Why Should I Hire You?

June 9, 2014

Common interview questions are googled, anticipated, and feared by many an interviewee. People try to prepare for questions as strange as what type of animal best describes you, or what type of ice cream would you be. Answers are carefully thought through and even practiced in mock interviews or in front of the mirror. In all this preparation, people can overlook the question behind every other question during an interview: Why should I hire you?

The interview usually includes multiple rounds with panels of interviewers. It can be conducted over the phone, face-to-face in a conference room, or as all-day event including a presentation or sample work. You can count on all the usual questions, such as those related to your skills and previous experience. There are also the questions regarding “soft skills”, such as how you get along with others or how you handle conflict at the work place. Often, you will even be directly asked “Why should I hire you?” It is important to keep in mind that every question is really an attempt to answer the last one. The hiring manager doesn’t really want to listen to you recite a list of all the techniques you have used since your first lab class in college. That question is asked in order to learn whether you can hone in on your relevant skills for the current position and whether you can speak about those skills in a way that convinces others that you should be hired. Before you answer any interview question, take a second and think about your answer in terms of the real question – why should I hire you?

What type of ice cream would you be? Obviously, there’s a question behind that question. No one cares what you think about ice cream during an interview. Why would such an odd question be asked? It might be to see how well you can formulate spontaneous answers, or how well you perform under pressure. Again, what you really need to focus on with any answer to any question is why should this company hire me for this position? When you realize that is the underlying question, you can use almost every other question as a means of saying what you want to say during the interview.

What kind of ice cream would I be? If I wanted to focus on my broad skill set, I might go with Neapolitan and explain my choice in terms of the variety of experience I have. If I wanted to demonstrate that I am a reliable, consistent worker, I might choose vanilla. The point is that you can take almost any question and formulate the answer in terms of what you want to say about why they should hire you. Instead of practicing answers to questions, plan to turn their questions into opportunities for you to say what you want to say about why you are the best choice for this job.

Undoubtedly, you will never be able to anticipate every question that will be asked, especially as strange interview questions become more popular. Realize that all the hours of questioning are really just an attempt to get an answer to one question. And make sure that every answer you give to every question is ultimately answering that question behind all questions: Why should I hire you?

This article was written by Sherrie Elzey, Ph.D., a chemical engineer and freelance technical writer/editor. Sherrie has a background in nanoscience and nanotechnology research, with experience in academia, government, and industry positions. 

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Tips for Writing Letters of Recommendation

March 31, 2014

One of the things I like best about teaching is seeing my students succeed and move onto new challenges. When they are in the process of doing that, they often need references and letters of recommendation. I am happy to be asked and want to help. However, when I sit down to write a letter of recommendation and am facing a blank page, I start to wonder where to start. It’s something I didn’t really consider when I asked professors, and managers to write reference letters for me for school and job applications.

Here are some tips I have put together for myself when I need to write a letter of reference:

  • Make sure I know enough about the person and about the job, school, or scholarship the person is applying for. What information is the person who is reading the letter going to want? Does he or she want to know about academic performance? Attendance? Leadership qualities? Extracurricular activities?
  • State that I am recommending them in clear, strong language in the opening paragraph.

“I believe that Jane Doe would be an asset to your company as she has been here.”

  • Introduce myself towards the beginning of the letter-maybe even the first paragraph. The reader should know your relationship to the applicant, how long you have known him or her, and how you are qualified to evaluate the applicant.

“I met Jane Doe when she was a student in my Fall 2012 Chemistry 101 class at Blank College where I am a professor of chemistry.”

“As John Doe’s supervisor, I have worked with him for the last 5 years at Blank Chemical Company.”

  • Explore the reasons why you recommend the applicant in the following paragraphs. Try to give concrete examples of the applicant performing well to support your recommendation.

“John has strong leadership qualities. As part of the Chemistry Club, he organized a volunteer tutoring program for chemistry students.”

  • Compare the applicant to his or her peers. Where does her grade fall compared to the rest of the class? How did his performance review stack up among other chemists in the department?

“Jane has consistently exceeded our expectations for level 2 chemists in each of her performance reviews, making her one of our top chemists in the company.”

  • I like to finish the letter by once again recommending the applicant and briefly restating the reasons.

“John is one of the top students in his class who has shown himself to be a leader through his volunteer work.”

  • Most importantly, I make sure to know the deadline for the letter and to meet it!

