Changing Jobs: Overcoming the Activation Barrier

March 26, 2012

When I was stuck in a job I didn’t find fulfilling, it was easy to want to change jobs. What was harder was mustering the energy to overcome the barriers to finding a new job. It took me a long time to go from wanting to leave to actually trying to make it happen. There were seven steps, each requiring more focused energy.

Below are the seven steps that I went through to overcome those barriers.

1.  I disliked my job.

In the first stage, I had been unhappy with my job for years. Basic research was not well-supported by my upper management, and funding was tight. Both problems seemed to be getting worse, not better.  However, when I came home from work, I had a choice: I could pursue interesting projects and hobbies, or I could continue to do the laborious and daunting work of searching for a new job. For many months, I chose the latter.

2.  I applied to companies in series.

Once I got fed up with my job situation and acknowledged it wasn’t going to improve without some effort, I started revising my resume and occasionally searching for interesting companies. In this stage, every few months I’d find a company that sounded like a great fit and focus solely on that organization, while waiting to hear back. I would chase down the opportunity by networking and applying through the company’s recruitment system. While my approach to getting into these companies was fairly good, unfortunately none of these efforts worked out. And because I was working in serial—one company at a time—it often took months to get an answer and then move on to applying to another company.

I knew I should probably be looking harder, but did not want to devote the kind of time a serious job search takes—I wanted to devote more time to other interests. As a result, I just wasn’t getting the attention of enough relevant employers by cultivating multiple leads at once. Applying to a few companies a year when great opportunities come along is fine if there is no hurry to move on, but it usually doesn’t lead to a new job in a timely fashion.

3.  I improved my resume.

Concerned that my resume and cover letter might be holding me back, at this stage I improved my resume by working with an ACS Career Consultant, who helped me flesh out my accomplishments by challenging me to add specific examples to ensure the content was presentable. I noticed the structure of my resume didn’t seem right when I applied to jobs in fields I was looking to break into. Even if I hadn’t worked in a particular field, I knew I had accomplishments relevant to the work. The problem was those accomplishments were scattered across multiple jobs and courses, making the narrative of my resume disjointed.

I happened to see an ACS Careers Blog post on functional (skills-based) resumes and the light bulb went off. When I structured my resume by skills rather than chronologically, I was able to collect all my accomplishments from different jobs and courses which were relevant to the new field. Now, I could gear my resume to one of several new fields I was interested in and show I had accomplishments relevant to that field, even if I hadn’t formally worked in the industry.

4.  I applied to companies in parallel.

Ultimately, staying in my previous job was holding back my personal goals, so I invested more energy in my search by applying to companies in parallel. I applied to many companies, mostly online. In my desire to make something happen, I probably emphasized quantity at the expense of quality, applying for jobs that weren’t great matches for my interests.

I received a few interviews; but I was tired of sending my application into black holes, never to hear from hiring managers or Human Resource professionals.  While this tactic alone works for some people, I was not successful using this method.

5.  I networked in parallel.

In an effort to learn more about my target companies and get the inside track on talking to potential colleagues and hiring managers, I started networking with many more people. For each company I had a serious interest in, I requested telephone networking conversations with several current or past employees. I spoke to existing professional contacts, friends, and even people I’d never met before (LinkedIn ® was a good resource for finding employees of target companies). Not everyone responded; however, those who did were quite generous with their time and insights. They told me about the company’s culture and outlook, how their company compared to competitors, and how to pitch my accomplishments to fit their company. (I looked at the ACS tips on conducting a networking conversation for suggestions on what questions to ask.)

It was especially helpful to talk to people in target fields in which I had no direct experience.  I learned what they did on a daily basis, how their company and industry worked, where their funding came from, and how to transition from hands-on bench research to desk-based analysis.

6.  I attended career events.

Several ACS webinars were helpful. Today’s Job Search Strategies explained industry trends and encouraged me to focus my search. The Road Less Traveled – Alternative Careers for PhD Scientists reassured me that leaving laboratory research would not mean my hard work was for naught, and suggested a variety of fields from lobbying to technical writing. Careers in Intellectual Property for Chemists focused on one such field, its rewards, what career options are available for chemists, and how to pursue those options.

My local ACS chapter, the Chemical Society of Washington, presented a one-day Career Development Workshop for Chemists. It had panel discussions on careers inside and outside the chemical sector. There were also presentations on chemical employment trends (to tell me what I was up against!) and developing a resume. I met employees at companies I was interested in as well as other job-seekers, who shared what they’d found in the job market.

The ACS Mid-Atlantic Regional Meeting had a career development track. One day included speakers and panels of people with science degrees who were working in alternative (non-laboratory) careers. One panelist happened to be the hiring manager for a job I wanted and later interviewed for! Another day included workshops on career self-assessment, resumes, interviewing, and hiring negotiations. I was able to practice my answers to interview questions in a group with other job-seekers.

