The Background on Background Checks

June 28, 2010

I’ve been a freelancer for almost 20 years, but every once in a while I have a client who wants me to work as an employee.  Recently, I was surprised to learn that authorizing them to conduct a background check was now a standard requirement for employment.

Pre-employment background checks have become an increasingly common, especially since September 11, 2001, and are now accepted as a matter of course by both employers and candidates.  Over time, background checks have expanded to cover not only more types of positions, but to delve more deeply into the candidates background. Employers use them to mitigate the risk of bad hires, by proving they have done their due diligence.

A recent survey showed that 92% of companies surveyed performed background checks of some sort, and their use is increasing.  Most companies consider criminal record checks and employment verification mandatory, with educational verification as high priority checks as well.  Credit checks are less important, and are more sensitive, especially as the bad economy has left many people with shaky credit.  However, credit checks are still used as an indication of level of responsibility, as well as to verify former addresses and other information.

The other common background checks include work history and credential verification, credit report, and drug screening. Certain things are and are not allowed by US law.

The most common disqualifying factors involve alcohol, drugs and financial irresponsibility.

Since these checks are time-consuming and expensive, they are generally conducted at the final stage of the hiring process, as a condition of an offer of employment.

If something does turn up, the company will consider a number of factors before making a decision to rescind an offer.  These can include the seriousness of the offense, how long ago it occurred, if you followed through on the orders of the court (classes, community service), relevance to the new position, repeat offenses, and so on.  A single, minor offense a long time ago may not be a big deal, but a repeating pattern of serious offenses may cause an offer to be rescinded.

The safest thing, of course, is to never do anything you wouldn’t want an employer to know about.  However, if you think you have a problem, you can do something about it.  Obtain your own credit report, motor vehicle report, personnel file, and so on, and clear up any inaccuracies.  In some cases, you can hire a lawyer and have a criminal record expunged, which can take months but will not remove information from newspaper reports or other non-court sources.

In my case, I requested a copy of the company’s background check, which went back to places I had lived over 18 years ago.  I was pleased to learn that I have “no criminal results reported” and am not a sex offender or FBI fugitive.  However, the Ph.D. field reported by the university was slightly different from what I have had on my resume all these years.  It didn’t keep me from getting hired, but did bring home to me just how complete these background checks are.

For more information on your rights regarding background checks as a job seeker, check out the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse and other sources.

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).

Change Your Career in Seven Easy Steps

June 15, 2010

I started out my career as an organic chemist, transitioned into computational chemistry, moved through several consulting phases and currently am a freelance technical editor with expertise in scientific career development.  Some of these changes I sought out, others I didn’t even realize were happening until they were completed.  In looking back on my own transitions, as well as those of other scientists, I have identified several steps that anyone can take to move their career in a new direction, and try out a new field.

So, here are Lisa’s Practical Steps to Change Your Professional Image.

1. Identify and join the professional society that covers the new discipline.

There are professional societies out there for every career, and in many cases more than one.  Joining one shows you are serious about the new field, and signing up for their mailing lists will provide lots of good information about the new area.

2. Earn a certification or take some classes.

This allows you to build your credibility, learn the vocabulary of your new field, make connections with other professionals, and delve in more deeply to find out which aspects of the field are most interesting and relevant to your future career path.  It shows potential employers you are serious about moving into this new field.

3. Attend local chapter meetings of the professional society, or start a local chapter if one does not exist.

This is a great way to find out the most current information in the field, from those who are doing it on a regular basis, as well as what is going on in your local area.  If no chapter exists in your area, what better reason to contact the local experts than that you are organizing a meeting on a topic of interest to them?

4. Make a conscious effort to expand your network.

Actively seek out people who are working in your new field.  Invite them to coffee or lunch, or ask if you can call and talk to them for 15 minutes.  Ask them how they got into the field, how they recommend someone with your background make the transition, and what they wish they had known when they got started.

