Working from Home

January 27, 2014

A recent career change has allowed me to work from home. Not surprisingly, my coworkers like to remind me how lucky I am. However, there are others who have the same option, but choose to come to the office and work in their cubicles all day. Is working from home really everything that people imagine it would be? I am learning the answer to that question, at least from my perspective. It is also interesting to hear my coworkers’ thoughts on why they still choose to work on site. As with most things in life, there are pros and cons to working from home.

Pros

No commute. There’s really no need to elaborate here. Depending on how long your commute to work is, this can be a very appealing pro. I instantly have an extra hour in my day just by not driving to work and back.

Flexible working hours. This can vary from one employer to the next. I know some people who work from home, but they need to be logged in at a certain time in the morning and work specific hours. For other jobs, there is no one who would know when, or if, you are working. For me, it has been much easier to schedule doctor’s appointments or tend to other personal issues during business hours day and catch up on work in the evening.

Customized work environment. You control the thermostat, the lighting, the background noise, the break times – everything. For me, this may be my favorite pro. I don’t find a cubicle to be a motivating environment, and I don’t miss being surrounded by beige walls.

Fewer distractions. Depending on your home situation and your job, the amount of distractions can be a pro or a con (see below). For me, being on site brings distractions because I get brought in on work that isn’t my focus. I enjoy helping coworkers, and sometimes I even enjoy it more than my work, but I am far less productive with respect to my goals.

Cons

Motivation. Before working from home, I had been warned about how difficult it can be to motivate yourself when there are no “working hours” and no one to know whether you are working or not. I didn’t pay much attention to the warnings because I consider myself to be self-motivated. However, I was surprised by how much extra motivation it does take. And I will admit, there are days when I slough off more than I would if I was on site.

Time goes by really fast. This may sound like a good thing. Everyone knows how awful it is when the work day moves too slowly. Working from home seems to create a time warp in which times goes by and you wonder where it went. This is common among those who work from home, and it is the single reason why many of my coworkers choose to work on site when they could work from home. I start the day off with an ambitious list of to-dos. At the end of the day, I have often barely put a dent in the list, and I wonder if I could have accomplished more in a structured work setting.

Fewer resources. While not being surrounded by coworkers can be a benefit because I have fewer distractions, other people are a great resource. I can no longer pop into a nearby cubicle to ask a quick question. Or use the printer/scanner/copier/fax machine. Or walk down to shipping to check on a delivery. There are more resources available at work than I had realized until I no longer had easy access to them.

Less interaction with coworkers. This is a huge drawback for many people. A large part of happiness at work is related to socializing with coworkers. Working from home can be very isolated. I personally enjoy working alone, but for those who enjoy a certain level of comradery, working from home may not be a good fit.

More distractions. For some, working from home may actually bring more distractions. This is particularly true for those with a spouse or small children who are home during the day. Some also find that they procrastinate by busing themselves with housework or running errands rather than getting to work. In this case, it can be helpful to have a dedicated home office space where you can close the door and block distractions.

After a few short months enjoying my switch to working from home, I realize that it is not for everyone. But it is definitely for me. In my case, the pros outweigh the cons. The list I have presented includes the main themes that I have personally experienced or that others have shared with me. If you work from home, what do you like or dislike about it?

 

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.

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Pour Some Water on Your Career

January 20, 2014

I have a small plant that lives on the desk in my office.  Every once in a while I notice it’s looking a bit droopy, and think I should probably give it some water.  If I’m really good, I also remember to give some water to the plants in the other room at the same time, since they are even more “out of sight, out of mind”.  I depend on the plant looking sick for awhile, until I am alert enough to notice it, so I can give it what it needs before it’s too late and I have to go out and buy a new plant.

Wouldn’t it be nice if your career had the same sort of telltale signs?  If you could see the leaves of your network drooping, and know it was time to call a colleague for lunch, or forward that article to a former co-worker?  What if your HPLC column wilted, alerting you it was time to sign up for a class to enhance your skills in that particular analytical technique?

