Avoid Common Job Interview Blunders

April 25, 2011

Surviving the multi-step job candidate screening process and receiving an on-site employment interview can be a long and frustrating process. So the last thing you want is to commit some of the common interview blunders that cost candidates job offers. What are these blunders? How can you avoid them?

Dealing with loss of your previous job

Losing a job is traumatic. Nevertheless, you must overcome your resentment against your former employer and not turn your on-site employment interview into a gripe session in which you complain about your former employer and the unfairness of your job loss. I have conducted more than 100 on-site employment interviews and seen many job candidates expressing their resentment and anger. It’s not pretty. These are natural emotions after a layoff but employers interpret this as unprofessional behavior, and you will likely lose any jobs prospects with that organization.

Only mention your former employer in the context of your accomplishments. If asked, explain that you lost your job in a layoff. Be brief. Word your explanation so you can indicate you understand the business reasons for layoffs. Among the most common is reducing headcount to save expenses. Another is outsourcing of your job to another firm. A third common one is a shift of your former employer’s strategic priorities.

Convey your personality and personal warmth

Job candidates often focus exclusively on technical skills during on-site employment interviews. This is normal and technical considerations are important determinants of whether you receive a job offer. However, other factors are also important. You want to give the impression you will be a congenial coworker pleasant to work with. This means showing personal warmth and humor (in good taste) as appropriate..

Show interest and enthusiasm in the job, the company, and the location where you will work.

Research the employer and prepare questions about the company, its products and services, and the nature of the job responsibilities in the position for which you are applying. Internet search engines can provide the information you need to formulate intelligent questions. These should not be questions for which the answers are readily available to job hunters.

Focus on what you can accomplish for the employer

Discuss how your skills, accomplishments and personal energy can help the hiring manager achieve the goals of her department. Effective listening will enable you to clearly understand interviewers’ questions, respond effectively and steer the discussion towards information that presents you in the best possible light.

Don’t focus on what the company can do for you. If possible, wait until you receive a job offer before negotiating salary and discussing allowable relocation expenses, vacation policies, etc. 

Prepare carefully

Even in today’s job market a surprising number of candidates try to “wing it” and do not prepare carefully. Prepare a 60-second verbal résumé, often called an elevator speech.

Prepare answers to difficult questions often asked during employment interviews. You can find lists of these questions in job-hunting books such as the ACS book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers” and in the ACS employment workshop “Effective Interviewing.”

Communicate those skills and qualities that differentiate you from other candidates. Describe the positive impact your results have had on your academic research or your employer’s financial results. When possible quantify the impact your results have had on sales, profits, costs or productivity. Use percentages instead of dollar amounts if you have to.

Make a strong closing

Many employer experts and career coaches say the most common failing people have during their employment interviews is failing to express interest in the job. Close your interviews with hiring managers and other managers by telling them of your strong interest in the job. Then concisely express the most important qualities you can bring to the job.

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.



A Professional Writer’s Take on Résumé Cover Letters

April 18, 2011

Résumé cover letters are a bit like the Mccaulay Calkin character in the 1990 hit movie “Home Alone.” Overlooked by his family when they went on vacation, he was inadvertently forgotten and left behind. Many job hunters do the same and put little effort into their cover letters even after expending a lot of time and effort on their résumés.

Yet your cover letter can play a key role in differentiating yourself from other job hunters in today’s highly competitive job market. It offers an opportunity to demonstrate how some of your key skills are relevant to employers’ needs and will help them achieve their goals. Additionally, a well-written cover letter is a demonstration of your written communication skills.

Cover letters can help you constructively deal with issues in your employment history such as an employment gap or frequent job changes. Cover letters are particularly useful for both new graduates wishing to enter a nontraditional chemistry career field and experienced job hunters wishing to change careers.

To make the best impression, cover letters should be customized to each employer you contact. Customizing your cover letter means showing how your skills, education and experience align with the employer’s requirements. Ideally the cover letter should be addressed to the hiring manager for the position or department to which you are applying.

