Getting Along with Coworkers

March 10, 2014

People spend a lot of time and money on education to gain knowledge and skills in a specific area. We take these skills into the work force and use them to perform well on the job. However, a large part of our performance at work has nothing to do with our ability to do the job well ­– it is based on our ability to get along with coworkers. Few people seek out training on how to get along with others at work. It may seem that we should acquire these skills through life experience, but time and time again managers report that the ability to get along with coworkers is a difficult skill to find in an employee.

Why? There are two main reasons: (1) When people get emotional, whether it’s anger, humiliation, jealousy, frustration, etc., they resort to instinctive behaviors. Some people get defensive and treat coworkers with disrespect; others avoid conflict rather than dealing with the issue. Neither approach is productive. (2) While these behaviors may have been accepted by others in our personal lives, they are not tolerated in the work place. Family members and close friends re-enforce negative behaviors by tolerating them, and thus people have not been challenged to use self-control in emotional situations. In our personal lives, if we don’t like others, we simply don’t hang out with them or minimize our interactions. This is not an option at work. We are required to work closely with all varieties of personalities, and we are expected to be respectful and resolve differences.

Everyone knows this, but many still struggle with how to control themselves or confront others in the heat of the moment. There are numerous resources devoted to advising people on this issue, including articles, seminars, coaching sessions, and quizzes to help you determine your ability to work well with others. I have found one simple trick that can work well, if you implement it at the right time: pretend that your boss or your HR rep is standing beside you. How would you speak to your coworkers if you knew that your boss or HR would hear everything you say and the tone of voice you use, as well as see that smirk on your face. The reality is that other coworkers may hear or see your interactions, and anything you say may very well get back to HR. Therefore, make sure you are able to stand behind all your words and actions at work if you have to explain yourself.

Keep in mind that “interactions” extend beyond face-to-face encounters. Emails and gossip can spread rapidly, and these can also reflect poorly on your ability to get along with coworkers. We all know those people who complain about others or talk behind people’s backs. I naturally assume that those people speak the same way about me when I’m not around. It can be tempting to “vent” about things that annoy or frustrate you, but at least try to wait until you get home. Or better yet, confront the issue to resolve it, while pretending that your boss and HR are standing beside you, of course.


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. 

Career Preparation for Conferences

March 3, 2014

Attending professional conferences is both a benefit and a duty for most scientists.  You get to catch up on the latest developments in your field, seek input from your colleagues on your own professional projects, and get a break from the daily routine of the lab.  However, with a little preparation, conferences can also be a great place to advance your professional career and increase your standing in the scientific community.   Here are a few things you should do before leave for the airport, to make sure you get the take advantage of every opportunity the event has to offer.

Study the Program – Technical and Social

Read through the conference program before your leave, and determine which technical sessions, and which social events, you want to attend.  Some may require early registration and payment, but others will be more flexible.  Add the drop-in sessions to your calendar, so you will have the information handy when the time comes to choose what you are going to do for the evening.

Set Your Schedule

Search your address book for friends who live in the area of the conference, or other colleagues who might be attending.  Contact them in advance and arrange to get together for dinner, drinks or coffee.  While you want to leave some free time for spontaneous activities, you also want to take advantage of temporary geographic proximity to catch up with old friends and reconnect.  A few minutes spent chatting with a colleague in person can provide more information, and a stronger connection, than many months of emails or phone calls.

Update Your Social Media Profiles

You will be meeting and connecting electronically with many new people at the conference, so you want to make a good first impression.  Freshen up your social media profiles on and the ACS Network.  Read them as if you knew nothing about yourself, and see if they describe the professional you currently are, including your technical and nontechnical skills and interests.

Prepare Business Cards

When you meet those new people, you want to give them a quality business card, so they have your contact information in a tangible form.  Make sure you have enough cards to last through the entire meeting, and make sure the content is still accurate and complete.  In addition to addresses, many business cards now include bullet points listing areas of expertise, and they often include information on both sides.

