Chemistry Lessons from Art

April 14, 2014

In the past year, I have had the opportunity to visit two different art museums, and see in person paintings that I have admired in reproductions for a very long time. In one case the painting was physically much larger than any reproduction I had ever seen, in the other case the original version was tiny, but both made a big impression. In each case, I was struck by how much more wonderful the real thing was. The colors were more vibrant, the detail more apparent, and they pulled me in, as the reproductions did not.

The same thing can happen with a new job, or a career transition. You think you know what it’s going to be like, but until you’re actually in it you don’t know for sure. The closer you can come to actually doing the tasks the job requires, the less of a shock you will be in for when you get started.

So what can you do to experience the job before you begin it?

The easiest way is by reading about your potential new career. Check out the relevant professional society web site, and career web sites like College to Career ( or Make sure what you’re reading is current and still relevant – science changes fast, and what was sufficient background or education may not be any more. For example, regulatory affairs jobs used to be filled by internal candidates who moved over from the lab and learned on the new job. Now, there are many degree programs in this field, and employers are looking for experienced candidates.

The next step would be find someone who has the job you are interested in, and talk to them about what it’s really like. You can ask them what they do on a daily or weekly basis, what skills and training is needed, what other things wish they had, and where they see the future of this particular career. You’re not asking for a job, just trying to learn what it would be like.

If you talk to several people and are more convinced than ever that this is the right place for you, it’s time to preparing yourself to move in that direction. Take a class at a local college or on-line, ideally one with lots of hands-on activities and projects. Not only will this give you a better understanding of the details of how things are done, but it will demonstrate to potential employers that you are serious about the move.

If you’re still in school, look for internships or co-op positions that will let you work closely with people doing this job, so you can observe them on a regular basis.

If you can’t get a paying position, is there a volunteer job that will let you practice this new skill? For example, if you want to move into management, maybe you need to volunteer to organize a large event, which will require you to supervise others motivate them to help realize your vision.

If you can’t find an official position, you can create your own project. If you want to learn how to program databases, you could build a database system to track all your music. Even if you’re the only one who will use it, doing a real project (with real deadlines) will provide real experience, and give you something to talk about in interviews.

At some point you will take the plunge, and move into the new field. Hopefully, you will be sufficiently prepared and pleasantly surprised when the real thing turns out to be even better in person – and you can turn it into your own work of art.


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.

A Tale of Two Transitions

December 16, 2013

It was the best of times, it was the worse of times…….

Dave knew it was time to leave his current company.  He wanted to move closer to his extended family, and was ready for a new and bigger challenge.  He planned his job search, obtained an offer for his ideal position in his preferred location, and gave his notice at his current company.  He agreed to stay on for a month, through the launch of a major new product, but spent most of that time packing his office.  When the appointed date came, he picked up his boxes of personal items from his office, said goodbye to his co-workers, and moved on.

Jane, on the other hand, had no time to prepare for her departure.  She had been with the company for seven years, and was deeply involved in the final stages of the release of a new major, international product.  She knew the company was in the process of being sold, but was taken by surprise on when it was finalized.  The very next day she was called into the human resources office, told she was no longer needed, had her badge and building keys confiscated, and then was escorted by security personnel to her former office to collect her few personal belongings then out of the building.  As the door slammed behind her, she thought about all the tasks she had left uncompleted, and wondered what would happen – to the project, and to herself.

In the short term, it looks like Dave managed his transition better, since he knows where he is going.  But if we look a little further down the road…..

Dave’s move is not working out as well as he had hoped.  While he enjoys being near his family, he finds the small town boring after years in a large city.  At his new company there are a lot of political games and hidden agendas, and he’s having a hard time getting anything accomplished.  He’s getting more and more frustrated, and beginning to rethink his options.  He misses his good friends at his former company, but when he contacts them asking for advice, they don’t seem to have time to talk to him.

Jane, however, is getting lots of support from her former co-workers.  She has been enthusiastically pursuing new career options, has developed several good leads, including a couple of scheduled interviews.  Most helpfully, her former colleagues have been contacting her on a regular basis, passing along leads and offering to serve as enthusiastic references.

Why the difference?

