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. 

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.


“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.

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?


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Preparing for a Career Fair

June 20, 2013

A career fair is a great way to talk to employers, find out what’s going on in your industry, and advance your professional agenda.  It is free and open to all ACS members who are registered for the national meeting. If you plan to participate, check out the tips below on how to make the most of this opportunity.

Before You Go

To get the most out of the career fair, you should register now, so employers can search your information. Once you are registered, you can post your resume, browse  jobs and request  interviews.

You need to have clear idea of what you’re looking for in a job – an objective that you can state in 1-2 sentences (like the objective on your resume) when you meet new people.  You may have more than one, if you’re open to multiple types of positions. If you do, make sure to communicate the right one to the right people.  Know what you must have in a new position, what you’d like to have, and what you can live without.

Research which companies will be in attendance at the fair, and learn as much as you can about them.  You may be surprised where the opportunities are.  Don’t forget to look at speakers in technical sessions, and identify ones to whom you want to talk.  Not just chemical companies, but personal care products, food, small companies, federal government, etc. all hire chemists to do all sorts of things, so investigate all opportunities before you go, and make note of the ones in which you are most interested.

Getting Ready

Pack a large stack of  business cards and 20 copies of your resume, and know where the copy center is in case you need more.  Pack for the weather where you are going, and of course, dress professionally.

At The Fair

During the Fair, you should check your account regularly for updates, and keep in touch with employers who contact you.

Once you are on-site, there will be lots to do.  On a walk-in basis there will be workshops on a variety of career related topics, including Targeting the Job Market, Resume Preparation, Effective Interviewing, First Year On the Job, Proposal Writing, and so on. You will also be able to sign up for a 30 minute personal resume review, or for a mock interview with an ACS Career Consultant.  Sign up early, as all slots usually fill, and you can sign up no more than one day ahead of time.

What to Expect

If possible, have a mock interview before you start real interviews, to identify and fix any problem areas.

If you are scheduled for a real interview, do much more research on the company.  Make sure to be on time (which means 10 minutes early), and allow for travel time.

To begin, shake hands, look the interviewer in the eye, and introduce yourself.  Sit down after invited to do so, or after the interviewer does. Throughout the interview be positive, don’t interrupt, and avoid nervous habits.  Listen to what they have to say, as well as telling them about yourself.

Be prepared to talk about your research for a 5 minute mini-seminar, with a flow sheet or diagrams handy to guide the discussion.

At end stand up, shake hands again, thank them for the interview, and ask them for their business card.


Make sure to send a thank you note, most likely an email before the end of the national meeting. Follow up with the company if you haven’t heard from them in 2-3 weeks, to let them know you’re still interested.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants. Lisa is a scientific communication consultant and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press (2007).

Job Hunters: Avoid These Common Mistakes

April 22, 2013

Job hunters in all age groups often make the same mistakes when job hunting. Unfortunately I’ve seen this over and over again in my more than twenty years as an ACS Career Consultant. What can you do to avoid making these mistakes and find a rewarding new position?

Get off to a fast start

Don’t wait too long to start your job search. It’s a very competitive employment market. I see far too many students and post-docs waiting until a few weeks after leaving campus to seriously start their job search. Consequently they may not get their first job until months after graduation. Some experienced chemists who may have lost their job take a vacation before beginning their job search. This delays their chances of actually getting a job and can also deplete their financial reserves.

It’s far better to get an early and fast start to your job search. Update your résumé at least once a year. Also prepare a list of target employers and update this annually as well. This list should include contact information and the names of individuals you know at each firm.

Develop networking skills

Somewhere out there is someone who knows about a job opening that could be perfect for you. Developing a circle of professional contacts and interacting with them to share job hunting ideas and information about job hunting enables you to access the “hidden job market” – job openings that are not advertised. According to Amanda Haddaway, author of Destination Real World: Success After Graduation, up to 80% of job openings are not advertised on job boards or in employment sections of newspapers and trade magazines.

So how can you discover these job openings? The answer is by interacting with other people; that’s what networking is all about.

Remember the list of candidate employers you assembled at the beginning of your job hunt? Look and see who among these people you know – or know of – work at these companies or in the same technology areas. They may be able to tell you about potential job openings and who would be a good contact to give you more information.

So where do you find these people?

Check LinkedIn or other like social media sites for information on people in your research field. Check with your professor for names of former members of your professor’s research group and their contact information. Other potential members of your professional network include people you know through your ACS Chapters and other professional society activities or ACS career consultants you’ve met.

