Career Advice from Mark Twain

February 24, 2014

I recently came across the following quote from Mark Twain (1835-1910), explaining how he thought chemists could solve the problem of world peace. “I am going to get a chemist–a real genius–and get him to extract all the oxygen out of the atmosphere for eight minutes. Then we will have universal peace, and it will be permanent”  (1905 Nov 05).  While I appreciate his faith in our abilities, this may not be the ideal solution in this case.

But what about other matters?  Twain actually had a lot to say on a variety of topics, and much of it still applies today.  In fact, many of his quotes provide excellent career advice.  Below are some of them, with modern career-based applications.

Career Development

“Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first.”

“The secret of getting ahead is getting started.”

No one is going to hand you a job, or look out for your career.  In fact, no one else is even going to care about it as much as you do.  It’s up to you to find out what opportunities are available, what education and experience is required, and then to go out and get it.  It’s easy to sit around and wait for the perfect opening to fall in your lap, but harder to get up the activation energy to go out and make it happen.

Written Communication Skills

“The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

Twain said this in 1888, but it is just as true today.  We write much more than we used to – reports, emails, tweets, LinkedIn and Facebook status updates…and don’t  always take the time to make sure we’re using exactly the right words.   In this world of remote work, some people may only know you by what you write, so it’s important to take the time to find the right words, with exactly the meaning and connotation you intend to convey.

Oral Communication Skills

“It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.”

We all know that in meetings, you often learn more by listening than by talking.  However, scientists are often asked to give oral presentations on their work, either to share scientific advances with colleagues, or to sell their ideas to managers and business colleagues.  In either case, giving an answer when you don’t have all the data is tempting, but bluffing is almost never the best choice.  Admitting that you don’t know, and offering to find out and get back to the interested parties, is a much better solution.

Networking

“Let us make a special effort to stop communicating with each other, so we can have some conversation.”

How Twain managed to address social media before it existed is pretty amazing.  Do you spend too much time updating your online status and profiles, and too little time having actual conversations with people and building professional relationships?  Get away from the keyboard, and make time for some in-person conversations, over coffee or lunch.  Your network will be much stronger for the change.

On Continuous Learning

“Don’t let schooling interfere with your education.”

“Education consists mainly of what we have unlearned”.

Don’t think you’re finished learning just because you earned a degree.  You need to continue to learn new things throughout your career, in both formal and informal settings.  Formal education in a classroom setting is not the only way to learn new skills.  Volunteer to be treasurer of an organization to learn how to set a budget and mange expenditures.  Start a blog with a regular posting schedule to improve your writing and deadline-meeting skills.  Don’t be afraid to try new ways of doing things, and learning what works for you – and what does not.

Adapting

“A round man cannot be expected to fit in a square hole right away. He must have time to modify his shape.”

If you do find yourself in a job that does not quit fit, give yourself some time to adjust your expectations, attitude and actions.  There may be some small changes you can make, to yourself or the job responsibilities, that will allow you to fit much better.

“I was seldom able to see an opportunity until it had ceased to be one.”

The only thing worse than letting your career path be determined by random chance is having it determined by regrets.  Be alert for opportunities that arise, but also go out and make them happen.

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 Adjunct Faculty Job Applications

February 17, 2014

Adjunct faculty is making up a larger and larger portion of departments. Some adjunct instructors are people looking to transition to a full time tenure track position, others like the flexibility of working part-time, or are people employed full time somewhere else looking to earn an extra paycheck. If you have spent most of your career working as a chemist, transitioning to education as adjunct faculty can be a little tricky, beginning with applying and interviewing for faculty positions.

Parts of the interview and hiring process are similar. You will discuss your background and interest in the job. There may be some surprises about the process even if you have interviewed and hired at many companies.

Timing can be different than you would expect. Do not be discouraged if you do not hear from a department immediately. Department heads scheduling courses may be able to have all the courses staffed a semester ahead of time but this is not always the case. Often, there are last minute changes in faculty or class sections added due to increased enrollment. I have been called for an interview a few weeks to a few days before classes were beginning, sometimes 6 months to a year after submitting a resume. Schools really do keep your resume on file. Occasionally, schools will still be hiring after the terms starts with current faculty substitute teaching the course until someone can be hired.

Be prepared to explain your teaching philosophy. In addition to a cover letter and resume, schools may ask for a statement of your teaching philosophy. The requirements to teach college chemistry generally are a graduate degree (master’s or doctorate) rather than a degree in education. This makes it a bit tricky when first teaching to have a cohesive teaching philosophy. Look up some education philosophies in journals or on-line check out resources like the Chronicle of Higher Education or the Journal of Chemical Education, talk to educators not necessarily just college professors, but people from different areas and levels of educations, and think about what you valued over the years from the course you took.

Have transcripts from all the schools you have attended ready to go. Colleges and universities generally need to verify your education; some may even need to see how many credits hours you earned in different subject areas. Some departments have a minimum number of graduate credit hours in an area of chemistry to teach a course, for example to teach organic chemistry you must have a required number of graduate credits specifically in organic chemistry. Most schools will accept unofficial transcripts until you are hired so I saved my transcripts as a pdf and can quickly send them with a job application. This way the job application process can begin immediately and there is no delay waiting for a school to send the requested transcript.

In addition to discussing your teaching philosophy, be ready to share course content or actually give a mini-lecture during the interview. If you need to give a presentation, choose a topic appropriate to the subject area that you are comfortable with and are knowledgeable about. Do not be afraid to admit that you do not know something or are unsure. Some interviewers may be asking questions to see how you will handle difficult questions from students rather than to test your knowledge.

