To Consult, Retire to an Industry Porter Cluster

September 24, 2012

Many individuals retire from full-time employment and become consultants. To enhance your prospects of establishing a successful consultancy, consider relocating to an industry Porter cluster. A Porter cluster is a geographic concentration of related industries or functions. This includes the core companies that comprise the industry as well as the institutions, suppliers, vendors, government partners, and industry groups enabling industry to function at peak efficiency.

Examples of Porter clusters relevant to chemists, biologists, and engineers include the concentration of petrochemical companies on the U.S. Gulf Coast between Houston and New Orleans. These are the oil companies and oilfield service companies located in the Houston area.  There are also many biotechnology companies located in Boston, San Francisco and San Diego; and a large number of pharmaceutical companies in Philadelphia, New Jersey, Boston, and the so-called Research Triangle Park. Companies located in these “Porter Clusters” near other companies similar to their own because the synergies they can obtain increase innovation and reduce costs.

If you have developed expertise in a specific technology or commercial field relating to a particular type of business, retiring to one of the Porter clusters can provide you with a large number of potential clients within a relatively small geographic area. This facilitates frequent face-to-face meetings that foster good business relationships. Many people still prefer face-to-face discussions to electronic communication. Thus geographic proximity to clients and potential clients can promote the growth of your consultancy.

Sometimes research centers, technical centers, company headquarters and manufacturing facilities are tightly clustered in a section of a city rather than being spread out over a sprawling urban landscape. For example, a 10-mile stretch of I-10 in Houston, Texas is home to more than 300 large and small oil industry firms. These include ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, British Petroleum, ConocoPhillips, and CITGO. Firms providing services to the oil industry include GE Energy Services, Schlumberger, Halliburton, Baker Hughes, and Weatherford International. Equipment and chemical suppliers also have offices and technical centers along this strip of highway.

Collaborative Relationships

The key to obtaining synergies resulting in successful Porter clusters is developing collaborative relationships. Professional associations can help promote and facilitate these interactions. For example, the American Chemical Society and other groups have large and flourishing local organizations in Houston as well as many other Porter cluster hubs. Many or most of their members are employed in or serve the oil and gas and petrochemical industries. Their frequent local meetings benefit both individual chemists, engineers and their oil industry employers in both keeping their professional skills up to date and providing forums to meet colleagues from other firms and discuss non-proprietary technical matters. They also provide opportunities for consultants to met potential clients. Consultants can use the association’s  newsletters or list serves to advertise their services.

The many Porter clusters large oil and gas industry employment draws these and other organizations to frequently schedule regional, national, and international conferences in the cities. These provide additional opportunities for initiating and developing interconnections between organizations. For example, Houston’s Offshore Technology Conference provides an interaction point for engineers and others working for oil and gas companies and their suppliers around the world. More than 30,000 professionals, including consultants, attend this annual conference and tradeshow.  These conferences provide opportunities for consultants to meet with long-distance clients and potential clients without incurring major travel expenses.

The bottom line is if you have a desire to do something different, retire to a new line of work or want to start out on your own, you can do so as a Consultant.  Keep in mind of the Porter clusters near your current residence or take a chance at an opportunity to move to a new location and expand your personal and professional horizons.

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.

Performance Testing during Job Interviews

September 17, 2012

The fairly straight-forward employment interview in which candidates are asked direct questions about their skills and relevant experiences has been superseded by two increasingly popular types of interviews: behavioral interviews and performance testing interviews, otherwise known as role playing. The goal of each is to uncover information about how candidates work particularly how they approach and solve work-related problems. Traditionally interviews focused on science-based questions providing information on the depth of the candidate’s technical knowledge and how they solve technical problems. Now, with the industry workplace often dominated by teams, multi-disciplinary teams, interpersonal compatibility, teamwork and leadership skills have become more important. The way to explore a candidate’s skills in these areas is through behavioral questions and performance testing.

