Volunteering for Fun and Profit

December 3, 2012

Volunteering is a great way to pick up new skills and expand your professional network.  However, there are thousands of worthy volunteer causes that could use your time and talents.  How do you decide where to put your time and effort?  Below are some tips to help you get the most out of your volunteer activities.

What do you really care about?

Not everyone is interested in the same things, so make sure that whatever you choose to do it is something you are personally passionate about, and are excited to see through completion.  Obviously you should believe in the organization’s mission, but you should also be excited about the particular project you will be working on.  Knowing the task is beneficial and important will help motivate you to do your absolute best, and persevere when you encounter difficulties.


Will you learn a new skill?

One reason to volunteer is to learn a new skill in a low-risk environment, where mistakes won’t jeopardize your livelihood.  For example, if your current professional position does not require you to manage a budget, maybe you want to become treasurer of a local organization.  This will give you some real hands-on experience with setting a budget, tracking income and expenses, and so on.  Not only will you learn whether or not you can manage finances, you will learn whether or not you enjoy financial responsibility.  When the time comes to do this in your paying job, you will have the experience to do it right.


Will you work with good people?

One of the best reasons to take on a new volunteer position is to get to know new people.  Before you make a large commitment to an organization, spend some time with the other people involved, maybe assisting with a small or one-time event. Are the other volunteers fun to work with?  Do you share a common vision for the organization?  Does the professional staff (if any) treat the volunteers with respect?


Will you be appreciated?

With most volunteer work, your only payment is other’s appreciation of your job well done. Some organizations are better than others at thanking volunteers, and making sure they feel appreciated. Is the sense of accomplishment at the end of the project going to be sufficient reward for your hard work?

Can you get out?

Leaving gracefully can be the hardest part of a volunteer job – especially if you’re doing a great job, and no one wants to see you go. Picking a job with a fixed term limit is a good way to make sure you have a limited commitment.  Even if you have a term limit, you want to think ahead, and have a successor ready to go. Let them take over when it’s time, and resist the temptation to tell them how to do things, or insist they do exactly what you would have done.

Volunteer positions can be extremely rewarding, both personally and professionally.  By carefully selecting the organizations, projects and tasks that are going to benefit from your skills, you can ensure that you get as much, or more, than you give.  ACS offers many opportunities to get involved as a volunteer.  Two of the easiest places to help are in your Local Section and your Technical Division.

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 (www.acs.org/network-careers)._—Brought to you by ACS Careers.

Teamwork Training

August 13, 2012

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

Teamwork training

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

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

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

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

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

Capturing the information

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Who are you following?

January 4, 2011

One day when I was a little girl, I walked to elementary school with a new friend for the first time.  We’d both walked to the school many times, but never together.  After we’d walked (and talked) for a couple blocks, I realized I had not been paying attention to where we were going, I’d just been following her.  I said “I hope you know how to get to school this way, because this isn’t the way I usually go.”  She replied that she didn’t know how to get there that way either, and she was following me.  We looked around and realized we were several blocks past the school, and quickly turned around.

This story occurred to me recently as I was thinking about a number of students to whom I’ve been giving career advice recently.  Many of them consider their advisor to be their main professional mentor, and rely on their advice for career matters.

However, when they stop to think, they realized that while their academic advisor may know a lot about what classes to take and what academic chemistry departments are best, most professors have had no experience outside academia.  That means they may not be the best people to follow if you are in interested in a career in industry, government, or even a different level of academic career.

While your academic advisor is close, and certainly the easiest person from whom to seek advice, the easy way is rarely the best way.  I suggest to these students that they move outside their standard circle of colleagues, and seek advice from someone with a different perspective and experience.

As a first step, seek out professors who are currently collaborating with industry, or better yet had a career in industry before going into academia.  From there, you can move out and make connections with people in all sorts of fields, learning about their experiences.  With this wider perspective, you will be better able to determine which career path is best for you.

Maybe now is the time for you to look around and see who you are following, and if they actually know how to get where you want to go.  Who are the advisors and mentors in your life, and are they able to give you good advice?  Have you actively gone out looking for professionals who are where you want to be?  Do you attend professional society meetings, and learn about new trends and opportunities in your field?  Do you have the next steps in your career planned out, and are you executing that plan?  Or are you just following along, hoping that you will somehow eventually end up in the right place for you?

In the end, my new friend and I were late to school, but we made it there.  With some concerted effort and experienced mentors, you can reach your career goals as well – and sooner, rather than later.

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

Lessons from ACS National Meeting

October 18, 2010

I recently had the opportunity to attend the ACS national meeting in Boston.  Six rain-soaked days of meetings, meals and general merriment with 14,000 fellow chemists.  While exhausting, it also energized me to be around so many other people who are passionate about the same things I am passionate about, including career development for scientists.  Below I share several ideas that occurred while there.

1.  The most important thing you can do for your career is to find a mentor.  You need someone who has been there, who is willing to share their experiences with you.  They can tell you what it’s really like, offer advice when things don’t go as you think they should, and provide encouragement.  A good mentor is invaluable, and they are paid back with your respect, and by you “paying it forward” and mentoring those who come behind you.

2.  If you are a member of a committee, take an active role.  Find some aspect of the subject you can be passionate about, and work on that.  Participate in discussions, take on tasks, and offer opinions. If you truly can’t contribute anything, don’t accept the assignment.  Find something you can care about, and direct your energies in that direction.

3.  The Royal Society of Chemistry has 12 professional attributes one needs to meet in order to become a chartered chemist. Even if you’re not a member, these guidelines can be a good checklist for your own career. Are you meeting all these goals?  If not, which ones do you need to work on, and what can you do to improve your skills in that area?

4.  And speaking of working on your weaknesses…..  Public speaking is one thing a lot of people have trouble with.  They don’t like it, so avoid it, and therefore never get better.  I often recommend people join Toastmasters, an organization dedicated to helping people become more competent and comfortable in front of an audience, and they have local chapters in almost every city.  Another great way to get more experience in public speaking to volunteer at a local science center.  You can make presentations to the general public in a low risk environment, sharing your enthusiasm for chemistry while improving your own soft skills.

Volunteering is also a great way to find a position in a down market.  Especially for students, look for summer positions or internships with an organization you might like to work with professionally.  This will let you get to know people there, and let them see what great skills you have, so when a “real” position opens up you can get them to advocate for you. It also gives you experience in the field, which makes you more attractive to the institution.

And while you are developing those skills that they want, think about what other skills you have, and what other skills you can develop.  You want to develop a unique set of skills that make you ideally qualified for the type of career you want to have.  Once you have that fit, it will be obvious to any employer that you are the right person for the job.

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).