What Have You Learned Lately?

November 9, 2009

I’m currently sitting in a coffee shop, spending the day working on my laptop.  I’m here waiting for several boy scouts who are attending a Merit Badge University, and learning about Leatherwork, Public Speaking, and Reptile and Amphibian Study, among other things.  As I watched them head off to their respective  classes, it occurred to me how eager they were to learn new things, and explore the world around them.  In their case, if they are successful, they will come back with a completed merit badge to prove they now understand and can execute a whole new set of skills.  More than just a piece of cloth on their uniform, they have confidence in their ability to do and share their new knowledge.

For those of us who a are just a little bit older, it’s not quite so easy.  There are lot of things we want to learn about, but the effort and time commitment to sign up for a formal class is often more than we are willing to expend.

Fortunately, we often acquire new skills and knowledge without formal training, and sometimes without fully realizing what we have learned.  I recently taught a workshop to a group of graduate students, and in talking about resumes was asking them about their professional experience and significant accomplishments.  Several of them told me they didn’t have any work experience  – a statement I hope their graduate advisor would take exception to!

When I started probing, they were almost all able to tell me about something they had done of which they were very proud.  Maybe it was a compound they had synthesized, a particularly difficult analysis they had completed, or in some cases a class they had taught where they felt they really made a difference in the life of a particular student.  In every case, once they started talking about the event, they became animated and their excitement and pride was palpable.  As I asked questions about what they did and what they had learned, they started to realize just how much this particular event had meant to them, and how much they had learned in the process.

Sometimes, we need to step back and think about what we’re done lately, and reflect on what we have accomplished, and/or  learned.  New analytical instruments or tools are usually easy to recognize, but new non-technical skills are sometimes harder to spot.

Take a few minutes over your coffee today to think about what you’ve done lately, and what you’ve learned from it.  Have you given a talk, or written a report?  What did you learn, not only about the subject matter, but about the process and perhaps a better way to prepare for the next time?  Did you recently get through a difficult situation with a co-worker, and what did you learn about how you might handle a similar situation the next time?

Think also about what you haven’t learned, that might make your career better.  Is there some new technique or method that you’ve been meaning to learn, but just haven’t gotten to?  Maybe your last performance review pointed out oral presentation skills as an area in which you could improve.  Set aside a few minutes to read a few journal articles, or find and attend a Toastmaster’s meeting.

Too often we wait for a crisis to force us to take action, when we know we should have done it long ago.  Identifying gaps in your knowledge and addressing them is one of the best things you can do for your professional future.  Exploring new areas on your own prepares you for the future, and lets you move your career in the direction of your choosing, not into areas that others select for you.  You may not earn a merit badge (like both of my scouts did), but you will gain the satisfaction of knowing that your career is moving forward, and you are the one directing it.

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 (2007). She blogs on Career Development for Scientists.

Filling the Employment Gaps in Your Résumé

April 13, 2009

More than 90% of senior executives reported they would be concerned if a job candidate had long involuntary periods of unemployment according to a 2008 survey by placement firm OfficeTeam (Menlo Park, CA). Finding a new job fast, especially in a recession is no easy trick. So what can you do to prevent employment gaps appearing in your employment history?

Resist the temptation to “fudge” your dates of employment by adding a few months to your last job to make the gap disappear, advises Stephen Viscusi, author of the book “Bulletproof Your Job: 4 Simple Strategies to Ride Out the Rough Times and Come Out on Top at Work” (Collins Business, 2008). Potential employers often contact former employers to verify dates of employment. If that information doesn’t match what’s in your résumé, most employers will immediately eliminate you from consideration.

Instead, keep up your skills by taking some courses. For example, if you are an analytical chemist, you might take a short course in a new analytical technique growing in popularity. This could significantly strengthen your position in the job market. You could also take courses to strengthen some of your soft skills or shift your career in a new direction. Online business skills courses from ACS and Harvard Business Publishing can help you do this at www.acs.org/professionaldevelopment.

