What is Your Story?

March 24, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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.

Writing Winning Recommendation Letters

May 6, 2013

It is spring, that wonderful time of year when many award nominations are due, and many chemical professionals are asked to write supporting letters.  While you want to help your colleagues, you may not know how to write a compelling letter.  There is an art to writing a great letter of recommendation, and a few simple steps can ensure that you write the strongest letter possible.


When you are asked to write a letter for someone else, consider the request before you accept.  Do you know this person well enough to do them justice?  Do you respect them, and their work, enough that you are eager to tie your reputation to theirs?  Do you have time to craft a compelling letter before the deadline?  Only if you can enthusiastically accept should you agree.


Start by collecting the necessary background information.  Ask for a resume or CV of your subject, the requirements and judging criteria for the award, and the requested document type. (Is there a form?  Do they require a letter of a certain length?)

Look through past emails and other communications from the candidate, annual performance reports, and other documents that will spark your memory and help you remember specific projects and activities that you worked on together.

In many cases the nomination needs to be kept secret from the nominee, but their LinkedIn profile, spouse, or other colleagues can be valuable sources.


Start writing your letter.  Begin by describing how you know the candidate, and for how long.  Describe how they meet the award criteria, making sure to include specific examples.  Don’t just write “Steve is a team player”, but provide details of the time Steve took the tasks no one else wanted, and completed them on time and under budget to allow the team to succeed.

There is no need to repeat dates and facts from elsewhere in the application package.  The reviewers want to get to know the candidate as a person, and are looking for a sense of who they are and how they fulfill the qualifications for the award.

Make sure that you follow the formatting specifications exactly, or the candidate’s application may be rejected on technicality.


If possible, coordinate with others who are also writing supporting documents.  Make sure you don’t duplicate coverage, but instead complement each other and describe different aspects of the candidate.


As with any important document, after you think it’s done put it aside and let it sit for a couple days, or at least overnight.  Read it over again, and make sure it flows.  Confirm that you have addressed all, or at least all that you can, of the award criteria.  Send a hard copy in plenty of time to make the deadline, and let the nominator know you have done so.

It is an honor, and an obligation, to be asked to write a letter of recommendation for a colleague.  If you respect and admire the candidate enough to agree, you owe it to them write the strongest, most compelling letter you can.

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 Careers blog (acscareers.wordpress.com)._—Brought to you by ACS Careers

Who Is Your Control Group?

April 28, 2013

We often talk about networking, and how important it is to develop relationships with many professional colleagues, to enhance your career in many ways.  But while having a large network can be a benefit, it also affects you in other ways.  Have you ever thought about the kinds of people who are in your network, how they relate to you – and what that says about you?

I recently heard someone say that she really only needs two friends – a poor friend to make her feel rich, and a fat friend to make her feel skinny.  While she may have taken the idea to extremes, she did have a point.  No matter what your personal situation is, there is always someone who is richer – and someone who is poorer.  There is someone who is healthier, and someone who is sicker.  There is someone who has a job they love more than you love yours, and someone who hates their job more than you hate yours.  You can make yourself feel (and appear) superior in almost anything, simply by choosing to spend time with other people who have less of that particular attribute or ability.  (Conversely, you may make yourself appear to be inferior by spending time with people who have more.)

You might conclude that you need to have as many friends as possible, so you can get a realistic sense of your abilities, relative to the general population.  However, a recent report from the University of Edinburgh Business School (http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2012-11/uoe-mff112612.php) showed that the more different social circles you are linked to online, the more likely you are to be stressed by them.  Connecting to both your parents and boss seemed to add the most stress.  Why?  The more contacts you have, the more different kinds of people see your information, and the more likely you are to offend (or be offended by) someone, since each social circle has its own social norms, inside jokes, and slang. Currently, the average person on Facebook interacts with seven different social circles, and meeting all those different expectations simultaneously can be difficult, if not impossible.

Knowing that you act differently in different situations, around different peer groups, is there a way you can use that knowledge to influence your own behavior for the better?

In a recent study, (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.2047-6310.2011.00003.x/abstract;jsessionid=3D90511C29D8BED39C38A02C04A336A8.d03t01) children were asked what various admirable people – such as Batman or Spiderman – would choose to eat, apple slices or French fries.  When those children were subsequently presented with their own choice between those two foods, a significantly higher percentage of those who had been primed by thinking about the superhero choices made the healthier choice for themselves.  By simply thinking about what someone they admired would do in that situation, they changed their own behavior.

Another way to take advantage of your existing peer groups is to look for ways to help them.  For example, if you find you know a lot about NMR, and others often come to you with questions on that topic, offer to mentor them, or present a lecture or workshop.  In order to prepare lesson plans, you will have to review the material, and in order to explain the concept to others, you will have to really understand it yourself.  Furthermore, the learners will ask questions that you never thought of, and often make you think about the subject in a new way. It’s a rare teacher who doesn’t learn something from their students.  Just remember that while you may be the expert on this particular topic, there are other topics on which you can learn from them.

So look around and see who is in your control group.  Who are your peers, colleagues, and to whom do you compare yourself?  Which of their behaviors do you admire, and want to try to emulate?  What can you learn from them and what can you offer to teach them?  If you don’t have a wide enough network, to both learn from and offer advice to, it just might be time to expand.

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.

Avoid Common Networking Mistakes

November 26, 2012

Productive networking requires strategy, research and patience. Networking is about building relationships—not simply selling yourself or only asking people to do favors for you. There are five mistakes networkers commonly make during job hunting:

  • Misusing the Internet
  • Being vague about what you want
  • Being selfish
  • Over-using members of your network thus burning them out
  • Stopping your networking after landing a job

Let’s look at how to avoid each of these problems.

