Getting New Job? Getting Off to a Good Start

July 30, 2012

Starting a new job can be stressful. You’ve gone from working with familiar coworkers to working with people you don’t know and who are unfamiliar with your capabilities. You’ve gone from being an expert in how to get things accomplished in the workplace to a novice who needs to learn your new employer’s workplace procedures.

However, there are strategies you can use to establish credibility with your new boss and coworkers and learn how to get things done in your workplace.

Strategies you can use include:

  • Implement a self-improvement plan when starting your new job
  • Try to look back on your previous job objectively. Figure out what you could have done better.
  • Socializing on the job with your new coworkers in an appropriate way.

Let’s look at how you might employ each of these strategies.

Implementing a self-improvement plan

Learn what your new manager expects you to know. Use this information to design a self-improvement plan. Your list can include technology, particularly your new employer’s technology. For example, I worked on development of new plastic resins for a chemical manufacturer. Then I changed jobs and learned my new managers expected that I know a lot about water-soluble polymers because another department of my previous employer was a major manufacturer of some of these polymers. I had never worked in this area and knew little about it. However, I made it my business to rapidly learn about this area of chemistry because my new job responsibilities included developing water-soluble polymers for oilfield applications. By the time I had been in my new job a month I was getting introduced as their new water-soluble polymers expert and holding my own in discussions with customers and water-soluble polymer suppliers.

Equally important can be learning procedures on how to get things accomplished in your new workplace. Such procedures can include everything from how to get office supplies to submitting samples for analysis. Don’t be afraid to ask your new coworkers questions. Be sure to remember the answers. Because you are a new employee they won’t mind answering your questions once. However, make sure you remember their answers. Otherwise they may lose patience with you if they find themselves answering the same questions repeatedly. I have found that the real experts in helping you learn workplace procedures are often the laboratory technicians, secretaries and administrative assistants.

As part of your work, you may also need to develop contacts at your new employer’s suppliers and customers. Do this as appropriate in the course of your job. Another way to do this is to meet people at conferences and tradeshows. One way I did this was to volunteer to help my new employer’s sales personnel in staffing our firm’s tradeshow booth at a major oilfield industry conference. The sales staff was dubious at first because they didn’t know me well. By observing me working in the booth, they soon realized that I had learned the technology and interacted well with our firm’s customers and potential customers.

Review your performance in your previous job

Review your performance in your previous job. Determine what you could have done differently or better to improve your productivity and working relationships with your managers and coworkers. Make these lessons part of your self-improvement plant and apply them when and where you can in your new job.

Socialize with your new coworkers in an appropriate way

Company cultures differ in important ways. Learn your new workplace culture and modify your behavior accordingly to be compatible with it. In particular, socialize with your new coworkers appropriately. For example, the custom at your previous employer might have been for chemists to eat lunch alone at their desks. However, at your new employer chemists may go to lunch together and discuss common problems or current situations in the workplace. If your coworkers go out Friday after work for a beer, join them at least occasionally. You don’t have to practice your new behaviors 100% of the time. However, you don’t want to develop a reputation of being “stand-offish” from the group.  Be patient. Soon you’ll be even more comfortable and productive in your new job as you were in your former one.

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.


Careers in Biotech-based Chemical Products

July 23, 2012

One growing field of chemistry is developing, manufacturing and formulating biotechnology-based chemical products. This area is the most active one in chemistry in terms of the formation of start-up companies and in terms of taking companies public to raise money for business growth. The two best known areas are using biotechnology to develop new drugs and biofuels. However, there are also other types of chemical products that can be based on biotechnology. The job market is better in biotechnology than in most fields of traditional chemistry. So it makes sense to develop expertise or relate the expertise you already have to biotechnology and emphasize this expertise as one of your job-hunting strategies.  How might you do this?

Green chemistry

Today most chemicals are being produced from limited resources such as crude oil or natural gas. However, one could use renewable resources instead. For example, until now, most surfactants have been derived from these limited resources. These biosurfactants can be formulated with other materials to produce green laundry detergents and a wide variety of other cleaning products for household and workplace use. When these formulations work well in customer trials, large-scale production methods need to be developed to produce them commercially. Then if the biosurfactants perform well enough they could replace petroleum-based cleaning products in homes and businesses.

Of course, this type of biotechnology isn’t limited to surfactants. It can be used to develop renewable biofuels, drugs, personal care products, lubricants and polymers – all based on green chemistry.  A key part of green chemistry is using environmentally friendly catalysts such as fungi or bacteria instead of conventional catalysts, which often contain toxic metals. One possible use of these fungi and bacteria is to manufacture the biosurfactants discussed above.

We like to think of biotechnology as new. However, examples of fermentation chemistry abound in the food and beverage industries where fermentation has been used for 6,000 years. Examples include making bread, cheese, beer and wine.

