Reinventing the Later Stages of Your Chemistry Career

January 21, 2013

Events of the last several years: large-scale restructuring of the pharmaceutical industry, processing of cheap U.S. natural gas, outsourcing of jobs, the recession and other factors, are forcing many chemists to reinvent their careers. This includes those of you in the later stages of your career. For this purposes of this blog, I’ll call these later stages “phased withdrawal from full-time employment.” We definitely need a word to refer to this phase of life. I checked various dictionaries and thesauruses and they offer no help at all. So in the absence of an accepted term and to avoid clumsy phrases, I’ll use the words “retiree” and “retired.”

Del Webb Corporation, America’s largest builder of retirement communities, conducts periodic surveys of people 50 years of age and over to determine their interests in what used to be called “the retirement years.” In 2010 nearly 40% of current “retirees” reported they were actually working. Finances are certainly one reason but others included warding off boredom/keeping busy, self satisfaction, and simple enjoyment. There was also high interest in volunteering. Reasons for this interest include the ones given previously plus “for the enjoyment, feels good, and to help others and give back to the community.”

The growing percentage of baby boomers working in what traditionally has been called their retirement years offers a major opportunity for companies and other organizations that would benefit greatly from tapping their skills. These boomers need not compete with younger and mid-career chemists but instead offer valuable advice and even mentorship.

So what are the options for chemists in both traditional and non-traditional careers?

Back to campus

Many colleges and universities offer their standard courses for non-credit to retired individuals. Many schools allow their alumni to attend these courses for free. (This was a major factor in my considering relocating to Chicago last year.) Besides allowing chemists to pursue long-postponed interests (put me down for history courses), retired chemists can keep their scientific knowledge up to date. They can also take courses to improve other work-related skills such as writing and public speaking. Another option is to improve one’s public speaking skills by participating in Toastmasters clubs.

One can also do other things on campus besides being a student, such as attending lectures by outside speakers. In the case of chemists, these speakers are often outstanding chemists from other universities in North America and even overseas. By being active in your ACS local section, you may be able to develop the contacts or networks necessary to be invited to speak occasionally on campuses about various aspects of industrial chemistry, job hunting and other subjects. I am only one of many ACS career consultants invited to campuses to speak on job hunting and careers.

Part-time work

In an effort to maintain access to their older employees’ expertise, some companies are offering them the option of working part time or even hiring them back on a contract basis. Senior employees now have a way to transition gradually to full-time retirement, often at their own pace, while their employers maintain access to their hard-won expertise. In an American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) survey of 1,000 human resources managers, 69% indicated their firms are trying to keep older workers on staff as part-time employees. For example, Abbott Laboratories “Freedom to Work” program allows older employees to continue to work part-time. Since its launch in 2008 more than 400 Abbott employees have participated in the program.

According to Lesli Morasco, a Director of Benefits at Abbott, this program doesn’t interfere with younger employees’ career advancement. Indeed, being mentored by a part-time Senior Researcher can help younger employees take on bigger and more complex projects. Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, Director of Boston College’s Sloan Center on Aging & Work suggests that having a highly experienced researcher as a mentor to train a newly hired scientist can help that person master their job responsibilities more quickly.

Companies can even access the knowledge of retired scientists and engineers who spent their careers working for other companies by working with placement firms such as YourEncore ( In many cases these part-time scientists and engineers work out of their home offices rather than relocating to another city.

Professional societies

Professional societies offer another means to remain involved in various aspects of chemistry, such as The American Chemical Society (ACS). Technical divisions and local sections within ACS offer many opportunities for retirees to organize programs and manage other activities to help these organizations better serve their members. Other organizations such as the Society of Petroleum Engineers, National Association of Corrosion Engineers and American Association for the Advancement of Science and other groups offer similar opportunities for chemists working in various specialized and interdisciplinary fields. Trade associations such as the American Oil Chemists Society and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of American also offer volunteering opportunities.

