What is Your Story?

March 24, 2014

Whether meeting someone new at a conference, or explaining to a potential employer exactly how your background prepares you to meet their needs, scientists are often asked to tell their professional history.  While it is hard to condense a lifetime of professional experience into a few minutes, it can be even harder to do it in a coherent way that makes sense to the listener.

When you stop to reflect on your career history (which you should do on a regular basis), do you see that your career followed a straight trajectory, with each job leading logically to the next one, until you retire exactly when and how you had planned?  I didn’t think so.

Most people’s careers take many twists and turns, as they take advantage of unexpected opportunities, and deal with unplanned disasters.  The problem comes when you try to turn that succession of steps, each of which made sense at the time, into a single, coherent story that others can understand.

When you start thinking about how to tell your professional story, start with the easy part.  What elements have remained consistent throughout the majority of your career?  Have you always used the same techniques, worked in the same subject area, or worked for the same type of company?  Have all of your jobs involved seeing things in terms of how they relate to the big picture, or were they more making sure the details were correct? Finding a common theme that runs through your entire work history will make your story “hang together” when you tell it, and convey a sense of continuity and stability to your background.

Next, think about what changed at the major transition points in your career.  Did you take the same skills but start applying them in a new field?  Did you expand your skills and learn new techniques, while remaining in the same field?  Or did you take the lessons you’d learned at a large company and bring them down to implement in a small start-up? Can you divide your history into a few major transitions, and other more minor transitions?

Think about what you have learned and how you have grown in each of your career segments. What did you learn about yourself, or your field?  How have your interests and abilities grown and changed over time?  What situations trigger your career changes?  Can you use those insights to frame your career transitions?  Being able to talk about you why you made the changes you did, and how you grew with each transition, will emphasize your flexibility and broad background.

Finally, think about where you want to go next in your career.  Whether you are happy in your current position or are actively looking for something new, you should have an idea of where you would like to go next.  Whether it’s a new type of project in your current job, or an entirely new career, you need to tell people where you want to go, so they can help you get there.

Summarizing your entire career path in a succinct way, that connects the dots in a logical manner for your listener, is not a trivial exercise.  While it may not have felt logical while you were living it, in hindsight you may be able to see how you were preparing for the change, even if you didn’t know it at the time.

Once the whole story makes sense to you, you can tell it to others in a way that will make sense to them.  While it won’t start with “one upon a time”, it will hopefully end with “happily ever after.


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.

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.


“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.


“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.

Do You Have the Right Attitude?

December 30, 2013

Have you ever had a great day, where everything was going right and one success just seemed to lead into the next one?  Conversely, have you ever had a bad day, where you started off in a poor mood, and all you could see was the bad in everything?  Did those good or bad days sometimes extend into weeks?

We’ve experienced stretches of time where things seemed to keep going in the same direction.  But did you ever stop to consider that it might be your attitude that is the driving factor?

Sometimes, your attitude towards a particular project is a productive thing.  For example, if you are a technical editor, you approach each new project with the attitude “what is wrong with this document, and how can I change it to make it better meet the needs of the intended audience?”  You go in looking for things that are wrong, knowing that they are there, and don’t stop looking until you find them and fix them.

If you are an analytical or quality control chemist, the right attitude might be “there is something wrong with this batch, and I am going to find out what it is”.  You run your tests and compare to standards, until you have exhausted the options and proven to yourself that your hypothesis was incorrect, and that particular batch of product meets all specifications.  (Are you now flashing back to disproving the null hypothesis in high school science class?)

While working from the hypothesis that “there’s something wrong and I must find it” works to your advantage in some cases, if you approach every situation that way it can work against you.  For example, if you are in the habit of looking for problems and mismatches, you will be at a decided disadvantage when you are searching or interviewing for a new job.

Instead of focusing on how well you fit with both the position and the company, and how your rich history of professional accomplishments is ideally suited to the requirements of the job, you may continue in your attitude of looking for problems, and the ways you don’t fit.

