5 Tips for Technical Writing

October 28, 2013

There are few career paths in which technical writing skills are unimportant. For those who pursue a science track, it is even more important. Whether it’s a resume, a grant proposal, a project summary, or a monthly report, technical writing plays an important role in finding a job, succeeding in that job, and being chosen for promotions. Simple grammar mistakes or rambling descriptions can distract from the focus of the document and diminish the impact of your work.

Here are five tips for improving technical writing.


It may seem obvious, but the first tip is proofread, proofread, proofread. Spell check cannot be relied on to catch all typos. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen “insure” when it should have been “ensure”, I could retire early. This is a simple mistake that will not be caught by spell check. However, don’t proofread immediately after you’ve finished writing; the work is too fresh in your mind, and you are likely to overlook mistakes. If possible, wait until at least the next day. For an important document, such as a resume, it is helpful to have someone else proofread it also.

Check your grammar

For some people, grammar may be the distant memory of a required class they took long ago. It is also an important component of technical writing. If you can’t remember the difference between an adverb and an adjective, don’t assume that others won’t – take time to brush up on basic grammar rules. If you’re in the middle of a sentence and don’t know whether to use “lay” or “lie”, do a quick Google search. There are many websites that provide quick answers to get you back to writing. Double check any word or punctuation that you are unsure about.


As you proofread your work, ask yourself if each word is really necessary to make your point. Often, descriptive words like “very” or “really” can tend to clutter technical writing without providing any real value. For example, consider the following sentence: The final solution had a very high concentration of 2 mM. Note that the word “very” does not add substantial value. To make the point more effectively, the word “very” could be replaced with something more specific, such as “a high concentration of 2 mM, which was five times the expected value”. Try to use only words or phrases that contribute significantly to each sentence, and be quantitative rather than qualitative when possible.

Keep it short

While decluttering should focus on words and sentences, the overall length of the document should be considered as well. This means determining whether paragraphs or entire sections are really relevant. Consider who your audience is and what level of detail they are interested in. If you’re writing a research paper, a detailed experimental section is highly relevant and expected.  However, if you’re presenting the same results to upper management in a two-page summary, they probably don’t care to know how long you stirred the suspension or what size your volumetric flask was. In general, get to the point and stick to the point with technical writing.

Keep it technical

Technical writing should not read like poetry or a riveting fictional novel, because it is typically not something that people like to read in their free time. It is work related and should be highly focused. If you have successfully decluttered and kept it short, it should already be technical. Keep an eye out for rambling sentences. Look for places where quantitative values could improve the impact of the writing. Ask yourself, what is the main point (or points) that I want my audience to walk away with? Make each point as briefly and quantitatively as possible. Then proofread, proofread, proofread.

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.

How to Write a Research Paper

February 11, 2013

For a scientist, if you don’t publish your results, it may as well not exist.  Communicating the results of your experiments is crucial, so others in your field can learn from, repeat, and expand on your work.  While there are a wide variety of journals and other publication venues from which to choose, the actual process of writing a paper varies little between them.

Professor Peter D. Battle, an inorganic professor at Oxford University, recently shared the process he uses to write a research paper with a group of students at Edinburgh University, and kindly allowed me to share his process here as well.

When, Where, Who, What and Why

Obviously, the first step is to decide when you have enough data to publish, where you will publish it, who the authors will be, and exactly what will and will not be included in this particular article.   (Why we publish is left as an exercise for the reader.)  In general, you need to learn what the smallest publishable unit is to allow your article to be published in a journal with a high impact factor.  Impact factor is a numerical score that measures the average number of times an article in that journal is cited in other articles, a commonly used measure of prestige.

Read the Directions

Every journal has instructions to authors, usually available on their website.  Once you’ve targeted a journal for submission, download their instructions and follow them exactly.  There is no easier way to guarantee rejection than by not following the prescribed format.

Start with Figures

Professor Battle starts the writing process by creating the figures and tables that will accompany the article.  Collecting all the data makes it quite obvious if data are missing, when there is still time to go back to the lab and do another experiment. The table and figure titles should be both informative and detailed, with the font size in the figures about double that used for article text.  Color can add clarity to the data, but can also increase publication costs.  You may want to create three separate versions of each figure – one for black and white printing (with symbols), one for color printing (with colored lines), and one for use in oral or poster presentations (with even larger titles and less explanatory text).


In the experimental section, detail not only what you did and how you did it, but why.  This can be a great learning opportunity, to think about ways you might do things differently in the future. Be sure to include enough details so someone else could reproduce your work.  If you include references to standard methods, make sure you actually read the papers and understand them.

Results and Discussion

The results section is where you describe your findings, detailing the non-negotiable facts that came from your experiments.  The discussion section is where you put those findings in context and draw conclusions – and these conclusions may be open for debate.

Summarize, then Summarize Some More

Now that the bulk of the paper is written, go back and write the introduction. Summarize what the reader needs to know in order to read the discussion, and again include relevant references.  Summarize the entire paper into the abstract – repeat information from each of the now completed sections to present a cohesive, general overview of the entire paper.  Finally, summarize the entire abstract into a concise, informative title that describes your work in as few words as possible.