Behavioral interviews

The behavioral interview has become increasingly common in the last decade. In this type of interview, employers ask candidates how they would handle – or have handled in the past – specific situations likely to occur in the workplace. These situations may involve interpersonal conflicts, getting things done with limited resources, managing multiple priorities, managing difficult employees/supervisors, conducting a difficult conversation, etc. The premise behind behavioral interviews, and why they are so useful, is the best way to predict a candidate’s future job performance by determining past performance in similar situations. Thus behavioral questions focus on experiences, knowledge, skills, abilities and behaviors that are job related and usually occur in the workplace. The answers to these questions provide information on candidates’ emotional maturity, ability to be congenial and cooperative coworkers, and compatibility with workplace culture.

Generally the more experience candidates have, the more they are asked to focus on situations occurring in the industrial workplace as opposed to the academic environment. Experienced candidates may be asked questions relating to their experience in working on teams and situations occurring outside the laboratory such as working with patent attorneys, sales representatives, and plant personnel.

The situations candidates are asked to describe are often complex. Avoid the temptation to exaggerate your own role or achievements. Chances are more than one interviewer will ask you some of the same behavioral questions. If your comments made to two different questioners aren’t consistent, the employer may doubt your credibility and you may not receive a job offer. So always prepare for his type of interview by coming up with some examples ahead of time.  Always tell the truth; it’s easier to remember, especially in the often stressful atmosphere of an employment interview.


Role-playing interviews

Role-playing interviews could be viewed as an evolution of behavioral interviews. An increasing number of job candidates, including chemists are being required to participate in role-playing as part of on-site employment interviews. In these, candidates are asked to role play having the job for which they are interviewing and their performance evaluated. Sometimes these are fairly lengthy and are conducted the day after the “traditional” on-site employment interview.

I first became aware of role-playing interviews when an M.S. chemist reporting to me was looking for a sales position. He was invited to an on-site interview by an agricultural chemicals firm. Before leaving for the interview, he was sent materials describing the performance of a hypothetical agricultural chemical and told to develop a sales presentation for it. As part of his employment interview, he sat with a company employee role playing a prospective customer. The M.S. chemist delivered the sales presentation and responded to the “customer’s” questions and comments.

Performance Testing or Role-playing interviews are becoming more common. For example, suppose five people are at the company location interviewing for positions in R&D, as a plant engineer, a sales representative and a government regulations specialist. On the second day of their on-site visit they are introduced to each other and told they are a multi-disciplinary team. They are told work together to generate a plan to develop, manufacture and market a new chemical product.  Trained observers watch the proceedings and evaluate the contribution and behavior of each applicant noting their creativity, how well they work with others, how they handle disagreements on the team, and their leadership skills.

For example, the culmination of this type of experience is what Shell Corp. calls the Gourami Shell Experience. Participants are job candidates in the final year of their education. This is a 5-day exercise in which you work on a team to develop a 5-year business plan for Shell’s operations in the fictional country of Gourami. Shell representatives will observe each team member’s performance and skills development while providing feedback to help the candidates further improve their skills. At the end of the exercise, candidates may receive job offers.

Regardless of which type of interview you experience, it is best to be prepared with relevant examples, be yourself, and most importantly ensure your responses are relevant to the organization and position you are applying.

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.

Get Rid of Excessive Clutter in your Résumé and Cover Letter

September 10, 2012

There is a common phrase, “you can’t see the forest through the trees.” This applies to résumés. In job hunting, this phrase means that, by loading your résumé with information of secondary importance, your most critical skills and accomplishments – those most important in winning you an on-site interview trip – become obscured in the welter of information filling your résumé. The same is true for your cover letter.

How can you be sure this doesn’t happen?  Editing your résumé and cover letter

To identify your most relevant skills and accomplishments, carefully read all the information describing the job opening. If you don’t have a job description, define one of your own but make sure it is relevant for each employer to which you send your résumé. This requires reading information about the business unit of the employer to which you are applying.

After you identify this information and make sure it is in your résumé, you need to ruthlessly edit your résumé to remove each piece of information that doesn’t advance your prospects of receiving a job offer. Doing so reduces the résumé clutter that obscures your accomplishments and skills most relevant to the job opening. However, this is usually emotionally difficult. Everyone is proud of their achievements and you will be tempted to leave this information in your résumé in the hopes that it will be relevant to some readers.