5. Get some hands-on experience.

If you can’t find paying work in your new field, volunteer to take on a small project for one of your contacts in that field.  Again, this will give you a real accomplishment to put on your resume, serving as proof of your expertise and interest in the new area.

6. Practice presenting yourself.

It is important to think of yourself not as “an organic chemist who can do some computations”, but as a computational chemist.  You must see yourself in the new role, and present yourself that way to others.  Remember that this is next stage in your career growth, and not a failure or abandonment of your former career.

7. Rethink your references.

In addition to re-writing your resume to emphasize your skills in the new field, you also need to identify people who can speak about your expertise and accomplishments in the new area.  Now that you have transformed yourself, you need to make sure others see you that way too.

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).

Second Careers in Teaching – An Interview with Jennifer Anastasoff

June 10, 2010

Jennifer Anastasoff is the founding CEO of EnCorps and its current President.  Her career has been involved in engaging the corporate sector in pro bono projects as well as in education.  EnCorps was founded in 2007 to provide an alternative pathway for second career professionals to becoming math and science teachers in a California public middle or high school.
This audio blog entry is the recording of a conversation I had with her on May 19th.

– Lisa Balbes

Download the mp3 fileDownload the transcript

Lisa Balbes: “Our guest today is Jennifer Anastasoff, the founding CEO of EnCorps and its current President.  Ms. Anastasoff has a Master’s Degree in Education Policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.  Her career has been involved in engaging the corporate sector in pro bono projects as well as in education.  EnCorps was founded in 2007 to provide an alternative pathway for second career professionals to becoming math and science teachers in a California public middle or high school.

Jennifer, thank you for being here today.

Jennifer Anastasoff: Oh, thank you.

Lisa Balbes: Okay.  Can you start by telling us exactly what EnCorps does?

Jennifer Anastasoff: Absolutely.  What we do is, EnCorps helps individuals who are interested in teaching, who have thought about changing careers from chemistry, becoming—from being chemists to—or scientists to becoming second career teachers, specifically teaching math or science.  And even more so, our goal is not to just get folks directly into teaching immediately, but to help those who maybe are interested in teaching but haven’t, really, a sense of how they can find out what it means to teach, to help them to understand what it means to be a teacher early on, to become tutors, to become guest teachers, to work with students so that, essentially, we’re like their friend in education.  After 10, 20, 30 years in chemistry, you have someone to reach out to, to ask questions of, and to find out what it really means to be a teacher, and what are the steps and the process you have to take to become one.

Lisa Balbes: It sounds like that would be really helpful.  How many people have—or have gone through the program so far?

Jennifer Anastasoff: Well, right now, we have about 150 people in our program, and we’re focused in California.  A lot of those are in the pipeline and are in the process of becoming a teacher, and are exploring as tutors or guest teachers, or substitutes, what it means to be a teacher.

Lisa Balbes: Okay.  Now, you’ve mentioned several times these different steps and different types of teaching in education that people can be involved in.  Can you tell me a little bit about the steps that candidates take through this program?

Jennifer Anastasoff: Sure.  Often, we hear from folks who have amazing backgrounds in, we’ll talk about chemistry, in particular, who have these amazing backgrounds.  “Gosh, why do I need to go through various steps to become a teacher?  I should just be able to stand in front of a classroom and teach.”  And what we find is really helpful is, actually, getting out there and essentially doing a practicum or fieldwork.  The first step for our folks is actually going through an application process, sharing with us why you want to become a teacher, doing for what many may find their first lesson plan ever, doing a lesson plan, a five-minute lesson plan, and actually teaching it to students.  So, that’s our first step.

But the next step after that, once someone is in our program, is becoming a teacher—sorry, a tutor.  And a tutor, you spend three months, one day a week, three to five hours a week just tutoring.  We consider that fieldwork.  You’re in a classroom with a master teacher, or you’re with one of our partner organizations, and you’re working with a smaller group of kids in a low-income community.  That’s where EnCorps focuses.  Low-income communities, by far, need amazing scientists, need amazing chemists, need amazing math teachers.  And so, for three months, three to five hours a week, folks tutor.  And once they’re done with that, we have many folks who actually say, “You know what, I may have a Ph.D. from Harvard, and I may have taught in the Peace Corps, but I’d like to tutor again because I feel like that was really helpful for me, and I want to learn more.”

