Who Is Your Control Group?

April 28, 2013

We often talk about networking, and how important it is to develop relationships with many professional colleagues, to enhance your career in many ways.  But while having a large network can be a benefit, it also affects you in other ways.  Have you ever thought about the kinds of people who are in your network, how they relate to you – and what that says about you?

I recently heard someone say that she really only needs two friends – a poor friend to make her feel rich, and a fat friend to make her feel skinny.  While she may have taken the idea to extremes, she did have a point.  No matter what your personal situation is, there is always someone who is richer – and someone who is poorer.  There is someone who is healthier, and someone who is sicker.  There is someone who has a job they love more than you love yours, and someone who hates their job more than you hate yours.  You can make yourself feel (and appear) superior in almost anything, simply by choosing to spend time with other people who have less of that particular attribute or ability.  (Conversely, you may make yourself appear to be inferior by spending time with people who have more.)

You might conclude that you need to have as many friends as possible, so you can get a realistic sense of your abilities, relative to the general population.  However, a recent report from the University of Edinburgh Business School (http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2012-11/uoe-mff112612.php) showed that the more different social circles you are linked to online, the more likely you are to be stressed by them.  Connecting to both your parents and boss seemed to add the most stress.  Why?  The more contacts you have, the more different kinds of people see your information, and the more likely you are to offend (or be offended by) someone, since each social circle has its own social norms, inside jokes, and slang. Currently, the average person on Facebook interacts with seven different social circles, and meeting all those different expectations simultaneously can be difficult, if not impossible.

Knowing that you act differently in different situations, around different peer groups, is there a way you can use that knowledge to influence your own behavior for the better?

In a recent study, (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.2047-6310.2011.00003.x/abstract;jsessionid=3D90511C29D8BED39C38A02C04A336A8.d03t01) children were asked what various admirable people – such as Batman or Spiderman – would choose to eat, apple slices or French fries.  When those children were subsequently presented with their own choice between those two foods, a significantly higher percentage of those who had been primed by thinking about the superhero choices made the healthier choice for themselves.  By simply thinking about what someone they admired would do in that situation, they changed their own behavior.

Another way to take advantage of your existing peer groups is to look for ways to help them.  For example, if you find you know a lot about NMR, and others often come to you with questions on that topic, offer to mentor them, or present a lecture or workshop.  In order to prepare lesson plans, you will have to review the material, and in order to explain the concept to others, you will have to really understand it yourself.  Furthermore, the learners will ask questions that you never thought of, and often make you think about the subject in a new way. It’s a rare teacher who doesn’t learn something from their students.  Just remember that while you may be the expert on this particular topic, there are other topics on which you can learn from them.

So look around and see who is in your control group.  Who are your peers, colleagues, and to whom do you compare yourself?  Which of their behaviors do you admire, and want to try to emulate?  What can you learn from them and what can you offer to teach them?  If you don’t have a wide enough network, to both learn from and offer advice to, it just might be time to expand.

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.

Job Hunters: Avoid These Common Mistakes

April 22, 2013

Job hunters in all age groups often make the same mistakes when job hunting. Unfortunately I’ve seen this over and over again in my more than twenty years as an ACS Career Consultant. What can you do to avoid making these mistakes and find a rewarding new position?

Get off to a fast start

Don’t wait too long to start your job search. It’s a very competitive employment market. I see far too many students and post-docs waiting until a few weeks after leaving campus to seriously start their job search. Consequently they may not get their first job until months after graduation. Some experienced chemists who may have lost their job take a vacation before beginning their job search. This delays their chances of actually getting a job and can also deplete their financial reserves.

It’s far better to get an early and fast start to your job search. Update your résumé at least once a year. Also prepare a list of target employers and update this annually as well. This list should include contact information and the names of individuals you know at each firm.

