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.

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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.

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Technology Changes Everything – Including Interviewing

February 8, 2009

As a candidate, you need take advantage of every possible way to sharpen your interview skills, and make sure you are presenting yourself in the best possible way. Many career advisors recommend practicing answers to standard questions out loud, in front of a mirror or with friends. While this is a good start, how much better would it be if you could replay your answers for yourself?

Fortunately, technology has come up with a way for you to do that. Video cameras are so inexpensive now, it’s very easy to get one and record your answersto standard questions. You can then review the recording, and practice until you like what you see.

Many college career centers are using this technology. Their students are able to video themselves interviewing from their dorm rooms, using the webcams that are now standard on many laptop computers. They can practice at any time, and use a web interface to instantly replay, evaluate, and practice their answers. At some schools, students can email the video to their career counselor, who can provide advice on body language, content, and the number of “um”s. Not only wording, but body movement, facial expressions, and other non-verbal messages can be reviewed and critiqued.

Being able to practice your communication skills, and see how you appear to others, can give you a big advantage. All this practice not only makes perfect, but it also builds confidence. A significant part of the interview process is watching how the candidate deals with stress. By practicing, you build your confidence and comfort level, so you appear much more relaxed when you get to the actual interview.

Companies are starting to embrace video interviewing as well. Being able to interview candidates at a distance is a tremendous cost-cutting device, allowing companies to eliminate non-viable candidates without airfare and hotel bills. Only the best candidates are brought on-site for final interviews and to sell them on the company.

In one scenario, a third party interviewing company sends the candidate a webcam and detailed instructions on how to set it up, along with contact information in case of technical problems. When the candidate is ready to begin, the questions appear. The candidate has a set amount of time to read/watch the question, then answer on camera. The candidate can rehearse as many times until comfortable with the final submission. Employers are looking not only for technical skills along with the highly valued soft skills. If you display promise in both areas then you could get the prized face-to-face interview. This could give you the advantage you need.

When recording an interview, there are several things to keep in mind. Make sure you have a quiet location with no background noise, and ideally a blank or visually boring wall behind you with no inappropriate items in view. Dress professionally, just as you would for an in-person interview. You never know what will show up on camera, and it will make you feel more professional.

As more and more organizations start to use this technology, your familiarity with it can only help you. And who knows, you may become a YouTube star! ACS is paying attention to this growing trend, so stay tuned for announcements of new developments in this area.

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).

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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.  

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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)


Career Advice Nuggets on the Web

July 28, 2008

When I started contributing this blog a few months ago, I did what was intended to be a one-time Google search to see what bloggers were offering regarding career advice. I was astonished by the fact that there were over 1 million hits on “career advice blogs” and nearly 8 million hits on “career advice,” but I was and continue to be surprised by the fact that among the great heaps of drivel – “get a job that you like,” offered one oh-too-serious blogger; “remember to dress for success,” offered another – there are a few nuggets that I found. I thought I’d pass along some of my favorites.

 

Monster.com’s career advice blog (http://monster.typepad.com/) is generally excellent, as you might expect from the Web’s leading job search Web site. One recent entry (July 11, 2008), “The Right Way to Leave a Job,” struck a cord because of this sentence:

“The way you leave a company says as much about your caracter and the kind of employee you are than all of the work you did during your time with the organization.”

 

If you’ve ever been to a networking type function and find that the next day you can’t remember if Bob from DuPont was the guy who liked to fish or if was Linda from Dow, the May 22 entry on the same blog offers some great advice that I’m going to use in the future.

 

Never having had a pointy-haired boss, I sometimes find Dilbert a little unbelievable, but Scott Adams offered some great career advice on the Dilbert blog last June (http://dilbertblog.typepad.com/the_dilbert_blog/2007/07/career-advice.html). In particular, this nugget stayed with me:

“If you want an average successful life, it doesn’t take much planning. Just stay out of trouble, go to school, and apply for jobs you might like. But if you want something extraordinary, you have two paths:

1. Become the best at one specific thing.
2. Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things.”

For me, I was better than most people at learning and understanding science (but not at working in the lab) and at writing. What are your two great skills and how can you use them to craft an interesting and rewarding career?

 

For the ultra-competitive among you, the Brazen Careerist blog offers this tongue-in-cheek advice (http://blog.penelopetrunk.com/2006/06/13/improve-your-career-by-moving-the-candy-dish/):

“Now you can blame your co-worker for your tanking career and science will support you: A candy dish at work can make you fat. But a candy dish that is more than 6 1/2 feet away from you will be less tempting. Measure your co-worker’s dish. If it’s too close, move it every morning before she gets in. She’ll never notice.”

 

And finally, I’d like to point you to a new blog that I stumbled on recently. The Alternative Scientist blog (http://alternative-scientist.blogspot.com/) discusses alternative and mainline career options for scientists. The July 20 posting, for example, presents a great description of the types of jobs available in the pharmaceutical industry, while the July 15 posting talks about the basic of networking, a foreign concept to many of us. Check it out.

