Go Put Your Strengths to Work

January 21, 2009

Whether you are starting out in your career, jumping back into the market after being downsized, or considering changing jobs to something better, it is essential to know what you really want. In the book Go Put Your Strengths to Work, Marcus Buckingham offers a six-week, six-step plan for mapping your road to a better career. The first step in the system is to inventory the tasks that make you feel strong—give you energy, as well as the ones that make you feel weak—zap your energy over the course of a week. The inventories of tasks are then further refined to yield strength statements and a list of tasks to stop or curtail. Buckingham points out that just because you do something well doesn’t mean that it should go to the top of your strengths list. Using his process you actually determine the items that you are both good at doing and which you have a passion for doing. It will be these passionate strengths that will make your job worth pursuing. Buckingham also acknowledges that we are not always given the liberty to choose what not to do. However, he outlines plans for transitioning away from these activities where possible.

The entire premise of the book is based on the assumption that we will produce better results, develop our professional aptitudes more quickly, and generally feel better about our situation if we focus on our strengths rather than spending all of our time trying to fix our weaknesses. The systematic method for honing personal preferences outlined in the book also takes away much of the stress and pressure normally encountered in career self-assessments. Online tools and videos are also provided through the simplystrengths.com website using a unique ID code printed inside the book cover. These videos can serve as a comfort and inspiration.

 

I found the book worthwhile and recommended it twice  recently to new graduates who were unsure of where they wanted to go professionally. I am hopeful that you will find the book of use as well.

This article was written by David Harwell, Ph.D., assistant director of the ACS Department of Career Management and Development.

 

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Persistence: 2009 Word of the Year

December 31, 2008

In many ways, 2009 will be a challenging year for each of us in terms of career management and development. Persistence will serve as the key to success.

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘press on’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race”

~ Calvin Coolidge

There is little that is certain about 2009 except that there will be discord in the financial markets. As a result, the workplace will continue to evolve into a new and more stable configuration. Among other things, the second law of thermodynamics states that energy naturally flows from areas of high to low concentration. Unless countermanded by a persistent external force the system will progress to a greater state of disorder—entropy. The governments of the world are currently amassing a response to the financial entropy that is rampant in global markets, but there will be no quick fix. All parties involved will need to doggedly and consistently pursue subsequent solutions to ensure our recovery and success.

Likewise, we must be persistent in our pursuit of personal success. We must be aware of the opportunities and the challenges looming in our future and we must position our selves to our best advantage. When seemingly insurmountable obstacles present themselves, we must either chip through them, tunnel under them, or jump over them. We must be persistent in our resolve to solve the situation.

Growing up in rural west Texas, most of my afternoons and weekends were spent working with my Dad on various outdoor projects. I credit my Mom for these experiences. Her core philosophy was that we could not mess up the house if we weren’t in it, and the chief weapon in her arsenal was a list of to-do items that was a mile long. As a result, Dad and I were in a state of perpetual motion. As it turned out, most of our projects included digging: digging a post hole, tilling a garden, or simply removing rocks from the soil so that plants would grow. In retrospect, I realize that many of my chores were busy work intended to keep me occupied and out of trouble. I also realize that digging was a free activity that could be accomplished with little supervision. But digging holes also taught me a lot about persistence. In west Texas the soil is poor. It is composed of caliches and gypsum. The only way to dig a hole is to chip your way through the calcite deposits found in the soil. Dogged persistence was the name of the game. At the end of the day, we almost always got what we wanted. Another hole would be dug, another fence pole installed, and for my Mom, the house would remain clean.

“I know the price of success: dedication, hard work, and an unremitting devotion to the things you want to see happen.”

~ Frank Lloyd Wright

By committing ourselves to a personal set of goals, we can be successful in the coming year, but there will be challenges. We must resolve to persevere, to find solutions that face our society and to overcome the barriers that we face in our professional lives.

Best wishes to you and yours in the year ahead!

David Harwell is the Assistant Director for Career Management and Diversity Programs at the American Chemical Society.


What’s in It for Me?

June 23, 2008

Many undergraduate chemistry majors will at some time in their careers be faced with the question of whether to get a Ph.D. Reasons for considering this question range from a desire for a higher salary (starting Ph.D.s are paid twice what corresponding B.S. chemists are paid), hope for an academic position (about 25% of all Ph.D.s are at academic institutions), or even for personal reasons. In my case, I was more or less programmed from kindergarten to get a chemistry Ph.D. My father had one, and family urging combined with the push for more science majors after the 1958 Soviet launch of Sputnik really left little room for disagreement. Of course, I had seen, too, the benefits of working in the chemical enterprise, because my father had a very good research position in a small town. He worked in polymer chemistry applied to the development of synthetic textile-fiber products. Our family lived a nice life.