You could also do some volunteer work in your field. Consider reconnecting with a former research advisor and working in his laboratory. Even if you don’t get paid, you could still work part-time to stay active in the field. Recent graduates might contact former academic research advisors and get permission to take the lead on writing research papers on unreported aspects of their graduate or post-doctoral work. Another possibility is to write a review paper, perhaps with your former research advisor.

Both recent, and not-so-recent graduates, could do volunteer work for the American Chemical Society or other professional organizations. Such work can put you in contact with people who could help in your job hunt. In particular, organizing a symposium could help you contact leaders in your field.

Mid-career chemists with some name recognition in their field could work as consultants. However, this should consist of more than just getting some business cards printed. Potential employers may ask you for the names of some of your clients. If you are consulting, treat it like any other job and list projects and accomplishments on your résumé. A good way to support your part-time consulting is to present papers at conferences and attend local ACS meetings where you can network with potential consulting clients as well as people who could be helpful to your job hunt.

Write a blog that’s related to your field. You could use your blog to support your consulting work. During employment interviews you can point to this as an accomplishment.

A temporary staffing firm can help you find temporary assignments while you’re looking for a full-time job.

Don’t be afraid to include these activities in your résumé and cover letter. Such activities show you have drive, initiative and creativity.

To make these strategies work best, use these ideas as soon as you lose your job or even before.


Full-time science writer John Borchardt is an ACS Career Consultant and certified Workshop Presenter. As an industrial chemist he holds 30 U.S. patents and written more than 130 peer-reviewed technical articles.

What to Do When Your Job Hunt Runs Out of Steam

March 16, 2009

During a long job hunt your search for employment can run out of steam. It may seem like you have contacted every conceivable employer. You can become increasingly frustrated and bored. If you’ve been in the job market for several months, it is time to analyze your job hunt to see how you can energize your search. Questions to consider are:

  • Are you targeting organizations currently hiring chemists?
  • Are your skills and experience a good fit for the type of employers and jobs you are targeting? Do you need to broaden the types of organizations and jobs you target?
  • Do your résumé and cover letter accurately describe your skills and accomplishments?

To deal with these questions, create multiple résumés each targeting a different industry that can use your skills. To discover which industries are most appropriate to target, talk to knowledgeable colleagues in these industries or contact an ACS career consultant (www.acs.org/careers). In particular, consider industries that are still hiring. For example, currently the oil industry appears likely to maintain R&D spending according to a December “Wall Street Journal” report. Read C&EN and business publications to learn about employment trends in various industries. Also, customize your résumé and cover letter for specific job openings with specific companies as you become aware of them.

As you prepare these new résumés, discuss them with ACS career consultants and knowledgeable colleagues to be sure you are using terminology appropriate to each industry and highlighting appropriate skills and aspects of your experience. Some of these contacts can advise you on specific industries and companies to target.

Armed with your new résumés, check out employment opportunities on the Internet. Most companies have career sections on their websites where they post employment opportunities. Check the websites of your target companies frequently. In addition to specialized job boards such as ACS Careers Jobs Database (www.acs.org/careers), check general job boards such as Monster.com and Yahoo! hotjobs. Focus on recently posted job openings because old job posts are usually already filled.

Another question to ask yourself is: Are you networking effectively to identify employment opportunities? Inform former coworkers and college and graduate school friends about your job hunt. Attend ACS local section meetings and other local professional society meetings to make new contacts.

Research new companies potentially coming to your area. Cities often offer companies incentives to move into an area hit by job losses and facility closures. For example, MPI Research, a privately held preclinical drug-testing company in Mattawan, Michigan, has announced plans to create 3,300 jobs over the next five years and move into laboratory and office space once used by Pfizer.

A long job hunt can take a psychological toll. Don’t become isolated from your family, friends or peers. Participate in inexpensive family and professional activities. Even a walk in a park at lunch time can recharge your psychological batteries. With your cell phone you can stay ready to take that employer’s phone call.