7.  I planned and managed my job search.

By this point, I was investing the amount of time I should have been from the start. Networking and applying to jobs were becoming a second full-time job. But I felt disorganized and realized I needed to plan and manage my job search better.

Seeking a coherent strategy, I picked one book on career management, bought a copy (rather than checking it out from the library) so I wouldn’t have to rush through it, and worked through the writing exercises pretty methodically. I found this more useful than reading multiple books but not doing the “homework” they suggested.

The book I chose was Get The Job You Want, Even When No One’s Hiring, by Ford R. Myers. I picked this book as it seemed well-written and organized, was geared toward professionals, emphasized networking, and had a good mix of self-assessment (what kind of work do I want to do?), and practical job-search strategy. It was also a reasonable length to work through comprehensively.

While working through the exercises in the book, I thought about what fields I wanted to work in and for which companies. I kept track of my contacts, networking engagements, and job applications. This gave me a sense of control over my job search. Eventually, I found an exciting new opportunity once I generated the energy I needed and developed my plan to overcome my career-change activation barrier.

Jeremy Monat earned a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley. He studied photovoltaics (dye-sensitized solar electricity cells) and energetic materials using laser spectroscopy. He is the author of over a dozen peer-reviewed papers. He is now a Systems Engineer in the Washington, D.C. area.

When Connecting Isn’t A Connection: 21 Ways to Build Relationships

March 19, 2012

We talk a lot about the power of networking, and how important it is to be connected to many diverse kinds of people.  But just because you are “linked” to them electronically doesn’t mean you really know them.  Take a look at your current connection list.  When was the last time you talked to most of them?  Would they remember you if you called? If it’s been awhile, now is the time to start thawing out some of those cold connections.

Below are 21 non-intrusive ways to you can contact a colleague, and take the first step towards strengthening that weak connection.

  1. Send them an article (yes, an actual piece of paper from a magazine or newspaper, via postal mail) on a topic you know interests them.  It might be some aspect of their business, their professional development, or a hobby that they mentioned last time you talked.  Attach a short note saying “Saw this and thought you’d find it interesting.”
  2. Find the answer to a question they had the last time you talked, and send it to them.
  3. Tell them about an upcoming event (webinar, technical session, etc.) on a topic you think they will want to attend.
  4. Invite them to an event you are organizing, or at which you are speaking, that relates to their work.
  5. Forward a link to an interesting article you found online, relating to a topic that interests them.  Forward the link, not the entire article (to avoid copyright violations), and include a brief cover note about what the article is, or why you thought it would be interesting to them.
  6. Send them a birthday (or other holiday) card.
  7. Follow them on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, the ACS Network……and occasionally comment on their updates and other posts.
  8. Refer someone to them who may be able to use their professional expertise, or a potential customer for their company.
  9. Ask if they’re attending the next local/regional/national meeting.  Offer to meet for coffee or a meal in conjunction with that meeting.
  10. Post a comment on their blog.
  11. Mention that you’re going to be in their area, and would love to get together for a cup of coffee or lunch.
  12. Volunteer for an organization where they also volunteer.  (As an added bonus, you’ll meet new people you may want to add to your network.)
  13. Forward a white paper, case study, or detailed article on a topic of mutual interest that you’ve written.
  14. Let them know when a new store or web site serving their favorite hobby opens up.
  15. Pass along a report or article about the future of their field or industry.
  16. Ask them for their opinion on recent developments with an issue you discussed during your last conversation.
  17. Read their most recent publications and send them an insightful comment or question.
  18. Congratulate them on an honor or achievement they received, or a change in employer on their LinkedIn or ACS Network profile.
  19. Forward an article about their school or alma mater, or ask their advice if your child is considering going to school there.
  20. Ask if they’ve made progress on the problem you were talking about last time you met.  Share a new resource you found on that topic.
  21. Introduce them to someone who may be able to help them out with something (a two-fer – if it works out, you get credit for helping both people).

Have you notice what all these suggestions have in common?  They all involve you knowing the other person’s needs and interests, and forwarding information and resources that will help them with what they care about.

These ideas are just a start!  There are many other things you can do to re-establish connections with people in your network.  Post your own ideas in the comments below.

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.

Myths and Tricks from the Hiring Professional

March 12, 2012

I recently had the pleasure of listening to a presentation by Jill Lynn, Human Resources professional at BASi.  It’s always interesting to hear from someone on the other side of the hiring process, and she graciously allowed me to share some of her insights with you.

She began by debunking three myths about the application process.

Myth 1:  “My professional experience and skills are the most important thing, and that’s all that matters to get the job, right?” 

Nope, sorry!  Interpersonal skills are the most frequently cited reason for failure of a new hire (2005 Leadership IQ Survey), so they are crucial during the hiring process.  How well you fit into the corporate culture is a major factor in the hiring decision, and many companies will “hire for attitude, and train for aptitude”.

Myth 2: “My resume should be unique, creative, and show off my personality and style.”