Both Dave and Jane’s colleagues are treating them the same way they were treated.  Dave, always a solo worker, had mentally checked out of the company long before he physically left.  His projects and colleagues were left dangling, with no one knowing their status or even the location of important files.  Since his departure had been his choice and time, his colleagues left behind were even more resentful that he did not turn over his responsibilities in a more organized fashion.  Even though they had enjoyed working with him, the way he left the position noticeably lowered their opinion of him, and their willingness to help him in the future.

Jane, on the other hand, had always been more of a team player.  She made sure that important documents and reports were on the shared drive, and labeled in a way that would make sense to other people.   She sent regular, detailed status reports to her team members, so everyone knew exactly where each aspect of the project stood, and those taking over could move forward without her.  While her colleagues miss working with her, they appreciate the way she left things, and are more than willing to do whatever they can to help her out.  In her case, the way she left things actually increased her reputation with her colleagues.

You know you only have one chance to make a first impression, but did you realize that you also only have one chance to make a final impression?   If you leave a job on bad terms, through your own choice or someone else’s, the impression you leave behind will color any future interactions you have with your former co-workers.

If you had to leave your current position tomorrow, what would be the final impression your co-workers would have of you?  If it’s not what you would like it to be, maybe now is the time to do something about that – while you still can.

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.

Your Career as a Tourist

September 16, 2013

I recently took a significant family vacation, which required a lot of planning, organization, and communication.  As I thought about how we prepared for and experienced the trip, it occurred to me how well this process paralleled the career transition process.

When we decided to take a big trip, we started by gathering everyone involved, and discussing where we wanted to go. Not specific attractions or activities, just listing major cities/locations, and figuring out which destinations would work together.  Before too long, we had agreed to a basic itinerary.  In the same way, when you’re thinking about the next phase of your career, you want to start by discussing various options with other interested parties.  You may have a general idea of where you want to go next, but it will be modified by requirements from others such as a spouse who can’t relocate, a desire for more or less travel, etc… Eventually, you will come to an agreement about what is required, and what is merely desired, in your next professional destination.

Once we had our list of destinations, we obtained as much information as possible about each one.  We looked online, at both official and unofficial sources, as well as reading books (yes, actual dead trees).  Learning about our destinations, their history and current offerings, gave us a better feeling for what to expect, and allowed us to enjoy the actual visit more.  We added some things to our itinerary, and deleted others.  In the same way, researching career options that appear interesting will reveal hidden aspects that will make them more or less attractive to you.  The more you learn about a new field, the better you will be able to determine if that path is right for you.

We talked to people who had recently visited these locations, as well as people who currently lived there. When researching new career options, do you talk to people who have been doing that for a long time, as well as people who have just moved into that field?  Both novices and experts have useful information, and provide information not found in any printed publication.

We also used a travel agent who was based at our destination, not in our hometown.  Like a good recruiter, she had the inside track on current issues, but because we had done research on our own we were able to communicate effectively with her, and make more informed decisions quickly when she presented us with options.

Before we could leave on the trip, we had to think about what we would need for the journey, and pack it.  Some things we already had, but others we had to go out and acquire.  Similarly, a new job or new career path may require new skills, which you will need to acquire through education or experience.

Once on the trip, we pretty much followed our itinerary.  However, we had purposely left some time unscheduled.  An advertisement we saw while on the trip made us aware of a new attraction, and we used one of the gaps in our schedule to visit it.  That detour turned out to be one of the high points of the trip for everyone!  Just like in your career path, taking advantage of an unexpected opportunity can lead you in a whole new direction that you never knew you loved.  You should always be on the lookout for new professional experiences, and don’t be afraid to take a chance and try something different.

Throughout our adventure, we tried to balance the interests and desires of everyone in our group.  By the end of the trip, everyone had done something they really loved, many things they liked, and had spent some time completely bored waiting on the others.  We adjusted our plans along the way as some activities turned out to be better than expected, and others were disappointments.  Just like a career, where you will love some parts of the job and dislike others, overall you will hopefully find a balance that satisfies your own personal situation.