But once someone finishes that step of tutoring, they then move on to what we call guest teaching, which is a program that EnCorps has developed where, again, you spend three to five hours one day a week in a classroom, but you do it with a master math or science teacher.  And you can do this while you’re working, right.  So, it’s just three to five hours.  It’s a volunteer—often, people consider it a volunteer opportunity.  And folks then, the first few weeks of that—their guest teaching experience really observing and seeing what happens in a classroom.  Again, this is in the community in which they would teach, an under-resourced community.  They see what can happen in a classroom, they see what a master teacher does.  And then, as that 10 weeks gets closer, that gets closer to the 10th week, they’re doing small lessons themselves.  And by the end, our folks have taught at least one lesson with the support of a master teacher.  And by the end of that tutoring and guest teaching experience, folks really have a strong sense of whether or not teaching is actually the way they want to go, which is the first step, you know, the first real step in the process of becoming a teacher is knowing that, “Ah, this is what teaching is.  This is what I want to do.”

The next step is substitute teaching.  Once someone decides, “Yes, you know, I really do want to teach,” they can move on to substitute teaching or full-time teaching, which means you’re actually, what we call, the teacher of record, or standing up in front of a classroom, in charge of a classroom of students.  And that’s where EnCorps, in addition to helping provide you some initial insight, we provide mentorship coaching and support to folks who are substitutes and full-time teachers through our program directors and through our partnerships with some amazing new teacher mentorship programs.

Lisa Balbes: Oh, excellent.  So, it sounds like you really let people get in there and see what it’s like to decide if they’re going to like this or not.

Jennifer Anastasoff: Oh, absolutely.  I mean, if you’re going to be a chemist, you work in a lab for a little bit before, you know, you ultimately make your final—final, final, final decision, you know.  And we really look at tutoring and guest teaching as our labs, as an opportunity for folks to really get engaged.

Lisa Balbes: Okay.  So, suppose I do this and I love it, and I decide I want to become a teacher.

Jennifer Anastasoff: Sure.

Lisa Balbes: What kind of certification or education is required, and how long does that take?

Jennifer Anastasoff: Sure.  Well, you know, it’s interesting.  We’ve, actually, designed our program, the tutoring and guest teaching portion, we are spending three to five hours a week.  But the shortest time period that you can spend doing that is six months, and that’s about the time it takes just to take the tests in California, but also, in a number of other states like New York and some other places, you have to take some tests to prove that—you know, you may say that you have some sense of teaching, and you may say that you understand math but your degree wasn’t in math, and therefore, you have to take some tests.  We find it takes about six months to go through a little bit of that red tape, and that’s something that we help you with.

Lisa Balbes: Okay.

Jennifer Anastasoff: But, really, you know, ultimately, to go from, “Hey, I think this is a great idea” to becoming a teacher, the shortest time ultimately ends up being nine months because you still have to take some preparation.  You still have to apply to colleges and district internship programs.  So, that’s the shortest time.  But we have folks in our program take as long as two years, when they decide, you know, whether they want to tutor and guest teach for a full year, and they also want to spend a little bit of time prepping and studying for these tests in the next year.  So, it can go anywhere from nine months to two years.

Lisa Balbes: Okay.  And about how much does it cost to obtain a teaching certification?

