What to Ask at Your Interview

July 29, 2013

You have written resume, submitted it for your dream job and now you are going in for the interview. You take to time to think of answers to the questions they may ask: What is your experience in this field? How would you solve this problem? What are your greatest strengths? What are your greatest weaknesses?

Have you thought of questions to ask them? It’s important to show interest in the company and let the interviewer see your enthusiasm for the job. One way to do that is to ask questions. Make sure that your questions reflect your familiarity with this company-don’t ask things that are clearly on the website. Keep in mind your own career goals and what you want to know as well. Try to think up open ended questions and follow up on the answers.

Find out about employee career progression. A good question for a human resources interviewer is “What is a typical career path for a chemist here?” A manager or scientist may be able to be more specific. Ask about his or her career path. Where did he or she start at the company? Has he or she changed departments? What educational background do employees in the department tend to have? What career paths have other people starting in this position followed? You want to find out if you will able to fulfill your long term career goals at this company.

Learn about opportunities for training. Will you be able to attend workshops and seminars? Will the company send you to conferences? Are you required to undergo a certain amount of training? What kind of training is done by the company? Keeping up with the new techniques and ideas in your field of chemistry should be import to the employer. If you are interested in going back to school, ask about education benefits. Has anyone in the department gone back to school?

Inquire about employee satisfaction. What is the turnover rate? How long do employees tend to stay at the company? Get information about the interviewer’s experiences. What does he or she enjoy most about his or her job? What is the hardest part of his or her day? You want to find out if people are unhappy and if you would be, too.

Ask about the position. What does a typical day look like? What is the most rewarding part of the job? What is the toughest part of the job? What is the most important skill needed to perform well in this position? Make sure you understand what you would be doing day to day.

Discover what the corporate culture is. How are employee evaluations handled? Is there a process for employees to give feedback? Ask the manager about his or her management style. How does he or she handle projects? How much freedom is given to an employee? Think about how you like to work and whether you would be able to fit in here.

Towards the end of the interview, inquire about the next steps. Will some applicants be called back for more interviews? Decisions may be made that day, sometimes there will be a series of interviews. Is there a set date when the applicant search comes to a close? Sometimes applications are collected until a position is filled, other times a search must take place during a set window of time. Are all applicants notified when the position is filled?

Think about what you want to know about the company and the position and keep in my mind how an interviewer will perceive your questions.


This article was written by Sara Stellfox. After working in contract and pharmaceutical laboratories, Sara changed her career path and is now a free-lance writer and chemistry instructor at the City Colleges of Chicago.

Are you Engaged?

July 22, 2013

A recent Gallup Poll on the state of the American workplace (http://www.gallup.com/strategicconsulting/163007/state-american-workplace.aspx) looked at trends in U.S. employee engagement, and the impact of engagement on organizational and individual performance. While we all know that correlation is not causation, there is some interesting information, and some food for thought about your own employment status.


This survey is not new; it has been given to more than 25 million employees across a variety of industries since the late 1990s.  There are 12 main questions that are invariant.  They include statements such as “I know what is expected of me at work”, “In the last seven days I have received recognition or praise for doing good work”, and “This last year, I had opportunities at work to learn and grow.”  Based on their responses to these statements, employees are grouped into one of three categories – engaged, not engaged, and actively disengaged.


“Engaged employees” are those who “work with passion and feel a profound connection to their company.  They drive innovation and move the organization forward.”


“Not engaged” employees are “essentially checked out.  They’re sleepwalking through their workday, putting time – but not energy or passion – into their work.”


“Actively disengaged” employees are those who are not just unhappy at work, but “they’re busy acting out their unhappiness.  Every day, these workers undermine what their engaged coworkers accomplish.”


I think we can all agree that there are some people who love their jobs and are always happy to be there, others who are just going through the motions and doing the minimum required, and a few who seem to be actively causing harm. (And we may move between categories at different points in time). According to this survey, about 30% of all employees currently are engaged, 52% are not engaged, and 18% are actively disengaged.  These numbers have not changed significantly since at least 2000 (earliest date reported).


There are some things companies do that affect employee engagement.

For example, organizations that were currently letting people go had a significantly lower percentage of engagement than those that were not (13% vs. 43%).  This is not surprising – if you’re worried you’re going to lose your job, you are going to distance yourself from it as a matter of self-preservation.


What might be surprising is that while workplace benefits (vacation, bonuses, flextime and so on) were nice, they did not correlate with increasing engagement. In other words, if you don’t enjoy your work, providing a free lunch or masseuse on-site does not make you feel better about it.  You may feel more positively towards the company in general, but you will not be more engaged in your work.


