Coping with Job Stress

May 19, 2014

The alarm goes off. Another day in the pressure cooker of work has begun. And there are only 24 hours to get more done today. If your mornings begin with the panic of job-related stress and a feeling of being overwhelmed, it’s time to implement some simple strategies for stress reduction. Stress is defined as a state of bodily or mental tension resulting from factors that tend to alter an existent equilibrium. This definition is vague, and for good reason. Stress is personal. The factors that disrupt one person’s “equilibrium” may be exactly what motivates another person. In other words, stress exists because you perceive it to exist. No one is injecting you with stress or slipping it into your morning coffee – you are fueling it. And that’s great news, because you can learn to manage it.

Take Control

The American Institute of Stress has determined a close connection between perceived stress and perceived control. People feel stressed when they feel a lack of control over a situation. Are there ways that you could gain more control over your job tasks, your work environment, your schedule, etc.? Certain factors of your job may be fixed, with little potential for more control. Look for opportunities to expand your control, and talk to your manager about ways that you could be more independent. Implementing control in your personal life can also reduce job stress. Simple changes like establishing a consistent workout schedule or focusing on eating a healthy diet can provide a sense of control and reduce stress. Look for any goal that you can work toward, whether job-related or not.

Focus on the Positives

There is a reason why people get paid to do their jobs. It is work, and it won’t always be enjoyable. Recognize and accept that there will be aspects of your job that you don’t like. Then stop focusing on those factors! Focus on the positive aspects of your job. This sounds obvious, but when you’re feeling stressed it’s easy to get caught up in the negatives. Start catching yourself when you think about something negative, and then redirect your thoughts back to something positive or encouraging. Over time, positive thoughts will become the default.

Maintain a Realistic Perspective

It’s only a job, after all. You don’t literally have the weight of the world on your shoulders. If you question the previous statement, you have an unrealistic perspective that allows stress to dominate your thoughts. Use stress as it is best used – as motivation. Feel the pressures of your tasks and deadlines, and then get busy and work hard. Don’t validate an unrealistic perspective by worrying about how you will reach impractical goals; instead, focus on what you have accomplished at the end of the day.

Don’t be a Work-aholic

It may seem like working endless hours is the only way to relieve the stress of a demanding job. If you do this, you will never feel “caught up” and stress-free. You will only be allowing job-related stress to enter into your personal time and overtake your life. Working late for an occasional project is one thing, but when long hours become status quo, stress is amplified. For most people, there is a point at which working longer does not correlate to significantly greater productivity. In other words, there is a point of diminishing returns. For me, this happens after about 9 or 10 hours of focused work. If I continue to work another few hours, there is not much to show for it. Recognize when your productivity starts to fade, and take that as your sign to call it a day. Go home, stop working, stop stressing, and enjoy life outside of work. After all, isn’t that why we work – to support and benefit our personal lives?


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.


Where do you see yourself in five years?

May 12, 2014

This can be a tough question to answer in an interview or when your manager is talking to you about career development. What they really want is not an in depth look at the future you envision for yourself but to see how well your short and medium term goals match up to what your employer can provide for you and needs from you. Beyond a well crafted reply in interviews and annual reviews, its helpful for you to determine a five year plan for yourself. Before you can answer the question, you need to create a five year plan for yourself.

Five years is a good time frame for planning. Its not too far off into the future where its hard see how you will get there but its a long enough time to accomplish a bigger goal or two. Laying out a concrete plan helps make you accountable to yourself and brainstorming ways to make them happen will you help to actually start accomplishing them.

-Think about where you want to be five years. What will your life look like? Where will you be in your career? What do you want to accomplish?

Make these goals demanding but attainable. If the goals are too demanding you may end up discouraged before you even start. The goals should be challenging, if they are too easy for you to accomplish, you may feel bored with the process and are not moving towards the place you really want to be.

-Sort your goals according to priority. What is really important? What things would be nice to accomplish but do not feel necessary to you?

Label the goals you would most like to meet ‘A’ goals. Goals that you want to accomplish but are less important are ‘B’ goals. ‘C’ goals are things that would be nice to do but not important. Really think about what you care about and what is important when you are prioritizing. Make sure to sincerely rate these goals; this is your list and should reflect your own needs and preferences.

-Think of ways to accomplish each goal. What are different paths you can take to meeting that goal?

Take one goal at a time and write down any way you can think of to make it happen. Do not worry if you end up with a few silly or implausible ideas. Sometimes a silly idea can spark another great idea; do not waste time censoring yourself and just go with it.

