Interview Etiquette

May 27, 2013

Recently, I read about a student who applied for a summer internship with a professor at their university.  Many other students also applied for the internship, and several were interviewed. Although the professor promised to make a decision and notify all the applicants soon, several of the students heard through the grapevine that someone else had been selected over a week before they got an official email from the professor saying they had not been selected.  One student wrote back to the professor, thanking him for his interest, indicating that the student he had selected was an excellent choice, and then ended the note by saying that he had in fact heard this news more than a week earlier.

Was the professor wrong to take so long to notify the students who were not selected? Perhaps – at a small school he should probably have known that word would travel fast once the decision was told to anyone. However, he eventually notified the others, which is more than many employers do.  In recent years, the percentages of employers who respond to candidates to let them know their resume has been received, or even to let them know they have not been selected to move on after an interview has been getting smaller and smaller.  It’s a sad fact of modern times that everyone is busy, and some things have gone by the wayside.

What about the student’s response?  Replying to the professor, thanking him for his interest, complementing him on his choice – all good.  Had the student stopped there, he would have been in great shape, and have solidified his relationship with the professor.  The selected student might be unable to accept, or another position might open up, and the professor in question would certainly think highly of this student.  Not to mention that the professor has friends who may also need students, and may be providing references or recommendations.  However, by complaining about the timing of the notification, the student effectively insulted the person who they were hoping would hire them at some point in the future.

While it is very tempting to want to get back at someone whom you think has insulted you, it’s almost never a good idea – especially in a professional context.  What appears like a slur to you may just be lack of time, lack of knowing any better, or some other factor getting in the way.  If it makes you feel better, write the email, then hit the delete button (and just to be sure, remove the person’s name from the To: line before you start writing anything.)  Rant to a trusted friend (out loud, not in a format that they could forward to someone else, even by accident), then move on.

It’s always better to take the high road, and “never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence” (Napoleon Bonaparte). While it may make you feel better in the short term, burning bridges within your professional relationships is never a good thing.  We live in an increasingly small and interconnected world, and your actions are very likely to come back to haunt you in unexpected ways.

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.

Do You Have Any Idea What You’re Getting Into? Survey Says, Probably Not.

May 20, 2013

The results of the 2012 American Chemical Society survey of new graduates in chemistry and related fields were recently released (  While the results were mixed (unemployment dropped slightly in 2012, but salaries for those who found jobs did too), one of the most interesting statistics came at the very end of the article.

When asked if they felt their current job was “commensurate with their training and education”, the 90.3% of Ph.D. holders answered affirmatively (as well as 70.0% and 84.4% of bachelor’s, master’s, respectively).  But when asked if their job was what they expected it to be when they began their studies, “only 62.6% of Ph.D.’s reported understanding exactly what those positions would entail”.

I can interpret this data one of two ways.  It could be that those Ph.D. holders are getting the jobs they went to graduate school to prepare for, but the job itself is not turning out to be what they expected.  Maybe they obtained a faculty position they always wanted, but were surprised by how much of their time was taken up with teaching, committee work, and the logistical arrangements of setting up a brand new lab.  Maybe they accepted a post-doctoral position, and were surprised at how much work it takes to mentor graduate students and write grant proposals, and how little time they seem to get to actually spend conducting experiments.

Another way to interpret this answer is that once they earned their degrees, many of the Ph.D. holders obtained jobs that were not what they had planned to do when they started their graduate careers.  Perhaps, like the graduate students at UCSF in a 2008 survey (CBE—Life Sciences Education, Vol. 10, 239–249, Fall 2011), they changed their minds during the course of their graduate careers.  This study found a significant increase in the number of students who were “considering a range of options” between the first and second year in graduate school, when they had about 8 months to “observe and interact with senior students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty, and fully experience day-to-day academic research.”

In either case, the reality of what the job is like, and what it entails on a day-to-day basis, turned out to be different from what the candidate expected.  If you think about it, graduate school is a perfect way to learn what it’s like to be an academician – you’re actually doing some parts of the job, and have a front row view of your supervisor, whose job could be very similar to the one for which you are in training.  Many graduate students have watched what their advisor does, and realized that is (or is not) exactly what they want to do with their own careers.

Wouldn’t it be great if all jobs were that way?  If you could spend a few months, or even a few weeks, just watching someone do the job you thought you wanted.  Internships, or job shadowing programs, allow some of this for industrial careers, and students are highly encouraged to take advantage of them whenever possible.  You’d get to see what the job is really like, and would be able to make a much more informed decision as to whether or not you want to continue to pursue it.

If you can’t find a formal program, asking to job shadow someone for a day or two can be an eye-opening experience.  Even if you have conducted informational interviews, sometimes what people think they do with their time is not what they actually do.  We all know actions speak louder than words, so whenever possible, watch the actions of those whom you hope to someday be.  You just might learn something, and begin to understand “exactly what those positions will entail”.

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.

Are You Asking the Right Questions?