There is no job that is absolutely perfect for you – there will always be something you don’t like, or don’t know how to do. What you’re looking for is a position where the good outweighs the bad, and where you will enjoy doing the good parts so much that the parts you don’t like are only a minor annoyance.  Or even better, you enjoy learning something new to do the parts of the job you haven’t done before.  When looking for a new job, it is important to force yourself to focus on the positive, looking at the skills and experiences you have that do prepare you for that position, instead of focusing on where you do not fit.

This becomes even more important when you get to the interview stage.  The person interviewer is expecting you to convince them not only that you can do the job, but that you really want to do the job.  They expect you to describe in detail how perfectly suited you are for the job, and how your prior accomplishments have prepared you to do exactly what they need to have done.  In order to sell the interviewers, you first have to sell yourself. You have to approach each position with the attitude “I am the perfect person for this job, and here’s why.”

After all, if you can’t convince yourself that you’re perfect for the job, how do you expect to convince your future employer?  So the next time someone tells you to keep a positive attitude about your job search, remember that they are right.  You are positive that there is a job out there that for which you are the perfect candidate – and you will keep looking until you find it.

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.

Working Again for a Former Employer

January 14, 2013

There is an old saying, “You can’t go home again.” However, when it comes to working again for a former employer, this statement is often false. There can be many advantages for both former employees and employers when employees go back to work for a former organization. Indeed, one of the best hiring decisions I ever made was to hire a lab technician who formerly worked for my employer. This was because on the first day of the new work she already knew people in other departments of the company particularly in the analytical department and already knew many of the corporate procedures for submitting samples for analysis.

Once, it was very rare for a laid off, college-educated employee to return to work for a former employer. However, recent ACS employment surveys have indicated unemployment rates among ACS members are at historically high levels, 4.2% in 2012 (http://www.cen.acs.org/…/Unemployment-Data-Chemists-Improve-Slightly.html). The result has been a highly competitive job market and fewer jobs due to downsizing, mergers and acquisitions. As a result, chemists need to explore every possible employment opportunity. One such opportunity is to return to work for a former employer.  A Temple University study (not limited to chemists) found that 45% of people would return to work for a former employer after being laid off. Their findings were reported in the online in the journal “Career Development International” (http://www.emeraldinsight.com/journals.htm?articleid=17062425).

The researchers examined unemployment effects on salaried professionals, middle managers and executives. Of the 382 respondents surveyed online, 64%earned more than $75,000 a year, 79% had at least a college degree, 79% were the primary source of household income when laid off, and 83%were salaried professionals or in higher positions.

Advantages for the employer

Advantages to the employer include returning employees’ familiarity with the workplace and culture. This means they can more quickly, become a productive contributor and navigate the political processes. They may rekindle relationships with some of their former coworkers. These coworkers are often more willing to help a former  colleague than someone new to the organization as trust and prior working relationships have already been established

Advantages to the former employee

Often former employees don’t have to relocate. This means they don’t have to sell their home in a difficult real estate market and their children can continue their educations in their current schools. The November 5, 2012 issue of C&EN reported the difficult personal situations of chemists who had to relocate to another city or country to obtain employment, leaving their spouse and/or children behind.

Making the decision to return

The Temple University research indicated the importance of fair and transparent layoff decisions in the treatment of downsized employees in affecting the decision of ex-employees in returning to work for their former employer.

“How employers treat employees through layoffs is always important and will become even more so when the economy fully rebounds and it’s an employees’ market again,” said human resource management Professor Gary J. Blau, lead author of the Temple University study. He notes that “employers have a vested practical interest in ensuring the process of deciding who goes and who doesn’t is perceived as a fair one,” especially when social media and review-your-employer websites such as glassdoor.com provide more opportunities than ever for laid-off employees to publicly vent their frustration and anger.

The former employees surveyed experienced a wide range of unemployment lengths, with 65% out of work for at least 27 weeks, which the U.S. Department of Labor defines as long-term unemployment.  Another 23% of respondents were unemployed for more than two years – and suffered the most in a number of areas, including: lower life satisfaction, lower re-employment confidence and higher unemployment stigma and depression.

“People are at a point where they’re losing their houses; their wives or husbands are leaving them. They’re in a severe hardship,” said Tony Petrucci, a Temple University assistant professor and managing partner at Gravitas LLC, an executive and board search firm. “People are saying, I may not like this employer because of how they handled my layoff. I’m angry, but I would consider going back to work with them.”