John Borchardt is a chemist and freelance writer who has been an ACS career consultant for 15 years. He is the author of the ACS/Oxford University Press Book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers.” He has had more than 1500 articles published in a variety of magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias. As an industrial chemist, he holds 30 U.S. and more than 125 international patents and is the author of more than 130 peer-reviewed papers. As an ACS Councilor, he serves on the Joint Board – Council Committee Patents and Related Matters.


Non-traditional Offices for Non-traditional Chemistry Careers

December 17, 2012

The most usual office for self-employed chemists is a space in their home. It’s hard to beat the convenience of a well-equipped office in your own home. Stephanie Dickinson, contributing editor to The Writer Magazine, called home offices “the 30-second commute” and used the phrase in the title of her book “The 30-Second Commute: A Non-fiction Comedy About Writing and Working from Home.” It’s pleasant to look out the window of one’s home office, see a driving rainstorm and realize you merely have to turn around in your chair to be at your workplace. Even on sunny days it’s nice to be able to avoid the mental strain and lost time of a lengthy commute. Your 30-second commute reduces wear and tear on your car while reducing the air pollution and fatigue that every day commuting causes and puts a little more coin back in your pocket.

The home office

Your home office may be as simple as a kitchen table where one puts one’s laptop computer between meals. It may be more elaborate such as a spare bedroom well equipped with office furniture and equipment. The more space and the more office equipment one has, the more efficiently one can usually work.

One nice thing about a home office is you can furnish it gradually rather than all at once spreading out the expenses. This is what I did when furnishing the spare bedroom that became my home office. It now has four bookcases, an étagère for office supplies, and a computer table for my desktop PC, and a writing desk. Two shelves of one bookcase are occupied by a printer and a combination telephone answering machine/fax machine/photocopier to complete my office.   I sometimes work in my living room using a small tray table to hold my laptop computer.  I’ll also sit on my patio and work before it gets too hot or humid.

Offices outside the home

I also use my laptop computer to work around town. Sometimes I’ll grow tired of working alone in my home office and need a change of scene. Self-employed chemists have a growing number of places to work and meet with clients or each other. Options have grown beyond coffee shops, libraries, and clients’ offices. Increasingly hotels are welcoming local residents to use their lobbies as meeting places and as a place to work. They also offer a comfortable place to work for hours and to rendezvous with other self-employed individuals or clients for lunch or coffee.  Hotel lobbies make a trip more productive than a lengthy drive followed by a thirty-minute interview followed by a return home. By reducing the productivity loss of attending a meeting, hotel lobbies can help lessen the isolation felt by self-employed chemists and reducing the productivity loss when they get together for lunch or coffee. Hotel coffee shops, restaurants and bars also do more business.

Some quite upscale hotels are doing this. For instance, the Public, a boutique hotel just north of downtown Chicago, welcomes freelancer writers, consultants and other mobile workers to its amenity-rich lobby because they help create “buzz.“ Amenities include free Wi-Fi, comfortable chairs, and even some work tables fitted with electrical outlets. The two-year-old Andaz Wall Street, a Hyatt Hotel in New York City, is another example. While in San Diego in March to cover a conference, I was able to work comfortably in the lobbies of two hotels, the Hilton Gaslamp and the Marriott Marquis as well as interview some meeting attendees.

Convention centers are getting into the act as well. Many offer free Wi-Fi while their public seating areas, coffee shops and snack shops provide comfortable places to work. Their large parking lots make convenient places for freelancers to park their cars even if they are just using these public areas and not attending a conference.

John Borchardt is a chemist and freelance writer who has been an ACS career consultant for 15 years. He is the author of the ACS/Oxford University Press Book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers.” He has had more than 1200 articles published in a variety of magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias. As an industrial chemist, he holds 30 U.S. and more than 125 international patents and is the author of more than 130 peer-reviewed papers. As an ACS Councilor, he serves on the Joint Board – Council Committee Patents and Related Matters.

