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Chance favors only the prepared (and clear) mind

Last week, there was a terrific post here by Christine on the value of looking deep inside yourself to find what you truly love to do. This caught the notice of David Kroll, fellow blogger on Terra Sigillata here at GlobCasino.

There’s a connection here that’s relevant to me, and how I was able to keep my brain engaged while seeking my next position which I landed a few weeks ago.

Please bear with me as I explain, as I think there’s a shred of relevance here for anyone who’s currently unemployed.

My unemployment began in early January of this year. During my job search, I knew I needed to stay active mentally and physically, be focused, and expand my network.

Part of my strategy regarding networking was to use social media, including Twitter. I had an account for over a year, but tweeted seldom, with brilliant witticisms such as “Got new tires for my car today.” It’s a wonder my relatives followed me, let alone anyone else.

I got into it more seriously this time around, looking to establish a consistent personal brand, as advised by the social media mavens and jargonistas. I started following science-y folks, including science bloggers, like David Kroll.

Then, on February 3rd, I saw this:

Opportunity tweets but once. (Well, not counting retweets)

I answered each bit internally:

Hey you! Who, me?

Job-seeking in non-traditional chemistry careers? Why, yes, it so happens that I am, if you must pry.

Wanna blog with some killer writers? I’m not sure. Sounds dangerous. What or whom did they kill? Oh, wait, I get it. My answer is, um…..yes?

Contact @rachelpep http://bit.ly/eeRKOv

I checked out the link. I became better acquainted with this blog and the rest of GlobCasino. (Confession: I had visited the blogs here before. Once. I hereby throw myself upon the mercy of the court.)

I really enjoyed reading the past posts by Leigh Krietsch Boerner. There was a lot of useful info that really hit home—and funny at the same time.

This sounds challenging and fun, I thought. What the heck, give it a shot! So I did, and, well, here I am.

I could have dismissed this opportunity out of hand. But in it I saw a chance to get out of my comfort zone and keep my brain active. And, hey, you never know where things will lead.

Okay, this blogging opportunity didn’t directly lead to me securing my current position. But I have no doubt it made a difference. It definitely helped me keep a positive frame of mind. I was getting feedback, getting to meet new people, talk science—all good stuff.

So, when I scored a couple of interviews for chemistry positions, I was ready. I was psyched, not scared. I was able to interview without appearing desperate or downtrodden.

Okay, now for the broader relevance part.

The one facet of my job search strategy that I intentionally omitted above was giving myself a break when necessary.

That’s right—cut yourself some slack once in a while. Photo credit: flickr user szlove

If you go at this 24/7, it’s easy to get burned out. In that fatigued frame of mind, it can be difficult to recognize opportunities and stay mentally engaged. Don’t forget to step away from the job search when you need to. And you will need to.

I don’t think it matters all that much what you do, within reason of course, as long as it makes you feel like you’re productive and making some sort of contribution, even towards your own edification.

You can do volunteer work, take a class, gain a certification—expanding the breadth of your transferable skills—to further (or change) your career. Do whatever makes you feel useful and that you’re advancing in some direction—even if you’re not completely sure what direction that is sometimes.

I think the key is in striving to keep an objective, open mind. If you can, avoid job search tunnel-vision. If an activity doesn’t appear directly related to your job search, it still might be well worth doing.

Yes, you need to find a job, but you’re only human. Breaking up your routine will help your mind stay clear. Searching for a job is a job. In any job, some time away every now and then is valuable and can improve your performance.

Many companies like to tout a focus on their employees’ “work-life balance.” When you’re unemployed, your work and your life can become almost inextricably intertwined. During your job search, you need to achieve some separation. If you can find something to do that gives you enjoyment, all the better.

So, if you’re dealing with the stresses of being unemployed, or feeling overworked while employed—please remember to give yourself a break now and then. You deserve it, and it will likely pay off.

And one more thing: Thanks, David. Thanks, Rachel. I owe you one.