Now that we have returned home, the only thing left to do is sort through the pictures and memorabilia, and put it neatly into the scrapbook for whenever we want to revisit our adventure.  The sorting and reflecting is important, as it allows us to look back at the experience as a whole, and learn from it for the next time.  When you move on to a new stage in your career, do you take time to review the highlights and lowlights of the previous stage, or even of your entire career (maybe while you’re updating your resume)?  Spending some time reflecting on your professional journey to date can provide valuable insights, and prepare you to make more informed decisions about your next destination – be it vocational or vacational.

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.

Before Changing Careers

September 9, 2013

There are many types of jobs to pursue after completing a degree in chemistry: laboratory work, scientific writing, project management, and teaching in a variety of areas of chemistry like medicinal chemistry, materials science, organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, or forensic chemistry.  A few years or even decades later, you may realize you want to jump onto another career path. Before deciding, ask yourself a few questions.

What do you want to do instead? This can be tough. If you do not have a career in mind, explore what aspects of your job you enjoy and what aspects you would be happy to leave behind. A pharmaceutical chemist may enjoy the theory behind the lab work but not actually like being in the lab. Looking into a data analysis role could be great idea for this chemist.

What are you qualified to do? Education can play an important role here. Scientific careers often require a certain level of education in the subject area; however, a science degree may be used in non-scientific careers. Teaching college chemistry tends to require a master’s degree in chemistry if not a doctorate. Grant writing may require a college degree but it doesn’t have to be in English or writing, a degree in chemistry may work here.

Will you need to go back to school or get further training? If you are not qualified for the career you want, figure out what you need to get there.  If you are trying to change departments, perhaps all you need is on-the-job training that your company will provide. Discovering a love of patent law and deciding to practice law, however, will require you to go back to law school.

Is it feasible for you to go back to school? Paying for school is a consideration. Your current employer may pay for part or all of your education if you will be able to use it working for them. You may be comfortable taking out loans to pay for school yourself, but that can be a tough decision later in your working years. You may have to consider other career options, rather than becoming a patent lawyer perhaps being a scientific consultant on patents would be a better choice.

If you are going back to school, will you continue to work or quit and go to school full time? It may make sense to quit and finish school quickly, depending on your circumstances. Often, people will have commitments that they have to meet, and will only be able to go to school part-time. Keep in mind you may be more focused now then when you first studied chemistry but you most likely have more responsibilities and your time is stretched thinner than before.

Can you translate skills learned in your current career to another? Conducting meetings and public speaking skills may help you to give college lectures.

What life/work balance do you need? Having many personal commitments- taking care of small children or elderly parents for example-may make going back to school or changing to a career that has longer hours difficult and is something to take into account before leaving your job.

What is the job market like for the career you want? You may try to hold onto your current job a little longer and stockpile savings if your new career field is not in high demand or is unstable.

After considering these questions, prepare yourself:

  • Get your paperwork in order
    • Update your resume to emphasize skills from past jobs that will be applicable in the future. Remove parts of your job description that are no longer relevant.
    • Find out the time line for applying to schools. Order transcripts, take entrance exams, and ask for letters of recommendation.
    • Network
      • When trying to move within your company, talk to your current supervisor about your goals and see about getting his or her guidance.
      • Connect with schoolmates and friends in this field to learn more and find out about opportunities that are available.
      • Utilize technology like LinkedIn, Facebook, etc…
      • Utilize the ACS Career Consultants for professional career advice.
      • Explore professional contacts. You may need reference letters or they may have heard of a job opening.
      • Check out professional organizations, newsletters, or trade journals for information and job openings
        • The ACS portal has a lot of information about a variety of careers in chemistry.
        • Consider ways to break into this field.
          • Work part-time as long as it complies with your current employer’s moonlighting policy. If you are considering working in higher education, look for a part-time faculty position that meets nights or weekends to get experience and to explore this option.
          • Volunteer for interdepartmental projects or committees that would give you contact with the department you would like to transfer to.
          • Take a deep breath and change your life.

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.

Self-employment: Finding Success in the Gig Economy

January 28, 2013

When starting your own company it’s not enough to have a great new product or service. It’s not enough to have ample financing. What you also need is sound business sense, the “5 M’s” of self-employment. What are the 5 M’s?

