Year-end: A Time for Career Planning and Assessment

December 31, 2012

Workloads are often lighter in December making it an excellent time to take stock of your career by assessing your 2012 professional accomplishments, identifying areas for improvement, and planning for 2013. By learning from your experiences over the past year and planning ahead for next year, you can improve your productivity and enhance your professional growth and career advancement.

Begin by assessing your 2012 accomplishments. Note the important factors that made these accomplishments possible. Then determine the strengths responsible for these successes. These can include your personal strengths as well as those of your employer such as strong instrumental analysis capabilities. These are strengths to build on in 2013. Then make an inventory of where you fell short in 2012 and identify the factors that resulted in the lack of success.  These are areas you need to focus on and strengthen in 2013.

Also consider what strengths and resources you have but did not exploit in 2012. For example, suppose you have strong oral presentation skills. If you made few oral presentations in 2012, you may not be capitalizing fully on your abilities.  Resources could include advanced analytical instruments that could be used in your research. For instance, I was able to use my employer’s scanning electron microscope to study the agglomeration of toner ink particles when studying ink removal from pulped office paper.

In your assessment, include the strengths you have seen your coworkers exude. Highly capable team members will make your own job easier and your goals more attainable. Just as you want to capitalize on your own strengths, you also want to capitalize on the capabilities of your coworkers by giving credit to their contributions.

Identify areas for improvement

In addition to identifying strengths and resources that you can build upon, identify the abilities you need to strengthen or the weaknesses you need to overcome. Your list of your disappointments will help you in this. Unachieved 2012 goals may be due to poor planning and organization, inefficient use of time, insufficient coordination with coworkers, and other factors. For example, poor interpersonal skills may handicap you in accessing abilities and skills of your coworkers. One example is by persuading a coworker to help you master a new piece of software or translate a research paper published in a foreign language. Some causes of your unachieved goals may be external to yourself and your own abilities. These include insufficient abilities of coworkers and lack of organizational resources. Networking can help you overcome these deficiencies by enabling you to trade favors with colleagues thus becoming more productive.

Identifying the factors responsible for your 2012 disappointments may enable you to avoid similar disappointments in 2013.  For instance, suppose you identify inadequate time management skills as a factor in reducing your productivity. Identifying the problem can enable you to eliminate it by taking short courses and making a concentrated effort to improve. Should these disappointment factors be deep-seated, you may be able to plan your 2013 goals to reduce the effect these negative factors have on your career. Networking can enable you to find people with technical skills your coworker’s lack.  You may be able to learn from members of your professional network and eliminate these disappointment factors. Outsourcing can enable you overcome problems caused by a lack of organizational resources.  For instance in the example of the environmental scanning electron microscope mentioned above, the instrument is expensive and few of my employer’s customers had their own. I was to help them by offering to carry out these microscopic analyses for them. The result was that the microscope became a sales tool for my firm.

Looking forward to 2013

By December you probably know your project assignments and who your coworkers will be for 2013. Armed with your self-assessment (and input from your core networking group or personal board of directors) you can enter the New Year with goals and a career plan will let you capitalize on your strengths and rectify or overcome your weaknesses.

The next step

Discuss your plans for improvement and professional growth with your supervisor. Look for approval but also be open to suggestions for improvement.

Set specific goals. These must be ones you can achieve based on your own initiative and efforts. Make sure your goals are SMART – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound. It may not be difficult to make goals specific, measurable and time-bound; however, it may be harder to determine what’s achievable and realistic. These two factors can vary greatly from one individual to another and from one organization to another. Your goals must be achievable through your own efforts. Achieving them should not solely be dependent upon the actions or goodwill of others.

Write your goals down. Studies indicate that the simple act of writing down your goals helps motivate you to achieve them. For example, in his book, What They Don’t Teach You at the Harvard Business School, (Bantam Dell Publications Group) Mark McCormack described a 10-year study of the benefits of writing down goals while studying the 1979 Harvard MBA program students.  Keep your goals posted where you can easily see them from your desk chair. Then divide each goal into action steps that you can complete to make measurable progress in achieving your overall goals.