In transition again, but in the best possible way

Well, it actually happened, and I can’t believe my good fortune.

I have a job! And not just any job, but one in medicinal chemistry, in a similar role to the one I had before my, um, involuntary hiatus.

Vegas, baby! No, wait, that's wrong. Baltimore, baby! Photo credit: flickr user Union-Square

I’ve recently begun work at my new position. I’m now a Senior Research Chemist at The Lieber Institute for Brain Development in Baltimore, adjacent to Johns Hopkins Hospital and School of Medicine. I’m very excited, and couldn’t be happier.

Yes, I know, there’s nothing about this job that’s “nontraditional” at all for a chemist. It is a big change going from industry—Big Pharma, no less—to what is primarily an academic setting.

It is, of course, an even more drastic change moving from the ranks of the unemployed to the un-unemployed.

The only downside, if there is any, about my new job is the commute. Comparatively, though, it is a very minor inconvenience—I mean, I get to go home every night and be with my family. Many of my former colleagues, although employed, are not so fortunate in that regard.

To say that I’m extremely lucky is a huge understatement, particularly in this economy. As many of you know all too well, chemistry jobs are few and far between these days. I fully expected to move to a career outside the lab, if not outside chemistry altogether. I had worked on professional development activities, such as project management training, to prepare myself for such a move.

Being able to blog about what I’ve been going through has been very therapeutic, no question. It’s forced me to work through my feelings about becoming unemployed in a supportive (and very public) environment. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to contribute this blog, and hope to continue doing so as long as the opportunity remains.

While I’m ecstatic about this turn of events, I also feel something bordering on survivor guilt.

It’s not that I feel undeserving—I am good at what I do. But many, many other people are, too. The fact that so many good chemists have had to leave the discipline hurts science as a whole.

To my former colleagues and other fellow chemists still trying to find a job—although I know all too well how difficult things are, try not to despair. There are positions out there—there’s just an insane amount of competition for each one.

I realize this is probably cold comfort to many of you who have been out of work far longer than I had been.

What can I offer in the way of advice? Looking back, I cannot understate the value of networking to help secure a position. Yes, this was a publicly posted position, but networking was instrumental in helping everything all come together.

As chemists, we often become immersed in our work, and as a result, our world becomes somewhat insular. Take some risk, and put yourself out there.

Networking is not as mysterious as some job search gurus would like to have you think. It’s simply talking, and more importantly, listening to people. Anyone you talk to, and I do mean anyone, has the potential of being only one or two degrees of separation away from a hiring manager. Even when not looking for a new position, it’s an opportunity to be a spokesperson for chemistry in general.

Hey, don't we all? Photo credit: flickr user hanjabanja

It also helps to find some way to accept the fact that your employer decided to let you go, whether it was a downsizing or a site closure. Move on, and don’t look back. Yes, you and your former colleagues were like family. You can, and should, still keep in touch and stay connected.

But you need to cut the tether to your former employer. If your drank heavily from the corporate kool-aid, purge yourself in some fashion—and realize that science is a separate entity.

It was a love of science that brought us all to where we now find ourselves, right? It wasn’t devotion to a corporation.

So, what can I do to earn what I now have?

I think it’s pretty simple, really. I will make a promise.

I pledge to not take this lightly in any way. Since chemistry positions are so scarce, I feel duty-bound to do my absolute best, do good science, keep learning, and enjoy every minute of it.

I would hope that all other chemists who currently find themselves employed feel a similar obligation.

Coping with the ups and downs of being in transition

In the months since my former employer and I parted ways due to the closure of the site where I worked, there have certainly been some highs and lows.

We knew this was the path that awaited us. Photo credit flickr user Sunnyswede.

My then-colleagues and I were all forewarned of the impending emotional rollercoaster when the fate of our site was announced. Counseling was made available to us, and we’ve supported each other in various ways ever since. Still, it’s been a toll on our collective psyches, unquestionably.