Marketing your services

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Develop a diverse client base in terms of industries you sell to and the size of client organizations you target. For example, during the 1980s the bottom dropped out of the oil business for several years. As a result many chemical companies and consultancies, large and small, saw their sales to oilfield service companies decline substantially. Having a diverse client base would have helped lessen the impact of this sort of situation. Having contingency plans to implement would allow you to quickly compensate for the loss of major customers.

I derive much of my income from my freelance technical writing. During the recent recession I saw my income from sales to both companies and magazines drop substantially. To compensate for this I expanded my sales to government agencies and the nonprofit sector. Luckily I did not have to start from ground zero since I already had some sales to these sectors before the economic slump hit in 2008. I also monitored my sales closely and was able to take timely action to expand my client base because I saw my sales to certain sectors begin to decline in the fourth quarter of 2007.

During the 1980s when my technical writing sales to the oil industry slumped, I was able to compensate by recruiting new clients in Europe and marketing to pharmaceutical industry trade publications. However, because most European countries have been harder hit by the recent recession than the U.S., these strategies did not work for me this time around. Instead I increased my marketing to units of the federal government.

Managing money issues

When you are selling services, it is often difficult to decide what to charge. There are several strategies you can adopt. First, you can learn what your competitors are charging for the same or very similar services and adopt a similar price structure. Alternatively you could take the approach of offering a premium service and charging a higher price. This is the approach I usually take and it often works even in competitive bidding situations if you clearly explain what you are selling and why your service is more cost effective at a higher price than competitors. For example, I occasionally charge 25% to 33% more than my competitors in competitive bidding processes and still win the work. Of course, this approach means that I must provide the added value that I promise.

Sometimes it is difficult to obtain a fair price for your service. For instance, in 2011 a major oil company saw freelance writing projects being offered at $25 per hour on Craig’s List. Neglecting the greater difficulty of technical writing, they offered technical writing projects at this fee. I and some other technical writers turned down the work when it was offered at this low hourly rate because it was substantially lower than the going rate for this kind of writing. The oil firm hired people with limited or no technical backgrounds to work on the projects. They got unsatisfactory documents (chapters in a training manual for example) as a result. I don’t know how this situation was eventually resolved. However, I do know they approached another technical writer and me to whom they offered the original low fees to edit and improve these poorly written documents.

The sharp drop in income during the recent recession led some experienced consultants and technical writers desperate for work to reduce their fees. However, now that the U.S. economy is growing again, albeit slowly, these chemists are finding many of their clients are refusing to pay their pre-recession fee levels. Thus they face the unpleasant choice of losing clients or working for lower fees.

Meeting clients’ specifications

When designing projects for clients, it is essential to agree upon the specifications of the project, project budget, the timetable for completion of various parts of the project, schedule of payments and reporting requirements. Having project management skills is often essential in managing projects to the satisfaction of the client as well as yourself.

It is worth spending time up front clearly defining the client’s specifications and agreeing on how you will meet them. These are the biggest factors in determining whether the client will be satisfied with your work and willing to assign you additional projects.

Minimizing scope creep

Scope creep results when new features are added to a project’s scope after work has started. Scope creep is usually caused by inadequate planning at the beginning of the project. Often each change request is small and the entrepreneur accepts them to keep the client happy. However, a point often is reached when the changes become numerous enough that the project requires much more work than originally agreed upon. The additional work can delay project completion and cause the project to go over budget.

Meeting deadlines

To achieve commercial success it is often essential to complete the project on schedule. To help assure this, project managers often adopt project milestones and dates for their completion. Milestones are intermediate goals that clearly indicate progress in achieving final project goals and completing the project. They are also useful in monitoring project spending relative to achieving project goals.

Following these 5Ms helps increase the overall success of your business while increasing customer satisfaction and increasing the chances of obtaining repeat business.

John Borchardt was a chemist, freelance writer and devoted ACS career consultant for over 15 years, until his sudden passing in January 2013. He was the author of the ACS/Oxford University Press Book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers,” and had more than 1500 articles published in a variety of magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias. As an industrial chemist, he held 30 U.S. and more than 125 international patents, and was the author of more than 130 peer-reviewed papers. John’s advice, insights and articles helped hundreds of scientists improve their professional lives, and he will be truly missed.