Anatomy of a cover letter

Your cover letter should consist of approximately four paragraphs and be limited to a single page. If at all possible, your cover letter should be addressed by name to the hiring manager.

Your cover letter should be an example of your best writing. It should not contain any typos, poor spelling or poor sentence construction.

Your opening paragraph should explain the purpose of your letter. You may be answering an employment advertisement, contacting the firm because you know it is interested in developing a certain type of technology or because your professor or a current employee of the company suggested you contact them.

Middle paragraphs

The next two paragraphs should describe your technical accomplishments that will be of greatest interest to the employer. Don’t just repeat information in your résumé. Instead, describe how your skills helped you obtain key  results in your previous job or your academic research group. Be as quantitative as possible. For example, you might mention that a manufacturing process improvement reduced manufacturing cost, increased yield or increased plant throughput by specific percentages.

Concluding paragraphs

Your concluding paragraph should reiterate your interest in working for the company and ask for an employment interview. If you have the hiring manager’s telephone number, you may wish to say you’ll call to check the status of your application.

Final comments

Like your résumé, your cover letter should be error-free. A single typo or other mistake can lead to your application being discarded. other mistakes besides typos include addressing the letter to the wrong company or misspelling someone’s name. Neither error would be picked up by a grammar or spell checker so you need to proofread carefully before sending.

Your letter needs to be interesting. Boring letters turn readers off. In particular, your first line should grab the reader’s interest so they keep reading your cover letter.

Many employers use tracking software to store information about applicants. They can tell if applicants use the same cover letter to apply for more than one position at their company. While this is perfectly acceptable, your cover letter should be customized for each position you apply for.

Don’t use form letters. Experienced human resource professionals can sense when a cover letter is a form letter, perhaps copied from a job-hunting book, with a little customization thrown in. These “cookie-cutter” cover letters can doom your application. Like your résumé, your cover letter should be customized for a specific job opening.

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.

Consider Geography When Evaluating Job Offers

April 11, 2011

Choosing a location with diverse job opportunities can reduce your difficulty in finding a new job later in your career. One of the major factors lengthening mid-career job hunts is limiting your job hunt to your current geographic area. This limitation can be due to a spouse’s career, unwillingness to uproot your children and force them to change schools and leave friends behind, and reluctance to sell your home due to the recent large drop in real estate values.

You can avoid these problems by locating your first or next job in a Porter cluster. Porter complexes are concentrations of companies in a particular business, their suppliers and customers. Silicon Valley is perhaps the best known example of a Porter cluster. Examples of pharmaceutical industry Porter clusters are the Boston area, greater Philadelphia area and Research Triangle Park in North Carolina. Chemical industry Porter clusters include the area extending from Houston to central Louisiana. Houston is also the focal point of an oil industry cluster that includes hydrocarbon exploration and production, technology development, and oil refining.

The existence of large R&D centers and production plants in a given area prompts suppliers and customers to locate in the same area providing additional jobs for chemical professionals. Concentration of these facilities provides a kind of local economy of scale in which the proximity of firms, suppliers, contract organizations, and a skilled work force contributes to increased productivity and innovation according to Patrick Connelly, Senior Director of Vertex Pharmaceuticals. A major reason for these advantages is that geographic proximity promotes frequent face-to-face communication that doesn’t entail costly, time-consuming business trips. With crude oil prices rising again and pushing up the cost of gasoline and diesel fuel, this concentration can also reduce transportation costs of shipping raw materials and products manufactured from them from suppliers to customers.

Service laboratories such as analytical laboratories and contract research organizations may locate their own facilities in a Porter cluster of laboratories to be near these potential customers. So may law firms and chemical consultants..

The concentration of a large number of chemists and other scientists in a laboratory Porter cluster promotes strong, active local scientific organizations such as ACS local sections. Their activities can stimulate creativity and promote interactions of chemical professionals working for different organizations.