The worst part, for me, has been the knowledge that I’m competing with former colleagues for positions. I guess this is really nothing new—we’re always competing against our coworkers. This is especially true around performance review time, and further amplified if there’s a forced distribution for ratings.

Now, however, the stakes are particularly high. There’s no perfect outcome, it seems. If they get the job, you’re left in the cold. If you get the job, you’re happy, but there’s still some associated survivor guilt. But maybe that’s just me.

We were all put in the same boat. I prefer to think that we’re all wishing the best for everyone, including ourselves. I don’t believe anyone would deliberately sabotage a former colleague’s chance of success to secure their next position. Okay, don’t get me wrong. I’m no Pollyanna—although I do bear a striking resemblance to Hayley Mills (…he said, exposing his age demographic—and a need for some form of corrective eyewear).

Luckily, none of us has had to resort to cannibalism—yet.

The best part has been the ability to reflect and decompress—to recharge my batteries while trying to decide what I want to do next.

I’ve been engaged in professional development activities (like project management training), networking meetings of various kinds, and working with an outplacement agency.

I’m just trying to stay active—physically and mentally. I’m having a great time contributing to this blog. As a result, I’ve been able to get to know some terrific and talented people that I likely wouldn’t have met otherwise.

If you find yourself in a similar period of transition, I really feel for you. If you have the luxury, some time for self-reflection can be very valuable. Take a mental inventory of what you want to find or avoid in your next position. I hope you’ll rediscover, as I have, that you have an abundance of transferable skills, and you can envision a fulfilling position in many fields.

The chorus of advice for people in transition is to use this time to find your dream job. Well, my last job was a dream job. But, really, that’s not a problem.

You see, I believe I have more than one dream…and I hope you’ll find that you do, too.

Project management as a bridge between roles in science and business

Project Manager: Becky Urbanek, Global Compliance Resource & Project Sr. Manager, AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals

Most chemists, whether in industry, government, academia, or some other setting, have worked on a research project at some point. So, who starts the project, who leads it, and who is responsible for its outcome?

In academia, it’s likely to be your advisor. In industry, it turns out, there’s a separate discipline devoted to formulating and sharing best practices in the management of projects. Not unexpectedly, this discipline is called project management, and the people who oversee the day-to-day management of the projects are…(drumroll, please)…project managers.

Try a quick search of “project manager” or a closely related query on any job search engine. The results suggest that project managers can be found across a variety of industries: construction, information technology, advertising, and many others. Project management of scientific projects is but a small piece of the larger project management pie. (Mmmm…pie) That said, managing a scientific project is the most common way a chemist is likely to transition into such a role.

Becky Urbanek, Ph.D., Global Compliance Resource & Project Sr. Manager. Courtesy Photo

With enough experience and, yes, street cred, chemists—with their vast array of transferable skills—are often called upon to be research project managers. Such an opportunity was presented to Becky Urbanek, whose chemistry background [B.S., chemistry, Ohio Northern U., 1993; Ph.D., organic chemistry (natural product total synthesis), Univ. of Minnesota, 1998] led to her recent role as a Principal Scientist and medicinal chemist* at AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals.

It became evident that management of projects afforded her some additional transferability. Last year, an announcement was made that all drug discovery activities would cease at her site. Becky was able to transition to another role on the business side of the organization, and is now Global Compliance Resource & Project Sr. Manager.

“I had been a project manager for drug discovery projects for several years and really loved that role,” Becky said.  “I didn’t fully appreciate that project management was a developed profession on its own until the announcement of our site closing and I began to plan for what would come next.”

Becky’s contacts in other parts of the company were a valuable asset.

“I spoke with other project managers that I knew within AstraZeneca and beyond and they recommended courses and that I join the PMI (the Project Management Institute) to further explore project management as a career path,” she said.  “I found out about my current job by watching the internal job postings and then networking within the company to learn more about it.”