Practice Your Elevator Speech

When you meet someone new, one of the first questions they probably ask is “Who are you?” or “Tell me about yourself”.  While your nametag will display your name and institution, you need to prepare an answer that goes beyond your job title, to sum up who you are and what you can do and a couple of sentences.  It should be both succinct and memorable.

Conferences are a great way to not only learn about the latest scientific developments, but also to strengthen connections with existing colleagues and make new connections.  By preparing ahead of time, and actively seeking opportunities, you can greatly enhance your personal and professional outcomes.

Get involved in the discussion

The ACS Career Tips column is published the first week of every month in C&EN. Post your comments, follow the discussion, and suggest topics for future columns in the Career Development section of the ACS Network (—brought to you by ACS Careers.

Preparing for Adjunct Faculty Job Applications

February 17, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simple Options, Complex Choices

February 10, 2014

I spend a significant amount of time working with teenagers, making them think about money and time management.  In one exercise, we talk about what you can do if you have gotten yourself into debt.  They often have a hard time coming up with specific ideas, but when pressed come up with “don’t spend as much on food” or “don’t go out as much”.  After several more rounds of leading questions, they begin to see that all of their answers fall into one of two categories.  While there are many ways to do each of those things, there really are only two options to get yourself out of debt and back to a positive cash flow situation – either “spend less” or “earn more.”

The same dichotomy applies to your career.  If your current job did not turn out to be what you thought it would, or you are disillusioned with how your career is progressing, there are two basic things you can do to fix it.  The first is to adjust your expectations, and be happy with what you have.  The second option is to figure out what you really want from your career and get it.

Dissatisfaction with your career is not as easily quantitated as an imbalance between your income and your expenditures.  It will take some thoughtful introspection and careful consideration of not only your current situation, but also of your entire career trajectory.  What is it that you really expected to have at this point in your career, and how is that different from what you currently have?  Are your expectations reasonable for today’s job economic market and demographic realities, or were they based on what conditions that no longer exist?

If you are in the job you thought you wanted, but are unhappy, why is that?  Did the job turn out to be significantly different from your expectations?  Or are you doing what you expected, but you find you do not really enjoy it as much as you thought you would?  It’s very difficult to really know how much you’ll enjoy doing something until you actually do it . How often have you been pleasantly (or unpleasantly) surprised when you’ve tried something new, and found it was different from what you expected?

As you’re considering what you really want to get out of your career, and how that differs from your current position and goals, make sure you are being realistic. The type of job you covet may not exist anymore, or may exist in such a transformed version that if you knew what it really involved, you would not really want it.  You may be able to make small changes to your current job – adding some responsibilities, shifting others, to move what you have closer to what you want.

To continue with that theme, if the disconnect is very large, you will need to make large changes. You need to make the commitment to do what it will take to get what you really want – maybe attending night school to finish your degree, taking on extra projects at work to learn new skills that will make you eligible for a promotion, or moving your family across the country to a place where the type of job you covet is more readily available.  Yes, these will take time, and yes, there are disadvantages with each.  Only you can determine if the benefits of “getting more” in the long term outweigh the alternative of “learning to be happy with less”.

Carolyn Hax, who writes an advice column in the Washington Post, recently told a reader that “Stress is what fills the gap between what we covet and what we actually get.”  Since your career is such a large part of your life, it makes sense that a mismatch there would cause a large amount of stress.  Realizing that the world does not make promises, and there are many paths you can take, can go a long way towards helping you get your expectations and your realities in line.

In summary, in order to reduce your stress, either be happy with what you have, or go out and get what you want.  Simple, right?


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

Making Meetings Meaningful

February 3, 2014

Communication is the bedrock of business, and in many situation a face-to-face discussion is the best way to exchange information, compare options, and make decisions.  So why do so many people hate meetings?  In most cases, it’s because neither the organizer nor the attendees have prepared properly, so a significant amount of everyone’s time is wasted. To make the most of meetings, and of your and your colleagues’ time, follow a few simple guidelines.


