Oral Presentations: Preparation is Everything!

November 29, 2010

Presenting our work to others, especially orally, is a large part of what we do as scientists. Sometimes this occurs through informal conversations, but often it happens at scheduled, formal presentations.  While very few people actually enjoy giving oral presentations, a little preparation can make your own presentations much more successful.

The most important thing is to know your audience, and tailor the talk to them.  Will you be speaking to other experts in your narrow sub-field, or to chemists in general?  Will they have chosen to attend your talk, or are they required to attend?  Will they be anxious to hear what you have to say, or just anxious because your talk is standing between them and dinner?  Is it a serious scientific presentation, or a more relaxed after-dinner talk? Find out as much as you can in advance, so you can include the appropriate level of background and detail.  Start preparing as soon as you know you will be speaking, and practice several times before the big day.

You need to know what the technical arrangements will be.  Do you need to bring your own laptop, or just a USB drive with your presentation? Always bring a back-up, just in case, and of course the appropriate adapter if you travel with a Macintosh.  I go so far as to  bring a hardcopy of my presentation, complete with presenter’s notes, so I can do a “chalk talk”, if I have to. (It also comes in handy for reviewing on the plane, or in the hotel room.)

When preparing your “slides”, remember that people will only see them for a short time, and many from a long distance away.  Don’t bother to put up tiny text that no one will be able to read. Remember that oral presentations are for the big picture – point people to printed articles for the details.  The more presentations I do, the more pictures and fewer words I have on my slides.

Make sure to arrive at the site in plenty of time to check things out.  If possible, I like to visit the room the night before, so I can check out the physical arrangements, the projector and screen, where the light switches are, test the microphones, and so on.  If there are any problems, you want to have plenty of time to work them out and still start the session on time.  If possible, I prefer to keep the lights on, with perhaps just the front of the room dark, to make it easier for people to take notes.

Provide your host with an introduction describing you.  This ensures that the audience knows who you are and why they should listen to you, and also allows you to segue gracefully into your presentation.

If you can’t see a clock from where you’re presenting, make sure to have a watch or timer where you can see it. Ideally, you will know where you should be at the halfway point, and have a plan to condense or eliminate material if you are running long.

Finally, wrap up by talking about the next steps for you or the audience (depending on your topic), and by thanking the people who helped you with the work.  Allow time for questions, and remember to repeat them for the benefit of those who did not hear.

These few simple steps will make you more confident and prepared, which will translate into a more enjoyable presentation – for the audience, as well as for you.

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: New Formulas for Chemistry Careers,” published by Oxford University Press.

Micro Careers

November 22, 2010

The common view has been that we have one career.  Typically, it was defined by both our occupational field—we are an attorney, a salesperson or a logistics professional—and our employer—we work at IBM or at Coca- Cola.  Although we were often told otherwise, many of us believed that we would spend our entire career working for that one or, at most, two or three different organizations.  In other words, we were convinced our careers would be relatively stable and long lasting.

While that was probably not true in the past, it is definitely not true today.  This Great Recession has changed the nature of our careers forever.  I know you don’t want to hear that.  It’s hard enough to find a job in the current economic environment without some putz telling you that the rules of the game have now changed.  But they have.  And sticking our heads in the sand won’t undo what has been done.

On the other hand, if we can learn the new rules quickly—if we can get our arms around them and figure out how to play by and win with them—we can turn today’s difficult situation into a much better one.  We can capture the upside in a down economy.  We can put these new rules to work for us so we can find the work we want and hang onto it.

So, what are these new rules?  They are a response to the traumatic and wrenching devastation of business now underway in this country and around the world.  From GM to Citigroup, from Hertz to Microsoft, employers are shedding jobs and the workers who held them.  These are not, however, your father’s or mother’s layoffs.  They are not reductions in force that will eventually be replaced by rehiring in force.  They are, instead, reductions in structure.   The American employer is becoming leaner and determined to stay that way.

This shift in organizational philosophy holds several implications for those of us in the workforce.

  • First, there will be far fewer permanent jobs available to us.  Companies will shrink down to a relatively small number of core roles and hire very selectively to fill them.  Gone are the days of offering a position to a qualified applicant.  Today and for many tomorrows to come, only the best qualified candidate for each opening will get the nod.
  • Second, employers will increase their hiring for “defined outcome positions.”  Unlike traditional contract or project work, these situations will have the look and feel of permanent jobs, but have a fixed duration determined by the accomplishment of a specific objective established by the employer.  Defined outcome positions will have the same organizational prestige and seniority as core jobs, but without the commitment to long term employment.
  • Third, employers will attempt to be much more nimble and quick acting.  The competitive dynamics of a highly integrated, global marketplace have shortened the life cycle of products and services, sales and marketing strategies, and the organizational staffing requirements that flow from them.  The kinds of talent required to execute an organization’s business plan last year or the year before may be—indeed, often will be—entirely different than those it needs today or tomorrow.

If those are the new rules, how do we play them?
The answer is as simple as it is challenging.  We will have to shift our own employment philosophy.  We must change the way we think about our careers.  We have to accept that they are no longer relatively stable or long lasting.  From now on, our careers will be episodic and short.  They will be “micro careers.”

