I recently had the opportunity to attend the ACS national meeting in Boston. Six rain-soaked days of meetings, meals and general merriment with 14,000 fellow chemists. While exhausting, it also energized me to be around so many other people who are passionate about the same things I am passionate about, including career development for scientists. Below I share several ideas that occurred while there.
1. The most important thing you can do for your career is to find a mentor. You need someone who has been there, who is willing to share their experiences with you. They can tell you what it’s really like, offer advice when things don’t go as you think they should, and provide encouragement. A good mentor is invaluable, and they are paid back with your respect, and by you “paying it forward” and mentoring those who come behind you.
2. If you are a member of a committee, take an active role. Find some aspect of the subject you can be passionate about, and work on that. Participate in discussions, take on tasks, and offer opinions. If you truly can’t contribute anything, don’t accept the assignment. Find something you can care about, and direct your energies in that direction.
3. The Royal Society of Chemistry has 12 professional attributes one needs to meet in order to become a chartered chemist. Even if you’re not a member, these guidelines can be a good checklist for your own career. Are you meeting all these goals? If not, which ones do you need to work on, and what can you do to improve your skills in that area?
4. And speaking of working on your weaknesses….. Public speaking is one thing a lot of people have trouble with. They don’t like it, so avoid it, and therefore never get better. I often recommend people join Toastmasters, an organization dedicated to helping people become more competent and comfortable in front of an audience, and they have local chapters in almost every city. Another great way to get more experience in public speaking to volunteer at a local science center. You can make presentations to the general public in a low risk environment, sharing your enthusiasm for chemistry while improving your own soft skills.
Volunteering is also a great way to find a position in a down market. Especially for students, look for summer positions or internships with an organization you might like to work with professionally. This will let you get to know people there, and let them see what great skills you have, so when a “real” position opens up you can get them to advocate for you. It also gives you experience in the field, which makes you more attractive to the institution.
And while you are developing those skills that they want, think about what other skills you have, and what other skills you can develop. You want to develop a unique set of skills that make you ideally qualified for the type of career you want to have. Once you have that fit, it will be obvious to any employer that you are the right person for the job.
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).