Non-traditional Chemistry Careers: Supply Chain Manager and Contract Manager

October 29, 2012

There are many rewarding chemistry careers “off the beaten track” of well-known job areas such as R&D, sales, and business management. These careers tap specific chemical knowledge as well as skills many chemists learn such as critical thinking, creative problem solving and decision making. Two I will discuss today are Supply Chain Manager and Contract Manager.

Supply Chain Manager

The manufacture of products based on chemicals involves a series of transfers from suppliers to customers. For example, one company produces natural gas (ethane). It is transported by pipeline to a plant where it is converted to ethylene. It may be further converted to polyethylene pellets on site or transported by another pipeline to another plant for this conversion. The resulting pellets are transported by railcar to customers who mold the polyethylene into various objects. Often other substances are added to the pellets to provide desired physical properties. The objects fabricated from polyethylene are used in a wide variety of products ranging from bottles to toys to machine parts. Each chemical transformation of material: from natural gas to ethylene to polyethylene pellets to molded object is part of the supply chain. These material transfers may occur within one company or from one company to another. Often the chemical materials being transported are corrosive, air-sensitive or toxic. The containers used to store or transport them by pipeline, railcar, or tank truck must be durable, without leaks, and resistant to corrosion by the materials they carry. It is the responsibility of the Supply Chain Manager to be sure that this is the case.

The Supply Chain Manager is also responsible for the safe and timely transport of materials from one location to another. Supply Chain Managers must assure that the customer both does not run out of supplies requiring a costly plant shutdown or have an over-accumulation of supplies requiring materials to be stored in railcars until tankage becomes available.

An interruption at any point in the supply chain, such as the one which occurred after the 2011 Fukushima, Japan tsunami; shutting down many plants in Japan.  This disturbance in the chain can shut down plants in the U.S. and elsewhere that depend on timely delivery of chemical products and other items from distant production plants, having a catastrophic impact on supply and demand. Plants were shut down and people temporarily found themselves unemployed thousands of miles from Japan because of the disruption.

Supply Chain Managers work with government regulation specialists to assure government safety and labeling regulations are met. They also work with ship owners, railroad and trucking companies to ensure suitable ships, railcars and tanker trucks are available in the proper locations when needed to transport materials.

The 2011 median salary for a typical U.S. supply chain manager is $94,223 according to using data collected from many employers across the U.S. in a variety of industries. The Institute of Supply Chain Management is the professional association for supply chain managers and offers professional certification to its members.

Contract Manager

Industry, government and academia all employ Contract Managers to manage a variety of contracts. These include:

  • purchasing contracts for goods and services
  • partnership agreements
  • types of R&D contracts such as outsourcing and other types of cooperation.

Contract Managers’ responsibilities can include drafting, evaluation, and negotiation of contracts followed by monitoring their execution and compliance of all parties to the terms of each contract. They often act as the contact between their own organizations and those having contracts with their employer. They maintain records of all contract correspondence, status reports and other documents relating to contracts. They monitor compliance with the terms of contracts and may become involved in discussions when disagreements arise. In the case of R&D contracts, these activities may require interacting with R&D project managers and intellectual property attorneys.

The primary professional organization for contract managers is the National Contract Managers Association (NCMA). The results of NCMA surveys indicate that 56% of Contract Managers are women. The seniority and importance of contract managers may be indicated by their median age of survey respondents, 49 years. According to, their 2012 annual average salary is $80,000.

Most NCMA survey respondents work for or with the government with 56% working for government contractors plus 23% working directly for the federal government and 3% working for state or local government agencies. Another 9% are in commercial businesses. The remainder work in academia or as consultants. About 47% work for large government or private sector organizations with annual revenues or budgets exceeding $501 million.

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.

Non-traditional Chemistry Careers: Science and Technical Writers

October 22, 2012

Traditional science writers work full-time for newspapers, magazines or associations such as the American Chemical Society (ACS). However, these days print publications are employing fewer full-time science writers. Many people blog about science but relatively few earn enough to depend on blog earnings as their primary source of income. Science writing is increasingly becoming a part-time and even unpaid profession. Therefore, one should be well aware of these trends before committing to science writing as a full-time occupation.