Every meeting needs an agenda, with date, location, list of times and topics, and goals.  The agenda and background materials should be sent to all attendees well ahead of time, so everyone can read and digest the information. Ideally, preparing for upcoming a meeting causes attendees to get their materials and ideas organized, so they are ready to jump into discussions in the meeting. Meetings should begin promptly – waiting for late attendees is discourteous to those who were on time, and encourages others to be late in the future.  During the meeting, stick to the published timeline, and make notes of items that need to be addressed later (discussions that were recessed for time, or a decision with no clear consensus).


Invite everyone who needs to be there, and no one who doesn’t.  Does the person providing background information need to be present to answer questions, or will their written report suffice?  Does the person who will make the final decision need to attend the preliminary discussions, or will the summary provide enough information?  If there are multiple items on the agenda, does everyone need to be present for all of them, or can they be grouped?  If you respect people’s time and only include them when really needed, they will be more willing to attend.


Everyone at the meeting should be focused on the meeting.  If attendees are checking email, texting, tweeting and having side discussions, they are not present mentally.  Do they need to be present physically?  While there are generational differences in technology usage, the meeting organizer should make clear what is acceptable and what it not.


Often, the most important person at a meeting is the scribe who takes the meeting minutes.  This list of decisions made, unresolved issues, and action items (with responsible parties and deadlines) is the official record.  All attendees should be provided with the minutes as soon as possible after the meeting, with a deadline for additions or corrections.  During the meeting, you should be taking your own notes of items for which you are responsible, and make sure those reconcile with the official record.  If this is a recurring meeting, the organizer should end the meeting on a positive note, and confirm the date, time and location of the next meeting.

Meetings are a fact of professional life, and new technology is making meetings with geographically distant colleagues even easier. However, since time is one of our most valuable resources, putting in the effort up front to prepare, and thus minimize the time spent in meetings will pay dividends in both increased productivity and the gratitude of your colleagues.

Get involved in the discussion

The ACS Career Tips column is published the first week of every month in C&EN. Post your comments, follow the discussion, and suggest topics for future columns in the Career Development section of the ACS Network (—brought to you by ACS Careers.

Working from Home

January 27, 2014

A recent career change has allowed me to work from home. Not surprisingly, my coworkers like to remind me how lucky I am. However, there are others who have the same option, but choose to come to the office and work in their cubicles all day. Is working from home really everything that people imagine it would be? I am learning the answer to that question, at least from my perspective. It is also interesting to hear my coworkers’ thoughts on why they still choose to work on site. As with most things in life, there are pros and cons to working from home.


No commute. There’s really no need to elaborate here. Depending on how long your commute to work is, this can be a very appealing pro. I instantly have an extra hour in my day just by not driving to work and back.

Flexible working hours. This can vary from one employer to the next. I know some people who work from home, but they need to be logged in at a certain time in the morning and work specific hours. For other jobs, there is no one who would know when, or if, you are working. For me, it has been much easier to schedule doctor’s appointments or tend to other personal issues during business hours day and catch up on work in the evening.

Customized work environment. You control the thermostat, the lighting, the background noise, the break times – everything. For me, this may be my favorite pro. I don’t find a cubicle to be a motivating environment, and I don’t miss being surrounded by beige walls.

Fewer distractions. Depending on your home situation and your job, the amount of distractions can be a pro or a con (see below). For me, being on site brings distractions because I get brought in on work that isn’t my focus. I enjoy helping coworkers, and sometimes I even enjoy it more than my work, but I am far less productive with respect to my goals.


Motivation. Before working from home, I had been warned about how difficult it can be to motivate yourself when there are no “working hours” and no one to know whether you are working or not. I didn’t pay much attention to the warnings because I consider myself to be self-motivated. However, I was surprised by how much extra motivation it does take. And I will admit, there are days when I slough off more than I would if I was on site.