Micro careers are defined by two kinds of impermanence: 

  • Instead of working for one or two employers over the course of a thirty year career, we will now be employed by 10-15 organizations over the course of a fifty year career.  We are living longer even as the staffing needs of employers grow shorter and less enduring.
  • Instead of working in a single occupational field, you will work in 3-5 different professions.  They may all draw on a common foundation of expertise, but each will require a specific and additional set of knowledge, skills and abilities.This continuous changing means that we can no longer aspire to be complete and fully formed workers.  The old industrial era paradigm of moving from novice to journeyman to master is over.  In today’s knowledge-based economy, only masters survive.  So, our new strategy must be to act as “masters-in-progress.”  We must never stop moving toward a better, more capable, more effective version of our best selves.

Now, I acknowledge that such incessant self renewal is a new and potentially uncomfortable way of working for some, maybe even many of us.  We worked hard to get to a certain point in our careers, and now, we would like to coast.  We would like to sit back and enjoy the fruits of our labor.  And that’s no longer possible.  In the 21st Century workplace, managing a successful career is like riding a bicycle.  We can coast for a short period of time, but we’re going to have to peddle and sometimes peddle very hard if we want to keep from crashing.

While that may be difficult to accept, there are some advantages to this situation.  It enables us to escape from the imprisonment of dull jobs and dead end employers.  No employment situation is forever and as long as we keep preparing ourselves for what’s ahead, each new job is a chance to move on and up.  We get to start fresh on a regular basis, so mistakes are less harmful to our progress and risk is less dangerous.  We have, in short, more freedom and opportunity than we have ever had.  That’s the key point we should remember.  Because that’s the power and the promise of micro careers.

Who is Peter Weddle?

Peter Weddle is a recruiter, HR consultant and business CEO turned author and commentator.  Described by The Washington Post as “… a man filled with ingenious ideas,” Peter has earned an international reputation, pioneering concepts in human resource leadership and employment.  He has authored or edited over two dozen employment-related books, including his latest, Work Strong, Your Personal Career Fitness System, and has been a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, The National Business Employment Weekly and CNN.com.  Today, Peter writes two newsletters that are distributed worldwide and oversees WEDDLE’s LLC, a print publisher specializing in the field of human resources.  WEDDLE’s annual Guides and Directory to job boards are recognized for their accuracy and helpfulness, leading the American Staffing Association to call Weddle the “Zagat of the online employment industry.”

Encore Careers

November 15, 2010

Once upon a time age 65 meant retirement. And retirement meant permanent vacation. Now neither of these statements need be true. However, “retirement age” and actual retirement are two very different things for many chemists. Even if you want to retire in the next few years, the shrunken value of your 401k investments may not let you.

More chemical professionals are seeking satisfying second careers, often with flexible schedules. The key is capitalizing on your technical and business skills and personal interests. These second careers are often referred to as encore careers.

What are the options for chemical professionals who have reached “retirement age” or have lost their jobs in mid- or late-career?

Part-time employment

A growing number of R&D managers are taking advantage of the technical skills of former employees and bringing them for temporary and part-time assignments. Indeed, some companies are establishing databases of former employees so they can search for individuals with particular skills when needs arise. At least one firm, YourEncore® ( http://www.yourencore.com), has been formed by a consortium of companies including Procter and Gamble, Eli Lilly and Boeing to do this.

Besides utilizing your technical skills, as an “encore employee” you can be a valuable source of corporate history in your technical areas. You can also provide mentoring to younger coworkers.


When we talk temping we usually think of working with a temporary services agency such as Kelly Scientific Staffing, Olsten and others. These are certainly worthwhile options for many.

However, chemists can also work directly for companies under short-term contracts. I often do so. One chemist I know retired after a career in research, sales, and marketing for Exxon Chemicals and Nalco Exxon Energy Chemicals. After spending some time relaxing at his vacation home in North Carolina, he went to work for a small, privately held specialty chemical company, Tomah Products, whose owner wanted to expand sales to the oil industry. Given the title of vice-president, this chemist used his industry contacts to explore applications options for existing products while identifying new product needs and possible joint research. After two years he retired again but told me he planned to return to working full-time again when he got bored.

Starting a business & self-employment

Usually this means starting a service-based business such as consulting, technical writing or some other activity you find enjoyable and financially rewarding as well. Many ACS members consult. Although not yet 65, I have been consulting and writing full-time since mid-2004. One research chemist I know purchased a dry cleaning franchise. Indeed, he has experimented with using supercritical CO2 instead of chlorinated solvents to reduce the environmental impact of his business. A former chemical company president has combined his business skills and hobby of furniture making into a home-based custom furniture business.

A home-based business need not be full-time. Some consultants I know work part-time or take three-day weekends every week. One works full-time as a consultant but takes four to six week vacations. Another is a professional photographer but doesn’t work full-time.

Establishing a parallel career ( https://acscareers.wordpress.com/2010/05/20/parallel-careers-for-fun-and-profit/ ) can be a starting point for a post-retirement business or career.

Volunteer Service

Service to society at large and to fellow chemical professionals can be an important part of your post fulltime career. These activities usually are unpaid but can be a great source of personal satisfaction. The ACS has many activities in which older chemical professionals may wish to participate. One is the Senior Chemists Committee, which holds a breakfast at ACS national meetings. Great chances to network, these breakfasts feature prestigious speakers, often Nobel Prize winners.

Other service options are provided by the ACS Office of Career Management & Development, the Division of Small Chemical Businesses and other ACS units.

Retirement isn’t an end; it can be the start of a new phase of your career.

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.