Freelance Science Writers

An increasing fraction of science writers are self-employed contractors. Besides writing for magazines, newspapers and websites for these publications, they may also write for companies needing writing services. For example, as a freelance science writer, I have written confidential internal documents for oil companies, oilfield service companies, chemical companies and consumer products companies. Often these “white papers” are proprietary in that the information is confidential and the exclusive property of the organization that commissioned the work. Many magazines, newspapers and websites hold exclusive rights to articles they commission freelance writers to write. So if one writes a document or article, he/she often cannot sell it to more than one organization.

Being self-employed, freelance writers usually do not receive health benefits from the organizations that commission them to write articles. Freelance writers also have to make their own provisions for Social Security Administration payments and other retirement income. Monthly income can vary from month to month depending on the writer’s success in being commissioned to write science articles. Many freelance writers write on a part-time basis in addition to holding a full-time job. Some write solely for the enjoyment of writing about science and not for money.

Some science writers work for agencies. Companies and other organizations approach these agencies when they need writers to prepare documents on specific subjects. These agencies maintain files and recommend writers to organizations needing them. In return for this service, the agency receives a percentage of the writing fee from the hiring organization. Often the agency manages issues such as paying the writer’s income taxes and Social Security fees from his/her income before sending the writer a check.

National Association of Science Writers

The National Association of Science Writers ( is the professional organization for science writers and includes both writers working full-time and freelance writers who work for various clients as they receive assignments to write various documents.

Technical Writers

Technical writers are often put in a separate category from science writers. Many technical writers work for the information technology industry either as professionals employed full-time or as freelancers. They often write operating instructions for IT products such as computers, cell phones and software. This usually pays more than science writing. The relevant professional organization is the Society for Technical Communication (

Many writers are both science writers and technical writers. Some cover other subjects as well. For example, I write job-hunting and career management articles customized for scientists and engineers that are published as ACS Career Blogs (

Finding article topics

Finding gripping article ideas that will interest many readers is no problem. Many news services publish press releases on new developments in science and medicine from universities, companies, government agencies and conferences. My favorite is published daily by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Another site publishing many European science press releases is Many universities publish press releases based on discoveries made in their science departments and labs.

The federal government’s national laboratories publish press releases about discoveries their scientists make. Many scientific organizations such as the American Chemical Society also publish press releases as well as trade organizations such as the Technical Association of the Pulp & Paper Industry.

Incidentally, science writers prepare these press releases. While some are freelancers, most are full-time employees working for organizations such as the ACS.

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.

To Consult, Retire to an Industry Porter Cluster

September 24, 2012

Many individuals retire from full-time employment and become consultants. To enhance your prospects of establishing a successful consultancy, consider relocating to an industry Porter cluster. A Porter cluster is a geographic concentration of related industries or functions. This includes the core companies that comprise the industry as well as the institutions, suppliers, vendors, government partners, and industry groups enabling industry to function at peak efficiency.

Examples of Porter clusters relevant to chemists, biologists, and engineers include the concentration of petrochemical companies on the U.S. Gulf Coast between Houston and New Orleans. These are the oil companies and oilfield service companies located in the Houston area.  There are also many biotechnology companies located in Boston, San Francisco and San Diego; and a large number of pharmaceutical companies in Philadelphia, New Jersey, Boston, and the so-called Research Triangle Park. Companies located in these “Porter Clusters” near other companies similar to their own because the synergies they can obtain increase innovation and reduce costs.

If you have developed expertise in a specific technology or commercial field relating to a particular type of business, retiring to one of the Porter clusters can provide you with a large number of potential clients within a relatively small geographic area. This facilitates frequent face-to-face meetings that foster good business relationships. Many people still prefer face-to-face discussions to electronic communication. Thus geographic proximity to clients and potential clients can promote the growth of your consultancy.