Develop networking skills

Somewhere out there is someone who knows about a job opening that could be perfect for you. Developing a circle of professional contacts and interacting with them to share job hunting ideas and information about job hunting enables you to access the “hidden job market” – job openings that are not advertised. According to Amanda Haddaway, author of Destination Real World: Success After Graduation, up to 80% of job openings are not advertised on job boards or in employment sections of newspapers and trade magazines.

So how can you discover these job openings? The answer is by interacting with other people; that’s what networking is all about.

Remember the list of candidate employers you assembled at the beginning of your job hunt? Look and see who among these people you know – or know of – work at these companies or in the same technology areas. They may be able to tell you about potential job openings and who would be a good contact to give you more information.

So where do you find these people?

Check LinkedIn or other like social media sites for information on people in your research field. Check with your professor for names of former members of your professor’s research group and their contact information. Other potential members of your professional network include people you know through your ACS Chapters and other professional society activities or ACS career consultants you’ve met.

Develop your value proposition


Your value proposition demonstrates your demonstrates unique talent and skills, guarantees delivery of results based on your past accomplishments, and defines you as a go-to expert. Conducting informational interviews with members of your professional network can help you develop your value proposition for a particular industry or even a particular employer.

Obtaining a new job in the same industry you’re working in now may or may not be a good job search strategy depending on the job market in that industry. Alternatively seeking employment in another industry may be a good strategy if employment opportunities are better in that industry. To do this, list all your skills and identify the value you can bring to other industries.

Develop specific goals

Your job search goals should be specific enough that they enable you to identify target industries and companies to approach concerning employment. Develop a schedule. For example, you may want to schedule a specific number of companies to contact each week. Monday you may wish to identify companies to contact. Tuesday and Friday you may wish to prepare customized résumés and cover letters and send them to the companies you’ve targeted. Wednesday you may wish to schedule e-mail or telephone follow-ups to companies to which you’ve earlier sent your résumés.  Thursday you may want to take off or use as a networking day to have coffee or lunch with your mentors.

Track your job hunting activities. Using a spreadsheet is a good way to do this. Your spreadsheet will help you determine if you are making good use of your time.Other ways of making good use of your time include writing a review paper and submitting it to an appropriate journal or preparing a paper for a regional or national ACS meeting. Don’t neglect professional association meetings associated with various industries that are among those you are targeting with your job hunting efforts. These activities show prospective employers that you are remaining active in your profession.

John Borchardt was a chemist, freelance writer and devoted ACS career consultant for over 15 years, until his sudden passing in January 2013. He was the author of the ACS/Oxford University Press Book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers,” and had more than 1500 articles published in a variety of magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias. As an industrial chemist, he held 30 U.S. and more than 125 international patents, and was the author of more than 130 peer-reviewed papers. John’s advice, insights and articles helped hundreds of scientists improve their professional lives, and he will be truly missed.

What’s in Your Skills Box and How Can You Use It?

April 15, 2013

When employers ask about your employment history what they really want to know is what is in your skills toolbox –technical skills, soft skills and interpersonal skills. Hold tight to this mindset when writing your résumé and discussing your accomplishments during employment interviews.  Guide your career by consciously adding to your skills toolbox. Below I will discuss two ways to do this.

Identify your core capabilities

These are the skills you build on to develop a capability-driven career. To identify these begin with a self-appraisal. Look for distinctive Talents, Skills, and Knowledge (TSK) that will make you highly competitive for certain lines of work. These are the reasons an employer would hire or promote you rather than someone else. Help identify these core capabilities by consulting with mentors and trusted colleagues. Recalling your past performance appraisals can also help identify your TSKs and where you need to improve.

Suppose you are a product development chemist or manage a group of product development chemists. Empathy, the ability to understand the needs of customers, is probably the origin of your biggest success. This means understanding the customer’s technology needs, and how the customer’s profitability can be improved. Empathy will help you imagine new products, create business relationships, and build productive teams – including joint teams with customers. Empathy is supported by technical skills in the relevant areas important to the customer and good listening skills.