Full-time science writer John Borchardt is an ACS Career Consultant and certified Workshop Presenter. As an industrial chemist he holds 30 U.S. patents and written more than 130 peer-reviewed technical articles.

Where are the Chemists? And Where Should You Be?

January 25, 2009

I start each morning by scanning blog headlines, and reading the articles that spark my interest.  One of the chemistry-related blogs I read recently began: “I’m going to write this morning about a question that actually came up among several of us at the train station this morning. I’m on a route that takes a lot of people into Cambridge, so we have a good proportion of pharma/biotech people on board. And today we got to talking about ……” .  

While the technical subject matter of the post was interesting, it was that lead-in that really caught my attention.  I wonder how many professional conversations happen on those trains, and how many connections are made?  Simply by being in a place where chemists are on a regular basis, these commuters are significantly increasing their odds of making valuable professional connections.  

So, what does this mean for you?  Can you put yourself in a place where you can be more easily found, and make connections with others in your profession?  

If you live in an area where mass transit is available, identify stations near centers of high tech or chemical industry. If your regular route takes you through them, start noticing others who ride that route on a regular basis – maybe one of them is carrying a copy of Chemical and Engineering News?  How hard would it be to strike up a conversation by asking if they read the article about ….?  You’ll quickly be able to tell if they’re open to a conversation, by the tone of their voice and their body language as they answer your questions.  The shorter their answers, the shorter your conversation should be. If you both ride on a regular basis, you can build up a relationship slowly over time.

If you don’t take mass transit on a regular basis, can you make other small changes in your routine – for example, work at a coffee shop near a potential employer instead of near your home, or have lunch in a deli near a chemical company?  Especially if you become a “regular” at some of these places, you will become familiar with other regulars, some of whom are bound to work at the nearby chemical companies.  

For example, in my area there is a deli very near a major chemical employer.  During a recent lunch there, a collegue and I were chatting about science, careers, and so on. As we were leaving, a gentleman who had been working at the next table stopped me and said that he couldn’t help overhearing our conversation, and he wondered if I could give him some advice about a project with which he was having trouble.  Of course I was happy to help him out, and gave him some ideas, pointers to some web sites, and my business card. I don’t know if I’ll ever hear from him again, but I’m glad he made the connection.  He got some valuable information, and I got to feel good about helping another person.  

I have also made great professional connections in airport boarding areas, and with people seated next to me on flights to and from national ACS meetings – who very often turn out to be chemists!

Companies do this too.  Check out the company that set up a taco truck across the street from a competitor who was having layoffs to woo potential employees.  

If you haven’t figured it out by now, this whole idea of putting yourself where other professionals are, being open to (and even initiating) is not new.  In fact, it even has a name…….networking.  



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)

Academia to Industry….or the other way around?

January 9, 2009


The January 5th issue of Chemical and Engineering News includes an article about the University of Michigan buying the recently closed Pfizer research facility in Ann Arbor, MI.  The property formerly housed about 2,000 pharmaceutical researchers, and  includes 30 buildings over 174 acres, and decades ago belonged to U of Michigan, who sold it to Parke-Davis, which eventually became part of Pfizer.  The university plans to use the acquisition to provide opportunities for industrial partners, and to that end has already hired 13 former Pfizer researchers.  They “expect to create at least 2,000 jobs over the next 10 years”.  The specific uses of the site will be worked out over the next year or so, but possibilities include expansion space for university researchers, partnering with or providing space for private sector businesses in pharmaceutical, biotech, energy, nanotech, and so on.  

This will not be an overnight process.  In 2007, Yale University made a similar move and purchased 136 acres housing 17 buildings that formerly housed the Bayer HealthCare complex.  So far, they have appointed Michael Donoghue as Vice President of Planning and Program Development.  Over the next three years he will develop the plan for use of the space, and add neighbors for the Institute for High Throughput Cell Biology which is currently located in the facility. Current plans include a mixture of high tech companies, research, and art.  

