Do More When You Have Less

May 26, 2014

I recently read about a group of amazing computer programmers who emigrated to the US. They came out of Russia, in a time when Russia had very few computers. With little knowledge of the English language, they were able to use their superior programming skills to not only survive, but thrive, and build highly lucrative and successful careers.

At first glance, this seems counterintuitive. If they had extremely limited access to computers, how did they even learn to program, let alone become experts? The solution actually comes from the scarcity – if you have limited access to something, you learn to make the most of what you do have. You spend a lot of time planning, and thinking about the best, most efficient ways to do things. You don’t just try things to see what happens (much), but must really learn how to take advantage of every second you have with the computer.

Similarly, if you have limited access to an NMR, HPLC, or other scientific equipment, you are going to plan your experiments carefully, making sure to get the most information from each minute you do have on the machine. You will most likely spend some of your more copious non-machine time thinking deeply about the science behind how the device works, what is special and unique about your samples, to find clever ways to get the most data in the smallest amount of time. This is often how new techniques are invented, and how existing ones are extended.

You don’t need to move to a country with limited resources to learn how to be efficient. What are the tools and techniques you currently take for granted? Which have you used for so long that you don’t really think about them any more? Can you take a step back, look with a fresh eye, and really think about what you are doing, and why you are doing it?

This philosophy can be extended to other parts of your life as well. What habits have you developed, and do they still make sense? We’ve all heard the joke about the woman who always cut the end off her pot roast and threw it away before cooking it. She always did it because her mother had always done it, and her mother did it because HER mother had always done it. But when the woman finally asked her grandmother why she did that, the answer was because her pan wasn’t big enough to fit the whole thing. This habit had been passed down for three generations – what started out as a practical solution to a current problem turned into an expensive waste when circumstances changed, and no one thought to question why they did things that way.

What office or lab habits have you developed, that you don’t think about anymore? Maybe now is the time to think about those things that you don’t think about, re-examine why you do them that way, and see if there’s a better way, a new tool, or an updated technique that can save you time or effort. Sure, there will be an initial investment to look into the options, examine the advantages and disadvantages of each one, and maybe learn a new tool, but that may be more than made up for by savings in time or additional information obtained in future experiments.

Change is always difficult, and most people avoid it whenever possible. It’s easier just to continue doing things the way they have always been done. But sometimes, investing a little time and effort to really think about what you are doing, and why you are doing it that way, can pay off big in the long run.

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.

 

 


Coping with Job Stress

May 19, 2014

The alarm goes off. Another day in the pressure cooker of work has begun. And there are only 24 hours to get more done today. If your mornings begin with the panic of job-related stress and a feeling of being overwhelmed, it’s time to implement some simple strategies for stress reduction. Stress is defined as a state of bodily or mental tension resulting from factors that tend to alter an existent equilibrium. This definition is vague, and for good reason. Stress is personal. The factors that disrupt one person’s “equilibrium” may be exactly what motivates another person. In other words, stress exists because you perceive it to exist. No one is injecting you with stress or slipping it into your morning coffee – you are fueling it. And that’s great news, because you can learn to manage it.

Take Control

The American Institute of Stress has determined a close connection between perceived stress and perceived control. People feel stressed when they feel a lack of control over a situation. Are there ways that you could gain more control over your job tasks, your work environment, your schedule, etc.? Certain factors of your job may be fixed, with little potential for more control. Look for opportunities to expand your control, and talk to your manager about ways that you could be more independent. Implementing control in your personal life can also reduce job stress. Simple changes like establishing a consistent workout schedule or focusing on eating a healthy diet can provide a sense of control and reduce stress. Look for any goal that you can work toward, whether job-related or not.

Focus on the Positives

There is a reason why people get paid to do their jobs. It is work, and it won’t always be enjoyable. Recognize and accept that there will be aspects of your job that you don’t like. Then stop focusing on those factors! Focus on the positive aspects of your job. This sounds obvious, but when you’re feeling stressed it’s easy to get caught up in the negatives. Start catching yourself when you think about something negative, and then redirect your thoughts back to something positive or encouraging. Over time, positive thoughts will become the default.

Maintain a Realistic Perspective

It’s only a job, after all. You don’t literally have the weight of the world on your shoulders. If you question the previous statement, you have an unrealistic perspective that allows stress to dominate your thoughts. Use stress as it is best used – as motivation. Feel the pressures of your tasks and deadlines, and then get busy and work hard. Don’t validate an unrealistic perspective by worrying about how you will reach impractical goals; instead, focus on what you have accomplished at the end of the day.

Don’t be a Work-aholic

It may seem like working endless hours is the only way to relieve the stress of a demanding job. If you do this, you will never feel “caught up” and stress-free. You will only be allowing job-related stress to enter into your personal time and overtake your life. Working late for an occasional project is one thing, but when long hours become status quo, stress is amplified. For most people, there is a point at which working longer does not correlate to significantly greater productivity. In other words, there is a point of diminishing returns. For me, this happens after about 9 or 10 hours of focused work. If I continue to work another few hours, there is not much to show for it. Recognize when your productivity starts to fade, and take that as your sign to call it a day. Go home, stop working, stop stressing, and enjoy life outside of work. After all, isn’t that why we work – to support and benefit our personal lives?