Energy from food processing plant wastes

There is increased interest in producing useful energy from the waste of food processing factories. Consider an agribusiness such as Gills Onions, the largest U.S. fresh-cut onion processor.  Gills produces a growing volume of food waste: onion tops, tails and skins, which account for about 40% of the original onion weight, about 1.5 million pounds weekly. The amount had become too costly and environmentally unsustainable to plow into soil as compost.

University of California Davis researchers demonstrated that one could squeeze the onion wastes and use certain microbes to convert the juice produced into methane, which could be used to generate electricity. Today this electricity powers Gill Onions’ power plant saving $700,000 on power costs and $400,000 on trucking costs annually. The onion pulp remaining after squeezing out the juice is sold as cattle feed as is or mixed with other feed ingredients.

Food waste produced from other types of crop processing facilities can be converted to methane for use in power generation.  For instance, large citrus fruit processing factories produce a mixture of peel, seeds, and segment membranes that could be converted on-site to methane and used to generate electricity. Alternatively these food wastes could be converted to bioethanol or biodiesel. By building the plant waste conversion facility on-site, transportation costs would be near zero.

These are no longer just tomorrow’s jobs. They are today’s jobs and there are a growing number of jobs for chemists in these fields now.

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 1400 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.


It’s the Little Things that Matter

July 16, 2012

Once upon a time (quite a few years ago), there was a young woman* who graduated from high school, and went out for her first job interview.  She had no work experience, but had taken a typing class in high school and was a pretty good typist.  At her interview for a secretarial position, the supervisor asked her to create a letter telling someone that their claim was in progress.  He left her to it, and went back to his desk across the room.  When she finished, she waited a few minutes, but he did not come back.  So, she got up and took the letter to him.  He read it, said he liked what she had done, and she was hired.

Her assigned desk was near the interview area, so while she worked she watched other people being interviewed for similar positions. Over the course of several months, she noticed a pattern.  Those who finished their letter and sat quietly, waiting for the supervisor to come back and get it, were thanked for their time and sent home.  Those who finished the letter, and then took the initiative to take it to the supervisor, were hired.  The quality of the letters they wrote varied, and had to be at least a certain level, but almost without exception the deciding factor was whether or not they took the letter to the supervisor.

Maybe that supervisor was onto something.  He didn’t hire the fastest or most accurate typists, or the ones with the most experience.  He hired the people who demonstrated by their actions that they would take initiative and be productive workers, not just sit around and wait for someone else to tell them what to do.

Today, the employment landscape is very different (when was the last time you saw an opening for a typist?), but things haven’t really changed all that much.  When there are so many candidates who have the technical skills to do the job, it is still very often the nontechnical or interpersonal skills that determine who gets hired.

This was made very clear to me recently when I was chatting with a colleague, waiting for a meeting to start. He mentioned that one of his staff had just quit, so he had an opening to fill. I asked what he was looking for, and was told “someone who can work independently, but knows how to solicit input from the team. Someone who can apply what they already know to new areas, but is also willing to learn new things…..”  Only when I asked about education and experience did they say “Oh yeah, a PhD in something like materials science or biotechnical engineering or physics…..we can teach them the technical information they don’t have and the details of our specific field, but the other qualities are more important.”  To this hiring manager, the teamwork skills and working style were more important than the person’s specific technical knowledge.

A recent article in Chemical and Engineering News, “Closing the Skills Gap” (http://cen.acs.org/articles/90/i24/Closing-Skills-Gap.html) talked about how many employers have openings, but are now having trouble finding people with the right skills to fill them.  Most often, what they are missing is not technical skills, but experience with teamwork, collaboration, intellectual property, conflict resolution, working across disciplines, cultures, and distances, and other things that are crucial to a successful, but not often taught in most schools.

So what does this mean for today’s scientific job seeker?  Especially if you’re just coming out of school, it is crucial to get real-world experience with those non-technical skills as well.  A summer internship in a local company, collaboration with some industrial colleagues, or even carefully selected volunteer work can do a great deal to enhance your awareness, and your credentials.  Then you’ll know when to take initiative, and ace the interview by taking the letter to your supervisor.

(*Based on a true story, shared with me in confidence.)

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:  New Formulas for Chemistry Careers,” published by Oxford University Press.


Comparative Advantages of Young Chemists to Industry Veterans

July 9, 2012

Employers hiring chemists consider new graduates and post-docs leaving academia with a very different mindset than they do industry veterans. By understanding these mindsets both industry novices and veterans can job hunt more effectively. So what are these mindsets and the relative advantages each type of chemist brings to the job market?

Skill sets

Employers are searching for very specific skill sets when evaluating job candidates. They want to hire individuals who can rapidly “come up to speed” and begin producing useful results for the employer. Employers may not hire and train a new graduate when they can hire a recently laid-off scientist with exactly the technical skills they need.

Additionally, veteran industrial chemists will often have advanced soft skills that graduating chemists and post-docs leaving academia haven’t had the opportunity to develop. These include project management skills, polished oral presentation skills, teamwork opportunities and working productively with customers and suppliers. Also, preparing articles for industry trade magazines requires a different approach to writing than preparing a thesis or writing papers for research journals. The differences are important because industry trade journal articles can promote product sales while research journal papers seldom do this.