When I enrolled in graduate school in the late 1960s, my classmates and I believed we should choose a major adviser who was in tune with our desire to learn chemistry as a means of having a good middle-class career. We thought that a major adviser would be perhaps not a friend, but at least a mentor, in providing us entry to companies that based their products on science and technology. The adviser would help in the assessment of our talents, guide us in our decision on what chemical subdiscipline would best suit our capabilities, and ultimately shepherd us into the club of Ph.D. chemists.

Safe to say, we were rapidly disabused of that point of view.

Graduate school became for us what it is for many who attend: an overwhelming series of hurdles to be jumped in an effort to avoid failure. There were entrance examinations, 300- and 400-level courses, cumulative exams, and ultimately proposal defenses. Our class of 25 steadily dwindled as individuals left, and slowly those of us who remained began to examine our chosen chemical destiny.

One day, after studying an especially obscure organic reaction mechanism, several of us were sitting around after class with our instructor, who was then an associate professor. I asked if the chemistry department had considered offering graduate students the opportunity to take classes not necessarily in the department but that would be applicable to our future life in the scientific world. Perhaps a polymer course from the chemical engineering department, a finance course or two from the business school, or even an introduction to legal theory for those of us who might want to consider a patent-law career.

The professor answered, “What’s in it for me?”

It was a revelatory moment, for suddenly it was clear that graduate school wasn’t about students at all. It was about professors.

While my graduate-school revelatory experience may have been breathtakingly direct, I suspect it is as true today as it was in the 1970s: what most graduate students study is what is best for their advisers. So my advice to anyone considering a Ph.D. program: first, choose your adviser carefully, and second, recognize that much of the knowledge and skills you will need in your employment will have to be learned on the job or through continuing education programs throughout your career. And wake up to the reality of what Ph.D. degrees really are—a testament to graduate students’ perseverance, not their intellect.

This article was written by Jim Ryan, Ph.D. retired consultant and former Assistant Director of the ACS Continuing Education program. Originally published in the Chemistry magazine, Spring 2007.


Cancer Research Needs Chemists

June 9, 2008

Earlier this year, I attended an unusual meeting in Washington, DC, convened by John Niederhuber, a nationally renowned surgeon, cancer researchers, and the Director of the National Cancer Institute. Dr. Niederhuber, acting on advice from Anna Barker, the NCI Deputy Director who heads the Institutes many new technology initiatives, was interested in finding out if the physical sciences – physics, engineering, mathematics, and particularly chemistry – could contribute to the ongoing War on Cancer.

After two-and-a-half days of discussion, the question was no longer one of “if,” but one of “why,” as in why has the cancer research enterprise waited this long to actively engage chemists and their physical sciences sisters and brothers.

Of course, chemists have long been involved in cancer research, but mainly in a service role synthesizing thousands upon thousands of organic and inorganic molecules for testing as anticancer agents. Then they’ve gotten involved again when it comes time to mass-produce the occassional compound that shows promise and enters human clinical trials.

What the NCI is proposing is a radical change in how chemists and other physical scientists participate in cancer research. Instead of serving the needs of cancer biologists, Drs. Niederhuber and Barker want chemists, physicists, and the like to become drivers of cancer research, to lend a new perspective – an out-of-the-box perspective – to cancer research. Let me put it bluntly – the NCI wants YOU.

Talking with Dr. Barker during the meeting, I was struck with her success in driving home this point to NCI’s leadership. Though an immunologist by training, she has long succeeded as both a scientist and an entrepreneur by looking at a problem and bringing to bear whatever tools and talents were needed to find a solution, and this is another example of an open-mindedness that, should it pervade more of biomedical research would bode well for the future of medicine.

These days, I hear biomedical scientists give lip service to multi-disciplinary science, but for the most part, those same scientists then go back to their academic silos and keep plugging away in their disciplines, attacking what are increasingly difficult research problems using the same approach that they’ve always followed. In the cancer world, this has led to slow, incremental improvements in diagnostics and therapeutics, but face it, that pace isn’t good enough anymore.