This is an interesting trend, especially in light of other workplace trends.  We know most chemists are now working for small companies, where they used to work for large companies. We also know that since the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, universities are patenting their ideas, and collaborating with industry to commercialize them much more than they used to.  And now we see that universities are buying formerly commercial labs and using them to house their own research institutes, and to serve as incubators for new, small, high-tech companies.  

This is both good and bad news.  There is still lots of good work being done, it’s just being done in different places. It’s no longer enough to just look at large chemical companies when looking for a job.  Though they’re easy to find, they’re not where most of the jobs are. There are more places to look for work, so finding just the right fit will take more research on your part.  You’ll need to look at small companies, new technology areas, and maybe even academic institutions to find your ideal position.  

As an interesting aside, when I viewed the article on Pfizer selling the site, right next to it was a sponsored ad from Pfizer, advertising their positions available. So even within a single company, opportunities are moving around – changing location, specialty, area of study, and so on. Keeping abreast of, and hopefully ahead of, these changes is crucial to the long-term success of your career.

After all, we all know the only thing that is constant is change.


 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)

Stay Informed: How to Succeed in Today’s Economy

December 15, 2008

How should chemists react to today’s adverse economic news? To protect your career, the first step is to be aware of the economic news and how it could impact your career.  Forewarned is forearmed.


Read your local newspaper’s news and business to learn about events at your employer. “Chemical & Engineering News” and national business publications such as the “Wall Street Journal,” “Business Week,” and “Fortune” can clue you in on broader business news on the chemical industry and other industries employer chemists.


C&EN business news often provides more in depth coverage of the chemical industry than general business publications. For example, a November 24 C&EN article described the adverse effects of the automotive industry slowdown on its chemical suppliers (http://pubs.acs.org/isubscribe/journals/cen/86/i47/html/8647notw1.html). The financial crisis at many lending institutions has resulted in a major housing and business construction slowdown reducing demand for many chemical products. Worried people are spending less on consumer items also reducing chemical demand.


Local publications may provide more depth on local developments than national publications. For example, the December 8 issue of “Wall Street Journal” covered the announcement of Dow’s closure of 20 facilities and the loss of 5,000 jobs worldwide at the firm plus elimination of 6,000 contractor jobs (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122874291029187963.html?mod=testMod). The same day the “Houston Chronicle” carried a story on cutbacks planned for Dow’s big complex in nearby Freeport, Texas providing information on this huge facility not carried by national publications. This bad economic news comes as chemical companies are still repairing and restarting Texas Gulf Coast plants damaged by Hurricane Ike last September.


DuPont, BASF, BassellLyondell, 3M and other employers of chemists are also eliminating thousands of jobs and closing plants.


Have staff reductions spread to industrial laboratories? As of mid-December, little information is available on this concern.


Okay, so now you’re staying abreast of business news in your industry. What’s next?


Determine how you can quickly improve your job security. Rapidly finish project reports so your manager is aware of your recent accomplishments. Submit invention disclosures on your research. Press your patent attorney to convert your invention disclosures into patent applications. Doing so will make her look good too. Evaluate your projects to determine how you can focus your efforts to make a positive impact in the short term.


Review your recent accomplishments. Doing so is useful in reminding your supervisor of your contributions. Also use this information to update your résumé so it is ready to go should you need to job hunt.


To prepare for possible job hunting, assemble a list of candidate employers. Go beyond your current industry and consider what others may be less negatively impacted by current business conditions. Determine what aspects of your skills and accomplishments are most relevant to these industries.


Assemble a list of contacts working in these industries and for potential future employers with whom you can discuss possible employment opportunities and who could provide useful job-hunting advice. Activate your existing professional network and start making new contacts.