Sometimes research centers, technical centers, company headquarters and manufacturing facilities are tightly clustered in a section of a city rather than being spread out over a sprawling urban landscape. For example, a 10-mile stretch of I-10 in Houston, Texas is home to more than 300 large and small oil industry firms. These include ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, British Petroleum, ConocoPhillips, and CITGO. Firms providing services to the oil industry include GE Energy Services, Schlumberger, Halliburton, Baker Hughes, and Weatherford International. Equipment and chemical suppliers also have offices and technical centers along this strip of highway.

Collaborative Relationships

The key to obtaining synergies resulting in successful Porter clusters is developing collaborative relationships. Professional associations can help promote and facilitate these interactions. For example, the American Chemical Society and other groups have large and flourishing local organizations in Houston as well as many other Porter cluster hubs. Many or most of their members are employed in or serve the oil and gas and petrochemical industries. Their frequent local meetings benefit both individual chemists, engineers and their oil industry employers in both keeping their professional skills up to date and providing forums to meet colleagues from other firms and discuss non-proprietary technical matters. They also provide opportunities for consultants to met potential clients. Consultants can use the association’s  newsletters or list serves to advertise their services.

The many Porter clusters large oil and gas industry employment draws these and other organizations to frequently schedule regional, national, and international conferences in the cities. These provide additional opportunities for initiating and developing interconnections between organizations. For example, Houston’s Offshore Technology Conference provides an interaction point for engineers and others working for oil and gas companies and their suppliers around the world. More than 30,000 professionals, including consultants, attend this annual conference and tradeshow.  These conferences provide opportunities for consultants to meet with long-distance clients and potential clients without incurring major travel expenses.

The bottom line is if you have a desire to do something different, retire to a new line of work or want to start out on your own, you can do so as a Consultant.  Keep in mind of the Porter clusters near your current residence or take a chance at an opportunity to move to a new location and expand your personal and professional horizons.

John Borchardt is a chemist and freelance writer who has been an ACS career consultant for 15 years. He is the author of the ACS/Oxford University Press Book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers.” He has had more than 1200 articles published in a variety of magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias. As an industrial chemist, he holds 30 U.S. and more than 125 international patents and is the author of more than 130 peer-reviewed papers.

Changing Jobs: Overcoming the Activation Barrier

March 26, 2012

When I was stuck in a job I didn’t find fulfilling, it was easy to want to change jobs. What was harder was mustering the energy to overcome the barriers to finding a new job. It took me a long time to go from wanting to leave to actually trying to make it happen. There were seven steps, each requiring more focused energy.

Below are the seven steps that I went through to overcome those barriers.

1.  I disliked my job.

In the first stage, I had been unhappy with my job for years. Basic research was not well-supported by my upper management, and funding was tight. Both problems seemed to be getting worse, not better.  However, when I came home from work, I had a choice: I could pursue interesting projects and hobbies, or I could continue to do the laborious and daunting work of searching for a new job. For many months, I chose the latter.

2.  I applied to companies in series.

Once I got fed up with my job situation and acknowledged it wasn’t going to improve without some effort, I started revising my resume and occasionally searching for interesting companies. In this stage, every few months I’d find a company that sounded like a great fit and focus solely on that organization, while waiting to hear back. I would chase down the opportunity by networking and applying through the company’s recruitment system. While my approach to getting into these companies was fairly good, unfortunately none of these efforts worked out. And because I was working in serial—one company at a time—it often took months to get an answer and then move on to applying to another company.

I knew I should probably be looking harder, but did not want to devote the kind of time a serious job search takes—I wanted to devote more time to other interests. As a result, I just wasn’t getting the attention of enough relevant employers by cultivating multiple leads at once. Applying to a few companies a year when great opportunities come along is fine if there is no hurry to move on, but it usually doesn’t lead to a new job in a timely fashion.

