Reverse Age Discrimination

November 25, 2013

The recent increase in unemployment has brought attention to age discrimination in the workplace. It is well known that older workers can face discrimination when applying for jobs. Common stereotypes are that older workers are out of touch with the latest technology, set in their ways, and more expensive in terms of salary and benefits. There are many strategies that an older worker can use to shift the focus away from age, or to use their age as an asset. These include positioning themselves as experienced candidates, formatting their resume as functional rather than chronological, and highlighting their flexibility and strong work ethic. What about younger workers? They also face stereotypes, such as being inexperienced, self-absorbed, slackers, and having an undeserved sense of entitlement. It stands to reason, then, that younger workers also face discrimination in the workplace. However, so-called reverse age discrimination has not received the same attention. And there does not seem to be the same empathy for the plight of young workers.

The Law

When it comes to your job, are you too old? Too young? Just right? According to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADED) of 1967, there is no such thing as too young, and you are just right until you turn 40. That is when a person can be legally viewed as a victim of age discrimination by a Federal court. The Supreme Court recently upheld the ADED as a law that only applies when an older worker receives unfair treatment relative to a younger worker, demonstrating the general indifference to the complaints of younger workers, who are seen as just another 20-something complaining about something. So what can younger workers do to overcome reverse age discrimination?

Strategies for Younger Workers

Play into the positive stereotypes. In addition to negative stereotypes, young workers are also seen as being tech savvy, ambitious, innovative, and open to change. Highlight these attributes on your resume by including your work-related experience with the latest technology, or any ideas you had that were implemented at work. Come to the interview prepared to discuss examples that demonstrate your ambition and willingness to take on new challenges.

Reverse age discrimination is not an issue only during a job search. It can actually become more apparent after a young worker has already landed a job. They can be given below-average salaries (even after considering age, experience, etc.) or passed up for promotions. There are many people who simply don’t want to see a 20-something have a six-figure income or receive three promotions before they turn 30. This can be extremely frustrating for younger workers who have put in huge amounts of time, effort, and money, such as doctors and lawyers, to acquire the knowledge, skills, and experience that command high salaries.

Young workers who are trying to climb the ladder should avoid behaviors that erode professionalism in the workplace, i.e., starring at your phone and texting as you walk down the hall, to a meeting, to the lunch room, to the bathroom. If you want to be cautious, don’t use texting abbreviations or slang in office emails, even though some more common ones, like “lol”, have become more accepted. A colleague of mine recently used “totes” in an email to me. I had to Google what it meant. You don’t want your coworkers having to Google the latest lingo to interpret your emails. Most people appreciate a relaxed, informal work environment, but keep in mind that it is a work environment.

The Reality

Unfortunately, no matter how well you tackle any form of discrimination, the reality is that the problem is not you – it’s the person doing the discriminating. So, the biggest challenge in overcoming reverse age discrimination may be realizing when you are fighting a losing battle and shifting your efforts toward identifying a better fit somewhere else. Currently, the Federal law is not on your side. For those younger workers, the best advice might be to look forward to the 10 years in your 30s when you are least likely to experience any type of age discrimination.

This article was written by Sherrie Elzey, Ph.D., a chemical engineer and freelance technical writer/editor. Sherrie has a background in nanoscience and nanotechnology research, with experience in academia, government, and industry positions.

Expanding the Niches

November 18, 2013

When you were a child, and people asked what you wanted to be when you grew up, you probably said something like doctor or teacher.  Those were the careers you had personal experience with, and the ones where you thought you knew what they did.

But just because you have been to a pediatrician, does that mean you know anything about what it’s like to be a geriatric oncologist, a thoracic surgeon, or a diagnostic radiologist?  Each of these is a type of doctor, but what they do is very different.

The same is true of being a chemist.  My own informal surveys over the years have always shown that the majority of professional chemists became so because they had a wonderful high school teacher, who got them excited about the logic and the beauty of chemistry.  Many went on to major in chemistry in college, with little knowledge of what a professional chemist does.  During college they probably learned about research, and maybe even participated in some, so like they knew what a career in scientific research would involve.

However, the world of chemistry is full of all sorts of careers, with all sorts of interesting niches. No matter what part of chemistry you enjoy most, there’s probably a career in that.  It can be eye opening to learn about new-to-you career paths, and realize just how much is really out there

Recently, I was researching careers in quality management.  What I found was a broad range of jobs, each with a different focus, that would appeal to different kinds of people.  Starting with the analytical chemistry, lab bench-oriented quality control jobs that test both raw materials and final products, there are jobs that appeal to those who like a predictable routine, knowing exactly what to do and how to do it.  These jobs also involve intellectual challenge, when the results are not as expected, and the chemist must determine where the problem is, how to fix it, and hopefully get the production back on track with minimal downtime and product loss.

Moving away from production and into the bigger picture, there are the more process and documentation-oriented quality assurance positions.  These scientists are responsible for implementing and improving quality processes, in order to reduce the risk of product defects.  They too may be called in when there are problems with the processes they have instituted, and changes are required.

Moving to the even larger picture are the regulatory affairs professionals who are familiar with all the current regulations, make sure the proper processes are followed, and ensure that all processes meet at local, state and federal requirements in all the appropriate jurisdictions.  And of course, there are public policy scientists who advise those who create the rules in the first place, and government agents who receive the reports and inspect to make sure everything is in order.