Being able to assist people when they are moving onto the next stage of their lives-starting new jobs or starting a new school program-is a great feeling. It’s exciting to see people changing jobs or even careers, transferring to a new school or program, or going back to school. It’s even better when you have a plan on how to write the letter.

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.


Casually Job Hunting

March 17, 2014

People rarely stay at the same company for the length of their career anymore.  According the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of January 2012 college graduates 25-34 yrs old spend a median of 3.1 years at an employer. Workers are changing jobs every few years and sites such as linkedin make it even easier to always be casually job hunting. It seems like we are always, at least casually, job hunting. To keep your options open without doing a full job hunt, you can keep your professional contacts and keep your online presence current.

Often, you can hear about good opportunities in your field from a colleague. Make sure to keep in contact with previous coworkers and managers. Sending an email to catch up every few months or once a year is a good idea. It’s better to keep the lines of communication open and not only contact people when you are actively job hunting and want something from them. When using social media, you should make a point to send a personal message to people. General updates to your account do not make quite the same impact as sending a direct, personal message. If you have left coworkers at a previous company, chances are in a year or two they will have moved on too and may hear of openings at their new company. Former coworkers may also be able pass along job prospects they have heard about it from their other contacts as well.

Having a professional online presence with your social media accounts can allow headhunters and HR departments to get in touch with you easily without you pursuing a specific job or company.

Make sure to keep any information about your career up to date-do not keep your job title from 2 promotions ago as your current title and add any skills or training as you gain them. Any updates or comments should be kept professional-do not give anyone a reason not to take a second look at you. Keep in mind that your current manager and coworkers may be looking at you online as well, so if your plan is to quietly or casually job hunt make sure to not be too obvious about looking with your social media accounts. Do not make updates on job hunting or listing reasons why to leave your current position.

If you are contacted by a headhunter or recruiter, check on either that person or the company before responding. How did they hear of you? Were you recommended by a former coworker or friend? Did they just find you by searching key words on a site? Most importantly, make sure you are genuinely interested in the opportunity before pursuing it. Take stock of how you feel about your current position and compensation and your possible future at your current company.

With most people changing companies every years, and most people keeping their eyes open for new opportunities, if not outright job hunting, you should make it easy to hear about interesting job prospects.

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.


Career Advice from Mark Twain

February 24, 2014

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

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

Career Development

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

“The secret of getting ahead is getting started.”

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

Written Communication Skills

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

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

Oral Communication Skills

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

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

Networking

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

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

On Continuous Learning

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

“Education consists mainly of what we have unlearned”.

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

Adapting

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

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

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

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

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC.  Lisa is a freelance technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists:  New Formulas for Chemistry Careers,” published by Oxford University Press.


Preparing for Adjunct Faculty Job Applications

February 17, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was written by Sara Stellfox. After working in contract and pharmaceutical laboratories, Sara changed her career path and is now a free lance writer and chemistry instructor at the City Colleges of Chicago.


Elevator Pitch

January 6, 2014

Everyone is busy. If a spontaneous networking opportunity is available, are you ready to take advantage and convey your message in 30 seconds? The elevator pitch is the well-known term for a short summary that defines you, your work, and the value you can bring to your audience. You never know when an opportunity to use your elevator pitch will arise. Are you ready to present the relevant information about who you are as a professional?

There are certain situations that are planned in advance, such as an interview, where you know that you will be expected to talk about yourself from a professional perspective. But you may not always know when a colleague will introduce you to someone, or when you might happen to meet someone whom you want to connect with. It is helpful to think about your elevator pitch in advance, so that you maximize these spontaneous opportunities by including the most relevant information about yourself in a short time. The elevator pitch is typically recommended to be between 30 seconds and two minutes. I recommend sticking to the 30-second pitch, because there are many situations in which you won’t have two minutes, and you don’t want to annoy people by making them feel that they have to wait for you to finish a presentation. In an interview, of course, you have more time to elaborate. In either case, there are some basic questions you can answer to help you define your elevator pitch: who, what, where, when, why, and how?

Who?

The answer to this question is quite simple – it’s your name. I am Jane Smith.

What?

The “what” is how you choose to define yourself as a professional: I am an analytical chemist. Depending on the situation, you may want to be able to elaborate here: I am an analytical chemist with expertise in HPLC method development for liquid fuel analysis.

Where?

The answer here is also simple. Where do you work or attend school? I am currently a Project Scientist at Company X. Or, I am a graduate student at University Y.

When?

The “when” does not have to be an exact date. It can be more of a timeline or summary of your relevant experience: I have been working with HPLC instrumentation for the last 5 years, and I joined the liquid fuel project 2 years ago.

