Curing the Under-Employment Blues

August 29, 2010

Are you under-employed? Being so means you are working in a position that doesn’t tap many of your skills and abilities leaving you bored and unsatisfied. Corporate restructuring and downsizing the last two years have left many chemists, engineers, and technicians feeling under-employed.  Many older job hunters have been forced to take jobs below their skill level.  Also, many people cannot afford the financial sacrifices, particularly reduced pension benefits, associated with resigning a position they find unfulfilling. 

However, there are ways you can add challenge and excitement to your current job and your professional life.

How to begin

Analyze your current job assignment.  Determine what aspects offer opportunities to add challenge and interest.  Be as creative in this as you are in solving chemical problems. Questions to ask yourself can include:

  • How can I find a way to do some basic research to better understand the physical and chemical phenomena underlying my current project and complete the project faster or arrive at a clearer conclusion? 
  • What new technology can I apply to my current project that will allow me to complete the project more quickly or satisfactorily? 

Keeping your technical skills up-to-date and having the flexibility to apply new technology to your current assignment can add excitement and interest.  For example, while at Shell Chemical Company I worked with an analytical chemist to use atomic force microscopy to study the basic physics underlying one of my projects. This interest evolved into a National Science Foundation grant jointly awarded to Professor Jan Miller (University of Utah) and me to study another aspect of this problem. This and my involvement in company funded projects at other universities have added a new dimension to my job. Besides the intellectual stimulation of working on basic research problems, I found the energy and enthusiasm of the graduate students and post-docs was catching. The challenge of using these basic research results to design better products was stimulating. 

Job enrichment

If you work as part of a team, look for tasks the team has trouble accomplishing effectively and in a timely way. Take on these tasks on yourself or devise more cost-effective ways to accomplish them.

The World Wide Web is creating additional job enrichment opportunities.  At small firms in particular, computer savvy chemists, engineers, and technicians sometimes participate in designing web pages. While larger firms may hire specialists to create their Internet web pages, they still need web page content to provide information and services to their customers. Laboratory professionals can provide this content by writing technical documents and slide presentations.  

Globalization is offering new job-enriching opportunities for professionals. If your company is developing an overseas market related to your technology area, participate.  Learn the relevant language. If you are fluent in this language, volunteer to prepare or translate technical literature. (Computer translation programs are now available for some languages that take much of the work out of the translation process.) Foreign language editions of Internet home pages are becoming popular. Laboratory professionals with the needed science, language, and computer skills can develop content for these home pages and aid their employers’ marketing efforts.

Don’t wait to be asked. Propose job enrichment opportunities to your supervisor or work team.

As a full-time writer, John Borchardt is the author 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.

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Develop Career Staying Power

August 22, 2010

Career staying power – what is it? Do you have it? Career staying power is the ability to keep your job and advance professionally despite a difficult employment environment. To find out if you have it, begin by defining your value proposition. This means determining what you are really good at.

Identify your key skills

If your major skills are in demand by your own and other employers, you have your value proposition. Keep these skills up to date and use them to deliver value to your employer. Should you need to job hunt, prepare examples of these skills and the accomplishments you made using them.

If your major skills are not in demand by employers, then you need to develop new ones that are, or learn how to transfer those you have to other industries.  For example, I worked nearly a decade in developing products for oilfield applications. This required a combination of organic, polymer and surfactant chemistry; petroleum engineering and chemical engineering skills plus written and oral communication skills. When the oil industry slumped in the 1980s I had to identify other industries could use at least some of these skills while developing other skills in demand by these industries. This resulted in my getting a job with a large chemical company and keeping it despite later staff reductions.

Don’t wait for career problems to develop before determining what other industries can use your skills. Identifying these industries can aid you to position yourself to work in a different type of business should you enter the job market.

Keeping skills up to date

Begin the process by reassessing your skills periodically. Ask your supervisor and mentors how you can best increase your value to your employer. Observe trends in your field, your industry and in chemistry in general. Consider how your existing skills could be used in new hot areas of chemistry and rapidly growing industries.

Network both within and outside your company. This can help you keep professionally up to date and learn what is happening within your company and identify new growth areas for your employer.