Before proceeding, let’s pause to define what a project is and is not.

The definition comes from the PMI, mentioned above, a professional association for project management and globally recognized as one of its leading authorities. A project is defined as “a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result.” The key word here is temporary—a project always has an end, or handoff of some kind. Projects are distinct from operations, which are the ongoing efforts an organization must undertake to sustain its core business.

With such a broad definition, projects can be found within any business or function (or in the home—wallpapering a bedroom is a project…and good way to enhance your profanity repertoire). Whether formal project management methods are used is completely up to the individual company. Project management provides a framework for analyzing and planning a project’s lifecycle.

Project management formally divides project activities into categories and more easily managed bits, referred to as processes. The PMI and other professional associations are there to provide guidance, not mandate how projects must be run. It’s somewhat like a menu—choose what works best depending on the project and the people actually doing the work.

Becky’s role involves establishing a project management office (or PMO) to oversee a portfolio of related projects involving compliance with US and foreign government regulations as well as internal practices. The regulations cover diverse areas such as anti-bribery/corruption, data protection and patient privacy.

Not the PMBOK guide – but only slightly scarier, and a tad more bitey. From Flickr user kk99

A useful project management reference can be found the PMI’s main publication, A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, or PMBOK Guide. The guide’s goal is to document and standardize generally accepted project management information and practices.

Knowledge of project management processes can also be quite helpful while working within a project, even if you aren’t its manager. It gives you an appreciation of the complexity of managing a project, and can help you understand the context behind certain project-related decisions.

A common adage within the field is that communication takes up 90% of a project manager’s time.

Becky says that much of her day is spent “talking with the various project leaders of the projects in our portfolio to understand their projects—their resource needs, interdependencies with other projects, status of deliverable timelines and budget situation.”

“I also develop or help identify the tools necessary to track the portfolio of projects, resourcing demand, and such—my skills with Excel from my previous career help with that, she said. “A lot of time spent on the phone, since it’s a global role, and the computer.”

Becky says she has no regrets about leaving the bench.

“I had made the decision many years ago to exit the lab, but I do miss being involved in discovery research projects,” she said. “There was such excitement in drug discovery teams when you were making good progress and you believed that you really could positively impact patients’ lives.”

The impending site closure was undoubtedly an impetus to seek a new position internally, but Becky was also attracted to the role because “it sounded interesting!”

“It was a great opportunity to move within AstraZeneca in to another function that I knew nothing about, and also give me visibility across other areas of the business,” she said. “It would give me experience as a project/portfolio manager outside of Pharma R&D, making me more marketable. I believe that project management is a growth area as it spans many sectors.”

*And in the spirit of full disclosure, my former colleague.

Making a Case for the Overqualified

You think I’m qualified for the job? I’m delighted you think so! When do I start? What’s that? You said overqualified? Really, now, that’s quite a compliment. You’re making me blush. I’m sorry – am I missing something? You say “overqualified” like it’s a bad thing. Oh…I see. I’ll just show myself out, then.

It sounds like a compliment...and it should be. Photo credit: flickr user o5com

In my current combined job search and self-discovery vision quest, I’ve been met on different fronts with the recurring theme that a wealth of experience may, in fact, be a detriment. There is no shortage of “expert” advice, online or otherwise, suggesting that you should hide or neglect to mention years of education and/or employment. If your light is too bright  or its spectrum contains too many wavelengths for the position, hide it under the nearest bushel. Okay, honestly, I do get it – target your resume and cover letter toward a specific position. Focus I understand. However, I can’t completely evade the feeling that this gamesmanship of playing hide-and-seek and cherry-picking facts seems disingenuous at best, dishonest at worst. It’s somewhat against the grain of how one is trained to think as a scientist.

Even if one hasn’t been met with this particular o-word per se, it lies not too far beneath concerns that are more openly stated.

