Challenges of Self-employment

September 26, 2011

In today’s difficult employment climate, more chemists are considering self-employment either as a long-term commitment or as a stopgap to produce income while they job hunt. I came to this conclusion based on my recent observations as an ACS Career Consultant working with members and my discussions with other Career Consultants about their experiences.

Common skill areas for self-employed chemists include the technical knowledge they developed over the course of their careers. This often includes how an industry or various industries uses chemical technology in their processes.  Chemistry is the universal science many industries use it to operate their businesses and show a profit. For example, the three industries I am most familiar with are oil and gas production, petroleum refining, and paper manufacture. All use chemistry in their key production operations.

Self-employed chemists often work as consultants helping clients in various industries solve problems relating to chemistry. Some chemists tap the skills they developed during their laboratory careers. Information scientists locate information needed by client firms to solve their problems. Patent attorneys help firms without their own legal departments prepare and file patents and deal with intellectual property issues. Some chemists use their writing skills to write reports, technology assessments and other documents. They may also work as self-employed (freelance) writers preparing articles for trade and consumer magazines, newspapers and on-line publications. The list of fields in which self-employed chemists can work is a long one.

Key features of self-employment

Key features of self-employment are:
• You are constantly selling your problem solving skills to prospective clients. These firms hire you because their own employees do not have the skills or the time to solve particular problems themselves.
• In addition to drawing on your chemistry knowledge, you rely on your professional network of contacts and knowledge of various industries to identify work opportunities and provide technical information.
• You are running a business. To make it profitable requires treating what you do as a business and managing it accordingly.

Self-employment requires business skills

Chemical skills alone are not enough for successful self-employment. I was fortunate to have a mentor, successful consultant Geoff Dolbear teach me that one’s business skills are more important than one’s chemical skills in making a living as a self-employed chemist. I learned that it is essential to:
• have the organizational skills needed to develop and adhere to a business plan
• the interpersonal skills to market yourself to prospective clients and to work well with clients
• the writing and oral communication skills to market yourself to clients and report your results to them
• the business skills to price your time appropriately, bill clients and collect your fees from them

One also has to have good time management skills. The ability to meet deadlines is critical. Meanwhile, one also has to market oneself to prospective clients while working with (and being paid) by other clients. Self-employed people cannot afford to work for clients without simultaneously soliciting new work from prospective clients. If they do so, they risk having a period of no income after finishing a project for a client while they market themselves to others. Marketing must be continuous.

Self-employment means opportunities to work on varied projects, many of them fascinating, and meeting many interesting people. For example, as a science writer I have interviewed at least sixteen Nobel Prize winners; a wide variety of leading scientists in various fields, not just chemistry; a vice-president of the United States and a wide variety of business executives and entrepreneurs.

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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Use Your Accomplishments to Stand Out from Other Job Hunters

September 19, 2011

As an ACS Career Consultant, the most common problem I see with résumés is that job hunters don’t provide examples of their skills and accomplishments that will impress employers and make job hunters stand out from their competition. Yet doing so is essential in today’s highly competitive job market.

How can you stand out from other job hunters so that it is your résumé that is selected from the stack of other candidates’ résumés? How can you make a strongly favorable impression during employment interviews? The answer to these questions is to prove your abilities and accomplishments with examples, not just favorable adjectives used in your résumé and during interviews. By backing up your claims with proof, you are demonstrating that you can produce valuable results for the employer if you are hired.

Your résumé

Begin doing this early in your résumé. Look at the summary section near the top of your first page. Chances are it is a series of claims such as:

• skilled in the latest organic synthesis techniques
• excellent oral communication skills
• outstanding leadership abilities

These are very good but can be made much more memorable by backing them up with proof. Let’s add examples that make these attributes more memorable and convincing:

• skilled in the latest organic synthesis techniques. Used click chemistry with the Huisgen 1,3-cycloaddition to synthesize a series of 1,3-substituted triazole drug candidates in 99% yield.
• excellent oral communication skills. Won the Smilgoff Award for best presentation by a graduate student at the ACS 47th Northern Regional Meeting
• outstanding leadership abilities. As president of my ACS Student Affiliate Chapter organized a series of programs that helped to double chapter membership to 32.

These examples illustrate a challenge of using examples to create a strong impression: the approach does take up more space on your résumé. So you need to make your examples as concise as possible.

Mid-career chemists

As the second and third bullet points above indicate, this approach extends beyond clearly demonstrating productivity and accomplishment in the laboratory. Today’s industrial chemist spends a lot of time outside the laboratory working in teams to scale up reactions, introduce new products to customers, and supervise others. Providing strong examples of these skills is essential in today’s crowded job market. If all you are is a lab rat, even a very productive one, what is the incentive for an employer to hire you rather than a new graduate exposed to the very latest in laboratory techniques?

