How to Tell Your Story

1. May 2014

Lisa Balbes

This post was adapted from content on the Career blog of the American Chemical Society (ACS) with the kind permission of ACS and the author.

Whether meeting someone at a conference or explaining to a potential employer how your background prepared you to meet their needs, scientists are often asked to tell their professional history. While it is hard to condense a lifetime of professional experience into a few minutes, it can be even harder to do it in a way that makes sense to the listener.

When you stop to reflect on your career history (which you should do on a regular basis), do you see that your career followed a straight trajectory, with each job leading logically to the next? I didn’t think so. Most people’s careers involve twists and turns, as they take advantage of unexpected opportunities and deal with unplanned disasters. The problem arises when you try to turn that succession of steps, each of which made sense at the time, into a single, coherent narrative that others can understand.

What stayed the same?
When tell your professional story, start with the elements that have remained consistent throughout the majority of your career. Have you always used the same techniques, worked in the same subject area or worked for the same type of company? Have all of your jobs involved seeing things in terms of how they relate to the big picture, or were they about making sure the details were correct? Finding a common theme that runs through your work history will make your story “hang together” when you tell it, and convey a sense of continuity and stability to your background.

What changed?
Next, identify what changed at the major transition points in your career. Did you take the same abilities but apply them in a new field? Did you learn new skills and techniques while working in the same field? Did you take the lessons you learned at a large company and scale them down to implement at a small start-up? Try to divide your history into a few major transitions, and other more minor transitions.

What did you learn?
Think about what you have learned in each of your career segments. How have your interests and abilities changed over time? What situations trigger your career changes? Can you use those insights to frame your career transitions? Being able to talk about why you made the changes you did and how you grew with each transition will emphasize your flexibility and broad background.

Where do you want to go?
Finally, think about your future goals. Whether you are happy in your current position or are looking for something new, you should have an idea of where you are headed. Whether it’s a new type of project in your current job or an entirely new career, you need to tell people where you want to go so they can help you get there.

Summarizing your career path in a succinct way that connects the dots for your listener is not a trivial exercise. In hindsight you may be able to see how you were preparing for your various career changes, even if you didn’t know it at the time. Once the whole story makes sense to you, you can tell it to others in a way that will make sense to them. While it won’t start with “once upon a time,” it will hopefully end with “happily ever after.”

This was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D., of Balbes Consultants LLC. Lisa is a freelance technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists: New Formulas for Chemistry Careers,” published by Oxford University Press.

 

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Do You Have the Right Attitude?

27. January 2014

Lisa Balbes

This post was adapted from content on the Career blog of the American Chemical Society (ACS) with the kind permission of ACS and the author.

Have you ever had a great day, where everything was going right and one success just seemed to lead into the next one? Conversely, have you ever had a bad day, where you started off in a poor mood, and all you could see was the bad in everything? Did those good or bad days sometimes extend into weeks?

We’ve all experienced stretches of time where things seem to keep going in the same direction. But did you ever stop to consider that it might be your attitude that is the driving factor?

Sometimes, having a somewhat negative attitude towards a particular task can be a productive thing. For example, if you are a technical editor, you start a project by thinking, “What is wrong with this document, and how can I change it to better meet the needs of the intended audience?” You go in looking for things that are wrong, knowing that they are there, and don’t stop looking until you find and fix them.

While working from the hypothesis that “there’s something wrong and I must find it” is helpful in some cases, approaching every situation that way can work against you. If you are in the habit of always looking for problems and mismatches, you will be at a decided disadvantage when you are searching or interviewing for a new job.

Instead of focusing on how well you fit the company and how your professional accomplishments are ideally suited to the requirements of the job, you may continue looking for problems and ways that you don’t fit.

There is no job that is absolutely perfect for you—there will always be something you don’t like or don’t know how to do. What you’re looking for is a position where the good outweighs the bad, and you enjoy doing the good parts so much that the other parts are only minor annoyances. When looking for a new job, it is important to focus on the positive, looking at the skills and experiences that make you qualified for that position instead of dwelling on areas where you don’t fit.

This becomes even more important when you get to the interview stage. The interviewer expects you to convince him or her not only that you can do the job, but that you really want it. You should describe in detail how perfectly suited you are for the position, and how your prior accomplishments have prepared you to do exactly what they need. In order to sell yourself to the interviewers, you first have to sell yourself to yourself.

