Networking to Advance Your Industrial Research

May 30, 2011

Networking can be much more than just a job-hunting tool. It can be a useful technique to help you advance your career and benefit your employer while providing opportunities to do interesting chemistry, author research papers and become an inventor on patents.

The networking arena

The place where chemists usually begin this highly productive type of networking is science conferences and trade association meetings. Certainly ACS national, regional and local meetings offer opportunities. These opportunities occur several times a year so one must be prepared to take advantage of them when they occur. This doesn’t mean meeting someone and immediately proposing joint research. It means developing the habit of making connections with people working in your field, particularly leaders in your field of research.

Gradually build a relationship with these individuals sharing and discussing ideas and perhaps speaking at symposia one of you organizes. These discussions and helping each other builds a platform of respect on which you can build a joint research effort. Then when an idea strikes one of you on how you could work together to each person’s mutual benefit, you have the credibility to act on this idea.

The direct approach

The direct approach is to meet someone and begin building a relationship. I met a professor in the University of Utah mining engineering, Jim Miller, when he presented a paper on flotation at a national ACS meeting. You wouldn’t think there would be much commonality of interest between a mining engineer and a chemist. However, he was an expert on ore flotation and was beginning to study the use of flotation to separate detached ink from pulped wastepaper. I was developing surfactants designed to detach ink particles from pulped wastepaper and serve as foaming agents for ink flotation to separate the ink from dispersed cellulose fibers.

Our discussions eventually led to an invitation for me to visit the University of Utah campus and present a paper. While on campus I talked extensively with Dr. Miller’s research group. We eventually decided to apply for a National Science Foundation GOALI grant. These grants were aimed at promoting joint academic – industrial research. I supplied the surfactant being studied and optimized their chemical structures as the Utah group generated results. The Utah researchers gained access to state-of-the-art de-inking surfactants while we were able to optimize chemical structures used advanced laboratory flotation equipment my research group didn’t have. It was definitely a win-win situation.

The indirect approach

I was at an ACS national meeting attending a workshop for chairpersons of ACS local section publicity committees. I volunteered to be the subject of a mock interview conducted by a television reporter. I discussed my paper recycling research in a manner suitable for the general public. After the workshop a professor from the University of Maine chemistry department introduced herself to me and told me that a chemical engineering professor, Ed Thompson, at her university was conducting de-inking studies from an engineering perspective. She gave me his name and I telephoned him.

We were soon meeting each other at Technical Association of the Pulp & Paper Industry meetings and had some interesting discussions. I was intrigued because his department had a pilot scale paper mill that could, among other things, conduct deinking operations. I was able to persuade my employer to fund out some work in this pilot plant evaluating our de-inking surfactants. Paper mill engineers found the results of pilot plant tests much more convincing than laboratory bench experiments.

Dr. Thompson soon formed an industrial consortium to fund his group’s research. Sponsors included paper companies and paper mill equipment companies. We were the only chemical company sponsoring the research and I was soon regarded as the consortium’s chemical expert. Consortium members made recommendations regarding the course of the research and received advance knowledge of the findings prior to publication or presentation at meetings. The relationships I built led to my employer becoming the de-inking surfactant supplier for some of the paper company sponsors of the research.

All these activities resulted in commercialization of new products, issuance of patents with myself as senior inventor, my presenting papers at conferences and publication of papers. I say this not to brag but to indicate the scope of the benefits networking can provide.

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.

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Planning Scientific Career in Industry

May 22, 2011

I recently read “Planning a Scientific Career in Industry: Strategies for Graduates and Academics” by Sanat Mohanty and Ranjana Ghosh. Even though I am a tad bit removed from the start of my career in industry, I find it valuable to read books and articles that make me think about things in a new way. Here are some of the things I thought about while reading this book – if you find them intriguing, you may want to check it out.

Scientists as Knowledge Workers

Scientists are knowledge workers – we combine expertise in a particular subject area with critical analysis skills. This means we have more flexibility than many other kinds of workers – we can apply the same analysis skills to a new area of knowledge, or learn new analysis skills in the same knowledge area.

As knowledge workers, our primary responsibility in industry is to solve problems, and in the best case to identify multiple solutions. You may have been hired to solve a particular kind of problem, but your knowledge, skills and abilities are probably more broadly applicable. Looking around the company for other kinds of problems that you can solve is never a waste of time, and in fact can be a very good source of job security.

Corporate Culture

When contemplating transitioning to a new company, it is very important to understand the culture of that company, and how you will (or will not) fit into it. For example, how does the company react to new ideas? Some companies embrace them, while others like to stick with the tried and true. If they always go with the tried and true, and you prefer to experiment with new ways of doing things, you are probably going to end up very frustrated.

Another thing you will almost certainly do throughout your career is make mistakes. How does the company react to those? Obviously you will be held accountable, but to what level? Are there checks and balances in place to keep you from going too far down the wrong path? What is the attitude of management – “Oh well, we tried something and it didn’t work” or “How could you have done that”?