May 13, 2013

While I was in graduate school, and for a few years after, I moved around quite a bit.  I got very good at picking apartments in new towns, and learning what to look for when selecting one.  Eventually, I moved back to my hometown, and was ready to buy my first (and so far only) house.  My father and I were talking about this, and he asked me what I was looking for in a house.  I started listing all the things I had learned to look for when choosing an apartment.  My father pointed out that many of the things I looked for in an apartment didn’t matter in a house, and vice versa.  While both are places to live, there are significant differences between them, and what you care about in one instance is easily changeable in the other.

I was recently reminded of this incident when a graduate student came to me asking for help in finding a job after graduation.  I asked her what she was looking for in a new position, and she started listing the various techniques that she had used in school, instruments with which she was familiar, and classes she had taken.  While those are all important parts of your education, they are not the kinds of things you want to focus on when looking for a new job.

When determining your requirements for your next job, you need to think more broadly. You need to identify not just what you did, but what you accomplished, and why it was important.  Most candidates make the mistake of being too specific in their description of their previous job.  They use their resume to list what they’ve done, often in excruciating detail. The odds of another company hiring you to do exactly what you did previously is fairly small – and you probably want to try something at least a little bit different.

I’ve seen many resumes where the applicant listed that they synthesized delta 5,7,9(11)-cholestatrien-3 beta-ol, or used an Ascentis C18.  Ask yourself not “Exactly what have I done?”, but “How can I generalize my skills to cover more territory?”  In the previous examples, try using “synthesized steroid analogs” or “conducted LC-MS analyses.”  This makes your skills applicable to a much broader range of employers.  Since so many resumes are electronically searched for specific keywords, it’s even more important to make sure your resume includes the general terms employers are using, not the specific ones that describe exactly what you did in your previous position.

While most resumes I see are too specific with technical skills, they also error the other way and are too general with soft skills.  Virtually every resume claims “excellent communication skills” (probably because someone told them that was important to have), but few include specific examples of the kinds of things they can do. Ask yourself not “What have I done?” but “What specific accomplishment do I have that demonstrates my proficiency in this skill?”  For example, did you write more than 25 SOPs for manufacturing procedures, resulting in 18% decrease in production errors?  Or did you testify before Congress about the importance of your field of research, resulting in a 150% increase in funding for your field over the next 3 years? Both are communication skills, but are very different.  Are you better at oral or written communication?  Are you better at debating technical issues with other scientists, or explaining theories to non-scientists?

So when you’re contemplating your career, ask yourself not only what you have done, but how to categorize, generalize, and apply those successes to other areas.  And when you’re thinking about soft skills, identify concrete, specific accomplishments that demonstrate those skills.

By asking yourself the right questions, you can identify your skills and abilities, as well as specific, supporting examples of times when you have achieved success using those skills.  Then you will be able to prove that you can do whatever you say you can do – you’ll have the right answers when others start asking the questions.

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.

Writing Winning Recommendation Letters

May 6, 2013

It is spring, that wonderful time of year when many award nominations are due, and many chemical professionals are asked to write supporting letters.  While you want to help your colleagues, you may not know how to write a compelling letter.  There is an art to writing a great letter of recommendation, and a few simple steps can ensure that you write the strongest letter possible.


When you are asked to write a letter for someone else, consider the request before you accept.  Do you know this person well enough to do them justice?  Do you respect them, and their work, enough that you are eager to tie your reputation to theirs?  Do you have time to craft a compelling letter before the deadline?  Only if you can enthusiastically accept should you agree.


Start by collecting the necessary background information.  Ask for a resume or CV of your subject, the requirements and judging criteria for the award, and the requested document type. (Is there a form?  Do they require a letter of a certain length?)

Look through past emails and other communications from the candidate, annual performance reports, and other documents that will spark your memory and help you remember specific projects and activities that you worked on together.

In many cases the nomination needs to be kept secret from the nominee, but their LinkedIn profile, spouse, or other colleagues can be valuable sources.


Start writing your letter.  Begin by describing how you know the candidate, and for how long.  Describe how they meet the award criteria, making sure to include specific examples.  Don’t just write “Steve is a team player”, but provide details of the time Steve took the tasks no one else wanted, and completed them on time and under budget to allow the team to succeed.

There is no need to repeat dates and facts from elsewhere in the application package.  The reviewers want to get to know the candidate as a person, and are looking for a sense of who they are and how they fulfill the qualifications for the award.

Make sure that you follow the formatting specifications exactly, or the candidate’s application may be rejected on technicality.


If possible, coordinate with others who are also writing supporting documents.  Make sure you don’t duplicate coverage, but instead complement each other and describe different aspects of the candidate.


As with any important document, after you think it’s done put it aside and let it sit for a couple days, or at least overnight.  Read it over again, and make sure it flows.  Confirm that you have addressed all, or at least all that you can, of the award criteria.  Send a hard copy in plenty of time to make the deadline, and let the nominator know you have done so.

It is an honor, and an obligation, to be asked to write a letter of recommendation for a colleague.  If you respect and admire the candidate enough to agree, you owe it to them write the strongest, most compelling letter you can.

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