After all, if you can’t convince yourself that you’re perfect for the job, how do you expect to convince a potential employer? So the next time someone tells you to keep a positive attitude about your job search, remember that they are right. Be positive that there is a job out there for which you’re the perfect candidate—and keep looking until you find it.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D., of Balbes Consultants LLC. Lisa is a freelance technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists: New Formulas for Chemistry Careers,” published by Oxford University Press.

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How to Plan a Vacation—and Your Career

23. October 2013

Lisa Balbes

This post was adapted from content on the Career blog of the American Chemical Society (ACS) with the kind permission of ACS and the author.

I recently took a big family vacation, which required a lot of planning, organization and communication. As I thought about how we prepared for and experienced the trip, it occurred to me that this process parallels the career transition process.

Have discussions with interested parties.
When we decided to take a trip, we started by gathering everyone involved and talking about where we wanted to go. Before long, we had agreed to a basic itinerary. In the same way, when you’re thinking about the next phase of your career, you want to start by discussing various options with other interested parties. You may have a general idea of where you want to go next, but it will be modified by input from others: a spouse who can’t relocate, a desire for more or less travel, etc. Eventually, you will come to an agreement about what is required in your next professional destination.

Do the research.
Once we had our list of destinations, we obtained as much information as possible about each one. As a result, we added some things to our itinerary and deleted others. Learning about our destinations, their history and current offerings let us know what to expect and allowed us to enjoy the actual visit more. Similarly, researching prospective career options will reveal hidden aspects that will make them more or less attractive to you. The more you learn about a new field or position, the better you will be able to determine if that path is right for you.

We talked to people who had recently visited these locations, as well as those who currently lived there. When researching new career options, talk to people who have been in the field for a long time, as well as individuals who have just moved into the area. Both novices and experts have useful information that cannot be found in a printed publication.

Think about what you’ll need.
Before we could leave on the trip, we had to think about what we would need for the journey. Some things we already had, but others we had to go out and find. Similarly, a new job or career path may require new skills, which you will have to acquire through education or experience.

Stay flexible.
Once on the trip, we mostly followed our itinerary. However, we had purposely left some time unscheduled. An advertisement we saw while traveling made us aware of a new attraction, and we used one of the gaps in our schedule to visit it. That detour turned out to be one of the high points of the vacation for everyone! Just like in your career path, taking advantage of an unexpected opportunity can lead you in a direction that you never knew you would love. You should always be on the lookout for new professional experiences, and don’t be afraid to take a chance and try something different.

Learn from your experience.
Now that we‘re back home, the only thing left to do is sort through the photographs and put them neatly into a scrapbook for whenever we want to revisit our adventure. The sorting and reflecting is important, as it allows us to look back at the experience and learn from it for the next time. When you move on to a new stage in your career, take time to review the highlights and lowlights of the previous stage, or even your entire career—maybe while you’re updating your resume. Reflecting on your professional journey to date can provide valuable insights and prepare you to make more informed decisions about your next destination—be it vocational or vacational.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC. Lisa is a freelance technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists: New Formulas for Chemistry Careers,” published by Oxford University Press.

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To Find the Right Job, Learn How to Ask the Right Questions

22. July 2013

Lisa Balbes

This post was adapted from content on the Career blog of the American Chemical Society (ACS) with the kind permission of ACS and the author.

While I was in graduate school and for a few years afterwards, I excelled at finding good apartments as I moved from place to place. Eventually, I returned to my hometown and became ready to buy a house. When my father asked me what I was looking for, I started to list all the qualities I had sought in an apartment. He pointed out that many of those things didn’t matter when one is looking for a house, and vice versa. While both apartments and houses are places to live, there are significant differences between them.

I was recently reminded of this incident when a graduate student came to me for help in finding a job after graduation. I asked her what she was looking for in a new position, and she proceeded to talk about the techniques that she had used in school—instruments with which she was familiar and classes that she had taken. While those are all important parts of your education, they are not what you want to focus on when looking for a new job.

When determining your requirements for your next job, think more broadly. Identify not just what you did, but what you accomplished and why it was important. Most candidates make the mistake of being too specific in their description of their previous job. They use their resume to list what they’ve done, often in excruciating detail. The odds of another company hiring you to do exactly what you did previously is fairly small –and you probably want to try something at least a little bit different anyway.