Again, nope!  Hiring professionals receive such a flood of resumes, the thing they most want is an easy to read and electronically friendly resume (meaning one that scans easily, and contains all the appropriate keywords).  Resumes that are “unique” are often difficult to read.  With so many to choose from, the less work the reader has to do, the better.  Your resume should list your professional experience in reverse chronological order, using action words and phrases (not narratives).  Make sure to use a professional email address ( may get you a date, but will not get you a job.)

Myth 3:  “A detailed job objective, and information about my hobbies and outside interests, will make me stand out.” 

Perhaps, but they will not get you a job.  Many hiring professionals view objective statements as “filler” for those who don’t have enough work experience, and hobbies can actually hinder your ability to get an interview because they distract from your professional experience.

Hiring professionals make their living researching and reading people.  They may talk to your friends and family, co-workers, and will read your online social networking profile and postings.  Any publically available information is fair game (including your Facebook or Linked In profiles), so make sure you know what’s out there about you, and start cleaning it up now, if needed.  Be especially careful of whom you let tag you in online photographs or comment on your pictures or posts.

The interview begins not when you meet the interviewer, and not even when you enter the building, but the minute the company receives the first contact from or about you.  From then on, everything you say and do is considered as part of the package.  You are never off-stage.

Before you go in for the formal interview, make sure to research the company, and even better the person with whom you will be interviewing.  Always be prepared with a few questions to ask when it’s your turn, and stay focused on the position and the organization.

During the interview, be professional.  Dress to impress, matching the company style if possible.  Try to connect to the people with whom you interview, but remember that they are investigating you, and may try to “trip you up” by asking the same question in a different way, to see if you give a different answer.  Make sure to give a clear, concise, and always accurate, answer to each question.  Before answering, think about what they are really asking.  Do they really care where you want to be in 10 years, or do they want to know what you’re most interested in now, and if you have considered your future?  Do they really care what your biggest weakness is, or do they want to know how you are working to overcome it?

These few tips will go a long way towards making sure you shine during the hiring process, and find the company that fits your skills, personality and ambitions.

Good luck!

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.

Entrepreneurship: Can less be more for Startups?

March 5, 2012

A new study from North Carolina State University is turning conventional wisdom about technology start-up companies on its head, showing that:

  • moderately undercapitalized companies can still be successful and’
  • a top-notch product is more important than a stellar management team


Startup technology companies with moderate levels of undercapitalization can still be successful according to a new study from North Carolina State University and the University of Oklahoma. The study examined 79 companies started over a 10-year period. “Our research shows that undercapitalization is not a death sentence for start-up ventures,” says Dr. David Townsend, Assistant Professor of Management, Innovation and Entrepreneurship at NC State who co-authored the study with Dr. Lowell Busenitz, Professor of Entrepreneurship and Management and Academic Director – Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Oklahoma.

The two researchers found that moderate levels of undercapitalization, even capitalization ratios as low as 20% of the venture’s initial goals, are not statistically related to a venture’s probability of surviving. “There are things a venture can do to survive and succeed.” Basically, Townsend says, start-ups that fall short of their fund-raising goals can take steps to minimize their cash outflows in order to stay viable.

They can do this by engaging in “management strategies focused on reducing their costs. For example, outsourcing certain development tasks and accounting responsibilities or exchanging services with other companies,” Townsend says. Locating your firm in an incubator that offers services that can put you in touch with firms that can do this with your startup can be an important factor in choosing a business incubator for your new firm.

Creative use of resources is important. For a chemistry or life sciences startup, this can mean obtaining inexpensive access to expensive laboratory facilities, particularly instrumentation.

Management team

Townsend also concluded that a great management team is not more important than a top-notch technology product when it comes to securing sufficient amounts of capital.

A disciplined approach to cash management is essential according to Townsend. Writing in Bloomberg Businessweek, Vivek Wadha, a start-up veteran and visiting scholar at the University of California-Berkeley, a senior research associate at Harvard Law School, and the Director of Research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke University, agrees with Townsend. Wadha observed that when a company is running on a tight budget; it will perform better than a company with ample funding from venture capitalists. Why?

According to Wadha, large amounts of equity money can quickly lead to bad habits. Venture capitalists will want the CEO to bring in a seasoned management team. However, these managers typically want large salaries and big chunks of equity. These managers often want what Wadha calls “rock star perks” such as: a personal assistant, first class travel, company car, etc. Wadha reports that bringing in one or more hires like this usually means the original members of the startup team stopped worrying about keeping costs down and increased their own spending. According to Wadha, this “can quickly cripple and kill any new venture.”

Bringing in large amounts of venture capital often creates expectations of very rapid growth on the part of investors. This often comes at the expense of long-term profitability according to Wadha. It can also mean that startup founders worry more about keeping their investors happy and less thinking about customers. A lean and hungry startup tends to better maintain its customer focus.

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.