Working from Home: It is the best of places; it is the worst of places

May 21, 2012

Working from home is great.  You can saunter into the office at any time, wearing pajamas and bunny slippers, and no one cares.  Working from home is awful.  When you need help, there’s no one around to ask.

Whether it’s writing a paper, reviewing a grant proposal, or analyzing data, there are lots of tasks that you don’t need to be in the lab to do.  In fact, many of these tasks can be done more efficiently without distractions.  So will working from home work for you?

The good news is the office is always right there.  You can run in and check email or look something up in a file at any time, without having to drive across town to pick up a missing folder.  No more wasting time commuting into the office, you can just step in and work whenever you want.  Whether you’re a morning bird or a night owl, your desk is always handy and ready to go.

The bad news is the office is always right there.  The temptation to check email, or answer the office phone when you’re “off duty”, can be too much, and just checking to see if there’s anything important can turn into several hours before you know it.  You never get away from work, because everything is always right there.  And being in the same place all day and all night can be draining – especially when you realize it’s been three days and you haven’t been outside.

The good news is there are no colleagues around to distract you.  You can focus on a task, and no one will break your concentration. If you learn to ignore the phone and only check email at infrequent intervals (and you should), you can have large blocks of uninterrupted time, and most people find they get much more done, and are much more efficient, when working from home.  If you need quiet time to focus, this may be your idea of heaven.

The bad news is there are no colleagues around to distract you.  When you need help, you can’t just walk down the hall and ask a colleague to take a quick look at something.  No one will pop into your office to ask a question about a project, or stop to chat as you’re walking down the hall, so you’re much less likely to hear rumors about the new direction a project is taking, personnel movements, and early rumblings of change. In fact, you’ll need to work at sustaining relationships with your co-workers – balancing discussions of work issues with small talk, being connected without being cloying.  If you thrive on personal interactions, being alone all day may seem like a prison.

The good news is your family members are around, so you see them more often and can interact with them on a more regular basis.  You can fit your work around their schedules, and enjoy breaks with your loved ones.  You can break your work day up into several long chunks, taking breaks in the middle of the day to take care of personal issues when stores are less crowded, then working again in the late afternoon or evening.

The bad news is your family members are around, and if they don’t respect your work boundaries, they can be just as distracting as your colleagues were.  If you’re in the house, it can be very easy for them to interrupt you for “just a second”, and being continually brusque with them can strain your relationship.

Working from home requires discipline, and the ability to balance personal and professional needs on daily.  You will be pulled in both directions, and when they’re all in the same location they’re harder to ignore.  Some people solve this by putting hard lines between work time and home time, while others prefer allowing them to blend and optimizing over both realms simultaneously.

Very few things in life are black and white (except skunks and zebras).  If you check email at night, or keep your work cell phone with you at all times, you’ve already started merging your personal and professional lives.  If your supervisor is agreeable, set up a dedicated work area in your home, and spend some of your working hours there.  You might be surprised at how much you get done – or it might make you appreciate the professionalism of your office.  Either way, you will have learned something.

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.

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Balancing Your Career and Personal Life

April 16, 2012

By establishing a balance between your career and your personal life that works for you, you can reduce workplace stress while having a more satisfying personal life. There are several strategies you can use; however, they are most effective if you use more than one.

Get a flexible work schedule

Flexible work arrangements can enable you to adjust your schedule to attend family events, share activities with friends and enjoy your hobbies. All of these are great stress reducers. You can begin to do this by looking for companies that allow their employees to maintain flexible work schedules. For example, some companies allow employees to choose a 9/80 work schedule. On this schedule, employees work 9 hours Mondays through Thursdays, 8 hours on a Friday and receive alternate Fridays off. So many companies have allowed this in the Houston area that rush hour traffic is noticeably lighter on Fridays. When I worked for a Wisconsin-based specialty chemicals company, employees could choose to work 9 hours daily Monday through Thursday and 4 hours on Fridays.