Misusing the Internet

You can over-rely on the Internet by depending too much on e-mail and networking websites such as LinkedIn. It’s very easy for people to delete an e-mail or not respond to a LinkedIn™ message. Telephoning is good but nothing beats face to face meetings over lunch or coffee. People remember faces and conversations more than written messages.  You may want to use Twitter™ to send shorter messages rather than relying on e-mail.

Don’t be vague

Be specific when you tell networking contacts about your career goals, education and experience. Also be focused; rehearse your discussions on career goals, education and experience so your statements will be succinct, not vague and wordy. Know what you want in terms of a job and professional growth before beginning your networking discussions.  ACS offers helpful resources such as the new “ACS Career Pathways™” series of workshops and the book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers” that can support chemists in these efforts.

Don’t be selfish

Offer help to your networking contacts in any way you can. Show an interest in them. If you only try to extract value from others they won’t stay members of your network for long. Share information your network will find useful. Assist them in connecting with each other if it will be to their benefit. If your networking contact is doing something like organizing a symposium or doing work for your ACS local section, offer to help.

Don’t overuse members of your network

By developing a broad network of useful contacts you’ll avoid the need to contact individuals excessively. Frequently contacting members of your network regarding your job hunt can burn them out. A good idea is to ask your contacts when it would be a good time to telephone them again. Then you’ll have a feeling for how soon you should call.

Contact members of your network when you have specific news to report concerning your job hunt. Also, when you have other news that should interest them or you are sending information you promised. Try to make every e-mail message you send useful in some way to the recipient.

Don’t stop networking after you find a job

Professional networks are like houseplants; they require continuing care and maintenance. Otherwise, the members of network may not respond when you contact them after a long interval. Don’t ever stop networking, even after you get a job; that way your network is in place when you need it again.

For example, my networking at an ACS national meeting with a professor led to an invitation to present a seminar to his engineering department. Subsequent discussions led us to jointly submit a grant proposal to the NSF in which I was listed as a principal investigator. We received our grant impressing my supervisor and coworkers. Our joint research resulted in issued patents on paper recycling technology and the use of one of my employer’s products in a newly developed paper recycling process.

If you’re not job hunting then members of your network may be able to provide other useful assistance such as suggesting potential research collaborators, recommending a particular model of a laboratory instrument to purchase, or helping you solve research problems.

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. As an ACS Councilor, he serves on the Joint Board – Council Committee Patents and Related Matters.

Are Your Communications in Context?

November 22, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Polishing Your Social Media Profile

August 20, 2012

The great thing about the Internet is that everything you ever wanted to know is available at any time, day or night, forever.  This is great when you want a reaction mechanism or to look up a paper, but how does this apply to people?

There is also a huge amount of information about YOU on the internet, some of which may surprise you.  With more and more employers conducting background checks online, it’s more important than ever that your online persona reflects the best possible you.  Below are a number of ways you can make sure your online persona includes your professional side, presented in the best possible light.

No matter what social networking site you’re using (ACS Network, LinkedIn, Facebook, etc.)  you almost always start by creating a personal profile.  This profile provides all kinds of information about you, which is easily searchable by others.  While not all of the sections below are on all sites, the general rules apply to all.

If you haven’t heard, LinkedIn is a social network for professionals – think of it as Facebook for your colleagues, not your confidants.  It is the first place most recruiters and hiring managers go these days when they are looking to hire someone.  If you are looking for a job, or plan to ever look for a job, you need to have a presence there.  Furthermore, your LinkedIn profile is highly likely to be your future employer’s first impression, so you need to put in the time to make it shine – and then continue to keep it updated throughout your career.

To fill in your professional profile, start by copying and pasting the appropriate sections from your resume (you do have a current resume, don’t you?), then edit.  There are no page limits online, so you can expand on your accomplishments, but remember the goal is to intrigue the reader into contacting you for more information.   Automated searches will usually look for nouns (chemist, manager), while humans tend to search for verbs (analyzed, managed), so include both in your descriptions.  If you’re not sure what keywords to include, look at job board postings for the types of positions you are interested in (and qualified for), and use the same keywords.

If you’re going to include a photo, use a current, professional-quality headshot, with a simple background.  While some people omit the photo fearing age discrimination, including one personalizes your profile, and may remind people of whom you are.

LinkedIn allows you to include recommendations, or paragraphs that other people write about you (like a letter of recommendation). On the order of five to eight recommendations, ideally from a mixture of supervisors, colleagues, and direct reports, is good.  You initiate the process by requesting a recommendation from a connection.  The text is sent to you and you can approve it for posting, or not, but cannot change the content.  You might ask for recommendations when you are leaving a company or upon completion of a highly successful project.

One of the most important items in your profile is the headline, that 120 character tag line that goes with your name everywhere on the site.  You want it to be a concise summary of who you are and what you can do.  Don’t just use your job title, and definitely don’t use “Seeking position”.  Think carefully about how you want others to see you, and your capabilities.

Once you have a perfected profile, start connecting with your fellow professionals.  Spend a minute or two personalizing the request – don’t use the generic one.  Regularly add people you meet at conferences or talks, and comment on their status updates or answer their questions.  Periodically download your entire network to your personal address book (there’s a button to “export connections” on the Connections page on LinkedIn), so even if the Internet disappears tomorrow, you’ll still have the information.

None of this is exceptionally difficult, or even really time-consuming in the long run.  The habit of keeping your online profile current, and paying attention to your entire professional network, not just those who are physically near you, will pay enormous benefits over the course of your 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.