Throughout the process, be sure to follow all author guidelines and professional ethical guidelines.  Prepare the submission packet with all required forms and information, and a well-written cover letter that describes the impact of your research. If you suggest reviewers, don’t suggest people you’ve worked with since the editors will just reject them.

Response from the Editor

The peer review process exists to improve the quality of scientific research, maintain standards, and provide credibility. When you receive the editor’s response to your submission, remember that it is not a personal attack.  Read the reviewers comments, and then set them aside for 24 hours.  Realize that if the reviewers had problems with a certain issue, other readers will most likely have the same issues. Strive to understand their concerns, and revise the paper to address them.  Prepare a detailed response, describing exactly what you changed.  If you choose not to change the submission in response to reviewers’ comments, tell the editor exactly why not.

At the completion of this process, your results will be published and shared with the rest of the scientific community. Their comments and feedback will help advance your work, in a continual cycle of learning and improvement.

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. Special thanks to Professor Peter D. Battle for source material and insightful review comments. 

Comparative Advantages of Young Chemists to Industry Veterans

July 9, 2012

Employers hiring chemists consider new graduates and post-docs leaving academia with a very different mindset than they do industry veterans. By understanding these mindsets both industry novices and veterans can job hunt more effectively. So what are these mindsets and the relative advantages each type of chemist brings to the job market?

Skill sets

Employers are searching for very specific skill sets when evaluating job candidates. They want to hire individuals who can rapidly “come up to speed” and begin producing useful results for the employer. Employers may not hire and train a new graduate when they can hire a recently laid-off scientist with exactly the technical skills they need.

Additionally, veteran industrial chemists will often have advanced soft skills that graduating chemists and post-docs leaving academia haven’t had the opportunity to develop. These include project management skills, polished oral presentation skills, teamwork opportunities and working productively with customers and suppliers. Also, preparing articles for industry trade magazines requires a different approach to writing than preparing a thesis or writing papers for research journals. The differences are important because industry trade journal articles can promote product sales while research journal papers seldom do this.

Having a practical understanding of how to protect intellectual property can help chemists work productively with patent attorneys to safeguard their employers’ interests. Many chemists, both industry veterans and novices, don’t have these skills. Therefore, veteran chemists who have these skills and can describe them clearly have a significant advantage in the job market.

Employers may be reluctant to hire veteran chemists because they feel they have to pay them more than recently graduated chemists. However, by emphasizing their ability to come up to speed rapidly and use their valuable skills gained through their experience, veteran chemists can overcome this reluctance.

Carefully choose your graduate and post-doctoral research advisors so you gain the knowledge and skills in demand when you looking for an industrial job. For example, nanotechnology is being increasingly utilized in catalysis, polymer fillers and consumer product formulations. Chemists leaving academia after working in nanotechnology can often take advantage of these needs and emphasizing their skills when job hunting.

Many industry veterans know the “rules of the road” for industrial job hunting. However, these rules have changed greatly over the last decade. Therefore, veteran chemists who have not been in the job market for many years may be competing ineffectively. Whether you are an industry veteran or are leaving academia for the first time you have to learn today’s job-hunting skills. These skills are taught in books, through ACS employment workshops and by talking to recently successful job hunters or recruiters.

Professional networks

Having a professional network of individuals who can provide job leads and expert job-hunting advice can be a major advantage in job hunting. It takes chemists time to develop these professional networks. Therefore, professional networks can be a source of advice for many veteran chemists looking for work. Unfortunately some veteran chemists do not take the time necessary to develop or maintain their professional networks because they feel they are too busy.

Novice chemists need not despair over their professional networks if they work at developing them starting a year or more before leaving the academic nest. Learn if your research advisors have industrial connections that will be helpful in your job-hunting efforts. You may want to consider this factor when choosing your graduate and postdoctoral research advisors.

Members of your professor’s research group who recently got industry jobs can be particularly helpful members of your professional network. This is because they work in the same or similar technology area as you and have recently honed their job-hunting skills in a very demanding job market.

The war for talent

The war for talent is not a battle between generations. Every job hunter is competing with every other to convince employers that they have the skills to best fill the available job opening. Rather than building up resentments towards other job hunters, the most effective strategies are to hone your own job hunting skills and professional networks. Good luck!

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.

Unemployed? Don’t Let Your Job Skills Become Rusty

May 2, 2011

Preventing your job skills from deteriorating or becoming out of date is an important issue when you are unemployed, particularly if you have been unemployed for a year or more. Job hunts are taking longer nowadays. Overall, the number of long-term unemployed is at its highest levels since the Great Depression of the 1930s. “Newly laid-off chemists face a job market in which long-term unemployment has become the rule rather than the exception” according to the July 5, 2010 issue of C&EN (http://pubs.acs.org/cen/coverstory/88/8827cover2.html ). Over 40% of the unemployed have been out of work for than six months or longer, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is more than 6 million Americans. The number and percentage of people who have been unemployed for more than six months has risen sharply since 2008. Corresponding numbers for chemists have not been reported. However, anecdotal information suggests that the number of chemists unemployed for six months or more has increased.
Besides the adverse financial effects of long-term unemployment, unemployed chemists face another challenge: the danger of their job skills and chemical knowledge becoming out of date.

