Keeping Up with the Trends

January 24, 2011

One of the most important things you can do to ensure the long-term health of your career is to keep up on trends in your areas of expertise, your field, and your industry.  Only by doing this can you prepare yourself for changes, and ensure that you have the skills that are in demand in a constantly changing work environment.

ACS is helping you out, with a Technology Trends Roadmap recently published on the ACS network.  This document describes trends in information technology and how they apply to ACS itself, but many of the findings can be applied to your professional life as well. The major findings of this report, listed below, probably won’t surprise you. However, you may not have thought about how each affects your career trajectory, and how it might be useful in to you either personally, or to your current employer.

  • An exponential rise in “connectedness”, or the ability to interact with other people in real time.  People expect others to be available in multiple ways (phone, email, text message, social networks) and outside of traditional working hours.
  • Sharp boundaries between work and private life are dissolving.  People no longer need to be in the same physical location to work together (thanks to mobile computing), and both work time and personal time are becoming more flexible.
  • The rate of innovation is increasing.  Companies are encouraging innovation from inside, but also want to bring in proven new ideas from other places.
  • The amount of data currently available is more than at any time in history.  Data mining and analytics are opening up on a whole new scale, and new technologies are needed to process, mine and analyze all the data that is currently available.  We are also seeing a growth in semantic technologies (formal definitions, explicit relations between data and metadata) and increasing emphasis on data accuracy, not just volume.
  • Cloud computing (using hosted services over the internet) is also on the rise, and private clouds are addressing some of the security issues.

A few longer term trends that are called out in the report include the use of display technologies (touch screens), the greening of IT, and 3D printing (or fabrication of 3-dimensional objects by successive layering of materials).  All of these fields involve chemistry, and one of them might be the next stage in your professional evolution.

In addition to information technologies, I’ve noticed many articles in the popular press lately about new materials, for example  Gorilla Glass (scratch-resistant glass used in 280 electronic gadgets) and self-healing plastic (for use in large-scale structures where human intervention is difficult).  I am also seeing growth in biomechanical engineering, and the whole field of engineering solutions being applied to the biomedical field, and people from different fields are learning to work together.  Maybe learning about or collaborating with materials scientists or engineers is in your future?

Take some time to learn a little more about some of these fields – what they can do, and what they can’t.  Could your skills be applied to one of these areas?  Could you expand your knowledge into one of these areas, or apply your existing skills to a new problem area?  Could you learn the terminology of a different field, so you can talk intelligently with people who work in that field?

Make it a habit to skim papers, magazines, blogs, and other sources for interesting (to you) science news, and pay specific attention to trends over time.  Then think about what might change if those trends continue, and how you might adapt now to be ready for that new future.

This article was written 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.

How To Fill a Hole

January 18, 2011

In times past, a chronological gap in your employment history was a big red flag that something was wrong with you.  The good news is, these days it’s not only not an issue, the person sitting on the other side of the interview table can probably empathize.  Whether it was a few months after a lay-off, or a few years while taking care of family matters, facing the issue head-on is much better than trying to hide it.

While you will want to address long gaps briefly in a cover letter, then give a more detailed explanation during an in-person interview, there are also things you can do during that down-time to make it less more productive.

Still, how you handle that “hole” is an indication to the potential future employer of how you handle adversity.  Making constructive use of your down time can go a long way to show that you are a motivated professional, and can also actually enhance your value for your next position.

Here are a few things you can do while looking for your next opportunity.

1.  Enhance your Education.

Is there something you’ve always wanted to learn, but never had the time?  Is there some part of your chosen profession that you know you could do better, but have never had time to concentrate on?  Perhaps now is that time. When the job market is tight, enrollment in graduate schools always increases, but short-term programs and individual classes can also be valuable.

2.  Work as a contractor or temp

While most people are looking for a full-time, permanent position, a lot of job growth is occurring in contract or short-term positions.  There are currently a number of companies that specialize in placing scientists in short-term positions, some of which may become permanent.  Seek out these companies in your area, and register with a couple of them.  You can always turn down placements when they are offered, or you can accept them and keep your skills fresh while continuing to look for the next step in your professional career. There are lists of staffing companies and  staffing services available online.

3.  Take on short-term consulting projects.

You can also create your own projects.  Your former employers can be great sources of project work, since you are already familiar with their projects, processes, and personnel.  As long as you left on good terms, offer to work as a consultant.  If you can approach them with a specific project deliverable and timeline that you know they need, you have a good chance of getting the assignment.  You can also look for adjunct teaching positions – if you only teach evening classes, you are still free to job hunt or accept a job during the day.

4.  Volunteer.

Not quite as good as paying work, is there a volunteer position that allow you to exercise some of your professional skills?  This is a great idea to try your hand at new skills, since the risk is much less if something goes wrong.