3.  I improved my resume.

Concerned that my resume and cover letter might be holding me back, at this stage I improved my resume by working with an ACS Career Consultant, who helped me flesh out my accomplishments by challenging me to add specific examples to ensure the content was presentable. I noticed the structure of my resume didn’t seem right when I applied to jobs in fields I was looking to break into. Even if I hadn’t worked in a particular field, I knew I had accomplishments relevant to the work. The problem was those accomplishments were scattered across multiple jobs and courses, making the narrative of my resume disjointed.

I happened to see an ACS Careers Blog post on functional (skills-based) resumes and the light bulb went off. When I structured my resume by skills rather than chronologically, I was able to collect all my accomplishments from different jobs and courses which were relevant to the new field. Now, I could gear my resume to one of several new fields I was interested in and show I had accomplishments relevant to that field, even if I hadn’t formally worked in the industry.

4.  I applied to companies in parallel.

Ultimately, staying in my previous job was holding back my personal goals, so I invested more energy in my search by applying to companies in parallel. I applied to many companies, mostly online. In my desire to make something happen, I probably emphasized quantity at the expense of quality, applying for jobs that weren’t great matches for my interests.

I received a few interviews; but I was tired of sending my application into black holes, never to hear from hiring managers or Human Resource professionals.  While this tactic alone works for some people, I was not successful using this method.

5.  I networked in parallel.

In an effort to learn more about my target companies and get the inside track on talking to potential colleagues and hiring managers, I started networking with many more people. For each company I had a serious interest in, I requested telephone networking conversations with several current or past employees. I spoke to existing professional contacts, friends, and even people I’d never met before (LinkedIn ® was a good resource for finding employees of target companies). Not everyone responded; however, those who did were quite generous with their time and insights. They told me about the company’s culture and outlook, how their company compared to competitors, and how to pitch my accomplishments to fit their company. (I looked at the ACS tips on conducting a networking conversation for suggestions on what questions to ask.)

It was especially helpful to talk to people in target fields in which I had no direct experience.  I learned what they did on a daily basis, how their company and industry worked, where their funding came from, and how to transition from hands-on bench research to desk-based analysis.

6.  I attended career events.

Several ACS webinars were helpful. Today’s Job Search Strategies explained industry trends and encouraged me to focus my search. The Road Less Traveled – Alternative Careers for PhD Scientists reassured me that leaving laboratory research would not mean my hard work was for naught, and suggested a variety of fields from lobbying to technical writing. Careers in Intellectual Property for Chemists focused on one such field, its rewards, what career options are available for chemists, and how to pursue those options.

My local ACS chapter, the Chemical Society of Washington, presented a one-day Career Development Workshop for Chemists. It had panel discussions on careers inside and outside the chemical sector. There were also presentations on chemical employment trends (to tell me what I was up against!) and developing a resume. I met employees at companies I was interested in as well as other job-seekers, who shared what they’d found in the job market.

The ACS Mid-Atlantic Regional Meeting had a career development track. One day included speakers and panels of people with science degrees who were working in alternative (non-laboratory) careers. One panelist happened to be the hiring manager for a job I wanted and later interviewed for! Another day included workshops on career self-assessment, resumes, interviewing, and hiring negotiations. I was able to practice my answers to interview questions in a group with other job-seekers.

7.  I planned and managed my job search.

By this point, I was investing the amount of time I should have been from the start. Networking and applying to jobs were becoming a second full-time job. But I felt disorganized and realized I needed to plan and manage my job search better.

Seeking a coherent strategy, I picked one book on career management, bought a copy (rather than checking it out from the library) so I wouldn’t have to rush through it, and worked through the writing exercises pretty methodically. I found this more useful than reading multiple books but not doing the “homework” they suggested.

The book I chose was Get The Job You Want, Even When No One’s Hiring, by Ford R. Myers. I picked this book as it seemed well-written and organized, was geared toward professionals, emphasized networking, and had a good mix of self-assessment (what kind of work do I want to do?), and practical job-search strategy. It was also a reasonable length to work through comprehensively.