“The wasted human capital is just tremendous,” says Jacob Kirkegaard, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “Once people become unemployed for long periods of time, you start seeing a serious depreciation or reduction in their skill levels — in the human capital that they carry… They essentially lose contact with the latest developments in their own field.” For example, unemployed chemists may not have convenient access to research and trade journals now that their former employers’ libraries are unavailable. Given the cost of journal subscriptions, few unemployed chemists are likely to make this investment.

So what steps can you take to keep your professional skills up to date and even expand them?

Check the ACS website

The ACS offers benefits to unemployed members that include waived dues for up to two full years. Benefits specifically related to helping unemployed members keep their professional skills up to date include registration discounts for online business skills courses, ACS ProSpectives, ACS short courses, webcasts, and the ACS Leadership Development System. Information on these programs is available in the Careers section of the ACS website.

National and regional ACS meetings can be an important way to keep your chemistry knowledge from becoming out of date. ACS members receive reduced meeting registration fees. There are also other ways to reduce the cost of attending ACS meetings including using frequent flyer miles to eliminate airfare expenses and reducing hotel room costs by sharing a room with a friend.

Temporary employment

Many current job openings are for temporary positions. For example, in December 2008 the U.S. economy lost 85,000 jobs overall according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, at the same time the number of people employed in temporary positions increased by 47,000 people.

By registering with a temporary employment agency such as Kelly Scientific Services, Aerotek, Olsten Staffing Services and other firms, you may be able to find a temporary position that will both provide some income when your unemployment benefits are exhausted and offer a means of utilizing your chemical skills and knowledge. These jobs can help you keep your chemistry skills up to date.

However, you don’t want to become complacent while working in a temporary position even if the job is interesting and your coworkers congenial. While employed in a temporary job, you should continue your job hunt for a long-term position. Also, let the company contracting your services know that you are interested in a long-term position with them. Some firms use temporary positions as a means of screening people for long-term employment.

Other options

If you live in a large city, you can access research journals and trade magazines through your local library. Libraries in lower population areas may also maintain some of these subscriptions. You may be able to access the libraries of local colleges and universities, particularly if you are an alumnus.

ACS local sections often bring in speakers to present talks on technical subjects. You may want to ask your local section program chair to not limit these talks to chemistry. For example, a local project manager may be interested in discussing the basics of her field. A patent attorney may be willing to present an overview of his field or describe how recent changes in the patent system affect both researchers and their employers.

Consider forming a job-hunting club through your ACS local section. See the ACS tip sheet to start a job club. Participants in the club can present talks in their technical fields. This can enable club members to be exposed to technology outside their own specialty area. It can also enable them to practice interviewing skills.  
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.

Take Charge of Your Training

February 7, 2011

Take Charge of Your Training

At the recent ACS Leadership Institute, I participated in many discussions on the current and future state of the employment market for chemists.  Much as I thought – the employment market is perhaps starting to rebound, but there is a lot of pent-up demand.  It will be a long time before it’s a job seeker’s market again, but there is hope.  One point that hit home with me was made by John Borchardt, ACS Career Consultant.  John said “companies are much less willing to tolerate employees’ learning curves.”

It used to be that companies would hire capable, accomplished people and then train them on how to do the job.  When it was time for the person to move up, the company would provide training in leadership and management, or whatever was necessary to prepare them for the next step on the career ladder.

As the employment market shifted, many companies started cutting back on training.  At the beginning of the recession, they supported it, by allowing employees time off to take training classes, and sometimes paying for classes taught by outside organizations. Now things are different.

In today’s world, companies expect you to  arrive not only ready to do the job, but having already proven yourself by doing similar things successfully in previous positions.  If there are parts of the job you are less familiar with, you are expected to learn how to do those on your own time, at your own expense.  If you’re lucky, your supervisor and co-workers will point out where you need to improve, so you can get the training and experience you need to be successful – before it’s too late.

As you go through your career, you will find things that you are good at, and things that you are not so good at.  Skills that were not important to you early in your career may become more important later on.  Things you didn’t enjoy doing when you were younger may become more enjoyable later on.  You are never done learning and growing, and therefore need to constantly evaluate both based on where you are and where you want to go.

You should take advantage of relevant training opportunities that comes along.  If your company provides training, wonderful!  Often if you can prove that taking that training is going to provide a benefit to the company, you will be able to get both approval and financial support.

If that doesn’t work, offer to split the costs with your employer.  Maybe they pay the fee and travel expenses, but you agree to work extra hours ahead of time to cover the work that you will miss while you are gone.

If that doesn’t work, there are always low cost options like spending your lunch hour listening to a webinar, or taking an evening course at a local community college.

Depending on what it is you are trying to learn, you might also be able to take on a volunteer position that will give you practical experience in some new area that you don’t get in your job, and eventually will lead to accomplishments that you can list on your resume.