Some of my coworkers used their Friday personal time for family activities, household projects, errands, etc. I used most of my Friday personal time to engage in my parallel career of writing magazine articles and books.

Some companies allow flexible starting and completion times. When working full-time, I had a flexible work schedule that allowed me to start any time between 7:00 AM and 8:30 AM and go home at the appropriate time 8.5 hours later. This enables some employees to miss the worst of the rush hour traffic and to pick up their kids from their day care center.

Control your communication time

Modern telecommunications mean we never need be out of touch. However, it also means that the telephone, texting, and e-mail can invade our personal time. Limiting these interruptions by simply not responding immediately to them can reduce stress and the interruption of your personal activities.

Hold family meetings 

Family meetings are opportunities to share your activities with family members and learn about what is happening in their lives. These meetings may occur over a leisurely family meal or just relaxing in your living or family room.

If you are single and living a long way from family members, your friends can be a substitute. For example, I meet regularly on Tuesdays at a Chinese restaurant with a retired coworker over lunch. This provides a relaxing break in my workday. I live hundreds of miles from my brothers and some close friends. I carve out evening and weekend time to visit with them over the telephone.

Clubs and professional groups can provide activities that are an enjoyable change of pace from your job and provide opportunities to socialize. My bicycling club, local Toastmasters International club and ACS local section provide these.

Share your interests

Share your interests with your family members and friends. Doing so can let you serve as an ambassador of chemistry. Listen with equal interest when they talk about their jobs, hobbies and other personal interests.

One reason I share a hotel room with a long-time friend during ACS national meetings is that we have plenty of time to bring each other up to date on what is happening in our professional and personal lives. I also get together with friends for meals and meeting social activities.

ACS national and regional meetings are often held in cities with lots of interesting activities outside the meeting. While you’re in technical sessions, your family members could be seeing the local sights. Alternatively, they could travel to the meeting city before or after the conference and you could enjoy sightseeing with them.

Schedule regular vacations

Many hardworking chemists use their vacation time two or three days at a time and don’t take real vacations. I was this way for many years. Then ACS sent me to Fairbanks, Alaska to teach employment workshops at the Northwest Regional Meeting. After the meeting I took a 10 day vacation to travel on the Alaska Railroad around the state and see some of the sights. It was very enjoyable. I took over 900 digital photos. This experience taught me I really needed to use my vacation time to “get away from it all.”

Even a 2 to 4 day break can be enjoyable and stress reducing if you leave town to enter a new environment. I often do this after an ACS national meeting and visit local tourist attractions. I’m a history buff so there is a lot to see in Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, DC, all fairly frequent ACS national meeting sites.

Most U.S. companies do not allow new employees any vacation time until they have been employed for at least six months. So these employees may have to wait a bit before being eligible for vacation time. Experienced chemists may be able to negotiate more vacation time before starting work for a new employer.

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.


Science Writing as a Chemistry Mid-career Option

January 14, 2010

Science writing offers a rewarding career option for mid-career chemists interested in making a career transition. I myself began writing full-time in late 2004 after a thirty-year career as an industrial chemist. Science writing for the general public remains a rewarding career option today. The number of science writing jobs preparing articles for newspapers and consumer magazines are decreasing. However, science writing offers several other career options for chemists who are fast learners, write well and enjoy the writing process.

 Science writers may write articles targeted mostly at scientists and engineers and published in trade magazines. They also write corporate material such as press releases and manufacturing process instructions. Some write press releases for universities, professional science associations, trade associations and government agencies. Many large medical centers employ science writers to write press releases about medical advances achieved by their researchers. Science writers may also write articles, blogs and other documents for websites maintained by all these organizations. Another science writing job at many universities is helping faculty members write research grant proposals. Many science writers remain writers throughout their careers. Others eventually become editors. 