 

This article was written by Joe Alper, a freelance science writer, technology analyst, and admitted hardcore Web searcher in Louisville, CO.

 

 

If you would like to be a contributor, please email Liane Gould at L-gould@acs.org

 


Being “The Best” Isn’t Always The Best Recipe for Success

July 14, 2008

Albert Einstein. Pablo Picasso. Willie Mays. Michael Jordon. Viswanathan Anand. Most every Nobel Laureate. These luminaries succeeded in their respective fields by being the best at something.

 

But as I keep telling my 13-year-old, being the best is not necessarily the best path to success.

 

I wouldn’t say that I’ve ever been the best at anything, but most everyone I know says I’ve had a very successful career at a science writer. Certainly, I’ve managed to thrive in my adopted career despite the ups and downs of the journalism business, even as long-time colleagues – many better writers than I’ll ever be – have been forced to change professions as magazines and newspapers went out of business or dramatically pared their staffs. What’s helped me is that I’m very good at a writing for a wide variety of media and for a variety of audiences.

 

I have a cousin who’s a synthetic organic chemist, and he’s been at one large chemical company over 30 years now. Every time his company announces another reorganization or wave of layoffs, I expect to hear that he’s looking for a job, but he’s never the one to receive a pink slip. Why? He’s not the best synthetic organic chemist in the world, or even in his company, but he’s very good at it, and he’s demonstrated that his knowledge is general enough that he can adapt to any new project thrown his way.

 

My wife, known in her field as the Monoclonal Queen, was certainly one of the best at making monoclonal antibodies to virtually any protein, but that only helped her career to a limited extent. When her small startup merged with a larger biotech company, which was subsequently bought by an even bigger one, her skills were less valued. Eventually, being the best at making monoclonal antibodies was something she could be proud of, but it ended up doing nothing for her career prospects with her new bosses. So much for being the best.

 

I have a friend who was among the best glycobiologists around when we were finishing graduate school. Fat lot of good it did him, because nobody at the time gave a hoot about glycobiology, and for a while it looked as if he was destined to be a career postdoc. What saved his career was that with each postdoc position he took, he became good at another area of biochemistry, and eventually, he was well-rounded enough to secure a faculty position. Of course today, glycobiology is a hot field and my friend’s expertise there serves his well now, but what’s really distinguished his career to far is his emphasis on chemistry and cell biology approaches – things at which he’s good, but not the best – to the field of glycobiology.

 

The lesson here, I think, is not to stop trying to be the best – I would never discourage anyone from that goal. Instead, I advise students that while striving to be the best that they not forget to become very good at more than one thing. If your very good at being a chemist and very good at communicating what you do – or very good at understanding the business or legal side of the research world – you’ll increase your odds of career success.

 

This article was written by Joe Alper, a freelance science writer and technology analyst in Louisville, CO.  


What Does My Dog Have To Do With Anything?

July 7, 2008

I was interviewing recently with a potential new client when one of the senior staff in the room asked me, “What would you do if you’re dog starting talking to you?” The serious look on my inquisitor’s face told me she expected a real response, so I answered, “Ask her why she keeps chewing on my sandals.”

My answer must have been satisfactory, because I got the assignment, but I left that interview wondering what the point was of that off-the-wall question. I asked a few of my friends if they’d ever been asked something like that, and they all looked at me as if I’d been hidden away in a cave for 20 years. One buddy, who’s been in senior management at a biotech firm for almost a decade, explained the logic to me. “It’s one way we assess how well a candidate can think on their feet.”

With the proliferation of Web resources available to help job seekers prepare themselves for interviews, employers need to work harder to sort the wheat from the chaff among job candidates. Tricky questions are one approach to getting beyond canned answers in order to gain some insights into a job candidate’s creativity and ability to handle stress.

Given that odd-ball questions can be about virtually anything, the best advice for dealing with them is to relax, and to take a moment to think about the question. Remember, there’s no right answer to “What would I find in your refrigerator?” or “If you couldn’t be a chemist, what other profession would you like to pursue?” These questions are supposed to test your ability to think, so take a few moments before responding.

And don’t panic. Look thoughtful. Smile. Nod in that, “Hmmm, that’s a good question” way.

Years ago, in high school, I was a candidate for a job on our school radio station. One of the seniors asked me, “How do you deal with pressure?” I couldn’t for the life of me think of a good answer, so in an attempt to stall for a little time, I calmly asked, “You mean, like this situation?” That, it turns out, was the best answer I could have come up with – I was given the position right then.

In fact, many veteran interviewers say that a good strategy for answering odd questions is to let your mind go and reply with an odd or silly answer, one that preferably demonstrates your ability to think out of the box. And remember that employers are not looking for pat answers, but responses that demonstrate you can communicate your thoughts, that you are intelligent, that you have self-confidence, and that you can adapt when thrown a curve.

This article was written by Joe Alper, a freelance science writer and technology analyst in Louisville, CO.


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.