Cancer is largely a disease of older age, and the population of the developed world is aging. Without a radical improvement in the way we diagnose and treat cancer, this collection of diseases will eclipse heart disease as the leading killer, with huge economic costs.

The National Cancer Institute knows this, and that realization is driving world’s largest funder of cancer research to seek revolutionary, not evolutionary, advances. It is that sense of urgency that prompted the NCI to lead the way in funding a huge initiative in biomedical nanotechnology, an effort that has already begun drawing chemists into the cancer research fold.

Kudos to the NCI for doing more than just talking about multidisciplinary research. The NCI is calling – will the chemistry community answer that call?

This article was written by Joe Alper, a freelance science writer and technology analyst in Louisville, CO, who writes frequently for the ACS journal Analytical Chemistry.


Political Chemistry

May 27, 2008

I’ve never wanted to be “The Guy.” You know, the person sitting behind the desk where the buck stops. No, I’d rather be “The guy who makes The Guy (or The Gal) look good.” I’d rather be the wise counselor than the public face, the source of information rather than the mouthpiece.

 

Understanding the difference between being the “Big-G guy/gal” and the “little guy/gal” is important to finding peace and satisfaction in whatever career path you choose. If you strive to be the Big G, you’ll need to cultivate your networking and public speaking skill. You’ll need to develop a thick skin and the ability to delegate authority and resist the temptation to micromanage. You’ll want to insinuate yourself with the powerful in your field, and at your company or university, and you’ll most certainly need to fine-tune your political senses.

 

None of that is for me, which is why I’m a little g-type guy. Instead of learning the fine details of networking and schmoozing, I’ve focused on developing my research skills; when the Big-G wants information, she always wants it sooner rather than later. And forget about delegating authority – little g’s take responsibility and run with it.

 

I’ve found myself thinking about this lately because recently someone asked me if I’d be interested in running for our local school board. This person thought my background as a scientist and my understanding of many things technical would add an important perspective to a school board filled with business folks and lawyers and former liberal arts majors.

 

I considered this offer for about 20 microseconds before declining, because I know in my heart that I’m a”little g”, and elected office is not for me. But I also threw in that if the school board was ever in need of an advisor on science and technology issues, I would jump at the opportunity to serve my community in that way.

 

So what does that have to do with careers and chemistry? Bear with me.

 

Nearly 32 years ago, on a frigid Friday afternoon over a beer at the Badger Tavern in Madison, WI, one of the wisest people I’ve known was commenting on recent inauguration of Jimmy Carter as the 39th President of the United States.

 

In response to a wisecrack about how amazing it was that someone with a bachelor’s degree in science and a former nuclear engineer was about to become the President, Heinrich Schnoes, now an emeritus professor of biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin, said in his typical droll way, “Just think how much better off this country would be if 50% of the members of Congress had science degrees instead of law degrees.”

 

Indeed!

 

As much as I’d like to see more scientists and engineers run for Congress, I doubt that’s going to happen any time soon, and I think it’s because the vast majority of scientists and engineers that I’ve known are “little g’s”, not “Big G’s”.

 

But there are huge opportunities today for technically-minded “little g’s” to make a career as a science advisor to all those politically minded “Big G’s” out there. If that’s something that appeals to you, both in terms of intellectual curiosity and the ability to influence public policy without having to run for office, this is the time to approach your local candidates to see if you can help the one from your favored political party.

 

“Little g’s” of the world unite! We can – and do – make a difference.

 

This article was written by Joe Alper, a freelance science writer and technology analyst in Louisville, CO, who writes frequently for the ACS Journal of Analytical Chemistry.


Finding Your Career Guru

May 14, 2008

Coach, advocate, champion. They are best-known as mentoring.  Whatever name you put to it, a mentor can be the most important asset in your arsenal for career advancement.  So, what is mentoring?   

The US Department of Labor’s Dictionary of Occupational Titles “asserts  that mentoring is the most complex type of human interaction, being more complex than teaching, counseling, supervising or coaching.”  

Reading this can scare anyone and about now you are thinking of the lateral move to putting the whole idea aside.  Before you put this one aside, let’s let the numbers convince you.  Fran Sepler, president of Sepler & Associates Inc., an organizational development firm in Minnesota, noted that “of the 1,200 top managers in Fortune 500 firms, two-thirds say they utilized mentoring relationships at some point in their careers.“  

Sepler went on to say that “there is a direct correlation between soaking up knowledge from a mentor and reaching a higher level of compensation and more promotions.”   If your career is stagnant and needs a little assist, finding a mentor may be the way to go.