  Science writers may work as salaried, full-time employees of newspapers, general interest magazines, science magazines and trade magazines. Some work for broadcast media such as the major television networks, CNN and the Discovery Channel. Others work for membership societies for scientists, trade associations, companies and medical institutions. Some work for federal government agencies such as NASA, NIH and NSF.

 Rather than work for one of these organizations full-time, some science writers may work on a freelance (project-by-project) basis working for different organizations at the same time being paid when each project is completed. Freelance writers are running a business and must deal with important business concerns such as setting and negotiating fees, billing and collecting from clients, obtaining new business to replace completed products to maintain a steady income stream. They usually work out of a home office.

 Some science/engineering writers do much or all of their writing for corporations either as full-time employees or on a freelance basis. Work assignments include writing laboratory reports for researchers too busy to do so, editing reports and research papers for scientists for whom English is a second language and knowledge retention projects. Drug companies employ science writers to prepare regulatory documents for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

 Knowledge retention is a particularly fascinating field. The writer interviews scientists and engineers who being promoted, retiring, or leaving their employer for other reasons. These are much longer than exit interviews. Mine are a series of up to several two or three hour interviews. Usually but not always, the interview subjects have written their research reports. In these cases the conversation focuses on preparing successors to take over projects, what the researcher thinks could have done better and competitive threats to the employer’s technology.

 Teaching writing workshops are another option. My writing workshops for researchers for whom English is a second language are popular.

 Books that explore the craft of science writing include:

 Books that discuss how to conduct a freelance writing business include:

 The ASJA Guide to Freelance Writing: A Professional Guide to the Business, for Nonfiction Writers of All Experience Levels by Timothy Harper and Samuel G. Freedman

As a full-time writer, John Borchardt is the article 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.


The Work-Life Balancing Act

December 28, 2009

Recently, several items have drawn my attention to the issue of work-life balance.

The first is a recent report, published by the Center for American Progress and the Berkeley Center on Health, Economic and Family Security entitled “Staying Competitive: Patching America’s Leaky Pipeline in the Sciences.”  The authors were intrigued by a recent report by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences that confirmed that women who receive PhDs in the sciences are less likely than men to seek academic research positions, and were more likely to drop out before attaining tenure if they did take on a faculty post.  These authors wanted to find out why, so looked into the impact of children and family obligations.

Some of their key findings:

  • Family formation accounts for the largest leaks in the scientific pipeline – women in the sciences who are married with children are 35 percent less likely to enter a tenure track position after receiving a Ph.D. than are married men with children.
  • Scientists often make decisions about career paths while still in training, and both men and women report shifts away from the career goal of research professor during the course of graduate school (also confirmed by Cynthia Fuhrmann at UCSF, unpublished data), with the movement of women’s plans being more pronounced.
  • Research intensive careers in university settings have a bad reputation among both men and women.
  • Scientific researchers receive limited benefits such as paid maternity leave and parental leave, and young scientists are least likely to get any of these benefits.

The second item was a recent poll on ScienceCareers in which readers were asked how they plan to balance family and career.  The respondents were mainly younger scientists, especially postdocs (43%) and graduate students (49%), with a few undergraduates and other.  Nearly half of the respondents “expect/plan to have children while still in training”, and more than a quarter of respondents already have children. About a quarter (24.5%) plan to wait until after their careers are established before having children, and 2% don’t intend to have children. This is encouraging – it shows that most respondents think it is possible to balance a healthy family life with a scientific career.

And finally, I see that at the ACS national meeting this spring in San Fransisco, the Division of Small Chemical Businesses is organizing a symposium entitled “Sustaining a Work-Life Balance”.

It seems like this is an issue that more and more people are willing to talk about.  While the term “work-life balance” was first used in the 1970s, until now it has mainly been an individual, or at most a family, discussion. Balancing the different parts of your life – work, family, friends, hobbies….. – is always a challenge, and something that professionals need to think about from time to time.  While it’s impossible to achieve perfect balance on a daily, weekly, or sometimes even monthly basis, on a longer term basis you should be spending your time and energy on things that matter to you.  If you’re not, perhaps it’s time to think about what you can change to make your actions match your personal values and desires.