It’s up to you to determine what important skills are missing from your personal experience, or which ones you need to get better at, then find ways to get training and experience in those skills.  Even if what you learn is that you really don’t like doing that particular type of task, that in itself is valuable information that you can use when you plan the next stage in your career path.

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

Oral Presentations: Preparation is Everything!

November 29, 2010

Presenting our work to others, especially orally, is a large part of what we do as scientists. Sometimes this occurs through informal conversations, but often it happens at scheduled, formal presentations.  While very few people actually enjoy giving oral presentations, a little preparation can make your own presentations much more successful.

The most important thing is to know your audience, and tailor the talk to them.  Will you be speaking to other experts in your narrow sub-field, or to chemists in general?  Will they have chosen to attend your talk, or are they required to attend?  Will they be anxious to hear what you have to say, or just anxious because your talk is standing between them and dinner?  Is it a serious scientific presentation, or a more relaxed after-dinner talk? Find out as much as you can in advance, so you can include the appropriate level of background and detail.  Start preparing as soon as you know you will be speaking, and practice several times before the big day.

You need to know what the technical arrangements will be.  Do you need to bring your own laptop, or just a USB drive with your presentation? Always bring a back-up, just in case, and of course the appropriate adapter if you travel with a Macintosh.  I go so far as to  bring a hardcopy of my presentation, complete with presenter’s notes, so I can do a “chalk talk”, if I have to. (It also comes in handy for reviewing on the plane, or in the hotel room.)

When preparing your “slides”, remember that people will only see them for a short time, and many from a long distance away.  Don’t bother to put up tiny text that no one will be able to read. Remember that oral presentations are for the big picture – point people to printed articles for the details.  The more presentations I do, the more pictures and fewer words I have on my slides.

Make sure to arrive at the site in plenty of time to check things out.  If possible, I like to visit the room the night before, so I can check out the physical arrangements, the projector and screen, where the light switches are, test the microphones, and so on.  If there are any problems, you want to have plenty of time to work them out and still start the session on time.  If possible, I prefer to keep the lights on, with perhaps just the front of the room dark, to make it easier for people to take notes.

Provide your host with an introduction describing you.  This ensures that the audience knows who you are and why they should listen to you, and also allows you to segue gracefully into your presentation.

If you can’t see a clock from where you’re presenting, make sure to have a watch or timer where you can see it. Ideally, you will know where you should be at the halfway point, and have a plan to condense or eliminate material if you are running long.

Finally, wrap up by talking about the next steps for you or the audience (depending on your topic), and by thanking the people who helped you with the work.  Allow time for questions, and remember to repeat them for the benefit of those who did not hear.

These few simple steps will make you more confident and prepared, which will translate into a more enjoyable presentation – for the audience, as well as for you.

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: New Formulas for Chemistry Careers,” 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).

Networking at ACS Meetings

July 19, 2010

The approaching ACS national meeting offers a host of networking opportunities for attendees who want to make new professional contacts: people who could be useful research collaborators or strengthen their job hunts.  The prospect of walking into a social event or a poster session full of strangers and striking up conversations can be intimidating. However, even introverts become effective networkers by following a few basic guidelines.

First impressions are important. You want to look confident and friendly. Stay upbeat in your conversations and avoid bringing up negative topics. Have a 20- or 30-second “elevator speech” ready to describe your professional interests and why you are attending the conference. This is often a great way to initiate a conversation after saying hello – just make sure it flows naturally in the conversation.

Dress neatly. Conference attire is becoming increasingly informal. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t wear nicely pressed clothes. Overdress to play safe. You can always remove a jacket or tie.

Establish your conference networking strategy

Begin by establishing your networking strategy. Job hunters should focus on engaging in conversations with hiring managers and individuals working for companies they would like to work for themselves. Newly hired industrial chemists and faculty members should focus on meeting peers with similar research or teaching interests. As a science writer, I often focus on meeting editors and other writers.

You can make these contacts at various social events at the meeting, in breaks during technical sessions and during poster sessions. Also, don’t neglect renewing contact with people you have met before and with friends. Meals often make excellent opportunities to visit with individuals that you already know. I usually schedule these mealtime meetings before leaving for the conference.

Use effective listening skills. This means letting the other person in a conversation do most of the talking. Ask open-ended questions to indicate your interest and learn from what they have to say. These should be meaningful questions. If you promise to provide information, be sure to do this as soon as possible after the meeting. Seek out opportunities to do this; it will provide opportunities to renew your contact after the conference. Active listening enables you to present yourself as an energetic individual interested in others and eager to learn.

Exit conversations smoothly. Thank the other individual. Ask to exchange business cards if you haven’t done so already. You may wish to suggest a follow-up conversation after the conference. If you do, be specific about the topic of the planned conversation.

Large social events

These events, often held in hotel ballrooms, can be intimidating. If hosts are standing at the door, greet them and introduce yourself. They may be roaming the room later and you may wish to strike up a conversation.

Don’t be afraid to approach other people alone in the crowd. They will probably be grateful to have someone to talk to. An interesting conversation can attract others to join you.

Crowded rooms often produce groups of people that are difficult to penetrate. These groups often gather around a luminary such as an ACS president or a famous researcher.