With all the discussion lately on benefits or costs of working remotely, this survey looked at engagement as a function of time spent working remotely.  Remote workers averaged 4 hours per week more than on-site workers, and those who worked remotely less than 20% of the time were slightly more engaged in their work than other groups.  It appears that there is an optimal balance between time in the office interacting with co-workers, and the freedom to work wherever is most efficient.


In addition to conducting surveys, Gallup also provides advice to companies, and they have three strategies to help companies improve their employee’s engagement.  Perhaps some of these will help you improve your own engagement with your job.


First, people are important. Good managers are those who genuinely care for their people, care about performance, and are willing to invest in talented people.  Co-workers who are engaged in their work will help spread the enthusiasm.  Does your manager and co-workers have a positive, encouraging attitude, or do they make it difficult to enjoy what you do?


Secondly, employees are more engaged when they can use and build on their strengths, as opposed to the more common practice of focusing on people’s weaknesses.  Someone who is adequate at a particular task will probably never become stellar, no matter how often their deficiencies are pointed out to them.  However, someone who is pretty good at a particular task can probably become outstanding with a reasonable amount of encouragement and effort.  This not only improves the individual, but overall productivity as well.


Finally, engaged employees were found to be generally in better health, and to have healthier habits than other employees.  So not only is it good for your career, but being passionate about your job actually correlates with improvement in other parts of your life as well.


How engaged are you in your work?  If the answer is “not very”, what are you going to do to change that?



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.




Culture Shock

July 15, 2013

The other day, I was talking to a college student who had recently started his summer job.  He had a job that was very similar to what he had done the previous summer, but in a different place.  This meant he was doing mostly the same type of work, but with a brand new group of people.  As he described the differences between the two workplaces, I realized what he was talking about was the difference in cultures between the two locations.

Each location had similar numbers of staff and customers, similar tasks that needed to be done, and similar metrics for success.  However, they had very different cultures.

While both sites completed all their tasks on time (especially the customer facing tasks), one location took extra pride in striving for excellence, exceeding expectations, and completing tasks early.  The members of this staff made an extra effort to look out for each other; actively seeking out ways to help each other, leading to an enhanced sense of teamwork and camaraderie.  They socialized with each other during their off hours, as opposed to the second site where they were  friendly while at work, but happy to go home to their “real lives” and real friends.  After having worked in the former environment, this more distant attitude came as quite a surprise to him.

The single difference that was most striking to him was in how each group handled it when they were asked to do something that they’d never done before.  In one site, if a staff member did not know how to do something, they would ask someone to show them how, and then practice until they could do it perfectly.  In the second location, if asked to do something they’d never done before, most people would find someone else who knew how to do it, and then ask them to take care of it.

While the latter course is certainly the most efficient in the short term (let everyone do what they do best, and already know how to do), it may not be most effective in the long run (what happens if that one person is not available at a crucial time, or leaves the company altogether?).  Both strategies have their place, and it is the job of the manager/supervisor to guide the staff into learning which is most appropriate for that particular company.

Most people are naturally inclined to work one way or the other.  Some people prefer to do the same thing over and over at work, and derive great satisfaction from being the very best at that particular task.  Others are not happy unless they are challenged, and are constantly looking for new things to learn and variety.   My interactions would seem to indicate that most scientists are naturally curious people, who want to know how and why things work, and are excited by the opportunity to do something new.  My friend certainly fell into this camp – his exact words about his new co-workers were “I could have forgiven them for not knowing, if they had shown any interest in wanting to learn.  Instead, they just got someone else to do it for them.”  In his mind it was slacking off, not being efficient to ask the expert to do the task.

To him, learning how to do new tasks was part of his job, and having someone do it for him was unacceptable.  A different staff member might have said “It’s all about being efficient, and getting the job done.  There’s no sense wasting time figuring out how to do something, if someone else already knows.”

When we talk about the culture of a company, we are really talking about a collection of small differences like this, which combine to create the atmosphere in which we work.  When the way you like to work matches that of the organization for which you work, you feel comfortable and confident in what you are doing.  When they don’t match, you just may be unhappy without realizing why.


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.

Stuck Between a Pillow and a Soft Place

July 8, 2013

The other day I had coffee with a friend who was facing a difficult decision.  She had two job offers, and was trying to decide between them.  Granted, this is a good problem to have, but that doesn’t make it any less agonizing.  Both positions were local, so would not involve moving, but otherwise they were very different.