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).


Doing Your Due Diligence

October 26, 2009

In a competitive job market, you need to do everything you can to make yourself stand out from other candidates. Especially when you get to the interview stage, you know you are competing against other candidates that are also highly qualified.

So in preparation for the interview, you take your suit to the cleaners, arrange transportation and lodging (if needed), and practice, practice, practice your research presentation.

You’ve heard that you should do some research on the company, so you spend an hour or so looking through their web site, clicking semi-randomly on pages and links that may be of interest.  You don’t learn much, but at least you feel good that you did it.  Right?

I often ask hiring managers what candidates should do that most of them don’t do.  Almost every time, the answer is “do their homework on the company before the interview”.  I’ve had some tell me they want the candidate to know everything that’s on the company web site, and at least one thing that is NOT on the company’s web site.

I was reviewing some industry analysis reports from the financial world today, and it struck me that the questions they proposed for use in evaluating companies for monetary investment were very similar to the ones you might want to ask before a job interview.

  • The first thing you want to research is their products – What specifically do they sell?   (For example, pharmaceutical products can be prescription or over the counter, innovator or generic, and so on)?  What do they currently have on the market, and what is in development?  A company’s products, and its pipeline of future products, are its lifeblood.  A solid pipeline of products is essential for success.
  • Have their past research and development efforts been successful?  What portion of their operating revenues are spent on R&D?  Is that part of the company growing or shrinking?  Research and development are key to finding those new products to fill the pipeline.
  • Have they been involved in any recent mergers, acquisitions, or other partnerships?  While these may increase stock prices, in the short-term they can have a negative impact on employee morale, internal efficiency, and cause customer confusion.  You may not want to discuss this with the interviewer, but you certainly want to keep your eyes and ears open during the day for possible problems.
  • What does their international profile look like?  Have they just opened new facilities overseas?  Have they closed local facilities?  This may indicate long-term stability of the facility at which you are being offered a position.
  • What do their financial statements, or SEC filings, say about their sales growth, profit margins, earnings…?  Are they making capital investments, or maintaining the status quo?  This is further evidence of the company’s long-term strategy and success.
  • What is the background of the company’s managers? You want strong, capable leadership that is knowledgeable in the industry.
  • With whom will you be interviewing, and working? You can ask for a copy of the interview schedule in advance (it’s usually available if you ask), then use Google and LinkedIn and scientific literature searches to learn about their background, interests and experiences.  The more you know about your interviewers, the better questions you can ask, and the more likely you are to connect with them.
  • What is the corporate culture?  If you’re lucky, they publish it right on their web site like Merck does. To ensure long-term satisfaction, you want to work in a corporate culture that is consistent with your values. Values you might want to look for include commitment to innovation, quality, excellence, professionalism, teamwork, diversity, continual improvement, organizational learning, and so on.

Some of these questions you have probably  looked into before you applied for the position (hopefully!).  However, just before the interview is when you really want to make sure you have all the information you need to ask intelligent, probing questions that will allow both you and the company to evaluate your fit for their needs.

The financial/investment community is expert at determining the value of companies, and conducting extensive research and due diligence on specific companies and industries. Their systematic approach to company valuation is exactly what you do before you invest in a company – either with your money, or  with your time by seeking a job there.

This article was written by freelance scientific communication consultant Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press (2006). She blogs on Career Development for Scientists.


What Are The Chickens in Your Life?

October 19, 2009

I recently heard a great story from a friend.  Seems he once had a summer job working on a farm, where some people had the job of moving live chickens from one place to another.  They had to collect 4 live chickens, 2 under each arm, and take them from one place to another.  My friend said that quite often he’d watch someone who got ahold of 4 chickens, started to move them, and then lost control of one chicken and it got away.  In almost every case, they would start chasing after the one they dropped, and in the process they almost always lost control of the other three.  They ended up with no chickens at all, starting all over again.