If you are writing a chronological résumé describing your accomplishments in each job or position you held starting with the most recent first, you need to be ruthless in editing job information more than several years old. For example, in doing hundreds of résumé reviews for mid-career job hunters as an ACS Career Consultant, I have noticed a strong tendency for these job hunters to devote as much detail (a high word count) to jobs, post-docs and graduate research early in their career as to their most recent two or three jobs. And I was doing same thing!

If information from substantially earlier in your career is highly relevant to your job-hunting goal, then a chronological résumé probably is not the best format to use. A functional résumé format will let you group similar and highly relevant achievements and skills together regardless of when they actually occurred. The functional résumé format allows you to emphasize your skills and accomplishments most pertinent to the job opening. By grouping similar skills together rather than scattering them through your résumé in a chronological order, you can increase your focus on these skills and shorten your résumé by reducing repetition.

Information to definitely remove

Included in the information you need to remove from your résumé are: details about your personal life, details about jobs you held many years ago, photographs of yourself, confidential information about previous jobs, salary expectations, why you were laid off or terminated from a previous position, exaggeration of previous accomplishments and job responsibilities. Omit an Objective statement unless you are a new graduate or post-doc and instead replace it with a summary of your qualifications.  It is important to note all the above discussions were written from a U.S. perspective. Certain things such as including a photograph in your résumé or describing hobbies and outside interests is common in other countries but not in the U.S.

Your cover letter

Your cover letter should provide added information and not just repeat what is in your résumé. A good strategy is to take some information in your résumé that you think is highly relevant to the employer and discuss it in more detail. By using complete sentences rather than the phrases employed in your résumé, you may also be able to do a better job of setting your information in context.


All this sounds like a lot of work, and it is. However, this work enables you to customize your résumé for each employer and each job opening. In today’s job market, it is well worth the effort to make sure the vehicle that is your personal marketing tool helps you land the best job matching the skills you have worked so hard to achieve.

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.

Are Your Presentations Perfect?

September 3, 2012

As scientists, we are often called upon to give oral presentations about our work. ACS national and regional meetings, job interviews, and departmental seminars are great ways to let others know what you have been doing, and at the same time get instantaneous feedback from your peers. Whether you are presenting to other scientists or to a lay audience, careful planning and tailoring of your message are crucial for effective communication.

Know Your Audience

The most important question is “Who is my audience, and why are they here?” By keeping in mind the characteristics of your audience (educational level, amount of scientific background) and reason for attending (interest or job requirement) you can tailor your presentation to their needs.  Their level of familiarity with the subject matter will directly affect how much background information and detail you should include.

Start Strong

Your first few sentences set the tone for your entire presentation.  First, decide what information you need to include – an introduction of yourself?  The purpose of your presentation?  A broad outline of your talk? Background on your area of research?  Then, plan the wording carefully – It may be easiest to draft the introduction last, after you’ve figured out exactly what and in what order you are going to present your ideas.


You want to lead your audience through a compelling story. Present your data in the most logical order (which may or may not be chronological), with clear demarcations between sections.  Ensure that the transitions between slides, and between sections, are well-marked and smooth.  While you may not want to write out every word of your entire presentation, you do need to know how you are going to transition smoothly.  Use outline slides or other cues to remind the audience of where you are relative to the overall flow, or introduce them to the next section of the presentation.

You Are the Expert

You probably know more about the topic than anyone else in the room, so the audience will be looking to you for expertise.  Don’t undermine your own authority by mumbling, apologizing for the slides, or rolling your eyes.  If you have confidence and a command of the subject matter, your audience will sense and respect that.

Finish Strong

The end of your presentation is every bit as important as the beginning.  Summarize your key points, point out the next steps, and thank your host.

The shorter a talk is, the longer it will take to prepare.  Almost as soon as you know you’re going to be doing a presentation, start gathering information, drafting slides, and framing the content.  You may not be able to fill in everything right away, but the more time you spend thinking about the overarching framework and organization the better it will be.  You will be more confident, and your audience will have a better experience.

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