Why?

The “why” is your way of differentiating yourself from everyone else with similar experience and expertise. This is the time to show your passion for what you do. Why are you in this field? I have a strong interest in energy sustainability, and my experience with HPLC gave me an opportunity to investigate how liquid fuel composition relates to energy efficiency.

How?

The “how” may be the most important part of the elevator pitch, and it is often neglected. It is your value proposition. Here, you can indicate how you (i.e., your experience, expertise, and passion) can benefit your audience: The method that I developed can identify components that result in cleaner-burning fuels, allowing environmentally friendly fuels to be designed based on the choice of feedstock.

For the “why” and “how”, it is helpful to know what is most relevant to your audience and tailor your statements accordingly. Of course, this is not always possible for a spontaneous opportunity, but a general statement is still useful. You don’t need to memorize a written elevator pitch that sounds like a rehearsed act. However, taking some time to think about how you would answer these questions will make you better prepared for networking, whenever and wherever it happens.

This article was written by Sherrie Elzey, Ph.D., a chemical engineer and freelance technical writer/editor. Sherrie has a background in nanoscience and nanotechnology research, with experience in academia, government, and industry positions.


Reverse Age Discrimination

November 25, 2013

The recent increase in unemployment has brought attention to age discrimination in the workplace. It is well known that older workers can face discrimination when applying for jobs. Common stereotypes are that older workers are out of touch with the latest technology, set in their ways, and more expensive in terms of salary and benefits. There are many strategies that an older worker can use to shift the focus away from age, or to use their age as an asset. These include positioning themselves as experienced candidates, formatting their resume as functional rather than chronological, and highlighting their flexibility and strong work ethic. What about younger workers? They also face stereotypes, such as being inexperienced, self-absorbed, slackers, and having an undeserved sense of entitlement. It stands to reason, then, that younger workers also face discrimination in the workplace. However, so-called reverse age discrimination has not received the same attention. And there does not seem to be the same empathy for the plight of young workers.

The Law

When it comes to your job, are you too old? Too young? Just right? According to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADED) of 1967, there is no such thing as too young, and you are just right until you turn 40. That is when a person can be legally viewed as a victim of age discrimination by a Federal court. The Supreme Court recently upheld the ADED as a law that only applies when an older worker receives unfair treatment relative to a younger worker, demonstrating the general indifference to the complaints of younger workers, who are seen as just another 20-something complaining about something. So what can younger workers do to overcome reverse age discrimination?

Strategies for Younger Workers

Play into the positive stereotypes. In addition to negative stereotypes, young workers are also seen as being tech savvy, ambitious, innovative, and open to change. Highlight these attributes on your resume by including your work-related experience with the latest technology, or any ideas you had that were implemented at work. Come to the interview prepared to discuss examples that demonstrate your ambition and willingness to take on new challenges.

Reverse age discrimination is not an issue only during a job search. It can actually become more apparent after a young worker has already landed a job. They can be given below-average salaries (even after considering age, experience, etc.) or passed up for promotions. There are many people who simply don’t want to see a 20-something have a six-figure income or receive three promotions before they turn 30. This can be extremely frustrating for younger workers who have put in huge amounts of time, effort, and money, such as doctors and lawyers, to acquire the knowledge, skills, and experience that command high salaries.

Young workers who are trying to climb the ladder should avoid behaviors that erode professionalism in the workplace, i.e., starring at your phone and texting as you walk down the hall, to a meeting, to the lunch room, to the bathroom. If you want to be cautious, don’t use texting abbreviations or slang in office emails, even though some more common ones, like “lol”, have become more accepted. A colleague of mine recently used “totes” in an email to me. I had to Google what it meant. You don’t want your coworkers having to Google the latest lingo to interpret your emails. Most people appreciate a relaxed, informal work environment, but keep in mind that it is a work environment.

The Reality

Unfortunately, no matter how well you tackle any form of discrimination, the reality is that the problem is not you – it’s the person doing the discriminating. So, the biggest challenge in overcoming reverse age discrimination may be realizing when you are fighting a losing battle and shifting your efforts toward identifying a better fit somewhere else. Currently, the Federal law is not on your side. For those younger workers, the best advice might be to look forward to the 10 years in your 30s when you are least likely to experience any type of age discrimination.

This article was written by Sherrie Elzey, Ph.D., a chemical engineer and freelance technical writer/editor. Sherrie has a background in nanoscience and nanotechnology research, with experience in academia, government, and industry positions.