By doing so, you have the best chance of accomplishing your goals and improving on those you identified.  Keep refereeing back to your list and notate where you see improvement or actions that have been taken towards improvement.  Also, take note of situations or circumstances that come along the way which might hinder or prohibit you from improvement or achieving a goal.  Either way, you will be set for 2013 and a new working year.

Best of luck in the New Year and I wish you a Happy Holidays.

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.

Non-traditional Chemistry Careers: Project Manager and Team Leader

December 24, 2012

Traditionally R&D employees have been organized into work groups having similar skills. For example, all the mass spectroscopists may work in a single work group headed by a group leader, all the surfactant chemists in another, etc. These same chemists may also work, often simultaneously, on different projects each headed by a different project manager or team leader. The result is a matrix style of management in which R&D staff members are members of one or more teams in addition to reporting to a work group leader (often called a line manager).

Work groups are organized by the technical discipline of their members and are long-lasting since the technical disciplines of its members do not change greatly over time. In contrast, team membership is determined by the needs of the various projects. Projects are temporary and project teams are dissolved when the project goals are attained or are deemed unachievable. Individuals may move onto and off of the team as the work progresses and the expertise for the project changes. For example, very early in the project there may be little need for patent or government regulations specialists. However, these needs often arise later in the project. Late in the project quality assurance methods and analysis procedures have been defined and this type of work has become standardized. Hence there may be little need for analytical chemists to continue to work on the team as this work may be done as a matter of routine by one or more traditional work groups.

Project managers and team leaders organize and manage laboratory activities with the goal of creating new products and processes. They depend on the managers of traditional work groups to supply their staffing needs. However, it is the project leaders and team leaders who are responsible for meeting project objectives on schedule and within budget.

This dichotomy can lead to a major disadvantage of the matrix organization. Conflicts can arise between project managers and team leaders with group leaders over the allocation of staff members and other resources. Team members may feel a conflict of loyalties to their work group managers and their team leadership. There also may be confusion over accountability. Too many people may become involved in the decision making process, resulting in “paralysis by analysis.” Personnel costs can increase since project managers are typically paid more than work group members.

Project managers

The person responsible for planning, executing and completing a project is the project manager. Unlike team leaders, project managers seldom participate directly in the activities that produce the end result. Instead they strive to maintain progress through promoting the interaction of individuals and of work groups in ways that minimize project costs while maximizing benefits and reduce the risk of project failure.

When assembling project teams, project managers have to consider the critical roles and chemistry between team members as well as the team members’ technical skills. Incompatible team members can lead to dissention that reduces team productivity and even doom a project. Project managers are increasingly responsible for other nontechnical risk factors that require them to deal with the concerns of government regulatory agencies, citizen activist groups, and the general public.

The major professional organization for project managers is the Project Management Institute (PMI) ( PMI offers various levels of professional certification, publishes journals, and offers continuing education services.

Team leaders

The responsibilities of team leaders are less broad in scope than those of project managers. Typically others, the project manager and line managers, determine the project team membership and the responsibilities of the individual team members. It is the project team leader who converts the project plan into work and achievement. According to famed management guru Peter Drucker, “Plans are only good intentions unless they immediately degenerate into hard work.” This requires strong, effective leadership that keeps team members focused on achievement of project goals.

Concerning team leadership, Walt Disney said, “Of all the things I’ve done, the most vital is coordinating the talents of those who work for us and pointing them towards a certain goal.” Among the responsibilities of the team leader are:

  • Representing the team to higher level management
  • Leading team members to a consensus or making decisions in the absence of a consensus
  • Resolving conflicts between members and
  • Coordinating efforts of individual team members.

People skills are essential for team leaders since they often lack formal management authority, which resides in team members’ line managers. Instead, team leaders must persuade their team members to accept the project goals and timetable. Often they have little beyond their own persuasive skills to do so. Relying too much on the authority of line managers and project managers can reduce their own moral authority.

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. As an ACS Councilor, he serves on the Joint Board – Council Committee Patents and Related Matters.