You are often more likely to find interesting networking opportunities on the edges of the room or in the entrance area. Other room locations can attract individuals who are available for conversation. Lines at the bar and at food tables are examples. Do not overload yourself with food and drink.  Don’t sit down unless you are engaged in a meaningful conversation with someone else also sitting down. Sitting lowers your profile making it harder for other people to find you. It also reduces your mobility.

ACS divisions and other groups often hold lunches or dinners. These can provide opportunities for extended conversations. When entering a meal room event, claim a chair at a table by depositing your coat or conference materials on a chair. Look for interesting people in the line at the bar or by circulating about the room. If you picked a largely empty table earlier, you can invite others to join you. Alternatively, you can move your stuff to join them at their table.

Poster sessions

Reviewing poster session programs can make it easy to locate people you would like to meet. Try to exchange business cards when talking to them. Remember, their poster session objective is to discuss their research – not job hunting. Discuss this research and try to ask at least one good question. Remember, you don’t want to ask so many questions that you put the presenter on the defensive. Contact them the week after the meeting to discuss job hunting.


Remember, it is more worthwhile to find a few good contacts than to collect a big stack of business cards. Use the back of your new contact’s business card to make brief notes about the conversation and your intended follow-up activities. Follow up promptly after the meeting.

As a full-time writer, John Borchardt is the author of the ACS book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers” and more than 1,400 articles published in magazines, newspapers and online. He is also an ACS career consultant.

Second Careers in Teaching – An Interview with Jennifer Anastasoff

June 10, 2010

Jennifer Anastasoff is the founding CEO of EnCorps and its current President.  Her career has been involved in engaging the corporate sector in pro bono projects as well as in education.  EnCorps was founded in 2007 to provide an alternative pathway for second career professionals to becoming math and science teachers in a California public middle or high school.
This audio blog entry is the recording of a conversation I had with her on May 19th.

– Lisa Balbes

Download the mp3 fileDownload the transcript

Lisa Balbes: “Our guest today is Jennifer Anastasoff, the founding CEO of EnCorps and its current President.  Ms. Anastasoff has a Master’s Degree in Education Policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.  Her career has been involved in engaging the corporate sector in pro bono projects as well as in education.  EnCorps was founded in 2007 to provide an alternative pathway for second career professionals to becoming math and science teachers in a California public middle or high school.

Jennifer, thank you for being here today.

Jennifer Anastasoff: Oh, thank you.

Lisa Balbes: Okay.  Can you start by telling us exactly what EnCorps does?

Jennifer Anastasoff: Absolutely.  What we do is, EnCorps helps individuals who are interested in teaching, who have thought about changing careers from chemistry, becoming—from being chemists to—or scientists to becoming second career teachers, specifically teaching math or science.  And even more so, our goal is not to just get folks directly into teaching immediately, but to help those who maybe are interested in teaching but haven’t, really, a sense of how they can find out what it means to teach, to help them to understand what it means to be a teacher early on, to become tutors, to become guest teachers, to work with students so that, essentially, we’re like their friend in education.  After 10, 20, 30 years in chemistry, you have someone to reach out to, to ask questions of, and to find out what it really means to be a teacher, and what are the steps and the process you have to take to become one.

Lisa Balbes: It sounds like that would be really helpful.  How many people have—or have gone through the program so far?

Jennifer Anastasoff: Well, right now, we have about 150 people in our program, and we’re focused in California.  A lot of those are in the pipeline and are in the process of becoming a teacher, and are exploring as tutors or guest teachers, or substitutes, what it means to be a teacher.

Lisa Balbes: Okay.  Now, you’ve mentioned several times these different steps and different types of teaching in education that people can be involved in.  Can you tell me a little bit about the steps that candidates take through this program?

Jennifer Anastasoff: Sure.  Often, we hear from folks who have amazing backgrounds in, we’ll talk about chemistry, in particular, who have these amazing backgrounds.  “Gosh, why do I need to go through various steps to become a teacher?  I should just be able to stand in front of a classroom and teach.”  And what we find is really helpful is, actually, getting out there and essentially doing a practicum or fieldwork.  The first step for our folks is actually going through an application process, sharing with us why you want to become a teacher, doing for what many may find their first lesson plan ever, doing a lesson plan, a five-minute lesson plan, and actually teaching it to students.  So, that’s our first step.

But the next step after that, once someone is in our program, is becoming a teacher—sorry, a tutor.  And a tutor, you spend three months, one day a week, three to five hours a week just tutoring.  We consider that fieldwork.  You’re in a classroom with a master teacher, or you’re with one of our partner organizations, and you’re working with a smaller group of kids in a low-income community.  That’s where EnCorps focuses.  Low-income communities, by far, need amazing scientists, need amazing chemists, need amazing math teachers.  And so, for three months, three to five hours a week, folks tutor.  And once they’re done with that, we have many folks who actually say, “You know what, I may have a Ph.D. from Harvard, and I may have taught in the Peace Corps, but I’d like to tutor again because I feel like that was really helpful for me, and I want to learn more.”