I have seen people do something similar during the course of their career path.  They have a job they enjoy, that matches their lifestyle and other values, and overall suits them quite well. Then something changes, and the job now has some parts that are not quite so much fun.  In some cases it’s a major change, like re-locating across the country, in other cases it might be relatively minor like now having to write extra reports.  Their first reaction is to jump ship, and start looking for a new position

By just focusing on that one new bad thing, they can lose sight of how good the fit is overall.  In some cases, they go so far as to leave that job for a new one, that may not be as good of a fit overall.  After the initial excitement of the new job wears off, they realize some of that is not as much fun as they thought, and they are off on the hunt again.

It does not have to be this way.  I don’t know anyone who loves every aspect of their job, but most of us realize that it’s the overall fit that is most important.  If we are lucky enough to enjoy what we do on a daily basis, and feel proud of our contributions on a regular basis, we can put up with a little unpleasantness every now and then.

So the next time there is a sudden change at work, stop and think before you react.  Evaluate if this is really a bad thing in the long run, or might it be an opportunity for you to learn a new skill, or grow in another way.  If not, then you can make a change.  If it is, you may find yourself not only with the four chickens you started with, but with something even better.

This article was written by freelance scientific communication consultant Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press (2006).  She blogs on Career Development for Scientists.


Evaluate your Values

August 3, 2009

Over the past several months, many friends and collegues have sent me their resumes, asking for a critical review. The majority had been laid off, and had not updated their resumes in a very long time. In recent weeks, the tide has shifted. I’m now getting more job descriptions with “here’s where I’m applying”, and have noticed an interesting trend in the sought-after positions. A significant number of them are government jobs, or a return to the classroom as a teacher.

This is a significant shift from what I usually see, which is almost all industrial positions. I wonder if this is related to the “current economic conditions” (which we’re all tired of hearing about, I’m sure). As people are forced to downsize, re-evaluate, and re-focus their lives, some are realizing that what they have been doing has not been what they really wanted to do. Many are realizing that they’d rather have a job with more security and less money than a high-paying job that might go away at any time. Government has traditionally been a very stable place to work, and education can also be fairly stable – there will always be a new generation of scientists needing to be taught. As the world in general becomes less secure, many people are looking for more stability in their professional lives.

Security is one of the six values ACS describes when talking to scientists about their careers in the “Planning Your Job Search” workshop. The others are Advancement, Altruism, Autonomy, Balance, and Challenge. Balance is the probably the easiest value to understand as it relates to work. Do you need flexible hours to care for children or elderly parents? Do you need to be able to take time off in the middle of the day and then work late in the evening, or to keep travel to a minimum? Are the family-friendly policies just written on the books, or can employees take advantage of them without being penalized in subtle (or perhaps not so subtle) ways?

The other values are just as important, though perhaps less obvious.

Do you derive great satisfaction from solving difficult, challenging problems but don’t get to do that in your current job? Result: You will be bored.

Do you enjoy working on your own – taking ownership of a project or team, and making decisions to move the project to a successful conclusion – but your current supervisor insists on micro-managing every detail? Result: You will be annoyed.

Many times when you are unhappy at work, it’s because your values and the company’s values (or your supervisor’s values) are not aligned.

Take some time to think about which values are most important to you. Are they being met by your current position? Have your values changed since you started the position? Personal values change over time, but may people fail to notice the gradual shift until a major event (such as a lay-off) forces them to re-evaluate everything.

You can prepare yourself periodically reflecting on your values and how they have changed, as well as how the world in which you live has changed. This will allow you to pro-actively evaluate where you are in your career and set a direction for your future.

This article was written by freelance technical writer Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press (2006).