Develop your value proposition


Your value proposition demonstrates your demonstrates unique talent and skills, guarantees delivery of results based on your past accomplishments, and defines you as a go-to expert. Conducting informational interviews with members of your professional network can help you develop your value proposition for a particular industry or even a particular employer.

Obtaining a new job in the same industry you’re working in now may or may not be a good job search strategy depending on the job market in that industry. Alternatively seeking employment in another industry may be a good strategy if employment opportunities are better in that industry. To do this, list all your skills and identify the value you can bring to other industries.

Develop specific goals

Your job search goals should be specific enough that they enable you to identify target industries and companies to approach concerning employment. Develop a schedule. For example, you may want to schedule a specific number of companies to contact each week. Monday you may wish to identify companies to contact. Tuesday and Friday you may wish to prepare customized résumés and cover letters and send them to the companies you’ve targeted. Wednesday you may wish to schedule e-mail or telephone follow-ups to companies to which you’ve earlier sent your résumés.  Thursday you may want to take off or use as a networking day to have coffee or lunch with your mentors.

Track your job hunting activities. Using a spreadsheet is a good way to do this. Your spreadsheet will help you determine if you are making good use of your time.Other ways of making good use of your time include writing a review paper and submitting it to an appropriate journal or preparing a paper for a regional or national ACS meeting. Don’t neglect professional association meetings associated with various industries that are among those you are targeting with your job hunting efforts. These activities show prospective employers that you are remaining active in your profession.

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.

What’s in Your Skills Box and How Can You Use It?

April 15, 2013

When employers ask about your employment history what they really want to know is what is in your skills toolbox –technical skills, soft skills and interpersonal skills. Hold tight to this mindset when writing your résumé and discussing your accomplishments during employment interviews.  Guide your career by consciously adding to your skills toolbox. Below I will discuss two ways to do this.

Identify your core capabilities

These are the skills you build on to develop a capability-driven career. To identify these begin with a self-appraisal. Look for distinctive Talents, Skills, and Knowledge (TSK) that will make you highly competitive for certain lines of work. These are the reasons an employer would hire or promote you rather than someone else. Help identify these core capabilities by consulting with mentors and trusted colleagues. Recalling your past performance appraisals can also help identify your TSKs and where you need to improve.

Suppose you are a product development chemist or manage a group of product development chemists. Empathy, the ability to understand the needs of customers, is probably the origin of your biggest success. This means understanding the customer’s technology needs, and how the customer’s profitability can be improved. Empathy will help you imagine new products, create business relationships, and build productive teams – including joint teams with customers. Empathy is supported by technical skills in the relevant areas important to the customer and good listening skills.

Consider Charles McLaughlin, a product development chemist for Halliburton Services before his retirement. His knowledge of the behavior of subterranean rock behavior in the presence of flowing oil, natural gas and aqueous fluids led to the design of chemical treatments that maintained the permeability of oil-bearing rock and thus oil well production rates. He demonstrated empathy when discussing permeability – related oil and gas production problems with customers. This led to increased sales for his employer. (How did he demonstrate this skill?)

When seeking a new job or a promotion, emphasize what makes you distinctive and how this leads to your success. If Mr. McLaughlin had been job hunting, he could demonstrate customer empathy in his résumé, cover letter, and during interview discussions. It is unusual for a chemist to do this and would help make him a memorable job candidate.  (Why unusual?)

Identify capabilities you need to strengthen

Having identified the capabilities you already have, consider what you need to develop. Possible targeted new capabilities can be expertise in a technical field or in a function such as management. You can build new capabilities or strengthen current ones by taking short courses or working in a new area.

Adding new capabilities can shift your career direction. For example, strengthening my technical writing skills enabled me to write more technical papers while strengthening my management skills.  It also enabled me to shift the core of my job assignments to management.

When making this kind of switch, people sometimes abandon their existing capability base. This is a dangerous course to take because careers often take unexpected turns. Often you may want to shift back or leverage what you already know to do something new. For instance, an extended period of low oil prices led me to change my focus from oil production to paper recycling technology. However, after about ten years I refocused on oil production and refining technology when these businesses recovered.

Sometimes the skills you need may be obvious. For instance, an April 2012 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) compared the skills gap between older employees (not just chemists) nearing retirement and younger colleagues just starting their careers. More than half of the organizations surveyed reported that basic grammar and spelling were the top “basic” skills among older workers in which their younger coworkers were deficient.

Career development through capability growth is a way to build a career that’s right for you. Are you building your career path based on what’s in your skills box?

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.