-Once you finish your list of ways to meet a goal, rate them from ‘A’ to ‘C’ again. ‘A’ being the most useful or important and ‘C’ being the least helpful. Go through the list of ideas for each goal and sort them this way.

-Rewrite your goals and the ways you plan to accomplish them.

Look over your five year plan to make sure it reflects how you envision your life in the next five years. Make sure to revisit your plan now and then to see if you are working towards you are still working towards your goals. Update or make new plans as things change. Be flexible. As you start accomplishing your goals, you will surely find new things you want to do or change your mind on how important a goal is to you over time. A trusted mentor-it could be someone at work, or a former teacher or a current co-worker-may be able to help you see how realistic your goals are and may help generate new ideas on how to meet them.

Now that you have your own five year plan, you can share the relevant parts of it during an interview or annual review. An interviewer or your manager does not need to know every detail of your 5 year plan. Make sure to discuss the relevant parts of your plan with him or her but feel free to leave out some of your personal goals.

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

And Today’s Speaker is….

May 5, 2014

Chemical professionals are used to presenting their work at seminars and conferences. They spend hours preparing content and practicing wording, until everything is perfect. But when it comes to introducing other speakers, many people give very little thought to what they will say until they actually step on stage.

As the host, it is your job to get the attention of the audience, build anticipation, and spark interest in what the speaker has to say. You want to prime the audience, to give the speaker the best possible chance of success. Below are some tips to help you do just that.

Do Your Homework

Start well ahead of time, by asking the speaker for their bio and CV or resume. Visit their professional web page, and learn about their work and institution. Ask them to pronounce their name, and repeat it back. Make sure you have the title of their presentation exactly right, it is has not changed, and that you know how to pronounce everything.

Prepare the Content

If the audience is not familiar with you, briefly state your name and your role, then quickly move to your introduction of the speaker, emphasizing

their connection with this organization or event, their credentials, and their topic. Don’t repeat a laundry list of all their awards, accomplishments and education, just enough to intrigue the audience and convince them that this person is uniquely qualified to speak on this topic to this audience. Don’t give an outline of the talk, or set up unrealistic expectations.

Once you have your introduction written, run it by the speaker. They may have newer information to add, or prefer that something be omitted.

Set the Tone

Your introduction should match the formality and length of the main presentation, generally 1-2 minutes for short presentations. If the speaker is giving an hour-long talk, your introduction can be a little longer, and may include your personal connection to the speaker. Humor is occasionally appropriate, but if you’re not sure, omit it.

As your introduction builds to a climax, you should draw attention to the speaker by looking directly at them, end with “and I am pleased to present Dr. David Tennant”, and get off stage immediately. If you are introducing a series of speakers in a symposium, make sure to use the same level of formality for each – don’t call some “Dr. Thomas Baker” and others “Clara”.

Learn the Material

While it’s okay to use notes, there’s nothing more boring to the audience than a speaker reading directly from a piece of paper – unless it’s reading what is already printed in the program. As when you are the presenter, smile, stand up straight, and speak loudly, clearly, and with enthusiasm.

By the end of your introduction, the audience will know that this is the only speaker who could address their need to know about this topic, and they will be anxious to hear what she has to say. An eager audience is the best gift you can give a guest speaker, and mastering this art will go a long way towards enhancing your professional reputation.

Get involved in the discussion

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

Have Job, Will Travel

April 28, 2014

Many jobs include a travel requirement, which is often listed in the job description as one of the following percentages: 10%, 25%, 50%, and 75%. If you haven’t done much traveling for work, it can be difficult to know what you are comfortable with and what to expect from a job with a large travel requirement. Unlike a job that does not require travel, a job with a large travel component will greatly affect others in your life, such as a spouse or significant other, children, friends, and pets. You should weigh the pros and cons with those whose input is valuable to you, and then make the decision that works for your lives.

I have had jobs that were 10% and 25% travel, and I recently made the decision to take a new position that is 50-75% travel. Below are the main pros and cons based on my experience and my perspective.


Flexible schedule. If the job requires significant travel (50% or greater), there is a good chance that you will have an extremely flexible schedule. Because you may be departing or arriving at all hours of the day or night, you probably won’t have the standard schedule requiring a specific start time for the work day. You will likely have great flexibility to work when you want and break when you want, and you may even be able to work from home when you’re not traveling. This autonomy is a much-appreciated pro for me. It allows me to work when I am most productive and tailor my work day around my natural motivated/relaxed times.