Having a practical understanding of how to protect intellectual property can help chemists work productively with patent attorneys to safeguard their employers’ interests. Many chemists, both industry veterans and novices, don’t have these skills. Therefore, veteran chemists who have these skills and can describe them clearly have a significant advantage in the job market.

Employers may be reluctant to hire veteran chemists because they feel they have to pay them more than recently graduated chemists. However, by emphasizing their ability to come up to speed rapidly and use their valuable skills gained through their experience, veteran chemists can overcome this reluctance.

Carefully choose your graduate and post-doctoral research advisors so you gain the knowledge and skills in demand when you looking for an industrial job. For example, nanotechnology is being increasingly utilized in catalysis, polymer fillers and consumer product formulations. Chemists leaving academia after working in nanotechnology can often take advantage of these needs and emphasizing their skills when job hunting.

Many industry veterans know the “rules of the road” for industrial job hunting. However, these rules have changed greatly over the last decade. Therefore, veteran chemists who have not been in the job market for many years may be competing ineffectively. Whether you are an industry veteran or are leaving academia for the first time you have to learn today’s job-hunting skills. These skills are taught in books, through ACS employment workshops and by talking to recently successful job hunters or recruiters.

Professional networks

Having a professional network of individuals who can provide job leads and expert job-hunting advice can be a major advantage in job hunting. It takes chemists time to develop these professional networks. Therefore, professional networks can be a source of advice for many veteran chemists looking for work. Unfortunately some veteran chemists do not take the time necessary to develop or maintain their professional networks because they feel they are too busy.

Novice chemists need not despair over their professional networks if they work at developing them starting a year or more before leaving the academic nest. Learn if your research advisors have industrial connections that will be helpful in your job-hunting efforts. You may want to consider this factor when choosing your graduate and postdoctoral research advisors.

Members of your professor’s research group who recently got industry jobs can be particularly helpful members of your professional network. This is because they work in the same or similar technology area as you and have recently honed their job-hunting skills in a very demanding job market.

The war for talent

The war for talent is not a battle between generations. Every job hunter is competing with every other to convince employers that they have the skills to best fill the available job opening. Rather than building up resentments towards other job hunters, the most effective strategies are to hone your own job hunting skills and professional networks. Good luck!

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.


Refreshing Your Resume

July 2, 2012

No matter where you are in your professional career, you need a current resume (or other personal data document).  The format may vary, but if you don’t keep track of your own professional accomplishments, who will?  Keeping an up to date, comprehensive document will allow you to respond quickly to opportunities as they arise.

Update It

Make it a habit to add new published papers, presentations, continuing education, awards, and significant professional accomplishments as they are completed.  Create a “library” version that includes everything, without worrying about length.  Include your current contact information with the URL of your LinkedIn profile, if you have one. Make sure all your educational degrees are listed, along with your professional employment history.  Under experience, make sure to list your most significant accomplishments, using quantitative sentence fragments, not complete sentences.  For example, “Developed new synthetic method for crucial starting material, resulting in 25% time savings and 35% cost reduction.”

If you haven’t completely overhauled your resume within the last few years, it’s probably due.  Does it still accurately reflect your professional self? Does it indicate where you are going? Should you consolidate older information, to make room for new?  There’s no page limit on your library version, but your final resume should be concise, ideally no more than two pages. Reflect carefully on your most significant accomplishments, and what quantifiable impact they had, and list them. Everything on the resume should be professional (no humorous email addresses) and any extracurricular activities should demonstrate skills that are relevant to the position.

Keep the formatting simple, with plenty of white space, so the reader can scan it easily.  Don’t get too fancy with graphics and layout, especially if you know it’s going to be scanned electronically.

Customize It

When it’s time to apply for a new job, for your annual review, or to be nominated for an award, you will be ready to take that library version and customize it for any purpose.

Research the specific job requirements, then put your most relevant skills and accomplishments first, supporting information later, and omit irrelevant information to keep it short and concise. You will be amazed at the benefits when you take the time to familiarize yourself with what the recruiter is looking for, and tweak your resume to match. Echo keywords used in the job description, and include outside activities relevant to their corporate values, making it obvious that you offer exactly what they need.

Perfect It

No matter how many times you’ve read your resume, you’re sure to miss something.  Have someone else with good editing skills, read through it carefully to point out any errors or inconsistencies.  Have fellow chemists read through it, to make sure all the information is clear, concise, and presented in the best possible light.

By having your professional data current and collected in one place, you will be ready to respond quickly to opportunities as they arise.

Get Involved In The Discussion

Welcome to the ACS Career Tips column. Each month, this column provides advice and answers to career-related questions on a variety of topics, from job search to career development and transitions.  Post your comments, follow the discussion, and suggest topics for future columns on the ACS Careers blog (https://acscareers.wordpress.com) — Brought to you by ACS Careers.