Of course the chemist must pave the way to reemployment by leaving his former employer in a dignified and professional manner. You don’t want to “burn your bridges” to possible reemployment.

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.


Are Your Communications in Context?

November 22, 2012

Once upon a time there was a scientist who worked at a company in a highly-regulated industry – let’s call her Olivia.  When she started at the company, she was hired to conduct quality assurance work – testing new and potential products, troubleshooting formulations and processes, and developing standard operating procedures (SOPs) for new processes and procedures.  She got along well with her colleagues, enjoyed her work very much, and received glowing annual reviews. Over the years, her responsibilities grew to include reviewing procedures and reports written by her colleagues.  In addition to conducting tests herself, she was now responsible for identifying discrepancies in tests that other people had conducted, and making sure any deviations from standard protocols were documented satisfactorily.

After a few years, Olivia decided to cut her working hours to half-time. She gave up the lab work, and focused on reviewing SOPs and product development reports of her colleagues, notifying them of deviations from the established protocols, and ensuring that they were corrected in a timely manner.  While she missed the daily interactions with her colleagues, this provided the needed balance in her personal life.  However, at her next annual review, she was surprised to learn that her peers had reported problems with her attitude, and her overall rating had been downgraded.

What happened?  She was still doing exactly the same type of regulatory oversight work that she had been doing before.  However, she was no longer in the lab, so she no longer had regular, daily contact with the other scientists.  In fact, the only time most of them heard from her was when she was pointing out a problem and demanding it be fixed by a certain date.

In another situation, Jason was trying to contact a potential seminar speaker, to confirm details of his upcoming talk.  As the date of the talk got closer, Jason got more and more nervous as the speaker did not answer emails.  Jason mentioned this problem to a co-worker who knew the speaker, and who suggested Jason send a text message with his question instead.  Jason did, and less than 5 minutes later he had his answer.

What changed?  In this case, the message was the same, but the method of delivery changed.  With the deluge of emails, the speaker easily missed one from Jason, but fewer people texted him, so the message stood out.  Since it required a quick, factual answer, it was easy for the speaker to answer quickly.

In each of these cases, a small change to a single aspect of the communication (or attempted communication) either caused or solved a problem.

In the first case, it was Olivia’s relationship with her colleagues that changed.  Instead of being one of them, she was now the enforcer from above, and only appeared to point out their mistakes.  Without the pleasantries of small talk and shared technical experiences, her relationship with the scientists quickly faded.  They came to dread hearing from Olivia, and their ratings of her performance reflected that fact.

In the second case, it was not the relationship but the method of communication that changed.  These days, we have a plethora of communication methods from which to choose (face to face, phone, email, text, Skype, Twitter, Facebook, ACS Network, LinkedIn…..).  By identifying the method his colleague preferred, Jason was able to make it easy for him to respond, and Jason got the information he needed in a timely manner.

Communication is one of the most important non-technical skills in the workplace today, and the methods available for communication are continually evolving.  One of the best things you can do when planning your communications (and you do plan them, don’t you?) is to put yourself in the place of your intended audience.  What do they want or need to know, in what format will the information be most useful to them, do they need any context, and so on.  By taking a few moments to consider the best way to convey your message to the recipient, you will maximize the value of your communications and enhance your own reputation.

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.

Four Key Leadership Qualities

November 19, 2012

Leaders exist at all levels of the organization whether they are in formal management positions or not. Leaders are the people whom others look define strategies and guide them to solutions to problems. Leaders possess four key qualities: strategic thinking, executing, influencing others, and relationship building. Let’s look at each.

Strategic thinking

Strategic thinking is identifying and developing new and unique opportunities for the employer to create value for customers. Strategic thinkers do not come up with all the answers themselves but do promote creative dialogue among employees who can affect a company’s strategy and direction. Strategic thinking involves understanding the fundamental drivers of a company and identifying opportunities for creating value through the development and growth of new businesses. Leadership may involve challenging current assumptions about the employer’s value proposition. (The value proposition is the unique value a firm offers its customers. It is why your customers prefer to do business with your firm and not its competitors.)