Being able to work as part of a team is incredibly important in industry, much more so than in academia. Teams today are larger and more diverse than they have been in the past, allowing input from members with a wide variety of backgrounds and expertise. However, since teams are also often geographically distributed and comprised of individuals with different specialties, it may be harder for them to build trust and consensus. The most successful teams form in companies where senior executives are seen to collaborate, where many communities already exist around particular interest areas, and where the team members are able to build on prior relationships.

Career Development

Knowing what you want to get out of your career makes it significantly easier to find a path that will let you get there, rather than the random walk that most people take. Ask yourself what you would do with your time if you didn’t have to earn money. What are your dreams? What would a fulfilling career and life look like to you? By understanding what will make you happy in the long run, working towards that in the short term, you can make sure you are on the right path.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC. Lisa is a freelance technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press.


You Have to Earn the Liz

May 16, 2011

Just over a year ago, I was introduced to a new colleague.  We worked together on a project via long-distance for several months, and then I traveled to her location to deliver the final product (a custom-designed workshop on non-traditional careers for scientists).  The project turned out very well – so well, in fact, that they asked me to do it again this year.

During all this time, my new colleague signed her emails to me “Elizabeth”, and when I visited her institution that’s what most of the people called her.  But this year, as I again traveled there to present the workshops, I noticed she had started signing her emails “Liz”. 

I didn’t think much about it until we were having dinner together on the last night of the trip, talking about how the sessions went and planning improvements for the next year’s program.  As we ate and watched the sunset, she asked if I had noticed the change, and made a very revealing comment.

“You have to earn the ‘Liz’”, she said.  To new people she introduces herself as Elizabeth, and it’s only after they’ve proven themselves to be reliable, professional, and friendly that she relaxes and allows them to call her “Liz”.  I was honored to learn that I had earned the right to call her “Liz.” 

The more I thought about her comment, the more insightful I thought it was.  While most of us aren’t this obvious about it, don’t we all do the same thing?  When you first meet someone, you hold them at arm’s length, being friendly and cooperative, but also watching to see what they are going to be like.  Over time, as you both figure out how to work together, you slowly let down your guard and forge a stronger connection. 

It is those strong connections – people with whom you share a history, know about their strengths, weaknesses, expertise and needs – that form your professional network.  These are the people for whom you should be looking for ways to help, and also the people to whom you can turn when you need help.

Networking is the new employment trend, and everyone is talking about how important it is to build your professional network.  But it’s not just a matter of collecting as many business cards as you can (she who has the most Facebook friends does not necessarily win), but about building real relationships with other professionals.

By working with others on projects, proving your expertise, being reliable and professional, you will build your reputation in their estimation.  They will gain a good understanding of what you can do, what you enjoy doing, and what you are like to work with.  Hopefully, as they come across opportunities or ideas that they think will be of interest to you, they will pass them along to you.  Obviously, you will do the same for them.

In that way, you now have an extra set of eyes looking out for you, and possibly looking in places you would never look.  They extend your reach, you extend their reach, and everyone benefits – all because you took the time to get to know each other.

So the next time you meet someone new, or even get in touch with someone from your past, take a few minutes to think about the relationship.  Is this one that is strong, and someone who would do you a favor if you asked?  Or do you need to invest some more time in nurturing that relationship?  Is it time to go out for coffee, or send an email to catch up on what’s going on in their life? 

After all, if the only time you ever contact someone is when you want something from them, you will never “earn the Liz”.  

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC. Lisa is a freelance technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press.


Tips for Telephone Interviews

May 9, 2011

Ah, spring, when a young man’s fancy turns to …..interviews.

My college student son has been looking for summer internships over the last few months.  He recently texted and told me he had a phone interview scheduled for the next day.  Being the mom I am, I immediately started writing him a list of tips for acing a telephone interview.  Hopefully there is at least one thing here that is new to you, and will help you as well.  

DO YOUR HOMEWORK on the company/department ahead of time.  Read as much as possible on their web site, to find out what they’re all about.  If you know people who work there, talk to them and find out about both typical projects and the culture of the department.  I am constantly amazed at the number of people who omit this crucial step, making those who take it that much more impressive.

BE PREPARED to talk about what you have done with specific examples of your most significant accomplishments so far in your career.  If possible, find a way to relate them to the position for which you are applying. 

SET UP FOR SUCCESS. Find a quiet place, where you can close the door and not be disturbed.  Warn everyone who may come in (roommates, family, etc.) not to interrupt.  Depending on where you are, you may want to ask a friend to guard the door for you during the call. 

Use a land line if possible, or at the very least a location that gets excellent reception for your cell phone.  If possible, turn off call waiting, text messages, and other interruptions that may come through your phone. If you can’t turn them off, ignore them during the call. 

Have a copy of your resume in front of you during the call (preferably the version you sent them), as well as a piece of paper and pencil for taking notes.  If you can, use a headset on the telephone so you can have both hands free to take notes (by typing or writing). 