Prospective employers are worried that so-called overqualified candidates might jump ship at the first opportunity for a better position elsewhere. They’re concerned that after going through the interview process, they won’t be able to seal the deal because their budget can’t meet the candidate’s salary requirements. They fear their new hire may soon be bored. This sort of thinking is, well, a bit risk-averse, shall we say.

A recent post by Amy Gallo on the Harvard Business Review blog makes a case for taking such a risk. A challenge is posed:

“When making hiring decisions, visionary leaders don’t just focus on the current needs, but on the future.”

So, will the final hiring decision for the position you desire be made by such a visionary leader? Does the future lurch and loom darkly before them, or will they embrace the challenges ahead? I think it’s safe to say that most people would prefer to work for someone in the latter category. A perceived benefit for a hiring manager to adopt this mindset is driven home:

“Hiring overqualified candidates can help you achieve much higher productivity, grow, and achieve opportunities that you may not even be thinking about pursuing right now.” There are other less obvious benefits too: these employees can mentor others, challenge peers to exceed current expectations, and bring in areas of expertise that are not represented at the company.

Yummy knowledge! Save some for me! Photo credit: flickr user Christian Haugen

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Honestly, though, don’t most people’s jobs change over time? There are new developments in technology, best practices, knowledge within your discipline, business needs, what have you, that necessitate modifying some aspect of what you do. If you’re adamantly resistant to change, you’ll be left behind. Successful people aren’t usually like that, though. They have amassed their supply of deep, diverse experience because they want to learn all the time – that’s what has driven them from day one. They don’t wait for knowledge to be fed to them; they seek it out like it’s a special treat, and then devour it – nom nom nom nom. They evolve; curiosity and a hunger for knowledge feed their evolution. To behave otherwise invites negative consequences. The philosopher and writer of social commentary Eric Hoffer put it best: “In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.”  This preferred path of continuous learning will reap benefits whether you’re an experienced professional, a new chemistry graduate, or anywhere in between.

Okay, prospective employers, here’s my mission statement. While I’m in your employ, you will have my full attention. I will give my all and strive to grow in the position. All I ask is a chance to do what I do best every day. I will reward your courage with my efforts to contribute and make a difference. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Profile: Alfredo M. Ayala Jr., Disney Imagineer

Posted on behalf of Carmen Drahl

Alfredo M. Ayala Jr. majored in chemistry in college, but these days he dabbles in a very special kind of alchemy. He’s been with Walt Disney Imagineering Research and Development for over 15 years, where his job is to create new illusions and experiences for Disney park guests. And as he explained Sunday at the ACS national meeting in Anaheim, it was organic chemistry that got his foot in the door.

Photo of Ayala credit: Drahl/C&EN

Ayala said he fell in love with science as a boy when he saw “Antimatter”, an animated look at the atomic world by Carlos Gutierrez, a UCLA film major turned chemistry major and organic chemistry professor. As it so happened, Gutierrez became Ayala’s mentor when the young Ayala came to Cal State L.A., through Gutierrez’s program for engaging junior high and high school students interested in biomedical sciences. At Cal State L.A., Ayala followed his interests in chemistry and in computers, taking engineering coursework in addition to chemistry. He was an undergraduate researcher in Gutierrez’s organic chemistry lab when he applied for an internship with the Disney company.

Disney asked its prospective interns to write a paragraph about why they wanted the gig. But instead of just gushing about how cool it would be to work with the company, Ayala took a different tack. He knew Imagineers were looking to reformulate the skin material for the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction, which at the time contained chromium, a non-chlorine scavenger, as a heat stabilizer. By not having a chlorine scavenger, hydrochloric acid was being produced in reactions with water, which in turn corroded parts that would need to be replaced periodically.

Ayala sent Disney three proposals for alternative skin formulas, based on some chemistry he had done forming precursors to analogs of 18-crown-6 ethers in the Gutierrez group. In this 1995 Tet. Lett. paper the group begins with some tin-containing acetals and forms two different crown ether precursors depending on whether they add 1,2-dibromoethane or 2-chloroethanol. “Note we were scavenging chlorine and bromine- this is how I got the idea,” Ayala says.