Compensation. Most jobs that require significant travel also come with relatively higher salaries. There are often other benefits for those who do business on the road, including smart phones, laptops, iPads, and a car allowance if a personal car is used for business travel. In addition, points programs for flying, rental cars, and hotels add up quickly. These “perks” are not gifts from the company, because they are needed to enable work. However, they are also available for personal use, and the monetary value is not insignificant.

Travel. It may sound strange, but for some, the travel itself is a pro. Many people dream of traveling, and a job can offer the opportunity to see places you might not get to see otherwise. This can be particularly true for jobs that involve international travel. If you plan it just right, you can even piggy-back a personal vacation after business travel and have a spouse or friend join you on a trip.

Time goes fast. Compared to my previous jobs, which involved working in labs, offices, or cubicles, the time goes by much faster when I am traveling. There is never a dull moment or a chance to be bored. When I am on the road and I ask myself “would I rather be at my cubicle today?”, the answer has always been “no!”.

Long hours. Traveling, whether by plane or car, can consume the better part of the day. When you get to the hotel, you still have to catch up on emails, phone calls, or work on that presentation or report. The work day isn’t done just because you spent eight hours traveling. Thus, travel days can often be 16-hour days.

Working weekends. Many travel plans require that you leave home on Sunday and/or return home on Saturday in order to get where you need to be for the work week. I can’t remember the last time I didn’t work on the weekend. Sometimes it’s just a couple hours of emailing, and other times I’m gone the entire weekend.

Dynamic schedule. Travel plans are always being made and being changed. Thus, it is difficult to make personal plans, such as vacations or appointments that are scheduled months in advance. Many reservations and appointments will be canceled, rescheduled, and the cycle repeats.

Administrative tasks. Unless you are fortunate enough to have an administrative assistant, a significant portion of your time will be spent scheduling flights, hotels, meetings, etc. Then, all your expenses will need to be entered into expense reports. The time spent on these tasks adds up quickly.

If you are considering a job that requires travel, be sure you understand the details of the travel requirements and the compensation package. Discuss the options with those in your life who would be affected, and make the decision together. Nothing is set in stone – if you try something new and it’s not for you, there are other opportunities. Your career will likely be the sum of many experiences.


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.




Making the Most of Your Review

April 21, 2014

It’s that time of year when many people will be having their annual review with their managers. For some, it may be exciting to hear what their raise is or learn whether they have received a promotion. Others may dread receiving criticism or being reprimanded for poor performance. Whatever the case may be, everyone should strive to get the most out of the annual review process. It is a time to reflect, redirect, and look to the future. There are simple things you can do to prepare for an effective and valuable review.


Each year, you should document your achievements throughout the year. Don’t assume that your manager will remember or even be aware of everything you do. Keep track of all significant contributions, especially those that extend beyond your job requirements or goals. Providing this to your manager will also help him or her prepare for the review, and it shows that you are focused on your own performance.


Look back at the year and think about what you liked, disliked, excelled at, and struggled with. This will help you identify your skills and weaknesses, as well as reveal which challenges excite you. And that will help you determine where you want your career to go.

Review your manager

The review should be a conversation that goes both ways. Any manager worth their title should be open to listening to your opinion about how the two of you can work together more effectively. Think about the ways in which he or she has helped you reach your goals, as well as what could be done to increase your motivation or productivity. My manager always asks what he can do differently ­– what do I like about our interactions and also what is not helpful. It can be a difficult question to answer, but it also gives you a chance to see things from a manager’s perspective. They have to be prepared to provide constructive criticism and suggestions for improvement, and you should be ready to do the same if requested.

Check your ego

Unless you are absolutely perfect, there is always room for improvement. It is part of your manager’s job to identify ways you can improve and then deliver that message to you. Be prepared to listen to criticism and take in all in without responding defensively. If something annoys you or you disagree, give it a minute to sink in. Then, ask for more explanation. You may find that you and your manager were not on the same page regarding your priorities. Ask questions until the other perspective is clear, and then discuss any issue that still bothers you. Remember that giving criticism can be just as hard, if not harder, than receiving it.

Shape your future

How would you change your job? What do you think your goals should be? Tell your manager how you think your time is best spent. If a more flexible schedule would improve your productivity, say so. If you want to delegate certain tasks to redirect your time on other priorities, make a suggestion. Your goals and objectives for each year don’t have to be handed to you; they can be something you help shape and define. It’s your job – show an interest. Your initiative will be noticed.


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.