But once someone finishes that step of tutoring, they then move on to what we call guest teaching, which is a program that EnCorps has developed where, again, you spend three to five hours one day a week in a classroom, but you do it with a master math or science teacher.  And you can do this while you’re working, right.  So, it’s just three to five hours.  It’s a volunteer—often, people consider it a volunteer opportunity.  And folks then, the first few weeks of that—their guest teaching experience really observing and seeing what happens in a classroom.  Again, this is in the community in which they would teach, an under-resourced community.  They see what can happen in a classroom, they see what a master teacher does.  And then, as that 10 weeks gets closer, that gets closer to the 10th week, they’re doing small lessons themselves.  And by the end, our folks have taught at least one lesson with the support of a master teacher.  And by the end of that tutoring and guest teaching experience, folks really have a strong sense of whether or not teaching is actually the way they want to go, which is the first step, you know, the first real step in the process of becoming a teacher is knowing that, “Ah, this is what teaching is.  This is what I want to do.”

The next step is substitute teaching.  Once someone decides, “Yes, you know, I really do want to teach,” they can move on to substitute teaching or full-time teaching, which means you’re actually, what we call, the teacher of record, or standing up in front of a classroom, in charge of a classroom of students.  And that’s where EnCorps, in addition to helping provide you some initial insight, we provide mentorship coaching and support to folks who are substitutes and full-time teachers through our program directors and through our partnerships with some amazing new teacher mentorship programs.

Lisa Balbes: Oh, excellent.  So, it sounds like you really let people get in there and see what it’s like to decide if they’re going to like this or not.

Jennifer Anastasoff: Oh, absolutely.  I mean, if you’re going to be a chemist, you work in a lab for a little bit before, you know, you ultimately make your final—final, final, final decision, you know.  And we really look at tutoring and guest teaching as our labs, as an opportunity for folks to really get engaged.

Lisa Balbes: Okay.  So, suppose I do this and I love it, and I decide I want to become a teacher.

Jennifer Anastasoff: Sure.

Lisa Balbes: What kind of certification or education is required, and how long does that take?

Jennifer Anastasoff: Sure.  Well, you know, it’s interesting.  We’ve, actually, designed our program, the tutoring and guest teaching portion, we are spending three to five hours a week.  But the shortest time period that you can spend doing that is six months, and that’s about the time it takes just to take the tests in California, but also, in a number of other states like New York and some other places, you have to take some tests to prove that—you know, you may say that you have some sense of teaching, and you may say that you understand math but your degree wasn’t in math, and therefore, you have to take some tests.  We find it takes about six months to go through a little bit of that red tape, and that’s something that we help you with.

Lisa Balbes: Okay.

Jennifer Anastasoff: But, really, you know, ultimately, to go from, “Hey, I think this is a great idea” to becoming a teacher, the shortest time ultimately ends up being nine months because you still have to take some preparation.  You still have to apply to colleges and district internship programs.  So, that’s the shortest time.  But we have folks in our program take as long as two years, when they decide, you know, whether they want to tutor and guest teach for a full year, and they also want to spend a little bit of time prepping and studying for these tests in the next year.  So, it can go anywhere from nine months to two years.

Lisa Balbes: Okay.  And about how much does it cost to obtain a teaching certification?

Jennifer Anastasoff: You know, it’s interesting.  We’re asked that a lot, and it really does depend on what state you’re in, in terms of the tests that are required.  If you remember, way, way back when you had to take the SAT, or had to take, you know, whatever graduate school exams you had to take, those cost money, and the university didn’t necessarily know exactly how much those cost.  We’re kind of in the same spot.  We’ve had our folks tell us that it can cost, in terms of taking the tests, somewhere around $400 total to take all of the tests that they may have taken in California, but that’s, really, very much, it depends on the state.  In terms of obtaining a teaching certification, meaning you’re getting your credential, that also, you know, it really depends, again—it’s a totally unsatisfactory answer.  It depends on the state.  What I can say is, in California, you know, when you’re working with the EnCorps Teachers Program, we actually have looked at, you know, we actually provide up to a $7700 reimbursement for folks who’ve—who successfully finish their first year of teaching, to help offset the costs of getting your credential.  And the reason we did that was at the time that we came up with that number, that was about the amount of the California State University system and the cost of getting a credential through them.

Lisa Balbes: Okay.

Jennifer Anastasoff: So, that’s California.  But, again, it really does depend on state.  And as we look towards national expansion, we still will be providing that $7700 reimbursement in different places for people who complete successfully their first year of teaching.  So, hopefully, that helps in terms of what EnCorps does.  But in terms, again, of the states, you know, it’s like having 50 kids, right.  Everyone’s different, and you love them just the same.

Lisa Balbes: So, is there a charge to go through your program?

Jennifer Anastasoff: We like to say that the only charge for going through our program is blood, sweat, and tears.

Lisa Balbes: And time?

Jennifer Anastasoff: And time, exactly.  And what that means is, we are very much looking for people who are very committed to teaching ultimately.  We get that in the guest teaching and the tutoring part, some people are just dipping their toe in, and that’s okay.  If you’re committed to going on that pathway to figuring out if you want to be a teacher, we want to help you with that.  But in terms of funds, what we really ask for are folks who are committed to becoming a teacher, who are interested and excited, and who love and care about kids.  And that’s what the kids ask for.  We actually have a video on our website with kids saying what they want in a teacher, and that’s exactly what they want as well.

