon a time, I had a friend who wanted to sell his house.  He talked to a few realtors, and found one he liked.  The realtor came to his house, and she started writing up a contract between the two of them.  As she was nearing the end, she paused briefly to make a phone call.  Just about the time she finished printing the contract, and my friend signed it, the doorbell rang.  It was another couple with whom the realtor had been working, who were looking to buy a house.  They toured the home, made an offer, and closed the deal shortly thereafter.  My friend, while being thrilled that his house had sold for a great price so quickly, commented that the realtor obtained a quite hefty commission for “just a few minutes of work”.

I’m sure you have seen similar situations.  One of your colleagues is laid off, and has a new position lined up in a matter of a few days, while it takes another months of searching to get their first lead.  Is it simply a matter of luck, or is there something else going on?

In the case of the realtor, she had put in a lot of time before she ever met my friend.  She had met with numerous home buyers, found out what they were looking for, took them on tours of available houses and neighborhoods, and so on.  When my friend’s house came on the market, the realtor had a ready network of potential buyers, and called the ones whose needs most closely matched the new listing.  While it seemed like she did nothing but make a single phone call, the most important thing is that she knew WHO to call.

It’s a similar situation with the scientist who finds a new position after a very short search.  They are the ones who have laid the groundwork ahead of time, building up their professional network, reputation and expertise so it was ready when they needed something.  They had a number of colleagues who knew of their expertise and interests,  with whom they had built a relationship over a long period of time, by giving and asking for help with small isues.  These collegues/friends were then willing to not only keep an eye out for appropriate opportunities, but in some cases even create positions, for someone they knew and trusted.

Building a professional network is not something you can do suddenly in a few days when you need something, but an ongoing part of your professional life that you need to  build continuously throughout your professional life.  Within your company, prove your expertise and value by being a proactive, vital member of your project team. Make sure you understand the priorities of your organization and your supervisor, and that your actions and results are in line with them.  Constantly look for opportunities to add new skills and new knowledge to your repertoire. Outside your company, attend professional meetings and share your expertise and knowledge with others. Build relationships with other professionals, and be especially aware of opportunities to help others.

By putting in the time and effort, and building your network before you need it, you will increase the odds that you will be one of those people who can find your next position, or whatever else you need, with “only a few minutes work”.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants. Lisa is a scientific communication consultant and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press (2007).

Misery Loves Company – So Find Some Company, and Get Rid of the Misery

January 7, 2010

These days, everyone has probably been laid off at least once.  In fact, being between jobs is almost a normal state of affairs. If you’re in that boat, and since misery loves company, why not find a group of them and pool your resources?  Forming a job club will help your own career development in a number of ways.

  • By organizing a group, you become proactive and take control of your own career.
  • By setting a regular time and place to meet, you add structure and rigor to your job search.
  • By connecting with fellow professionals, you increase the number of people looking for opportunities that match your interests.
  • By helping others find jobs that match their interests, you increase your professional network.
  • By forcing yourself to articulate your goals, you clarify them.
  • By committing to your goals publicly, you are more likely to fulfill them.
  • By creating accountability and deadlines, you motivate yourself to continue to move forward.

If you were part of a large layoff, you have a ready-made group.  You can start a group informally – contact a few people and suggest meeting for coffee or at a local bookstore. To keep expenses down, meet at places where food can be dutch treat, or find a free room at a local college or business after hours.

Set a specific agenda – otherwise you run the risk of it turning into a whining session.  Have members take turns providing the program, or bring in outside speakers.  Use videos, discussion guides, and other publications from ACS Career Resources as conversation starters.  Many local human resources professionals will be happy to come provide information and advice, as long as they’re not asked to provide jobs.

As part of the agenda, allow members time to share their progress since the last meeting, current goals, and to receive feedback from other members.

Set some ground rules, such as constructive criticism only, respecting each other’s confidentiality requests, honesty, and a time limit on whining/complaining.

Communicate between meetings through an email list, ACS Network group, Facebook group, or other means.   Encourage posting of openings, tips, etc. to build relationships and keep the momentum going between meetings.

The biggest advantage of job clubs is that as you form connections, you all start looking out for each other.  You pass along leads of companies that are hiring, new professional areas that might match someone’s background, and so on.  You are not competing with each other, but are each trying to find the specific position that matches your knowledge, skills, abilities and values.  As neutral third parties, others in the job club can sometimes point out both opportunities and flaws that you might not have seen yourself.

By working together and pooling your resources, the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts.  Through support, encouragement and looking out for each other, you can all accomplish your career goals – together.

For more tips on starting a job club, see the ACS Starting a Job Club Checklist.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants. Lisa is a scientific communication consultant and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press (2007).