Working as adjunct faculty after working industry can be interesting and rewarding, particularly when you are able to bring your education and work experience into the classroom. The job application and interview process is somewhat different (no one has ever asked me for statement of analytical chemist philosophy in an interview) but with some preparation you can be ready to demonstrate how well qualified and ready you are to teach.

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.


Simple Options, Complex Choices

February 10, 2014

I spend a significant amount of time working with teenagers, making them think about money and time management.  In one exercise, we talk about what you can do if you have gotten yourself into debt.  They often have a hard time coming up with specific ideas, but when pressed come up with “don’t spend as much on food” or “don’t go out as much”.  After several more rounds of leading questions, they begin to see that all of their answers fall into one of two categories.  While there are many ways to do each of those things, there really are only two options to get yourself out of debt and back to a positive cash flow situation – either “spend less” or “earn more.”

The same dichotomy applies to your career.  If your current job did not turn out to be what you thought it would, or you are disillusioned with how your career is progressing, there are two basic things you can do to fix it.  The first is to adjust your expectations, and be happy with what you have.  The second option is to figure out what you really want from your career and get it.

Dissatisfaction with your career is not as easily quantitated as an imbalance between your income and your expenditures.  It will take some thoughtful introspection and careful consideration of not only your current situation, but also of your entire career trajectory.  What is it that you really expected to have at this point in your career, and how is that different from what you currently have?  Are your expectations reasonable for today’s job economic market and demographic realities, or were they based on what conditions that no longer exist?

If you are in the job you thought you wanted, but are unhappy, why is that?  Did the job turn out to be significantly different from your expectations?  Or are you doing what you expected, but you find you do not really enjoy it as much as you thought you would?  It’s very difficult to really know how much you’ll enjoy doing something until you actually do it . How often have you been pleasantly (or unpleasantly) surprised when you’ve tried something new, and found it was different from what you expected?

As you’re considering what you really want to get out of your career, and how that differs from your current position and goals, make sure you are being realistic. The type of job you covet may not exist anymore, or may exist in such a transformed version that if you knew what it really involved, you would not really want it.  You may be able to make small changes to your current job – adding some responsibilities, shifting others, to move what you have closer to what you want.

To continue with that theme, if the disconnect is very large, you will need to make large changes. You need to make the commitment to do what it will take to get what you really want – maybe attending night school to finish your degree, taking on extra projects at work to learn new skills that will make you eligible for a promotion, or moving your family across the country to a place where the type of job you covet is more readily available.  Yes, these will take time, and yes, there are disadvantages with each.  Only you can determine if the benefits of “getting more” in the long term outweigh the alternative of “learning to be happy with less”.

Carolyn Hax, who writes an advice column in the Washington Post, recently told a reader that “Stress is what fills the gap between what we covet and what we actually get.”  Since your career is such a large part of your life, it makes sense that a mismatch there would cause a large amount of stress.  Realizing that the world does not make promises, and there are many paths you can take, can go a long way towards helping you get your expectations and your realities in line.

In summary, in order to reduce your stress, either be happy with what you have, or go out and get what you want.  Simple, right?

 

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.


Making Meetings Meaningful

February 3, 2014

Communication is the bedrock of business, and in many situation a face-to-face discussion is the best way to exchange information, compare options, and make decisions.  So why do so many people hate meetings?  In most cases, it’s because neither the organizer nor the attendees have prepared properly, so a significant amount of everyone’s time is wasted. To make the most of meetings, and of your and your colleagues’ time, follow a few simple guidelines.

Agenda

Every meeting needs an agenda, with date, location, list of times and topics, and goals.  The agenda and background materials should be sent to all attendees well ahead of time, so everyone can read and digest the information. Ideally, preparing for upcoming a meeting causes attendees to get their materials and ideas organized, so they are ready to jump into discussions in the meeting. Meetings should begin promptly – waiting for late attendees is discourteous to those who were on time, and encourages others to be late in the future.  During the meeting, stick to the published timeline, and make notes of items that need to be addressed later (discussions that were recessed for time, or a decision with no clear consensus).

Attendees

Invite everyone who needs to be there, and no one who doesn’t.  Does the person providing background information need to be present to answer questions, or will their written report suffice?  Does the person who will make the final decision need to attend the preliminary discussions, or will the summary provide enough information?  If there are multiple items on the agenda, does everyone need to be present for all of them, or can they be grouped?  If you respect people’s time and only include them when really needed, they will be more willing to attend.

Attention

Everyone at the meeting should be focused on the meeting.  If attendees are checking email, texting, tweeting and having side discussions, they are not present mentally.  Do they need to be present physically?  While there are generational differences in technology usage, the meeting organizer should make clear what is acceptable and what it not.

Actions

Often, the most important person at a meeting is the scribe who takes the meeting minutes.  This list of decisions made, unresolved issues, and action items (with responsible parties and deadlines) is the official record.  All attendees should be provided with the minutes as soon as possible after the meeting, with a deadline for additions or corrections.  During the meeting, you should be taking your own notes of items for which you are responsible, and make sure those reconcile with the official record.  If this is a recurring meeting, the organizer should end the meeting on a positive note, and confirm the date, time and location of the next meeting.

Meetings are a fact of professional life, and new technology is making meetings with geographically distant colleagues even easier. However, since time is one of our most valuable resources, putting in the effort up front to prepare, and thus minimize the time spent in meetings will pay dividends in both increased productivity and the gratitude of your colleagues.

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.