His ingenuity on the application paid off in the form of an interview. “That was what got me in,” he says. He’s been with Disney ever since. Continue reading →

When Your Employer Wants to Break Off the Relationship

Last week, Christine posted a very heartfelt assessment of her struggle to continue on with graduate research although she has lost the fuzzy feelings she once had for it. She convincingly described her relationship with her graduate research project as being similar to one with a person, and how she felt she may be falling out of love with research.

Well, what if you’re on the receiving end? It occurred to me that what I and my (now former) colleagues have experienced is more akin to having someone, or rather, something, fall out of love with you. The situation was handled very professionally, and some of us have ended up in better roles (i.e., relationships) as a result. Yes, it’s business, not personal, but you can’t completely avoid the feeling that you’ve been dumped. Not the most positive emotional state to be in when you begin your job search. You need to let go of that, and quick. Don’t cry into your beer. (That’ll just dilute your beer. You’re a scientist, remember? Hello!) If it requires some sort of ritual ceremony to purge yourself of these negative feelings – do it.

It is here that I, much as Christine did, feel compelled to point out that this analogy in no way reflects my own relationship status. To illustrate, I will now go into game show contestant mode: “Hi Alex, I’d like to say hi to my beautiful wife of twenty-three years, and my two awesome children, my terrific son and my outstanding daughter, not to mention our three phenomenal cats. Hi everyone, I love you!!” There, I made nice.

Okay, I don’t know how valuable my advice might be currently, since I am still “in transition” and have yet to “land” in my next position, but I’m confident that it will all pay off in the end. So, here are things, drawn from various resources and my own thoughts, which keep me sane. Okay, sane-ish.

Continue reading →

ACS Webinar Series a Useful Resource for Chemistry Job Seekers

Are you a chemistry student about to embark on a new career? Perhaps you’re an experienced professional seeking the next step (whether voluntary or otherwise) in your career development? You have to appreciate the career resources, in all their awesomeness, which are available to you as an ACS member.

But ACS membership is not a prerequisite for many resources. Currently, in advance of this month’s ACS National Meeting in Anaheim, there is a series of ACS Webinars entitled “Your Career GPS” designed to help you in your chemistry career journey. The first of these, “Today’s Job Search Strategies,” was recently webcast on March 1st.  Did you miss it? Not to worry, you won’t be punished for your dedication to that experiment or project meeting. ACS Webinars can be attended by anyone. Webinars are routinely made available soon after the scheduled webcast for your viewing pleasure, whether on the ACS Webinars website or on YouTube, and the slides are also made available as a downloadable resource. An archive of past webinars (dating back to the fall of 2008) is available here.

This most recent webinar is particularly appropriate for the theme of Just Another Electron Pusher. The presenter, Lisa Balbes, is a consultant and the author of Nontraditional Careers for Chemists: New Formulas in Chemistry.  Lisa and her book were highlighted here last summer in an overview of available resources, well worth revisiting, for those considering – wait for it – nontraditional careers in chemistry.

If you’ve never attended an ACS Webinar, you’re missing out. The topics are diverse and relevant, and the sessions are very well organized. The webinars typically last an hour, with roughly 30-40 minutes of presentation and the remaining time devoted to answering attendee’s questions. What’s more, questions can be submitted during the webinar in two formats – there’s a side panel that allows text entry, and you can also ask questions via Twitter by including the hashtag #acswebinars. By golly, the ACS is riding the crest of the social media wave.

The second webinar in the series, “Resume Writing for Scientists,” is scheduled for Tuesday, March 8th at 2:00 PM Eastern Time, and you can preregister here. But, as was mentioned before, if you can’t make it, don’t sweat it. You can catch it later, take copious notes, and rest easy knowing the ACS has your back.