Consider Charles McLaughlin, a product development chemist for Halliburton Services before his retirement. His knowledge of the behavior of subterranean rock behavior in the presence of flowing oil, natural gas and aqueous fluids led to the design of chemical treatments that maintained the permeability of oil-bearing rock and thus oil well production rates. He demonstrated empathy when discussing permeability – related oil and gas production problems with customers. This led to increased sales for his employer. (How did he demonstrate this skill?)

When seeking a new job or a promotion, emphasize what makes you distinctive and how this leads to your success. If Mr. McLaughlin had been job hunting, he could demonstrate customer empathy in his résumé, cover letter, and during interview discussions. It is unusual for a chemist to do this and would help make him a memorable job candidate.  (Why unusual?)

Identify capabilities you need to strengthen

Having identified the capabilities you already have, consider what you need to develop. Possible targeted new capabilities can be expertise in a technical field or in a function such as management. You can build new capabilities or strengthen current ones by taking short courses or working in a new area.

Adding new capabilities can shift your career direction. For example, strengthening my technical writing skills enabled me to write more technical papers while strengthening my management skills.  It also enabled me to shift the core of my job assignments to management.

When making this kind of switch, people sometimes abandon their existing capability base. This is a dangerous course to take because careers often take unexpected turns. Often you may want to shift back or leverage what you already know to do something new. For instance, an extended period of low oil prices led me to change my focus from oil production to paper recycling technology. However, after about ten years I refocused on oil production and refining technology when these businesses recovered.

Sometimes the skills you need may be obvious. For instance, an April 2012 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) compared the skills gap between older employees (not just chemists) nearing retirement and younger colleagues just starting their careers. More than half of the organizations surveyed reported that basic grammar and spelling were the top “basic” skills among older workers in which their younger coworkers were deficient.

Career development through capability growth is a way to build a career that’s right for you. Are you building your career path based on what’s in your skills box?

John Borchardt was a chemist, freelance writer and devoted ACS career consultant for over 15 years, until his sudden passing in January 2013. He was the author of the ACS/Oxford University Press Book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers,” and had more than 1500 articles published in a variety of magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias. As an industrial chemist, he held 30 U.S. and more than 125 international patents, and was the author of more than 130 peer-reviewed papers. John’s advice, insights and articles helped hundreds of scientists improve their professional lives, and he will be truly missed.

The 5 Goals of a Project Manager

April 8, 2013

Project managers have to manage people, customers and suppliers and coordinate their efforts. They also have to manage a budget and the use of needed resources such as laboratory instruments and supplies. Whether they work in industry, academia, government or for themselves, all project managers have five goals they must meet for their project to be successful.

These goals are to:

  • Finish on time
  • Finish under budget
  • Meet the project requirements
  • Make customers happy
  • Develop a happy project team

Let’s look at each of these goals and why they are important.

Finish on time

This can be difficult because requirements often change during the course of the project. Additional requirements are often added. To minimize “project scope creep,” all parties involved in the project should agree on project requirements and put them in writing. If these requirements change, everyone involved should agree on a revised schedule and put it in writing.

Track progress on all phases of the project recording both planned and actual progress. This will help in identifying deviations from the plan and allow you to correct in a timely way. A useful way to do this is to use a PERT chart (http://www.netmba.com/operations/project/pert/). This is a graphic representation of the project schedule. It helps in identifying which project tasks can be worked on simultaneously and in particular, the critical tasks which must be completed on time for the overall project to remain on schedule.

Another reason the project may not be completed on time is that the project team, particularly the project manager, was overly optimistic in setting the project schedule. It is often a temptation for the project manager to do this in order to obtain approval for the project.

Finish on or under budget

To maintain your credibility with your project stakeholders, you need to set a project budget at the start of the project and stick with int.  Ultimately it is great to finish under budget, but to build a reputable track record, you need to make sure you are on budget each project. Your spending probably won’t be linear with time; therefore, you need to track spending on your PERT chart. Determine how much each task in your project plan will cost to complete and track deviations from the plan.  If you do over-spend on some parts of the project, make sure you underspend on others so you can complete the project on target.