Unfortunately, the signs that your professional life needs some attention are much more subtle, but much more important.  So what are some of those signs that you should be looking out for?

Probably most important is the health of your professional network.  If you had a problem at work, needed advice on a synthesis, or just wanted to complain about your lazy co-workers, do you have a number of people you could trust to listen to you and provide solid advice?  Have you been in touch with many of them recently recently, so you are sure they would not only take your call, but go out of their way to help you?  What have you done to help them out lately?  If you are thinking “Gosh, it’s been awhile” since you’ve talked to many of those people, now would be a good time to drop someone an email,  give them a call, or even set up a time to meet for coffee or lunch and catch up.  You don’t want to get a reputation as a person who only calls when they need something.

In addition to your professional network, when was the last time you looked critically at your personal data document (resume, CV, or other)?  If it’s been awhile, take a careful look and see if it needs to be updated.  Is your publication and presentation list current?   (Easy to fix!)  Do you have some recent accomplishments that need to be added?  Should  you re-word your skills to use more current terminology?  Have you started some volunteer work or other professional activity that needs to be added?

If your resume is up to date, you’re not off the hook.  Is the document up to date because you haven’t done anything noteworthy or learned anything new lately?  Have you been doing the same thing for so long that you can’t see yourself doing anything else?  If this is your situation, it’s time to figure out in which direction you want to grow, and how you can do that.  Sign up for a class, attend a conference, volunteer to take on a new project at work – or find some other way to stretch your skills and learn something new.  Then, of course, you’ll have to update your resume to include that information.  (Yes, it’s a viscous cycle.)

Just like the plant on my desk, your professional network and documents need care and attention from time to time.  You need to be aware of this and spend some time on them,  before it’s too late to just add a little water, and you have to go out and try to purchase a new career.

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.


Don’t Be a Jerk

January 13, 2014

The title of this article is obnoxious, but that is the point.  In stressful situations, people tend to behave badly, and that will most certainly limit their professional progression.

Take for example the interview.  Interviews are stressful situations.  You are asked to go to a place that you have never been, and to meet with people you don’t know.  They are also very judgmental.  That’s kind of the point.  They want to see what it would be like to work with you, and a stressful situation like an interview gives them a great deal of insight into your worst behavior.  The key is to keep your composure and to be likable.

While the interview should be about your technical competencies, interviewers are also about interacting with you on a personal level.  They may be asking you about NMR or HPLC techniques, but they are also sizing you up.  They are thinking about whether they would want to work with you for hours on end.  What will it be like to depend on you for part of a group project that could determine the success or failure of their organization?  You will have to demonstrate your ability to work well with others, or at least these particular people.  That means you can’t clam up or become defensive.  A defensive posture can be misinterpreted by your interviewer as standoffish, abrasive, or worse.

Decisions are emotional at their root.  They may be informed by logic and facts, but human beings tend to revert back to primal instincts in making decisions.  The one at the core of the, “Do I like this person, or are they a jerk?” determination is, “Will they hurt me?”  The interviewer’s decision will be based on their level of trust in or fear of you.  In the short amount of time of an interview, trust will likely be determined based on your openness and consistency.

But likeability is important in much more than interviews.  Over 70% of termination decisions are based on a person’s inability to get along with others, or to accommodate organizational culture.  The paperwork probably won’t say as much.  But in reality, if someone messes up and we like them, we are likely to give them a second chance.  If they are a jerk, then disappointing performance may be just the excuse needed for termination.

If you are from Gen Y or a Millennial,  you may not have experienced many people showing good workplace behavior.  Since you were born, popular culture has been dominated by “reality television” where people act badly to dramatic effect.  The worse they act, the further ahead they seem to get.  Please note, that this is not how the real world works, and most of the behaviors exhibited on reality television were egged on by producers seeking salacious moments that could be used to promote viewership and ratings.  So don’t believe it.  Reality television is not real, and reality-show celebrities are not proper role models for social behavior.  If you display these behaviors at work, you are likely to be escorted to the nearest exit.