FOCUS ON THE CONVERSATION.  Ask for the interviewer’s name and number at the very beginning of the call, so you can call them back if you get cut off.  (As an added plus, you can also use that info contact them later, to find out the status of your application.)

Stand up during the phone call, if possible with a mirror in front of you (but don’t do it in a bathroom, the acoustics will give that away).  You want to appear enthusiastic and excited about the position, and you will smile more if you’re standing and looking in a mirror.

SHOW INTEREST AND ENTHUSIASM.  Have some questions prepared for them – about the type of work, the types of projects, and so on.  The money is secondary; don’t ask about that unless they bring it up.

FINISH WELL.  At the end of the conversation, thank them for their time, and make sure to ask what the next step is.  If it is that “you will hear from us”, make sure you know approximately how long it will take them to make their decision and move to the next step. 

Send a thank you note.  For a phone interview, a quick email is probably sufficient. 
If you do all of these things, you should make a great impression and move on to the next stage of the hiring process.  Of course if you’re my son, shortly after you send the text to your mother, you find out it’s an in-person interview instead of a phone interview.  Maybe my next blog article should be a list of tips for in-person interviews….
This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC. Lisa is a technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press.


Unemployed? Don’t Let Your Job Skills Become Rusty

May 2, 2011

Preventing your job skills from deteriorating or becoming out of date is an important issue when you are unemployed, particularly if you have been unemployed for a year or more. Job hunts are taking longer nowadays. Overall, the number of long-term unemployed is at its highest levels since the Great Depression of the 1930s. “Newly laid-off chemists face a job market in which long-term unemployment has become the rule rather than the exception” according to the July 5, 2010 issue of C&EN (http://pubs.acs.org/cen/coverstory/88/8827cover2.html ). Over 40% of the unemployed have been out of work for than six months or longer, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is more than 6 million Americans. The number and percentage of people who have been unemployed for more than six months has risen sharply since 2008. Corresponding numbers for chemists have not been reported. However, anecdotal information suggests that the number of chemists unemployed for six months or more has increased.
Besides the adverse financial effects of long-term unemployment, unemployed chemists face another challenge: the danger of their job skills and chemical knowledge becoming out of date.

“The wasted human capital is just tremendous,” says Jacob Kirkegaard, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “Once people become unemployed for long periods of time, you start seeing a serious depreciation or reduction in their skill levels — in the human capital that they carry… They essentially lose contact with the latest developments in their own field.” For example, unemployed chemists may not have convenient access to research and trade journals now that their former employers’ libraries are unavailable. Given the cost of journal subscriptions, few unemployed chemists are likely to make this investment.

So what steps can you take to keep your professional skills up to date and even expand them?

Check the ACS website

The ACS offers benefits to unemployed members that include waived dues for up to two full years. Benefits specifically related to helping unemployed members keep their professional skills up to date include registration discounts for online business skills courses, ACS ProSpectives, ACS short courses, webcasts, and the ACS Leadership Development System. Information on these programs is available in the Careers section of the ACS website.

National and regional ACS meetings can be an important way to keep your chemistry knowledge from becoming out of date. ACS members receive reduced meeting registration fees. There are also other ways to reduce the cost of attending ACS meetings including using frequent flyer miles to eliminate airfare expenses and reducing hotel room costs by sharing a room with a friend.

Temporary employment

Many current job openings are for temporary positions. For example, in December 2008 the U.S. economy lost 85,000 jobs overall according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, at the same time the number of people employed in temporary positions increased by 47,000 people.

By registering with a temporary employment agency such as Kelly Scientific Services, Aerotek, Olsten Staffing Services and other firms, you may be able to find a temporary position that will both provide some income when your unemployment benefits are exhausted and offer a means of utilizing your chemical skills and knowledge. These jobs can help you keep your chemistry skills up to date.

However, you don’t want to become complacent while working in a temporary position even if the job is interesting and your coworkers congenial. While employed in a temporary job, you should continue your job hunt for a long-term position. Also, let the company contracting your services know that you are interested in a long-term position with them. Some firms use temporary positions as a means of screening people for long-term employment.

Other options

If you live in a large city, you can access research journals and trade magazines through your local library. Libraries in lower population areas may also maintain some of these subscriptions. You may be able to access the libraries of local colleges and universities, particularly if you are an alumnus.

ACS local sections often bring in speakers to present talks on technical subjects. You may want to ask your local section program chair to not limit these talks to chemistry. For example, a local project manager may be interested in discussing the basics of her field. A patent attorney may be willing to present an overview of his field or describe how recent changes in the patent system affect both researchers and their employers.

Consider forming a job-hunting club through your ACS local section. See the ACS tip sheet to start a job club. Participants in the club can present talks in their technical fields. This can enable club members to be exposed to technology outside their own specialty area. It can also enable them to practice interviewing skills.  
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.