The first job was the known quantity.  It would be going back to a company she had worked for previously, though in a neighboring group.  She had actually applied for the job a year earlier and been turned down, so was very gratified to receive the offer of a permanent position this time.  She knew many of her potential co-workers, and they got along fine.  The work would be things she knew how to do well, and she would be running her own lab in a lot of ways.  It was a large company, so salary and benefits were very good.  Though the company had gone through massive, repeated layoffs in the past; they were currently stable, but it was definitely a high pressure, high stress environment.  This specific location was a smaller one, so she would certainly run into her former group members from time to time.  While she had not felt appreciated in that group, she felt she could be cordial to them.  However, the commute would be bad, and she knew the entire company was highly political, and she would have to tread carefully throughout her career there.


The second job was much more of an unknown.  It was a one year contract position at a very prestigious institution – just having that on her resume would be very valuable in future job searches.  She would be doing some things she already knew how to do, but part of the program was designed to teach her new things.  There is a slight possibility, but no guarantee, of finding a permanent position at the end of the one year period, and she would be much closer to a new field that she was very interested in moving into.  Since it was a contract position there was no retirement plan or other benefits, though she could buy into the group health insurance.  The environment was congenial, relaxed, and during her time they would be moving into brand new laboratory space.


In listening to her talk about the two options, it was pretty clear why she was torn.  The first offer appealed to her ego and sense of security.  The company had actually changed the job description to make it fit her, and they were aggressively pursuing her.  Working for a large, stable, global company offered a great deal of security, with options for other places to move as her career progressed.  While she knew it was a stressful and political environment, she had been successful in that environment previously.


The second offer appealed to her sense of adventure and challenge.  She would be working with a number of early career scientists, teaching them about her area of expertise, and learning about theirs.  The thought of setting up a brand new lab, exactly the way she wanted it, was exciting.  The commute would be short, but she would have to continue to look for her next position.  If she couldn’t find something within the institution, in a year she would be back in the same position – although with new skills and a better resume.


Which option would you pick?  The stable, stressful, known position; or the temporary, exciting, unknown?  For some people, this would be an easy choice.  For others, it’s a much closer call.


It all comes down to a matter of personal values. What is most important to you in your professional life – security, challenge, balance, autonomy, altruism, advancement…?  While each of these are important to everyone, the relative importance is different for each person, and in fact, changes over the course of your life. When evaluating professional options, it is important to think about how well it matches not just your scientific aspirations, but your personal values as well.

If the most important thing to you is having a stable paycheck every month, or setting your own professional direction, you are most likely going to take the first job.  If you’re most important value is being able to balance personal and professional life, or the challenge of learning new things, you would probably take the second position.


In the end, the right decision is simply the one that’s right for you.


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.


Have You Fallen Out of Love?

July 1, 2013

Hopefully you started out in your career doing something that you loved.  You looked forward to going in every morning, were energized and excited by what you did, and got a lot of personal satisfaction and feelings of accomplishment from what you were getting paid to do.   But over time, things change.  Your skills, values and areas of expertise shift, as do your company’s needs and culture.  When do you decide that it’s time to make a change, and look for a new position that will bring back your enthusiasm?

Here are a few signs that it’s probably time to start looking around for a different job, or a different company, that will bring the joy back to your work day.

Later Mornings, Earlier Evenings

When you wake up, do you look forward to getting to work, or do you look for excuses to delay your arrival time at the office?  At the end of the day, do you find yourself watching the clock for when you can reasonably leave, or do you lose track of time because you’re so involved in what you’re doing?   People (obviously) want to spend more time doing things they enjoy, and conversely if you’re spending less time at work it’s probably because you don’t enjoy it.


Quality Time

In addition to the quantitative measure of number of hours spent at work, look at the quality of the time that you do spend there.  If you find it hard to keep your focus on your work, and often drift off to think (or even work on) a volunteer project or other extra-curricular activity, it could be a sign that your head (and your heart) are not where your body is.

Stepping Back

In the past, were you the first person to put your hand up when there was a new technique to be learned, new area to investigate, or new project to get off the ground?  If you’ve stopped volunteering for new things, maybe you’ve learned all you can where you are, and it’s time to move on to someplace where you can learn something new.

What Do Other People Think?

Has your supervisor or a co-worker made comments about you appearing tired, lacking enthusiasm, or how you just don’t seem to be as excited about work as you used to be? Are co-workers not coming to you for help or advice as much as they used to?  They may pass it off as a joke, but people probably won’t say anything to you unless they really notice a change.  While you don’t want to be paranoid, neither do you want to be surprised by a less than stellar performance review.

No job is a perfect fit, and there will always be days, or even weeks, where you don’t enjoy what you’re doing.  Hopefully, the good days will outnumber the bad ones by a fair margin.  But if you find yourself starting to have nothing but bad days, it may be time to re-evaluate how you feel about what you’re doing, and find a way to love it again.

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 (www.acs.org/network-careers)._—brought to you by ACS Careers.