Networking can lead to speaking and publication opportunities that enable you to develop a professional reputation outside your firm. Networking can alert you to career advancement opportunities both within your own employer and at other firms.

Stay up to date in both business and technology by reading:

  • research journals
  • trade magazines
  • general business publications

Attend professional association and trade conferences in your field. Also attend conferences outside your field occasionally. For example, the past two years I attended the annual meetings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. I focused on environmental sessions at these meetings. Most presentations were made by biologists even though chemistry issues often were a major part of their discussions. It enabled me to both learn about different perspectives and bring my own to the discussions.

There are fewer meaningful promotions in many firms. So focus on establishing a track record of solid accomplishments rather than tying your definition of success to specific promotions and job titles.

John Borchardt is a chemist and freelance writer who has been an ACS career consultant for 15 years. He is the author of the ACS/Oxford University Press Book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers.” He has had more than 1200 articles published in a variety of magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias. As an industrial chemist, he holds 30 U.S. and more than 125 international patents and is the author of more than 130 peer-reviewed papers.


How to Evaluate Your Future Boss

August 15, 2010

When interviewing for a new job, or trying to decide whether to accept a job offer, you should also interview your future boss. The most important factor in job satisfaction is your working relationship with your supervisor. If your core values and work style are compatible with your supervisor’s, it will be much easier to develop a productive working relationship. So it is important to understand your future supervisor’s work style and attitudes before accepting a job offer. You need to be able to answer the question, “Can I work productively and amiably with this supervisor?”  To answer this question, you have to ask some questions of your own.

What questions

Your questions should elicit information about the supervisor’s work style and attitudes. Your questions should be open-ended so that you receive extended replies rather than short, unrevealing answers. Examples include:

  • What would you do if you just found out that an important project suffered a serious setback?
  • What criteria would you use to choose a team leader to head an important project?
  • How do you work with your staff members to set goals?
  • How do you monitor progress towards achieving these goals?

These questions are open-ended but specific. Emotionally neutral, they shouldn’t make the supervisor feel defensive. While they are about specific behaviors, they also will provide information about the supervisor’s values.  Questions aimed specifically about values often provide stock, unrevealing answers.  Such questions include:

  • How do you feel about work teams?
  • Do you believe in balancing your work and your personal life?

The first question is likely to receive an answer complying with the employer’s official attitude on work teams. The second is a closed-end question that could yield an unrevealing “yes or no” answer – almost certainly yes.  

Modify both these questions to explore behavior rather than values and learn how the supervisor is liable to act once you are on the job. The first question could be modified to “How do you organize your work teams?” The second could be altered to “How do you and your staff members manage to balance your work and personal life?”

Ask how the supervisor views quality of life issues important to you. These can include flexibility of working hours, occasional or frequent telecommuting, business travel, and other concerns that are (or you would like to make) part of your workstyle. Again word these questions so that they elicit information on behavior rather than values. For example, instead of asking “Do you allow telecommuting?” ask “Do any of your staff members telecommute?” In response to an affirmative reply, you could ask how often the staff member telecommutes. Listen closely to the answer. If the manager is reluctantly complying with corporate policy, it may show in the words he/she chooses or his/her tone of voice.  Reluctant compliance may mean the telecommuter could face in increased barriers to raises, promotions, and coveted assignments.   

A series of questions is another way to elicit a more complete and revealing response from the supervisor.  For example, follow-ups to the above work team question include:

  • How do you decide a work team is needed to solve a problem or complete a project?
  • How do you assess an individual’s performance when she works on a team?
  • How do you respond if a project team is not meeting its goals?

The important consideration in asking a series of questions is to be relaxed and pleasant to avoid giving supervisors the feeling they are being interrogated.

John Borchardt is a chemist and freelance writer who has been an ACS career consultant for 15 years. He is the author of the ACS/Oxford University Press Book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers.” He has had more than 1200 articles published in a variety of magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias. As an industrial chemist, he holds 30 U.S. and more than 125 international patents and is the author of more than 130 peer-reviewed papers.