Meet the project requirements

Finishing on time and under budget is not enough if the results of the project do not meet the requirements set forth in the project. These requirements must be sufficiently detailed. Ambiguous goals can result in additional time spent on the project and customer dissatisfaction with the results.

Often it is not sufficient that the project results be good enough. To succeed in the marketplace, the results must provide significant advantages compared to its already commercial competitors. These advantages can include performance, cost, energy efficiency, etc.

Make customers happy

Your customers could be satisfied but that may not be enough. They must be happy with project results and eager to use them. If they are not, it’s usually because customers’ requirements or expectations have changed since the project began or you have fallen behind schedule. Frequent and clear communication is essential so you and the project team stay aware of these changes. In particular, openness and honesty are necessary. Keep customers aware of your progress. If you are falling behind schedule or over budget they need to know. Above all, listen closely to customer concerns as the project proceeds.

Ensure a happy team

High team morale is essential to project success. Recognize and reward your project team members for their successes as often as you can. Assign them work in which they are interested and complements their strengths. They will perform better on the current project and be eager to work with you again on the next project.

John Borchardt was a chemist, freelance writer and devoted ACS career consultant for over 15 years, until his sudden passing in January 2013. He was the author of the ACS/Oxford University Press Book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers,” and had more than 1500 articles published in a variety of magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias. As an industrial chemist, he held 30 U.S. and more than 125 international patents, and was the author of more than 130 peer-reviewed papers. John’s advice, insights and articles helped hundreds of scientists improve their professional lives, and he will be truly missed.

Expect the Unexpected

April 1, 2013

The only thing constant is change, and there is plenty of that in your professional life.  Very often a project or deadline appears suddenly in your job, or a new professional opportunity appears unexpectedly.  Suddenly, a crisis must be addressed, a problem solved, or a decision made quickly.  If you are prepared, with the right tools in your professional toolbox, you can get started on the solution right away.

The three things needed to accomplish any project (planned or otherwise) are time, money, and (human) resources.  Do you have enough of each in your professional reserve to handle unexpected problems, and allow you to take advantage of sudden opportunities?


If your schedule is completely full, unexpected additions will cause great stress.  This holds true on a daily basis, as well as on a longer time frame. (Have you ever had a sudden meeting, or long phone call, throw off your schedule for the whole day?  Or had a bad analytical test result wreak havoc with production plans?)  Instead of completely filling your schedule, and assuming everything will go perfectly, build in some flexible time for unexpected issues.  Everything takes longer than you think it’s going to, so you might as well plan for it.


These days, you never know when your job, department, or even company will change overnight. Do you have money built into your lab or departmental budget to cover new opportunities?  Do you build contingency funds in when budgeting new projects?  Personally, do you have at least six, if not nine, months of living expenses in a savings account, to which you have ready access?  It can take longer than that to find a new job, but having a significant cushion can relieve some of the stress if you suddenly find yourself looking for a new position.

People and Expertise

When confronted with a new problem that you don’t know how to handle, what do you do first?  Find a co-worker or colleague who has experience in that area, and ask them for guidance. Do you have a large network of professional colleagues (inside and outside your company, local and long distance), who you can call for advice? In order to ask for help, you need to have mutually beneficial professional relationships in place before you need them. This means you need to go out and meet people, provide help and advice to them, and build those relationships before you need them.

Not only do you need people, but you need to know at least a little about new techniques, research fields, product areas and markets that are relevant to what you do. The rapid pace of change makes it ever more important that you not only keep up on your own field, but take the time to learn about some of the emerging fields, to make sure your own skills and expertise don’t become outdated.

In both your job and your career, you need to prepare ahead of time.  If you have the right tools in place when the unexpected occurs, it will remain merely a minor annoyance, and not become a major catastrophe.

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 (https://communities.acs.org/community/profession/career_development)._—brought to you by ACS Careers.