Lisa Balbes: Now, does the process differ if I’m looking at teaching middle school versus high school?

Jennifer Anastasoff: The process, from an EnCorps perspective, no.  From a state-by-state perspective, you may have to take some different tests.  You know, you may have to take—I’ll just give you an example of, a California example but, you know, you take fewer tests in California to be able to qualify to teach middle school.  But that said, it may differ in different places.  I would say the kids are different, right.  So, the process may or may not be different, but what you need to think about or, you know, as someone who’s considering teaching is, “Gosh, you know, do I want to teach high school?  Do I want to teach middle school?”  A lot of folks who come to us who may have a Ph.D. or may have a Master’s, you know, come in and say, you know, “I want to teach A.B. Chemistry” right off the bat.  Well, as we’re looking at under-resourced communities, before they can learn A.B. (sp?) Chemistry, kids need to know algebra.  And that can be taught in middle school and in high school.  And a lot of folks initially looking, “Oh, gosh, I want to teach high school.”  But it’s pretty fun to teach middle school, as a horribly biased middle school teacher myself.  Kids are different.  They’re learning about themselves, and so I would say the process should be different for you, if you’re considering middle school, and for you if you’re considering high school.  I would say, get some experience in both and see which one you like.

Lisa Balbes: That makes sense—excuse me.  Now, you’ve mentioned several times that the process is similar, but the requirements are different in different states.  Does EnCorps help in every state?

Jennifer Anastasoff: Yes, so EnCorps, I would say, the process for EnCorps, as we move, as we ultimately expand, we’re right now really focused on California, on exploring some additional areas.  But as we expand, the process will be similar within EnCorps in terms of helping you understand your fieldwork, understanding what classes are, and so on.  But the credentialing, the certification, the sort of bureaucracy part of it is going to be different in each area.  EnCorps is looking towards national expansion.  But, look, this is what we say, and this is why we work with ACS, you know, if you have a question about it, people question about what it means to be a teacher.  If you have a question about how you want to be thinking about that, that’s the first step.  And EnCorps fields calls all the time from various states with people saying, “Hey, this is what I’m thinking about doing.  What should I be thinking about?  How should I think about volunteering at a school or tutoring at a school initially?  How can I start this for myself even before EnCorps gets to my state?”  So, we’re happy to field those calls.

Lisa Balbes: Okay, great.  Now, if I go through your program, do you guarantee that I will get a job teaching?

Jennifer Anastasoff: You know, we don’t.  And I would say, we do our best.  There are folks, you know, you can—you often hear about guarantees that there are teaching jobs.  We’re not an employer.  And I often question, you know, there’s guarantees, and then there’s guarantees.  In an education, there are guarantees.  You know, what I would say is, you know, it all depends on what’s going on in your state.  It all depends on what’s going on at that moment in your school—in a particular school district that you may be looking at.  What we do is we really, as your friend in the education business, connect folks with principals.  We set—help to set up interviews, and we help to connect individuals with schools that might be a really good fit.  And like any job, you know, especially when it’s your first one, like any job, you need to get out there, you need to pound the pavement in order to be able to meet great potential teachers because, you know, work environment is a huge thing.  And we want to make sure that you like where you’re going to be, and that the people like you where you’re going to be.  So, we steer away from the term of guaranteeing a teaching job and, really, just talk about connecting people with school districts and with principals and with schools that could be a good fit, and hosting events that make sure to connect those folks so that you have the connections as someone who’s considering becoming a teacher ultimately, that you have the connections with schools so you can make that decision.

Lisa Balbes: Okay, great.  Now, in all these people that you’ve seen, what sort of people are most able to successfully make that transition to teaching?

Jennifer Anastasoff: Sure.  You know, it’s funny.  I would say people who are okay with failing and learning.  And I know that sounds odd, but a huge part of what it means to be a teacher, it’s really tough because half of the skill set that’s needed to become a teacher, we get so many brilliant and amazing people who are engineers and chemists and finance folks and, you know, various sorts of scientists, and they come in.  And there’s one part of the job that it’s just so well developed, which is what is it—what does it mean to be a chemist, right?  What is the process for it, you know, what is the mold?  You get that inside and out.  You don’t have to look that up in the book.  You know, that piece is so well developed, and yet there’s so much to learn.  In the other piece, which is, how do I engage with kids?  A lot of times, folks come to us, and they think that teaching is just standing up and sharing your great knowledge with kids and them taking it in.  But kids aren’t blank slates.  They have—they come with a whole lot of knowledge themselves.  They come with many questions themselves, they come with biases themselves, and learnings themselves.  And so, if you’re excited about figuring out new and different ways to reach a kid, a student, and you want to learn and you understand that it’s going to be different, it’s a different type of learning, maybe, you know, for many, it’s the toughest type of learning they’ve ever done, and the most exciting.  And if that sounds exciting rather than painful to you, then this could be a really great transition.  That’s what we found in terms of people who are considering the transition to teaching.  If they really want to figure out and are excited about trying to figure out that puzzle of how to reach every kid, and get them excited about chemistry and, you know, if they aren’t getting it, trying to figure that piece out and learning from others, if that’s a challenge that’s exciting, that’s someone who is more likely to be successful making that transition.