Strategic thinking must take into account: your firm’s strengths and how they can be used to create a competitive advantage. It also requires understanding your employer’s weaknesses and how they can leave the company vulnerable to competitors.

The result of strategic thinking is an action statement defining the goal you want the company to achieve. For example, when I headed my employer’s pulp and paper chemicals team, our action statement was “Become the number 1 supplier of biodegradable chemicals that remove ink from pulped wastepaper for paper recycling.”

To be a good strategic thinker, you must develop the capability to clearly define your objectives and develop a plan to achieve each objective. Thus, for each objective, you’ll need to establish a set of tasks that will accomplish that objective.  Developing a list of resources and a timeline to accomplish each objective is also important. Using the basic principles of project management (1) is very helpful. The technique of mind mapping (2) to develop objectives plans to achieve them, and explain these plans and objectives to others can also be quite useful.

Your plans need to be flexible to account for changing circumstances. Using project management is an excellent way to do this. If you set up your plan using project management, project milestones can be occasions to review progress, assess the current situation and change plans as needed. Milestones are the completion of a major task in your project.


Having developed plans to generate and grow new businesses, you must now execute the plans. In some cases you can do this working alone or with a couple of technicians. For other plans, you may need to assemble a multidisciplinary project team. To execute major efforts, more than one team may need to be assembled.

Project management is essential to keep projects on schedule and preventing them from drifting off course (1, 3, 4). This requires effective communications between the project manager and team members and among the between team members. Proper planning, establishing project milestones and smart staffing can keep projects on schedule.

Influencing others

The old workplace style of command and control leadership is decreasingly productive in today’s fluid work environments with project team members reporting to different managers, team members often working for different organizations (suppliers, customers, consultants, etc.) and coworkers increasingly scattered across different work locations.

To get one’s plans and proposals accepted and obtain budgetary and other needed support, you must influence others. This means developing persuasive arguments to get what you want and be able to get others to accept these arguments in a nonabrasive way. Often you must gain the support of people who do not report to you but are your peers in other parts of the company or even are your superiors (5, 6).  Negotiating skills are often essential in doing this. It is essential to approach negotiations with the goal of developing win-win agreements. Start negotiations with your goal clearly in mind but be willing to compromise to get most of what you want.

Relationship building

Another essential skill is relationship building. When you are trying to get people to accept your proposals, good working relationships with stakeholders can reduce their resistance to change. However, many chemists, because of the pressures of routine activities, do not devote adequate time to building beneficial relationships with coworkers. How can you do so?

Listen to your coworkers and colleagues to learn what their goals and skills are. When you identify relevant information they may be interested in, send it to them. Respond when coworkers when ask you for your opinions or feedback. Above all, reciprocate by helping others when they help you. Be sure to thank them for the efforts in helping you.

Building relationships in this way is enlightened self interest. When senior managers make promotion decisions, they usually consult their colleagues. In choosing between two equally qualified colleagues, they’ll usually pick the individual with whom they feel they can work best.


  1. J.K. Borchardt, “Project Management for Teams,” Today’s Chemist at Work, http://pubs.acs.org/subscribe/journals/tcaw/11/i05/html/05work.html (May 2002).
  2. J,K, Borchardt, “Mind Mapping,” Lab Manager, http://www.labmanager.com/articles.asp?ID=753 (October 7, 2010).
  3. J.K. Borchardt, “Invention, Innnovation and Lab Management,” Lab Manager, www.labmanager.com/articles.asp?ID=171 (January 2009).
  4. J.K. Borchardt, “Staying on Schedule,” Lab Manager, http://www.labmanager.com/articles.asp?ID=332 (August 2009).
  5. Alan R. Cohen and David L. Brandford, Influence without Authority, John Wiley & Sons, 2nd edition (2005).
  6. Roger Fisher and Alan Sharp, Getting It Done: How to Lead When You’re Not in Charge, HarperBusiness (1999).

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.