In looking at this whole spectrum, I would bet there are some jobs that you find intriguing, as well as some that you have absolutely no interest in.  It’s usually not too hard to convince candidates to investigate the ones they find interesting, to learn more about what they really involve and what skills are really required.

But a more interesting challenge is to take one of the jobs that does not interest you, and see if you can think of a way that you might turn it into something that you could enjoy?  If you did it at a larger company, so the tasks were more focused, would that make it match your interests?  Or if you worked at a smaller company, so your duties were more diverse, would you like that better?  What if you could do that job in a particular industry, or working on a particular kind of product?

By turning it into a game, and forcing yourself to not immediately discard the option, you will force yourself to think in new, creative directions.  Stretching your mind like this will help you be more creative when the time comes to think about what you really do want to do next, since you will have lots of practice in developing new possibilities.

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.

Preparing for Interview Questions

November 11, 2013

During an interview is no time to be caught off guard-questions that would be easy to answer normally can cause you to be speechless when asked by a potential employer. Thinking about an interviewer’s possible questions ahead of time and considering some possible answers can help you feel calm and comfortable before and during your interview.

It’s likely an interviewer will want to know how well you interact with co-workers or customers and will ask you about your ability to work with others. Consider past instances of how you have worked in teams or collaboratively on projects. Being able to give a concrete example of updating the safety manual as part of the safety committee will better let the interviewer understand your interpersonal skills than just saying you enjoy working in a team environment. Think of a few teamwork examples ahead of time to have them fresh in your mind.

Examine your resume and be honest with yourself-is there anything that an interviewer may be concerned about? Be prepared to explain a short tenure at position. If you left a company after 6 months due to conflicts with your manager, be prepared to be asked why you left after only 6 months. Keep in mind that now is not the time to vent about a previous employer. Diplomatically saying it was not a good fit is better than saying your past manager was unreasonable. Consider succinct explanations of periods of unemployment. If you took time off for personal reasons-taking care of small children, elderly parents, or other personal responsibilities that you need time off from work-explain briefly and note how enthusiastic you are to be returning to your career. Focus on how where you are now rather than a long explanation of your time away from your career.

You may be asked why you are leaving your current job or why you left your past positions. If you are changing to further your career, mention how much you learned at the position and how you are interested in growing and furthering your career. You are most likely leaving for a few different reasons. You could feel overlooked your current position. Instead of sounding negative, explain you are interesting in growing in your career and believe this position would be a great opportunity to do that.

Depending on the position, you may be asked technical questions. Be prepared to answer questions about hypothetical situations. I spent a significant part an interview describing how I would separate 2 similar molecules of interest using HPLC where the interviewer asked several follow up questions about the solvent system, and column selection. Once I began teaching, I was required to give a 10 minute mini-lecture on a first year general chemistry topic as part of the interview process. Consider the skills the job position requires and refresh your memory on what job skills you listed on your resume, and be prepared to discuss the technical aspects on what you would be doing and what you have done.

Preparation will help you be in comfortable during the interview and you will be able to showcase your strengths to potential employers.

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.

Just Tell Me What You Want

November 4, 2013

Recently, a colleague asked if I would help him identify some good candidates for a new opening at his company – he needed “an analytical chemist”.  Another friend just emailed me and said his university was looking for a “laboratory prep technician”, and did I know anyone? In neither case did I have enough information to even start answering the question – I had to go back and ask a number of questions of each of I had enough details about the position to start recommending people who might be suitable.  I wanted to help them, just didn’t have the information I needed.

Many job seekers do the same thing – they ask for help, but don’t make it easy for people to help them.  They do not have a specific, concrete description what the type of job they are searching for, so they can’t explain to others what they want.  Spending a little time to craft a good description of what you’re looking for will make it much easier for others to help you find it.

Below are a few things you should keep in mind when developing a description of your ideal job – or your ideal job candidate.

Be brief, but not too brief

Two to three sentences should be enough to convey the essence of what you’re looking for, without being overly specific. You want to be detailed enough that they know what you want, but broad enough to cover several different options. Make sure to include information about education and experience requirements, any specific knowledge areas involved (types of compounds, instrumentation, techniques, etc.).

To Change or not to Change

Do you want to stay in the same industry, but change roles?  Or continue doing the same kinds of tasks, change industries?  If you’re thinking about a new job you obviously want some things to change, but there are probably some things you’d like to stay the same.  Make sure to identify the most important items in each category.

Job Titles are Meaningless

The same job title can mean vastly different things at different companies. Focus your description on what you want to do, not what you think that position should be called.  While a descriptive title (Analytical Chemist) can be helpful, but Senior Scientist does not convey any useful information

Include Relevant Factors

If the job must be within 2 hours of Boston, you want to manage people, or you want less than 20% travel, include that information in the description.  It may be obvious to you, but different things are important to different people – and even to the same person at different points in their career.

By developing a succinct description of exactly what you are looking for, you will able to explain it to others, making it easier for them to help you.  They will recognize the job when they come across it.  And even better, forcing yourself to write down a succinct description just may force you to clarify some things in your own mind.


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.