Your company may have a mentoring program, so check with your Human Resource Department.  If not, here are some tips to help you get started.   

Before you commit to a long-term relationship, let’s define traits you should look for when selecting a mentor.  The Dreyfus Model for Becoming an Expert in a Dedicated, Focused Field” describes five levels of characteristics of a mentoring from expert to novice.   For our purpose, let’s look at the top three tiers:

Expert         Has at least 10 years focusing on a field.  Experience is broad and deep.  Aware of important variables in any new situation.  Able to use different paradigms and heuristics to solve problems quickly and creatively.  Reflective practitioner who self-assess what works and doesn’t.   Engages in “forward” reasoning to solve a problem.  Typically, this person developed the rules that serve a Guiding Principles to prevent problems and enhance success.    

 Proficient  Has at least 5 years in field, with some varied experiences.  Still “rule-bound” to other people’s rules when solving problems.  Becoming a reflective practitioner. 

Competent Has repeated experience doing the same thing.

When on the hunt for your next “career guru,” you may want to target a person that emulates the top tier.  Picking the friendly guy that hangs out at the water cooler just won’t cut the mustard.  You need to look for someone who is proactive in both criticism and support, and will be more challenging in helping you reach your goals.

Some mentoring relationships occur naturally with a person you “click” with and these can be the best.  A priority is to find a mentor who has the time, personality and talent to educate.  Look around your social or professional circles.  You may be drawn to someone similar in age, gender, race and experience. 

But these may not be the best pick.  You may have to look outside your comfort zone.  The ideal age difference is around 15 years with greater experience and is an “Expert” in the areas you want to pursue.   You may not be able to find every trait you want in one person.  Consider having more than one mentor, especially if you have varied interests and/or are highly specialized. 

Once you have that person(s) on board with you, both parties need to outline expectations.  Don’t be afraid to utilize this relationship to its fullest potential.  Use the mentor for long-term development that will have sustainability for your careers.  Mentors have a life-cycle so don’t cling too tightly.  As you grow and develop so should your network and one day you may find yourself in the “Career Guru” hot seat.   Anyone out there have a mentor or thinking of pursuing this avenue?  I would love to hear your experiences.

This article was written by Liane H. Gould, Manager of Career Services of the ACS Department of Career Management and Development.

 


Creating your Own Vacancy

April 30, 2008

What do you see for your future?  Will you be doing this same job until the grim reaper comes knocking at your door?  I have heard many stories out there of people meeting their maker shortly after retirement.  The most recent was a gentleman who had a heart attack at his work station with his co-workers taking a week to notice that he had passed.    Apparently his co-workers said that he worked long hours and it wasn’t out of the ordinary for him to be sitting there for hours on end in the same position.  Yeaks!!!  Is that you?

The late billionaire, James Goldsmith coined the phrase, “When a man marries his mistress, he immediately creates a vacancy.”  What’s true with philanderers can sometimes be true in life.  The question is, “How do you want to create your vacancy?”  I prefer to do it on my own terms.  I believe it is never too late to start thinking about what one wants to do in their later years.   Baby Boomers are redefining the term “Retirement”, with people living longer and healthier lives, the opportunities are endless. 

Take a moment to visualize what you want for yourself.  What do your “retirement or later years” look like?   As a career coach, I have worked with many people over the years that were faced with this very question and for many it was a painful process. I counseled a gentleman who was a Director of Marketing at a large high-technology firm and laid-off.  For a long time he walked around with an air of anger and resentment at his former employer.  With many months of soul searching, he came to the realization that he wanted to do something completely different from what he did in the past. He wanted to incorporate his passion which was to make sure he was the first scheduled on the green for “tee” time.  He took a position as a part-time facilities manager with afternoon hours so he could do what he loved — golf every morning. 

The point I am trying to “drive home” is to start preparing now for what is the inevitable.  Take the steps now to make sure you are “living out your dream”.   Many people are taking their hobbies and interests and turning them into their next careers.  Start preparing now so you can be agile for whatever life may send your way.  Think about what you want your “retirement” to look like.  Could it be another career?  If this is the case, then do you have the skills you need?  Do I have to go back to school or get additional training?  What do you need to do to prepare financially?  Start building the foundation for what you want.  It’s time to take charge of your own destiny and define how you are going to create your own vacancy.    

This article was written by Liane H. Gould, Manager of Career Services of the ACS Department of Career Management and Development.