Teamwork Training

August 13, 2012

The ability to work in a team is essential in today’s workplace environment. This is true for many industries and many types of jobs. To be effective, each team member must coordinate their work with that of other team members like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Working together is the responsibility of each team member and team leader. However, working in a team doesn’t come naturally to many scientists. They’ve been trained in undergraduate and graduate school to work independently. That’s a major reason why team-building and training courses are big business in the United States. Since the recession hit, this type of training has been cut back at many firms to reduce costs. Team leaders have become more responsible for coaching team members in how to work together effectively.

Teamwork training

How do you train yourself or others to work effectively on teams? “We are developing a new science to show what works and doesn’t work and why,” says Eduardo Salas, an organizational psychologist at the University of Central Florida. His research is in this area and the subject of a paper in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, a publication of the Association for Psychological Science.

A team is not just a machine for doing things; it is a system of social relations. Teamwork training is about instilling knowledge, skills, and attitudes; all needed competencies to work effectively in teams. Team building helps individuals on a team learn about each other, clarify roles, work through problems, and cooperate towards accomplishing shared goals. Most interventions focus on the latter—”team building is the largest human-resources intervention in the world,” comments Salas. However, according to Salas, much teamwork training is ineffective. He suggests that organizations rarely do the front-end work of figuring out which they need in the way of effective teamwork training but rather deal with team effectiveness problems on an ad hoc basis.

One problem is that teamwork successes get published and talked about while failures just fade away. Yet sometimes one can often learn more from failures better than successes. In terms of training, it’s not difficult to determine if team members liked a training program or absorbed some of the knowledge it imparted. However, it’s much more complicated to evaluate team members who have adopted the behaviors in which they’ve been trained.

Managers are now less willing to take people off the job and to spend money on team training without clear proof that they’ll get what they paid for. This requirement has been invigorating for the science of teamwork, Salas suggests. “Because of the push for results, we are getting better at collecting the data and are making a better case for cause and effect.”

Where can you get teamwork training when corporate training budgets have been reduced? Reading books is a good way to start. References 1 and 2 below are two of the many books available on developing teamwork skills. Some independent consultants offer modestly priced teamwork training. Internet search engines can help you identify some of these individuals. Perhaps your ACS local section could organize a teamwork training short course presented by one of these individuals.

Capturing the information

In the wake of staff reductions, best practices that took years to develop can disappear overnight – without a trace. Why? The people who developed these teamwork skills and their team leaders have lost their jobs.  Much of this knowledge is never captured in reports. Because of the need for this information some large companies have developed knowledge retention programs to capture the data. One approach, on which I’ve worked, is to interview highly competent employees leaving their assignments as a result of retirement, job transfers, and promotions. The focus of these interviews is to capture information on teams’, both the successes and failures. The interviewer must be skilled in giving the interview and capturing outstanding performers’ teamwork experiences and opinions in well-written reports, reports understandable to people who aren’t specialists in the field of the team’s efforts.

These efforts work best if one hires outsiders, usually in a consultant capacity, to conduct the interviews and write the reports. Outsiders will not have preconceived notions of individual and team performance.

Methods of knowledge retention have been described (3-7).


1.    C.M. Avery, M.A. Walker, and E. O’Toole, Teamwork Is an Individual Skill: Getting Your Work Done When Sharing Responsibility, Berrett-Koehler Publishers (April 9, 2001).

2.    S.J. Stowell and S.S. Mead, The Team Approach: With Teamwork Anything Is Possible, CMOE Press (November 12, 2007).

  1. J.K. Borchardt, “Retaining Knowledge,” Lab Manager, http://www.labmanager.com/articles.asp?ID=595 (June 2010).
  2. S. Parise, R. Cross and T.H. Davenport, “Strategies for Preventing a Knowledge-Loss Crisis,” MIT Sloan Management Review, Vol. 47, No. 4, pp. 31-38 (Summer 2008).
  3. Knowledge Harvesting, Inc. http://www.knowledgeharvesting.com/Clients.html .
  4. D.W. DeLong, “Lost Knowledge: Confronting the Threat of an Aging Workforce,” Oxford University Press (2004).
  5. M.T. Hansen and B. von Oetinger, “Introducing T-shaped Managers: Knowledge Management’s Next Generation,” Harvard Business Review Online (March-April 2001), http://hbr.org/2001/03/introducing-t-shaped-managers/ar/1.

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.