The existence of Porter clusters can foster development of a higher quality of life – an important factor in attracting knowledge workers such as chemical professionals to the area. Porter clusters of intellectually based industries such as the chemical, pharmaceutical, biotechnology and other firms employing substantial numbers of chemists promotes the development of high quality pre-college school systems and local universities and colleges. In turn, these institutions are magnets for additional firms to locate in the same Porter cluster.

Personal experience

I didn’t consider location in my first two job hunts. For my second job I moved into a town where the only two firms employing chemists were a large oilfield services research center and a small oil refinery. Five years later the refinery closed and the research center experienced massive layoffs. So when I decided to change jobs two years later I had no local options. At the same time the local real estate market was very depressed; many homes were repossessed and homes for sale remained on the market for a year or more. I was very fortunate that my next employer bought my house paying a fair price as part of my relocation package to Houston, a Porter cluster for the oil and petrochemical industries. Otherwise, I’m not sure I would have changed jobs even though I was unhappy.

When my employer sold the business I worked in to another company, I was able to work for the new owners for five years because of the empty lab facilities available in the Houston Porter cluster. When I decided to start my consulting and technical writing business, I had many of the professional contacts I developed over the course of my career close by in the Houston Porter cluster. Despite the ubiquity of electronic communications, being available for face-to-face meetings even at short notice has really helped my business.

If you didn’t choose a Porter cluster during your last job hunt, you may want to focus on Porter clusters during your next job hunt.

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.

Delaying Your Retirement

April 4, 2011

Do you want or need to delay your retirement? You are not alone. Many baby boomers are delaying their retirement. One-third plan to retire after age 65 according to an Employment Benefit Research Institute survey. In another recent survey of more than 2,200 U.S. workers by consulting firm Watson Wyatt Worldwide, 44% of respondents age 50 or older said they plan to postpone retirement; half of those say they plan to work at least three years longer than they previously expected.

However, at the same time companies continue to have layoffs. How can you remain employed even past the conventional retirement age of sixty-five years even if your company reduces staff?

The key to continue working past typical retirement age is to capitalize on skills you’ve developed over the course of your career and not compete directly with younger (and lower-paid) coworkers. Capitalize on these skills by sharing them. Become a resource for younger coworkers.

You can improve your odds of delaying your retirement by becoming involved in several of the programs described below.

Mentoring programs

Become a mentor. Many companies have instituted mentoring programs and are now taking advantage of information technology to make them more effective. For example, in December 2009 IBM created an online tool to support its mentoring program. Older employees list their skills in a database. Younger coworkers seeking to develop particular competencies can search the database to identify coworkers having these competencies. More than 3,500 IBM employees have registered to be mentors and more than 2,600 coworkers, mostly younger employees, have consulted with them. See if your organization has a program like this.

Continuing education

Talk to your manager about instituting a continuing education program. Offer to serve as an instructor sharing your skills and experiences accumulated over the course of a long, productive career. Having senior employees serve as instructors can have advantages over sending younger employees to external training programs or bringing in consultants to teach these courses. Senior employees can present information and advice in the context of the company’s culture and provide examples from their own experience. This gives information an immediacy and relevance that instructors from outside the company often can’t provide.
Workshops often offer an attractive alternative to internal short courses that require a longer time commitment.

Consultants to project teams

Offer to serve as a consultant to project teams using your experience to help team members save time and not waste their efforts. For example, a senior chemist may know of a reactor built years ago and placed in storage when an R&D program was finished. Refurbishing and using this reactor in a current project can save both time and money.

Older chemists’ experience may enable them to use a team’s discovery in the context of the firm’s earlier R&D. They can provide useful advice on such issues as the relevance of earlier projects to the current work and whether the current work should be the subject of a patent application.

“Reverse” mentoring

Don’t be reluctant to consult younger coworkers to learn new skills you need to remain employed. These include things such as online social networking, and wikis.


Make your own manager and other managers in the company aware of your involvement in these programs and the value you provide to the organization – value that cannot be provided by younger coworkers.  Make sure you get appropriate recognition for your efforts. It was comedian George Carlin who said, “The caterpillar does all the work but the butterfly gets the all publicity.” Make sure you’re not the caterpillar.

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.