Work through the Careers section of the ACS website to get job hunting advice and obtain advice from ACS career consultants (http://portal.acs.org/portal/acs/corg/content?_nfpb=true&_pageLabel=PP_SUPERARTICLE&node_id=1781&use_sec=false&sec_url_var=region1&__uuid=1f4eff7a-215b-4121-894c-171f93b9fbdc) on how to improve your resume.


Losing your job is a traumatic experience. Being prepared to get your job hunt off to a fast start and lessen this trauma and put you on the road to career recovery.


Full-time science writer John Borchardt is an ACS Career Consultant and certified Workshop Presenter. As an industrial chemist he holds 30 U.S. patents and written more than 130 peer-reviewed technical articles.

Hydrogen Bonding and Holiday Bonding

December 8, 2008

In her November 24 blog entry, Liane Gould (Manager, Career Services, ACS) highlights the value of networking and recommends a documentary on network science.  I second her recommendation; “How Kevin Bacon Cured Cancer”  [ can now be found at:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zK1Cb9qj3qQ ]

is a fascinating documentary.  And I highly endorse the concept of networking as central to career development.


However, I can also feel my body tensing up whenever I say or write the word, “networking.” 


If that word—“networking”—pushes you out of your comfort zone, I can relate.  I’m a bit of an introvert, and I’d rather talk in depth to two or three people at a party than chat superficially with everyone in the room.   To put it in terms that a chemist can understand, I believe in a few strong bonds rather than a lot of weak ones.  I’m a “covalent” type of guy.


But I’m also a protein chemist, and my graduate research involved using NMR to investigate protein structure and understand structural fluctuations in solution. I learned that weak bonds and interactions, especially hydrogen bonds, are absolutely essential to the structure and function of enzymes. (Remember that biochem lecture about primary, secondary, and tertiary structure?) 


So what does this mini-lesson in protein chemistry have to do with your career?   


OK, close your eyes.  Then just envision your career as a complex molecule.  You’re going to need plenty of hydrogen bonds, along with those covalent bonds, to stabilize the structure of your career.  Your secondary and tertiary interactions with those around you—in your research group, department, organization, ACS local section, extended family, neighborhood, or social-networking internet community—can help you shape your career. 


And December is the perfect month to put this hydrogen-bond strategy to work. 

With office holiday parties, departmental outings, local section socials, and family gatherings, you’re going to find yourself floating in a sea of potential interactions.  You don’t have to bond covalently with everyone you meet.  Like a protein molecule, be flexible.  Stay open to brief interactions.  Connect with others, even if for just a few minutes.  Exchange some energy and information (i.e., a smile and a business card).


One of the best writing assignments I ever received developed out of a brief, hydrogen-bond-like interaction at a social gathering at an ACS National Meeting.  While grabbing some crackers and cheese at the reception, I introduced myself to a chemist I had never met before.  It turned out that the science writer at this person’s organization had recently retired, and the organization was looking for a new science writer.   Over the next few months, we exchanged business cards, then e-mails, then resumes, and finally writing samples and references.  Soon, I was flying to their headquarters for interviews and, eventually, a fascinating writing assignment.


Networking works

In the coming weeks, as you mix with colleagues, friends, and neighbors in those holiday gatherings, put your hydrogen-bonding skills to work.  (For more examples of how chemists network, see “Networking: How Chemists Form New Bonds,” published originally in Chemistry, Autumn, 2003.) [ http://www.wedincommunications.com/ChemistryAndNetworking.pdf ]


Oh, and here’s one little warning you might want to keep in mind at those office parties.  Carefully monitor your ethanol consumption.  As a protein chemist, I learned that increasing the ethanol concentration of an aqueous solution will destabilize the protein structure. It can even lead to denaturation.  If you’re going to be drinking alcohol at office holiday parties, titrate carefully.

Randy Wedin blogs from Wayzata, MN. After spending a decade working for the ACS and as a Congressional Science Fellow, he launched a freelance science writing business, Wedin Communications (www.wedincommunications.com), in 1992.