Non-traditional Offices for Non-traditional Chemistry Careers

December 17, 2012

The most usual office for self-employed chemists is a space in their home. It’s hard to beat the convenience of a well-equipped office in your own home. Stephanie Dickinson, contributing editor to The Writer Magazine, called home offices “the 30-second commute” and used the phrase in the title of her book “The 30-Second Commute: A Non-fiction Comedy About Writing and Working from Home.” It’s pleasant to look out the window of one’s home office, see a driving rainstorm and realize you merely have to turn around in your chair to be at your workplace. Even on sunny days it’s nice to be able to avoid the mental strain and lost time of a lengthy commute. Your 30-second commute reduces wear and tear on your car while reducing the air pollution and fatigue that every day commuting causes and puts a little more coin back in your pocket.

The home office

Your home office may be as simple as a kitchen table where one puts one’s laptop computer between meals. It may be more elaborate such as a spare bedroom well equipped with office furniture and equipment. The more space and the more office equipment one has, the more efficiently one can usually work.

One nice thing about a home office is you can furnish it gradually rather than all at once spreading out the expenses. This is what I did when furnishing the spare bedroom that became my home office. It now has four bookcases, an étagère for office supplies, and a computer table for my desktop PC, and a writing desk. Two shelves of one bookcase are occupied by a printer and a combination telephone answering machine/fax machine/photocopier to complete my office.   I sometimes work in my living room using a small tray table to hold my laptop computer.  I’ll also sit on my patio and work before it gets too hot or humid.

Offices outside the home

I also use my laptop computer to work around town. Sometimes I’ll grow tired of working alone in my home office and need a change of scene. Self-employed chemists have a growing number of places to work and meet with clients or each other. Options have grown beyond coffee shops, libraries, and clients’ offices. Increasingly hotels are welcoming local residents to use their lobbies as meeting places and as a place to work. They also offer a comfortable place to work for hours and to rendezvous with other self-employed individuals or clients for lunch or coffee.  Hotel lobbies make a trip more productive than a lengthy drive followed by a thirty-minute interview followed by a return home. By reducing the productivity loss of attending a meeting, hotel lobbies can help lessen the isolation felt by self-employed chemists and reducing the productivity loss when they get together for lunch or coffee. Hotel coffee shops, restaurants and bars also do more business.

Some quite upscale hotels are doing this. For instance, the Public, a boutique hotel just north of downtown Chicago, welcomes freelancer writers, consultants and other mobile workers to its amenity-rich lobby because they help create “buzz.“ Amenities include free Wi-Fi, comfortable chairs, and even some work tables fitted with electrical outlets. The two-year-old Andaz Wall Street, a Hyatt Hotel in New York City, is another example. While in San Diego in March to cover a conference, I was able to work comfortably in the lobbies of two hotels, the Hilton Gaslamp and the Marriott Marquis as well as interview some meeting attendees.

Convention centers are getting into the act as well. Many offer free Wi-Fi while their public seating areas, coffee shops and snack shops provide comfortable places to work. Their large parking lots make convenient places for freelancers to park their cars even if they are just using these public areas and not attending a conference.

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. As an ACS Councilor, he serves on the Joint Board – Council Committee Patents and Related Matters.

Persistence Pays Off

December 10, 2012

The job market is gradually improving. With the improvement in business conditions, companies’ hiring needs may have changed. Thus it may be worthwhile to resend your résumé to companies that previously ignored it months or even years ago. The hiring manager who worked for the firm a year or more ago may do so no longer. Indeed, many companies have experienced great turnover and there may not be much institutional memory left according to New York City career coach Roy Cohen. Moreover, even if the right fit still isn’t there on your second try, don’t rule out a third.

If you do apply again, Annie Stevens, managing partner at Boston-based executive coaching firm ClearRock, a Boston-based coaching and outplacement firm, suggests five strategies to present yourself to the employer.

Emphasize what’s different about you now

When applying to a company again, emphasize what is new and different about you since your previous application. You might look at your previous application and determine if you need to streamline the new one to be more job specific if the position(s) you are applying for are different than your last application.  This is especially important if you end up meeting with the same interviewers you met with last time. In all your interactions highlight specific new experiences and skills gained since applying the first time.

If you are in school, you can emphasize new courses taken and the benefits they provide relative to each employer you contact. Graduate students and post-docs can also emphasize progress they’ve made in their research. Unemployed chemists can discuss short courses they’ve taken and professional society activities that bolstered their communication and management skills.