Jennifer Anastasoff: You know, it’s interesting.  We’re asked that a lot, and it really does depend on what state you’re in, in terms of the tests that are required.  If you remember, way, way back when you had to take the SAT, or had to take, you know, whatever graduate school exams you had to take, those cost money, and the university didn’t necessarily know exactly how much those cost.  We’re kind of in the same spot.  We’ve had our folks tell us that it can cost, in terms of taking the tests, somewhere around $400 total to take all of the tests that they may have taken in California, but that’s, really, very much, it depends on the state.  In terms of obtaining a teaching certification, meaning you’re getting your credential, that also, you know, it really depends, again—it’s a totally unsatisfactory answer.  It depends on the state.  What I can say is, in California, you know, when you’re working with the EnCorps Teachers Program, we actually have looked at, you know, we actually provide up to a $7700 reimbursement for folks who’ve—who successfully finish their first year of teaching, to help offset the costs of getting your credential.  And the reason we did that was at the time that we came up with that number, that was about the amount of the California State University system and the cost of getting a credential through them.

Lisa Balbes: Okay.

Jennifer Anastasoff: So, that’s California.  But, again, it really does depend on state.  And as we look towards national expansion, we still will be providing that $7700 reimbursement in different places for people who complete successfully their first year of teaching.  So, hopefully, that helps in terms of what EnCorps does.  But in terms, again, of the states, you know, it’s like having 50 kids, right.  Everyone’s different, and you love them just the same.

Lisa Balbes: So, is there a charge to go through your program?

Jennifer Anastasoff: We like to say that the only charge for going through our program is blood, sweat, and tears.

Lisa Balbes: And time?

Jennifer Anastasoff: And time, exactly.  And what that means is, we are very much looking for people who are very committed to teaching ultimately.  We get that in the guest teaching and the tutoring part, some people are just dipping their toe in, and that’s okay.  If you’re committed to going on that pathway to figuring out if you want to be a teacher, we want to help you with that.  But in terms of funds, what we really ask for are folks who are committed to becoming a teacher, who are interested and excited, and who love and care about kids.  And that’s what the kids ask for.  We actually have a video on our website with kids saying what they want in a teacher, and that’s exactly what they want as well.

Lisa Balbes: Now, does the process differ if I’m looking at teaching middle school versus high school?

Jennifer Anastasoff: The process, from an EnCorps perspective, no.  From a state-by-state perspective, you may have to take some different tests.  You know, you may have to take—I’ll just give you an example of, a California example but, you know, you take fewer tests in California to be able to qualify to teach middle school.  But that said, it may differ in different places.  I would say the kids are different, right.  So, the process may or may not be different, but what you need to think about or, you know, as someone who’s considering teaching is, “Gosh, you know, do I want to teach high school?  Do I want to teach middle school?”  A lot of folks who come to us who may have a Ph.D. or may have a Master’s, you know, come in and say, you know, “I want to teach A.B. Chemistry” right off the bat.  Well, as we’re looking at under-resourced communities, before they can learn A.B. (sp?) Chemistry, kids need to know algebra.  And that can be taught in middle school and in high school.  And a lot of folks initially looking, “Oh, gosh, I want to teach high school.”  But it’s pretty fun to teach middle school, as a horribly biased middle school teacher myself.  Kids are different.  They’re learning about themselves, and so I would say the process should be different for you, if you’re considering middle school, and for you if you’re considering high school.  I would say, get some experience in both and see which one you like.

Lisa Balbes: That makes sense—excuse me.  Now, you’ve mentioned several times that the process is similar, but the requirements are different in different states.  Does EnCorps help in every state?

Jennifer Anastasoff: Yes, so EnCorps, I would say, the process for EnCorps, as we move, as we ultimately expand, we’re right now really focused on California, on exploring some additional areas.  But as we expand, the process will be similar within EnCorps in terms of helping you understand your fieldwork, understanding what classes are, and so on.  But the credentialing, the certification, the sort of bureaucracy part of it is going to be different in each area.  EnCorps is looking towards national expansion.  But, look, this is what we say, and this is why we work with ACS, you know, if you have a question about it, people question about what it means to be a teacher.  If you have a question about how you want to be thinking about that, that’s the first step.  And EnCorps fields calls all the time from various states with people saying, “Hey, this is what I’m thinking about doing.  What should I be thinking about?  How should I think about volunteering at a school or tutoring at a school initially?  How can I start this for myself even before EnCorps gets to my state?”  So, we’re happy to field those calls.