Lisa Balbes: Okay, great.  And now that we have these people who are excited about reaching all these kids, where can they go to get more information or to sign up for your program?

Jennifer Anastasoff: What a great question, Lisa.  The great place for you to go is www.encorpsteachers.org, and that’s www.e-n-c-o-r-p-s, as in Sam, teachers, with an “s,” .org.  And so, that’s where you can go if you have questions.  You know, please go to our website.  We have our contact information there.  We have a number of folks who are thrilled to talk to individuals and inspire individuals who are considering becoming teachers.

Lisa Balbes: Okay.  Well, thank you very much, Jennifer, for your time today.  This has been quite educational, and I hope we get lots of people who are interested in reaching the next generation.

Jennifer Anastasoff: Thank you so much.

Lisa Balbes: And—

Jennifer Anastasoff: And we look forward to fielding those questions.

Lisa Balbes: And thank you to everybody who’s been listening.

You can read more about the EnCorps Teacher’s Program on their web site, http://www.encorpsteachers.org/

This interview was conducted 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 (2007).

Green Opportunities for Your Chemistry Career

May 30, 2010

In a recent webinar, I presented information Green Opportunities for your Chemistry Career.  There is a lot of interest among chemists in greening their careers, and making their processes more sustainable.  There were a number of requests for the resource list, so I thought I’d share some of the information here.

Green jobs can be defined in a number of ways, but the Department of Labor (DOL) says “The green economy encompasses the economic activity related to reducing the use of fossil fuels, decreasing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, increasing the efficiency of energy usage, recycling materials, and developing and adopting renewable sources of energy.” The four main sectors of the green economy are Environment (preserving and protecting natural resources, managing their use in a sustainable way; using them more efficiently and productively; reducing or eliminating pollution and toxic waste), Energy (creating, storing, distributing and saving energy), Infrastructure (reducing the impact of human development activities on our world), and Support (government and regulatory administration research, design and consulting services).

Green jobs are also classified into 3 types – Increased Demand Occupations (bus driver), Enhanced Skills Occupations (electrician who learns to install solar panels, and New and Emerging Occupations (N&E) (Biofuels Production Managers).

Probably the areas of most interest to chemists are Green chemistry and sustainability.  Green chemistry is the utilization of a set of principles that reduce or eliminate the use or generation of hazardous substances in the design, manufacture and application of chemical products. The classic book on the topic, Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice by Paul T. Anastas and John C. Warner, lists the 12 principles of Green Chemistry.  They are as follows:

  1. Prevent waste.
  2. Design safer chemicals and products- fully effective, yet little or no toxicity.
  3. Design less hazardous chemical syntheses.
  4. Use renewable feedstocks.
  5. Use catalysts, not stoichiometric reagents.
  6. Avoid chemical derivatives-Avoid blocking or protecting groups.
  7. Maximize atom economy.
  8. Use safer solvents and reaction conditions.
  9. Increase energy efficiency: Run chemical reactions at ambient temperature and pressure whenever possible.
  10. Design chemicals and products to degrade after use.
  11. Analyze in real time to prevent pollution.
  12. Minimize the potential for accidents.

If you’re interested in learning more about this field, check out the following resources.

ACS Green Chemistry Institute -Conferences, Education, Grants, Awards, Industrial Innovation, Resources

America COMPETES and Green Chemistry

Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education

The American Council On Renewable Energy (ACORE)

Clean Edge Market Reports

Earthways Center

American Chemical Council – Responsible Care


State of Green Business – published annually by GreenBiz.com

Green Job Boards

Careers in Wind (AWEA)

Clean Edge Jobs



GreenBiz.com – the business voice of the green economy

Green Building Council – non-profit community of leaders working to make green buildings available to everyone within a generation

Green Dream Jobs – from SustainableBusiness.com



RenewableEnergyJobs.com – Green jobs including solar and wind




SustainLane: Green Collar Jobs Board

TreeHugger: Job Board

Searching for Green Jobs

When you do a search for “green” on a job board, you’ll find a lot of job descriptions with “green card” in them.  Make sure to remove those ones (usually by putting “-green card” into the search term listing).

Keywords that are related to green jobs:  sustainability, solar, wind, green energy, green construction, environment, recycling, green waste, renewable energy, green transportation, green agriculture, green forestry, green consulting, green research, green design, green regulation, energy efficiency / conservation / power / utility / DSM / demand response / energy audit / energy star / gas / thermostats / electronics / building performance / construction / energy efficient / BPI / electrical / engineer / utility energy efficiency / clean energy /building science/construction/Installation project manager/utility solutions

Additional Resources

3rd IUPAC International Conference in Green Chemistry, Ontario, CA, 2010 Aug 15-18.

The “Sus” Word, C&EN, 2010 April 12, p. 39.

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).