For example, consider the following real-life example:

• developed a new product, Cla-Sta® FS to minimize rock permeability damage due to small particle migration thus increasing well productivity.

Consider how much more convincing and memorable the series following statements are:

• Developed a new product, Cla-Sta® FS to minimize rock permeability damage due to small particle migration thus increasing well productivity. Field results indicated four-fold increases in oil productivity maintained 8 months after well treatment.
• Wrote a technical bulletin describing field results obtained using the product.
• Presented field results at a national and two regional Society of Petroleum Engineers meetings and wrote a paper published in Journal of Petroleum Technology.
• Received awards from the Asociacion de Petroleros de Mexico and the Pittsburgh Division of Halliburton Services for the development of Cla-Sta FS.

You can use the same approach if you work outside the laboratory as a patent attorney, sales representative or in some other assignment. You can also use this approach to describe your accomplishments and set them in context during employment interviews. Again, the key is to be concise and focused in your statements.

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.


What Makes You Happy?

September 12, 2011

Do you really know what makes you happy in your professional life?

Many people think they will be happy when they get that next assignment, raise, promotion, or other event. They never quite get there, but are always looking to the future and some external event that is going to make them happy.

Recently, Nature conducted their first-ever salary and career survey, where they examined responses from over 10,500 scientists worldwide, and compared the job experiences between genders, and among geographical regions, sectors, and career stages. A summary of the data is available online.

The survey was international; therefore the overall predisposition of a country or region would affect the happiness scores. However, the researchers accounted for this by comparing how happy scientists were relative to the average happiness of their fellow countrymen.

What did they find to be the biggest driver of professional satisfaction? Not salary. In fact, it was “guidance received from superiors or coworkers”. Is this because scientists are inherently social (which is not the prevailing stereotype)? Or because those who form relationships and obtain advice from others are more likely to move ahead in their careers (which is what the networking advocate in me wants to believe)?

Salary was, however, the second-biggest driver of professional satisfaction. Most scientists were satisfied with their salaries overall, and many other studies suggest that once you earn enough to cover the basics, more money does not make you happier. In this case, things such as actual purchasing power (relative to cost of living), and your wealth relative to your comparison group (neighbors, etc.) become more important than actual amounts.

The factor ranking third in the Nature survey was degree of independence, which was over 60% in all countries except China, India and Japan. It appears that scientists want control over the direction of their work.

When examining the data by career stage (postdoc, assistant professor/lecturer, associate professor and full professor – it was not clear how industrial chemists were counted), satisfaction levels generally increased throughout the course of the career (though European scientists had a slight dip after the postdoc, then recovered).

Some other interesting observations:

Most scientists in Europe were satisfied with their holiday and maternity/paternity leave, while those in North America were less satisfied with those benefits.

Almost half of respondents in all countries thought the two-body problem (finding jobs for both members of a couple when both are scientists) was a significant issue. This may be worth keeping in mind if you are part of a dual-career couple – keeping yourself professionally flexible may be very important.

To no one’s surprise, industrial salaries were higher than academic salaries across all countries, and average pay increased through the course of one’s career (though the curve flattens in Europe and Australasia in later stages, relative to North America).

In a separate study, TeachFirst looked into why students pursue careers in STEM. Personal satisfaction and fulfillment was the most important characteristic that influenced graduate’s choice of career paths. This was followed by the opinions of family and friends, confidence in their own competencies and ranking lowest was lack of experience.

While the data is interesting, what does it mean to you?

Much like unemployment numbers (where the only number that really matters to you is if you are employed or not), you may not be too concerned with the happiness of your fellow scientists. But knowing what they value may help you realize what you really value.

I have a friend who, for several years, told everyone he met how unhappy he was at work, how horrible his boss was, and that he was going to give me his resume to review so he could start looking for another job – but he never did. Eventually, my friend was let go, and he’s now trying to figure out what will make him happy in his next job.

Use these surveys as a chance to reflect on your own professional life. Why did you go into science, and why did you choose the specific career path that you are on? Was it an accident, or did you plan it? Are you happy in what you are doing, and how you are doing it, or would you like more guidance from, or collaboration with, your peers? Maybe you’d rather have more independence over your own part of the project.

Once you’ve decided what you want, start figuring out ways to get it. Sometimes, it’s as easy as asking for more responsibility, or to be able to take on a new kind of project. Other times, you may have to move into a new position, or maybe even a new company. But once you do that, you will be happy – at least until you’re ready for the next change.

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.