So how can you show the beautiful person that you really are, instead of coming across as a jerk?  It will probably take practice.  Go to receptions, meetings, any chance to interact with other professionals.  Observe the effects of your actions.  You may find some bad habits you have that stop the conversation short.  Those are bad.  Don’t do that again.  Other actions may cause people to flock to you.  Those are the ones you want.  There will also be actions that fall in between those extremes.  Make a mental note of the good, the bad and the better, and strive for consistent improvement.  Informal meetings centered on topics not related to your job are the best place to start, because it won’t matter if things go badly there.  You can always walk away, and start anew with another group the next day.  Start small before you go big, and set yourself up with some easy wins in the beginning.

The thing to remember is that most people, especially chemists, are good at heart, and they want you to succeed.   The people on the other side of the table are just as likely as you to be miserable during a bad interview.  To avoid the discomfort during a bad interaction, they are likely to throw you a help line.  If you feel yourself sinking, look to them for help .  You can even ask if help is not obvious – ask them to repeat or rephrase the question.  They may be sinking too.

In summary, your interactions with others matter just as much, if not more than, your technical competencies.  You don’t have to be a perfect human being, and you don’t have to be the most popular.  You just need to be likable, communicative and trustworthy.

This article was written by David Harwell, Ph.D., assistant director of the ACS Department of Career Management and Development.


Elevator Pitch

January 6, 2014

Everyone is busy. If a spontaneous networking opportunity is available, are you ready to take advantage and convey your message in 30 seconds? The elevator pitch is the well-known term for a short summary that defines you, your work, and the value you can bring to your audience. You never know when an opportunity to use your elevator pitch will arise. Are you ready to present the relevant information about who you are as a professional?

There are certain situations that are planned in advance, such as an interview, where you know that you will be expected to talk about yourself from a professional perspective. But you may not always know when a colleague will introduce you to someone, or when you might happen to meet someone whom you want to connect with. It is helpful to think about your elevator pitch in advance, so that you maximize these spontaneous opportunities by including the most relevant information about yourself in a short time. The elevator pitch is typically recommended to be between 30 seconds and two minutes. I recommend sticking to the 30-second pitch, because there are many situations in which you won’t have two minutes, and you don’t want to annoy people by making them feel that they have to wait for you to finish a presentation. In an interview, of course, you have more time to elaborate. In either case, there are some basic questions you can answer to help you define your elevator pitch: who, what, where, when, why, and how?

Who?

The answer to this question is quite simple – it’s your name. I am Jane Smith.

What?

The “what” is how you choose to define yourself as a professional: I am an analytical chemist. Depending on the situation, you may want to be able to elaborate here: I am an analytical chemist with expertise in HPLC method development for liquid fuel analysis.

Where?

The answer here is also simple. Where do you work or attend school? I am currently a Project Scientist at Company X. Or, I am a graduate student at University Y.

When?

The “when” does not have to be an exact date. It can be more of a timeline or summary of your relevant experience: I have been working with HPLC instrumentation for the last 5 years, and I joined the liquid fuel project 2 years ago.

Why?

The “why” is your way of differentiating yourself from everyone else with similar experience and expertise. This is the time to show your passion for what you do. Why are you in this field? I have a strong interest in energy sustainability, and my experience with HPLC gave me an opportunity to investigate how liquid fuel composition relates to energy efficiency.

How?

The “how” may be the most important part of the elevator pitch, and it is often neglected. It is your value proposition. Here, you can indicate how you (i.e., your experience, expertise, and passion) can benefit your audience: The method that I developed can identify components that result in cleaner-burning fuels, allowing environmentally friendly fuels to be designed based on the choice of feedstock.

For the “why” and “how”, it is helpful to know what is most relevant to your audience and tailor your statements accordingly. Of course, this is not always possible for a spontaneous opportunity, but a general statement is still useful. You don’t need to memorize a written elevator pitch that sounds like a rehearsed act. However, taking some time to think about how you would answer these questions will make you better prepared for networking, whenever and wherever it happens.

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.