All these strategies show you continuing to be engaged and involved with your profession, doing something professionally useful with your downtime, and adding to or enhancing the set of skills you have to offer to a potential employer.

Can you think of others?  Feel free to post them in the comments below.

This article was written 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.


How To Ask For Help

January 10, 2011

These days, we all need a little help from our friends. If you’re un- or under-employed, chances are many of your friends have been there, empathize with you, and want to help.  But you need to let them know you need help – you need to ask.

Asking for help is not something everyone does well.  In fact, several people have recently asked me for help in interesting ways*, prompting me to think about you can effectively ask for help.  I decided there are really two parts – know what to ask for, and know people of whom you can ask things.

First, and most importantly, know what your goal is, and do a reality check on it.  If you tell me you “need a job”, I may point you to the Burger King down the street that is hiring.  Conversely, if you tell me you want a new job as a medicinal chemist working on oncology targets for an international pharmaceutical company in St. Louis, I’m going to tell you those jobs don’t exist anymore.  Make sure your career goal is specific enough that others will recognize it when they see it, but also realistic.

If you don’t know exactly what kind of job you want, that’s okay.  Your first goal may be to identify some possible career paths that will let you do more teamwork and less leadership, for example.  In that case, you are not looking for a job (yet), but ideas, information, and introductions to others in those new areas.  For example, a friend recently told me she’s unhappy with her employer of 10 years, as she has been reorganized into a group she does not enjoy, and she’s realized the company is rewarding people for things she does not enjoy doing.  Her personal life has also changed over the years, and she now needs more flexibility in her work life.  We were able to come up with a few possible career paths that would take advantage of abilities she has and does enjoy using, and I was able to give her contact info for several people in each of those fields, so she can investigate further.

One thing to remember is that when she asked me to help her brainstorm, I had known her for several years, and we have worked together on several volunteer projects.  She was did not find my name on the internet and send a resume out of the blue.  You need to build your network of professional relationships BEFORE you ask for help.  Those with whom you have a previous relationship will be much more willing to help you, and to go out of their way to identify resources they have that might be of value to you.

One of the best resources they can give you is a lead on someone they know, who has information about your target field.  In this case, you are using your friend’s reputation to gain entry to someone you may not have been able to reach on your own.  Ideally, you want to get the lead’s name and contact information, then contact them yourself while mentioning the name of the person who put you in touch with each other.  That way you make sure to present yourself to your best advantage, and you can start your own professional relationship with the new person.

Building your own professional network, one person at a time, will hold you in good stead when you next need to ask for help.  And knowing what to ask for will make it easy for them to help you find it.

*  One person, whom I had never met, called my home in the evening to complain that I had not answered their email quickly enough. Another person came to a talk I gave on how to write a better resume, then afterwards told me they were looking for a job, handed me a copy of their resume, and ran out of the room.

This article was written 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.

Who are you following?

January 4, 2011

One day when I was a little girl, I walked to elementary school with a new friend for the first time.  We’d both walked to the school many times, but never together.  After we’d walked (and talked) for a couple blocks, I realized I had not been paying attention to where we were going, I’d just been following her.  I said “I hope you know how to get to school this way, because this isn’t the way I usually go.”  She replied that she didn’t know how to get there that way either, and she was following me.  We looked around and realized we were several blocks past the school, and quickly turned around.

This story occurred to me recently as I was thinking about a number of students to whom I’ve been giving career advice recently.  Many of them consider their advisor to be their main professional mentor, and rely on their advice for career matters.

However, when they stop to think, they realized that while their academic advisor may know a lot about what classes to take and what academic chemistry departments are best, most professors have had no experience outside academia.  That means they may not be the best people to follow if you are in interested in a career in industry, government, or even a different level of academic career.

While your academic advisor is close, and certainly the easiest person from whom to seek advice, the easy way is rarely the best way.  I suggest to these students that they move outside their standard circle of colleagues, and seek advice from someone with a different perspective and experience.

As a first step, seek out professors who are currently collaborating with industry, or better yet had a career in industry before going into academia.  From there, you can move out and make connections with people in all sorts of fields, learning about their experiences.  With this wider perspective, you will be better able to determine which career path is best for you.

Maybe now is the time for you to look around and see who you are following, and if they actually know how to get where you want to go.  Who are the advisors and mentors in your life, and are they able to give you good advice?  Have you actively gone out looking for professionals who are where you want to be?  Do you attend professional society meetings, and learn about new trends and opportunities in your field?  Do you have the next steps in your career planned out, and are you executing that plan?  Or are you just following along, hoping that you will somehow eventually end up in the right place for you?

In the end, my new friend and I were late to school, but we made it there.  With some concerted effort and experienced mentors, you can reach your career goals as well – and sooner, rather than later.

This article was written 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.