Time goes by really fast. This may sound like a good thing. Everyone knows how awful it is when the work day moves too slowly. Working from home seems to create a time warp in which times goes by and you wonder where it went. This is common among those who work from home, and it is the single reason why many of my coworkers choose to work on site when they could work from home. I start the day off with an ambitious list of to-dos. At the end of the day, I have often barely put a dent in the list, and I wonder if I could have accomplished more in a structured work setting.

Fewer resources. While not being surrounded by coworkers can be a benefit because I have fewer distractions, other people are a great resource. I can no longer pop into a nearby cubicle to ask a quick question. Or use the printer/scanner/copier/fax machine. Or walk down to shipping to check on a delivery. There are more resources available at work than I had realized until I no longer had easy access to them.

Less interaction with coworkers. This is a huge drawback for many people. A large part of happiness at work is related to socializing with coworkers. Working from home can be very isolated. I personally enjoy working alone, but for those who enjoy a certain level of comradery, working from home may not be a good fit.

More distractions. For some, working from home may actually bring more distractions. This is particularly true for those with a spouse or small children who are home during the day. Some also find that they procrastinate by busing themselves with housework or running errands rather than getting to work. In this case, it can be helpful to have a dedicated home office space where you can close the door and block distractions.

After a few short months enjoying my switch to working from home, I realize that it is not for everyone. But it is definitely for me. In my case, the pros outweigh the cons. The list I have presented includes the main themes that I have personally experienced or that others have shared with me. If you work from home, what do you like or dislike about it?


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.

Pour Some Water on Your Career

January 20, 2014

I have a small plant that lives on the desk in my office.  Every once in a while I notice it’s looking a bit droopy, and think I should probably give it some water.  If I’m really good, I also remember to give some water to the plants in the other room at the same time, since they are even more “out of sight, out of mind”.  I depend on the plant looking sick for awhile, until I am alert enough to notice it, so I can give it what it needs before it’s too late and I have to go out and buy a new plant.

Wouldn’t it be nice if your career had the same sort of telltale signs?  If you could see the leaves of your network drooping, and know it was time to call a colleague for lunch, or forward that article to a former co-worker?  What if your HPLC column wilted, alerting you it was time to sign up for a class to enhance your skills in that particular analytical technique?

Unfortunately, the signs that your professional life needs some attention are much more subtle, but much more important.  So what are some of those signs that you should be looking out for?

Probably most important is the health of your professional network.  If you had a problem at work, needed advice on a synthesis, or just wanted to complain about your lazy co-workers, do you have a number of people you could trust to listen to you and provide solid advice?  Have you been in touch with many of them recently recently, so you are sure they would not only take your call, but go out of their way to help you?  What have you done to help them out lately?  If you are thinking “Gosh, it’s been awhile” since you’ve talked to many of those people, now would be a good time to drop someone an email,  give them a call, or even set up a time to meet for coffee or lunch and catch up.  You don’t want to get a reputation as a person who only calls when they need something.

In addition to your professional network, when was the last time you looked critically at your personal data document (resume, CV, or other)?  If it’s been awhile, take a careful look and see if it needs to be updated.  Is your publication and presentation list current?   (Easy to fix!)  Do you have some recent accomplishments that need to be added?  Should  you re-word your skills to use more current terminology?  Have you started some volunteer work or other professional activity that needs to be added?

If your resume is up to date, you’re not off the hook.  Is the document up to date because you haven’t done anything noteworthy or learned anything new lately?  Have you been doing the same thing for so long that you can’t see yourself doing anything else?  If this is your situation, it’s time to figure out in which direction you want to grow, and how you can do that.  Sign up for a class, attend a conference, volunteer to take on a new project at work – or find some other way to stretch your skills and learn something new.  Then, of course, you’ll have to update your resume to include that information.  (Yes, it’s a viscous cycle.)

Just like the plant on my desk, your professional network and documents need care and attention from time to time.  You need to be aware of this and spend some time on them,  before it’s too late to just add a little water, and you have to go out and try to purchase a new career.

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.