 

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.


Where do you see yourself in five years?

May 12, 2014

This can be a tough question to answer in an interview or when your manager is talking to you about career development. What they really want is not an in depth look at the future you envision for yourself but to see how well your short and medium term goals match up to what your employer can provide for you and needs from you. Beyond a well crafted reply in interviews and annual reviews, its helpful for you to determine a five year plan for yourself. Before you can answer the question, you need to create a five year plan for yourself.

Five years is a good time frame for planning. Its not too far off into the future where its hard see how you will get there but its a long enough time to accomplish a bigger goal or two. Laying out a concrete plan helps make you accountable to yourself and brainstorming ways to make them happen will you help to actually start accomplishing them.

-Think about where you want to be five years. What will your life look like? Where will you be in your career? What do you want to accomplish?

Make these goals demanding but attainable. If the goals are too demanding you may end up discouraged before you even start. The goals should be challenging, if they are too easy for you to accomplish, you may feel bored with the process and are not moving towards the place you really want to be.

-Sort your goals according to priority. What is really important? What things would be nice to accomplish but do not feel necessary to you?

Label the goals you would most like to meet ‘A’ goals. Goals that you want to accomplish but are less important are ‘B’ goals. ‘C’ goals are things that would be nice to do but not important. Really think about what you care about and what is important when you are prioritizing. Make sure to sincerely rate these goals; this is your list and should reflect your own needs and preferences.

-Think of ways to accomplish each goal. What are different paths you can take to meeting that goal?

Take one goal at a time and write down any way you can think of to make it happen. Do not worry if you end up with a few silly or implausible ideas. Sometimes a silly idea can spark another great idea; do not waste time censoring yourself and just go with it.

-Once you finish your list of ways to meet a goal, rate them from ‘A’ to ‘C’ again. ‘A’ being the most useful or important and ‘C’ being the least helpful. Go through the list of ideas for each goal and sort them this way.

-Rewrite your goals and the ways you plan to accomplish them.

Look over your five year plan to make sure it reflects how you envision your life in the next five years. Make sure to revisit your plan now and then to see if you are working towards you are still working towards your goals. Update or make new plans as things change. Be flexible. As you start accomplishing your goals, you will surely find new things you want to do or change your mind on how important a goal is to you over time. A trusted mentor-it could be someone at work, or a former teacher or a current co-worker-may be able to help you see how realistic your goals are and may help generate new ideas on how to meet them.

Now that you have your own five year plan, you can share the relevant parts of it during an interview or annual review. An interviewer or your manager does not need to know every detail of your 5 year plan. Make sure to discuss the relevant parts of your plan with him or her but feel free to leave out some of your personal goals.

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.


And Today’s Speaker is….

May 5, 2014

Chemical professionals are used to presenting their work at seminars and conferences. They spend hours preparing content and practicing wording, until everything is perfect. But when it comes to introducing other speakers, many people give very little thought to what they will say until they actually step on stage.

As the host, it is your job to get the attention of the audience, build anticipation, and spark interest in what the speaker has to say. You want to prime the audience, to give the speaker the best possible chance of success. Below are some tips to help you do just that.

Do Your Homework

Start well ahead of time, by asking the speaker for their bio and CV or resume. Visit their professional web page, and learn about their work and institution. Ask them to pronounce their name, and repeat it back. Make sure you have the title of their presentation exactly right, it is has not changed, and that you know how to pronounce everything.

Prepare the Content

If the audience is not familiar with you, briefly state your name and your role, then quickly move to your introduction of the speaker, emphasizing

their connection with this organization or event, their credentials, and their topic. Don’t repeat a laundry list of all their awards, accomplishments and education, just enough to intrigue the audience and convince them that this person is uniquely qualified to speak on this topic to this audience. Don’t give an outline of the talk, or set up unrealistic expectations.

Once you have your introduction written, run it by the speaker. They may have newer information to add, or prefer that something be omitted.

Set the Tone

Your introduction should match the formality and length of the main presentation, generally 1-2 minutes for short presentations. If the speaker is giving an hour-long talk, your introduction can be a little longer, and may include your personal connection to the speaker. Humor is occasionally appropriate, but if you’re not sure, omit it.

As your introduction builds to a climax, you should draw attention to the speaker by looking directly at them, end with “and I am pleased to present Dr. David Tennant”, and get off stage immediately. If you are introducing a series of speakers in a symposium, make sure to use the same level of formality for each – don’t call some “Dr. Thomas Baker” and others “Clara”.

Learn the Material

While it’s okay to use notes, there’s nothing more boring to the audience than a speaker reading directly from a piece of paper – unless it’s reading what is already printed in the program. As when you are the presenter, smile, stand up straight, and speak loudly, clearly, and with enthusiasm.

By the end of your introduction, the audience will know that this is the only speaker who could address their need to know about this topic, and they will be anxious to hear what she has to say. An eager audience is the best gift you can give a guest speaker, and mastering this art will go a long way towards enhancing your professional reputation.

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 the ACS Career Navigator.