While working through the exercises in the book, I thought about what fields I wanted to work in and for which companies. I kept track of my contacts, networking engagements, and job applications. This gave me a sense of control over my job search. Eventually, I found an exciting new opportunity once I generated the energy I needed and developed my plan to overcome my career-change activation barrier.

Jeremy Monat earned a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley. He studied photovoltaics (dye-sensitized solar electricity cells) and energetic materials using laser spectroscopy. He is the author of over a dozen peer-reviewed papers. He is now a Systems Engineer in the Washington, D.C. area.

Avoid Career Potholes

October 10, 2011

Career potholes are behaviors or events that slow your progress towards your career goals. Just like potholes in the road, career potholes can upset your mental equilibrium and focus. They can have a long-lasting effect on your career progress. Therefore, it is a good idea to steer a career course that helps you avoid career potholes. What are some common career potholes and how can you avoid or deal effectively with them?

Job loss

The biggest career pothole is job loss. Determining your skill deficiencies and repairing them can help avoid job loss. Pay careful attention during performance reviews and ask your boss how you can improve your performance. Ask your mentors the same question.  Get the advice of both your boss and mentors on strategies to overcome your deficiencies.

However, as recent and widespread events in the pharmaceutical industry illustrate, outstanding job skills cannot save you from job loss if your employer makes major changes in its R&D and business strategies. Savvy chemical professionals closely observe events and trends in their company, industry and chemical specialty. Attending professional conferences and networking with your peers working at other firms can also help you identify troubling trends. Your efforts can indicate whether developing trends are occurring that have a substantial possibility to cause you to lose your job despite excellent performance.

Should this be the case, you should at the least be prepared for job loss by updating your résumé, developing a job-hunting plan, and building up your personal savings. You may wish to transfer to a department experiencing healthier business conditions. If your entire industry is experiencing major business problems, your best course of action may be to change industries as well as companies.

Recharge your mental batteries

Establishing a better balance between your personal life and your career can have the effect of reenergizing your career. So can taking a wonderful vacation. For example, in 2005 I took a two-week vacation and traveled through Alaska engaging in many recreational activities. It was the first real vacation I took in more than a decade. I returned home with a new sense of energy and purpose.

Reconnect with the best of who you are

Since the early 1990s I have been a volunteer ACS career consultant helping new chemistry graduates and experienced chemical professionals find jobs. Giving back to the profession in this way has been tremendously fulfilling. My college roommate, still a good friend, has long been involved in various activities to encourage grammar school students to consider engineering careers. There was an article about him in the March 2011 issue of Amazing Kids Magazine. Another ACS Career Blogs author, Lisa Balbes, is currently chairperson of the ACS Committee on Economic Affairs and a volunteer ACS career consultant. In fact, all of the more than 70 ACS volunteer career consultants are reconnecting with the best of who they are through their volunteer efforts to help ACS members find jobs. I find just being around them and seeing how much they care about ACS members and the chemical profession to be energizing. Working with them at ACS national meeting career fairs boosts my morale.

Avoid self-sabotaging career behaviors

It often takes self-analysis to determine what your toxic career behaviors are. For example, I used to be so completely focused on my work that I seldom considered my coworkers. I would rush from my office to my lab and back again often ignoring my coworkers in the hallways. I would routinely eat lunch at my desk while working. As a result my coworkers, while respecting my abilities, didn’t like me much. My boss gave me a wakeup call when he commented that whenever he saw me I had a scowl on my face.

Many television shows include workplace behaviors that, while entertaining would be very annoying in real life. A great example is the show NCIS. The lab rat, Ph.D. chemist Abby Sciuto, is brilliant but exhibits behavior that in real life would drive most managers crazy. Don’t believe everything you see on TV!

John Borchardt is a chemist and freelance writer who has been an ACS career consultant for 15 years. He is the author of the ACS/Oxford University Press Book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers.” He has had more than 1400 articles published in a variety of magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias. As an industrial chemist, he holds 30 U.S. and more than 125 international patents and is the author of more than 130 peer-reviewed papers.