Try reverse networking

Reverse networking means starting with the job description and finding people who can help you get it. For example, company insiders can lead you to people who can help you get the job and tell you what aspects of your experience to stress on your résumé and in interviews. Industry experts can also provide useful advice on the most important skills to develop and emphasize in your job applications. Often it is not the most senior people who provide the best advice in this area but younger individuals who got their jobs in the last several years.

Join the same professional or volunteer groups as the hiring manager

Attend events where you might run into this person and other company employees. These organizations can provide a relaxed way to get to know each other better.

Stay in touch with people you meet

Use social sites such as LinkedIn™ to stay in touch with people you met during your previous application processes at each firm. Join groups within LinkedIn™ which are likely to interest hiring managers at your target employers. Share news that adds new dimensions to your qualifications. This means sharing information with employees of the company, updating your LinkedIn™ profile and posting notes about your new accomplishments on social media sites such as Facebook™ or Twitter™.

Participate constructively in on-line discussions but do not be aggressively self-promotional or overly critical of others. For example, when I was asked recently about a job candidate who mentioned my name I did not praise him but also did not note that he harshly criticized others “flaming” them in on-line discussions. Employers searching for the individual’s name online can discover this for themselves.

You can use e-mail to inform some of your contacts about interesting research papers or industry news they may have missed. Even if they are already aware of the information you provide, they often appreciate you thinking of them and sending it. This contributes to a good impression conveying an image of congeniality. You are perceived as a helpful coworker should they hire you later.

Be persistent but not so aggressive you become annoying. By providing people with information, you have an ostensible reason to contact them besides reminding these individuals that you are job hunting.

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. As an ACS Councilor, he serves on the Joint Board – Council Committee Patents and Related Matters.


Volunteering for Fun and Profit

December 3, 2012

Volunteering is a great way to pick up new skills and expand your professional network.  However, there are thousands of worthy volunteer causes that could use your time and talents.  How do you decide where to put your time and effort?  Below are some tips to help you get the most out of your volunteer activities.

What do you really care about?

Not everyone is interested in the same things, so make sure that whatever you choose to do it is something you are personally passionate about, and are excited to see through completion.  Obviously you should believe in the organization’s mission, but you should also be excited about the particular project you will be working on.  Knowing the task is beneficial and important will help motivate you to do your absolute best, and persevere when you encounter difficulties.


Will you learn a new skill?

One reason to volunteer is to learn a new skill in a low-risk environment, where mistakes won’t jeopardize your livelihood.  For example, if your current professional position does not require you to manage a budget, maybe you want to become treasurer of a local organization.  This will give you some real hands-on experience with setting a budget, tracking income and expenses, and so on.  Not only will you learn whether or not you can manage finances, you will learn whether or not you enjoy financial responsibility.  When the time comes to do this in your paying job, you will have the experience to do it right.


Will you work with good people?

One of the best reasons to take on a new volunteer position is to get to know new people.  Before you make a large commitment to an organization, spend some time with the other people involved, maybe assisting with a small or one-time event. Are the other volunteers fun to work with?  Do you share a common vision for the organization?  Does the professional staff (if any) treat the volunteers with respect?


Will you be appreciated?

With most volunteer work, your only payment is other’s appreciation of your job well done. Some organizations are better than others at thanking volunteers, and making sure they feel appreciated. Is the sense of accomplishment at the end of the project going to be sufficient reward for your hard work?

Can you get out?

Leaving gracefully can be the hardest part of a volunteer job – especially if you’re doing a great job, and no one wants to see you go. Picking a job with a fixed term limit is a good way to make sure you have a limited commitment.  Even if you have a term limit, you want to think ahead, and have a successor ready to go. Let them take over when it’s time, and resist the temptation to tell them how to do things, or insist they do exactly what you would have done.

Volunteer positions can be extremely rewarding, both personally and professionally.  By carefully selecting the organizations, projects and tasks that are going to benefit from your skills, you can ensure that you get as much, or more, than you give.  ACS offers many opportunities to get involved as a volunteer.  Two of the easiest places to help are in your Local Section and your Technical Division.

Get involved in the discussion

The ACS Career Tips column is published the first week of every month in C&EN. Post your comments, follow the discussion, and suggest topics for future columns in the Career Development section of the ACS Network (—Brought to you by ACS Careers.