Chemistry Lessons from Art

April 14, 2014

In the past year, I have had the opportunity to visit two different art museums, and see in person paintings that I have admired in reproductions for a very long time. In one case the painting was physically much larger than any reproduction I had ever seen, in the other case the original version was tiny, but both made a big impression. In each case, I was struck by how much more wonderful the real thing was. The colors were more vibrant, the detail more apparent, and they pulled me in, as the reproductions did not.

The same thing can happen with a new job, or a career transition. You think you know what it’s going to be like, but until you’re actually in it you don’t know for sure. The closer you can come to actually doing the tasks the job requires, the less of a shock you will be in for when you get started.

So what can you do to experience the job before you begin it?

The easiest way is by reading about your potential new career. Check out the relevant professional society web site, and career web sites like College to Career ( or Make sure what you’re reading is current and still relevant – science changes fast, and what was sufficient background or education may not be any more. For example, regulatory affairs jobs used to be filled by internal candidates who moved over from the lab and learned on the new job. Now, there are many degree programs in this field, and employers are looking for experienced candidates.

The next step would be find someone who has the job you are interested in, and talk to them about what it’s really like. You can ask them what they do on a daily or weekly basis, what skills and training is needed, what other things wish they had, and where they see the future of this particular career. You’re not asking for a job, just trying to learn what it would be like.

If you talk to several people and are more convinced than ever that this is the right place for you, it’s time to preparing yourself to move in that direction. Take a class at a local college or on-line, ideally one with lots of hands-on activities and projects. Not only will this give you a better understanding of the details of how things are done, but it will demonstrate to potential employers that you are serious about the move.

If you’re still in school, look for internships or co-op positions that will let you work closely with people doing this job, so you can observe them on a regular basis.

If you can’t get a paying position, is there a volunteer job that will let you practice this new skill? For example, if you want to move into management, maybe you need to volunteer to organize a large event, which will require you to supervise others motivate them to help realize your vision.

If you can’t find an official position, you can create your own project. If you want to learn how to program databases, you could build a database system to track all your music. Even if you’re the only one who will use it, doing a real project (with real deadlines) will provide real experience, and give you something to talk about in interviews.

At some point you will take the plunge, and move into the new field. Hopefully, you will be sufficiently prepared and pleasantly surprised when the real thing turns out to be even better in person – and you can turn it into your own work of art.


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.


Where Do You Fall?

April 7, 2014

These days you are probably working with at least one person whose background is very different from yours.  They may act differently, make different assumptions, and maybe even make you uncomfortable. By realizing that there is a range acceptable behaviors, and learning where you prefer to be within that range, you can help yourself manage your expectations and work productively across cultural boundaries.

Communication Styles

Do you prefer to be loud and direct, or are you more soft-spoken and deferential?  Do you address every member of a team, or only negotiate with the senior person?  Do you consider feelings when making decisions, or only objective facts?  In many cultures, people are loath to say “no”, or sometimes even to use negative language.   For example, you need to know if your boss’ comment that you “think some more about that idea” means you should keep developing it, or that it’s a bad idea and you should move on to something else .  Sometimes this means asking for specific clarification, maybe even pushing for it, other times it means couching your own responses in terms that will make it more palatable for the other person.


How important is punctuality and planning?  In some cultures schedules are inviolate, requiring precise punctuality and significant advance planning.  In others, meeting times are only a suggestion, and arriving hours late is perfectly acceptable.  It’s best to begin in a new are by always being punctual, and relax later as local custom allows.

Timelines also differ. English-speaking people will put the past on the left, Arabic-speaking people on the right, and Mandarin-speakers put it on the bottom.  When you’re creating graphics for a diverse audience, make sure labels are clear so everyone can follow.


When you meet a new group, do you assume the person in charge is the oldest (most experienced), male, most educated, best dressed…..It may be just the opposite.  Don’t make assumptions about relative ranking based on ideas from your own background.  Treat everyone with respect – which includes using their title and surname until invited to do otherwise.

Similarly with clothing – if you’re not sure what to wear, err on the side of formality.

Mixing Business With Pleasure

Do you prefer to get right down to work and keep business relationships professional, or do you want to make friends with your co-workers?  In some cultures negotiations are all about business, in others a significant amount of socializing between the parties is expected before business begins.  And in some cultures, negotiations continue even after the contract is signed. Knowing what is standard, and thus expected, in that culture can help avoid surprises.

In the end, culture is not just geographic.  No matter where you are from or where you are working, your style will differ from your colleagues in many ways, sometimes to the point where one or more people are uncomfortable. Realizing that there are many ways to get to the same endpoint, and asking for clarification when needed, can help you reach a middle ground where both parties are comfortable, and you can then focus on the work at hand.


Get involved in the discussion

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