How do I Prepare for a Networking Conversation and What Do I Say When I Get There?

May 7, 2012

There are several job searching strategies, but  few as valuable as building strong networking contacts. That means meeting as many people as you can who are willing and able to provide job leads, resources, and other contacts.  When you do get a contact, you’ll want to make the most of the opportunity.

That means treating every networking conversation as if it were a job interview – being prepared with information and smart questions to ask.

There are three main areas you need to research:

  • The industry (trends, main competitors) using sources such as Standard & Poor’s, and Hoover’s.
  • The company (strategy, structure and performance) using sources such as annual reports, analysts’ reports, news releases, etc.
  • The person (background, experience, interests) using the ACS Network, Facebook and LinkedIn to learn more — how long they have been at the company, job title, career moves, etc.

Based on your “due diligence,” you can plan good quality questions. If your conversation goes well, you will have valuable information, new insights, and new leads.  Achieving these results means you need to prepare more specific questions to draw out the kind of information you need.

There are four kinds of questions you can ask during the networking conversation:

1.  Questions about the company:

How does this company differ from its competitors? Why do customers choose this company?

How would you describe this company’s culture?

How has the economy affected the company?

Why did you decide to work for this company? What do you like and not like about working here?

2.  Questions about the job:

What does your typical day look like? What kinds of problems do you deal with?

What are your main responsibilities? What kinds of decisions do you make?

What are the skills that are most important for a position in this field?

What part of this job do you find most satisfying? Most challenging?

3.  Questions about the person:

How did you prepare for this work? If you were entering this career today, would you change your preparation?

What abilities and qualities do you believe contribute most to success in this field/job?

How does a person progress in this field? What is a typical career path in this field/ organization?

4.    Questions about your own fit for the job:

What are some typical entry-level job titles and functions?

What kind of advice do you have for someone pursuing a job in this area?

With the information you have about my education, skills, and experience, what would you say are my strongest assets for a job in this area?

What other fields or jobs would you suggest I research?

A well prepared conversation will provide invaluable information, relationships, and connections that will last throughout your career.  For additional resources to help you with your career planning, check the ACS Careers website (www.acs.org/careers) and attend the ACS Onsite and Virtual Career Fairs (www.acs.org/careerfair) offering opportunities to build your network.

Get Involved in the Discussion!

The Career Tips column will be published the first week of every month in C&EN.  The articles will be posted on the ACS Network and the ACS Careers website, where you’re encouraged to get involved in the discussion.  Tell us what you think, share your experiences, let us know topics you want us addressed.

Increase the Accuracy of Your Supervisor’s Reviews of Your Performance

February 13, 2012

Accurate reviews of your job performance are critical to job promotions, raises, and annual bonuses. Therefore, it is essential that both you and your supervisor get it right. However, many bosses, including some good ones, may be out of touch with your overall performance and forget to acknowledge some of your accomplishments. What should you do if to prevent this from happening to you?

Prevention – worth a pound of cure

Prepare a list of your annual accomplishments and send them to your supervisor. Ask him or her to consider them when preparing your written performance review, advises John Hoover, who leads the executive coaching practice at Manhattan-based consulting firm Partners in Human Resources International. Focus on your major accomplishments and don’t bury your manager with a deluge of minor tasks. The phrase “you can’t see the forest for the trees” is an accurate one and applies to this situation. Too much information will actually obscure your major accomplishments. Hoover comments that managers usually appreciate receiving these as it saves them time when preparing your performance review.

Does your organization incorporate a 360-dregree performance review process?  This is where your direct reports and peers, working closely with you and team leaders, prepare their evaluations of your performance and send them to your supervisor.  If so, be sure those closely involved with your work are among those evaluating your performance. When I headed new product development groups that worked closely with customers developing new products and conducting field trials in their facilities, I decided customers I worked with during the review period could provide performance evaluations of me.  Their input proved to be positively valuable to my review.  I sent these individuals copies of the standard evaluation form and asked them to complete the forms and send them to my supervisor. Not only did customers provide valuable perspectives on my performance, but I believe their input indicated to my supervisor that I was confident in my performance and showed I had a great working relationship with my customer base. After receiving the forms, my supervisor began telling his direct reports to suggest to their customers they do the same. Subsequently my direct reports did the same and had our customers send evaluations of their performance to me.