Lisa Balbes: Okay, great.  Now, if I go through your program, do you guarantee that I will get a job teaching?

Jennifer Anastasoff: You know, we don’t.  And I would say, we do our best.  There are folks, you know, you can—you often hear about guarantees that there are teaching jobs.  We’re not an employer.  And I often question, you know, there’s guarantees, and then there’s guarantees.  In an education, there are guarantees.  You know, what I would say is, you know, it all depends on what’s going on in your state.  It all depends on what’s going on at that moment in your school—in a particular school district that you may be looking at.  What we do is we really, as your friend in the education business, connect folks with principals.  We set—help to set up interviews, and we help to connect individuals with schools that might be a really good fit.  And like any job, you know, especially when it’s your first one, like any job, you need to get out there, you need to pound the pavement in order to be able to meet great potential teachers because, you know, work environment is a huge thing.  And we want to make sure that you like where you’re going to be, and that the people like you where you’re going to be.  So, we steer away from the term of guaranteeing a teaching job and, really, just talk about connecting people with school districts and with principals and with schools that could be a good fit, and hosting events that make sure to connect those folks so that you have the connections as someone who’s considering becoming a teacher ultimately, that you have the connections with schools so you can make that decision.

Lisa Balbes: Okay, great.  Now, in all these people that you’ve seen, what sort of people are most able to successfully make that transition to teaching?

Jennifer Anastasoff: Sure.  You know, it’s funny.  I would say people who are okay with failing and learning.  And I know that sounds odd, but a huge part of what it means to be a teacher, it’s really tough because half of the skill set that’s needed to become a teacher, we get so many brilliant and amazing people who are engineers and chemists and finance folks and, you know, various sorts of scientists, and they come in.  And there’s one part of the job that it’s just so well developed, which is what is it—what does it mean to be a chemist, right?  What is the process for it, you know, what is the mold?  You get that inside and out.  You don’t have to look that up in the book.  You know, that piece is so well developed, and yet there’s so much to learn.  In the other piece, which is, how do I engage with kids?  A lot of times, folks come to us, and they think that teaching is just standing up and sharing your great knowledge with kids and them taking it in.  But kids aren’t blank slates.  They have—they come with a whole lot of knowledge themselves.  They come with many questions themselves, they come with biases themselves, and learnings themselves.  And so, if you’re excited about figuring out new and different ways to reach a kid, a student, and you want to learn and you understand that it’s going to be different, it’s a different type of learning, maybe, you know, for many, it’s the toughest type of learning they’ve ever done, and the most exciting.  And if that sounds exciting rather than painful to you, then this could be a really great transition.  That’s what we found in terms of people who are considering the transition to teaching.  If they really want to figure out and are excited about trying to figure out that puzzle of how to reach every kid, and get them excited about chemistry and, you know, if they aren’t getting it, trying to figure that piece out and learning from others, if that’s a challenge that’s exciting, that’s someone who is more likely to be successful making that transition.

Lisa Balbes: Okay, great.  And now that we have these people who are excited about reaching all these kids, where can they go to get more information or to sign up for your program?

Jennifer Anastasoff: What a great question, Lisa.  The great place for you to go is, and that’s www.e-n-c-o-r-p-s, as in Sam, teachers, with an “s,” .org.  And so, that’s where you can go if you have questions.  You know, please go to our website.  We have our contact information there.  We have a number of folks who are thrilled to talk to individuals and inspire individuals who are considering becoming teachers.

Lisa Balbes: Okay.  Well, thank you very much, Jennifer, for your time today.  This has been quite educational, and I hope we get lots of people who are interested in reaching the next generation.

Jennifer Anastasoff: Thank you so much.

Lisa Balbes: And—

Jennifer Anastasoff: And we look forward to fielding those questions.

Lisa Balbes: And thank you to everybody who’s been listening.

You can read more about the EnCorps Teacher’s Program on their web site,

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