Some tips

Provide your supervisor with frequent information on your performance; don’t wait until the annual review. For example, I often see people encounter their manager in the hallway. The manager asks, “How’s it going?” The staff member replies something like “really good” and leaves it like that. Don’t delay talking about your accomplishments with your manager.  Provide more information than the simple response of “really good.”  Instead, you might say, “Really good. We completed the synthesis of Intermediate 1 two weeks early and are pressing ahead.” At the cost of 5 seconds you’ve given your manager excellent news and a good impression of your performance.

Report information in the way he or she likes to receive it. For example, does your supervisor prefer detailed written reports or short oral ones?  Practice getting to the point quickly.  One of the running jokes on the TV show NCIS is how forensic scientist Abby Sciuto reports information to her boss.  Abby will start with a detailed explanation of the method she used or scientific details of her analyses. Her boss, Agent Gibbs, will interrupt and say something like, “Get to the point, Abs.” Only then does Abby provide Gibbs with her conclusions clearly and succinctly. Far be it for me to criticize super-scientist Abby Sciuto, but she really does need to understand how to communicate the way her supervisor likes to receive information.

Reacting to performance reviews

Remember that your supervisor is evaluating your work performance and not you as a person.  You shouldn’t take your supervisor’s feedback personally and react defensively to what is said during the review.  Instead, try to understand his or her point of view and focus on the items that came up in the review process that you can work on for the coming year.  Performance reviews can be a stressful experience for both you and your supervisor. Being an active participant in the process by following this advice will increase the accuracy of your performance review; open the lines of communication, while reducing the stress level for you and your supervisor.

Performance discussions are a two way street, meaning an open conversation between the manager and the employee.  As I mentioned before, these conversations should be engaged in constantly throughout the year. Neither of you should be surprised about the results during the performance review discussion.

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.

I Love Parking Lots!

July 4, 2011

After a recent professional meeting, I was walking to my car in the company of several others who had attended the same meeting that evening.  As often happens, as we walked out of the building we started talking about events of the meeting, and giving our opinions on the issues.  From a meeting of 25 or so people, there were perhaps 4 or 5 of us standing in the cool night air, brainstorming about how to handle a particularly sticky issue.  We came up with a few possibilities, and agreed to pass those ideas to the appropriate person.  Several of the ideas came from newer members of the group, who never would have spoken up in front of the entire committee, but were willing to do so in the less formal atmosphere of the parking lot. 

Often, the most interesting discussions of a meeting take place not during the formal meeting itself, but between smaller groups during breaks, or before and after the official meeting.  Sometimes this is because newer and perhaps shy people are intimidated, and don’t want to speak up in front of the larger group.  Unfortunately since they have a different perspective than those who have been around for a while, they may have just the fresh ideas that would be of value to the group.

Additionally, there are some people who need time to process information, mulling it over themselves before their ideas and opinions congeal into something that can be shared.  It may happen by the end of the meeting, or maybe not until several days later, when they are able to express their ideas in a coherent matter, or perhaps come up with a unique perspective on the issue.  For them too, an opportunity to share informally before the next meeting can be quite productive. 

There is another type of parking lot that can also be quite valuable in moving meetings along.  This is the bulletin board parking lot, or a place where an idea or issue that needs to be addressed can be tabled for the moment, but not forgotten.

Sometimes during a meeting, when a particularly difficult or divisive issue arises, that discussion threatens to derail the conversation on the main issue.  Especially when the controversial issue is peripheral, the facilitator may choose to put the issue in a “parking lot”, to be dealt with later.  Often this involves actually writing it down, and posting it on a bulletin board or blackboard where it remains visible to all participants. This allows the group to move on to the important business at hand, with the assurance that the other issue will be addressed eventually. Those vested in that topic know they will have their turn eventually, so can concentrate on the more urgent issue at hand.

In both cases, letting people have some time to think about an issue, taking the conversation to a different setting, and perhaps even closing off contentious arguments for a while can reset people’s thinking and spark new and better ideas. 

 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,” published by Oxford University Press.