Ask yourself not “Exactly what have I done?” but “How can I generalize my skills to cover more territory?” This makes your skills applicable to a much broader range of employers. Since so many resumes are electronically searched for certain keywords, it’s even more important to make sure your resume includes the general terms employers are using, not the narrower ones that describe precisely what you did before.

At the same time, be specific when it comes to “softer” skills such as communications, teamwork and leadership. While most of the resumes I see are too specific when it comes to technical abilities, they are often overly general with these softer proficiencies. Virtually every resume claims that the applicant has “excellent communication skills” (probably because someone told them that was important), but few include tangible examples.

In this case, ask yourself not “What skills do I have?” but “What particular accomplishment do I have that demonstrates my proficiency?” For example, did you write more than 25 standards for manufacturing procedures, resulting in an 18 percent decrease in production errors? Or did you testify before Congress about the importance of your research, resulting in a 150 percent increase in funding for your field over the next three years? Both demonstrate communication skills, but in very different ways. Are you better at oral or written communication? Are you more comfortable debating technical issues with other scientists, or explaining theories to non-scientists?

Once you learn how to categorize, generalize and apply your specific technical accomplishments to other areas—and to identify concrete examples of softer skills—you will be in a good position to prove that you can do whatever you say you can. In other words, you’ll have the right answers when others start asking the questions.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC. Lisa is a freelance technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists: New Formulas for Chemistry Careers,” published by Oxford University Press.

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Are You an Entrepreneur?

25. September 2012

Lisa Balbes

This post was adapted from content on the Career blog of the American Chemical Society (ACS) with the kind permission of ACS and the author.

Recently, I encountered several graduate students who were considering starting their own businesses. While many people dream about being an entrepreneur, a significantly smaller number are willing to put in the time and effort it takes to make their dream a reality. A colleague who has been running his own company for over 20 years said that, when people ask for his advice on starting a business, he tries to talk them out of it to gauge how dedicated they are to the idea. When he started his own business, he noted that “the only thing that would have stopped me from doing it was if my wife had told me no!”

If you have that kind of dedication, you just might be an entrepreneur.

Starting point
A great place to begin is by writing a business plan—a document in which you completely describe the business. Forcing yourself to write it down will make you step back and really plan out the venture. The living document then serves as a roadmap as you move forward and start to involve other people. 

Summary
One of the first sections of the business plan will be the executive summary. You should be able to describe your business in several different levels of detail. Are you going to sell a product or a service? What is your targeted industry? What will make your offerings compelling to potential customers?

Legal structure
Will you start a sole proprietorship, partnership, limited liability company, C or S corporation? The form you select will have implications for taxes, liability, staffing and complexity. Make sure you understand all the options and implications, and choose what’s right for you. 

Products and services
While you may have an idea of what you’re going to sell, in a written business plan you’ll have to detail your offerings. How many different products/versions will you have to offer in the beginning? How is your offering going to be different/better from other things already on the market? Will you offer customization? How will you protect your intellectual property? Will you patent your ideas, or keep them trade secrets?

Market analysis
Describe the industry in which you will be working, including historical, current, and projected future size. What subsection constitutes your target market? What is the critical problem your offering is going to solve? What alternatives are they currently using?  What are their geographic and demographic characteristics? Who is your ideal customer? Are there any seasonal or cyclical purchasing patterns you’ll have to work around? What market share do you expect, and why?

Marketing plan
Once you have your product and target market, you have to get the two together. What is your marketing plan? How are those ideal customers going to find out about your offering? Will you exhibit at trade shows or conferences? Offer free trials?

Competitive intelligence
Who exactly is your competition? It could be other companies—or possibly even your own potential customers if they have the capability to devise internal solutions to the problem you aim to address? What are the strengths, weaknesses and market share of each? How important is this market to your competitors? What are barriers to entry to this market? What other offerings will present to differentiate you from the pack? What is on the horizon from other companies?

Organization and management
Who is going to run the company? What is their expertise and experience? If you are plan to hire employees, you become responsible for bringing in enough business to cover their salary, and taxes, while reporting requirements get more complicated. Depending on the number of employees you have and the state in which you are operating, various other regulations start to apply as headcount numbers increase. How will you address the various regulatory requirements?

Pricing
How much is it really going to cost to make your product or service, and how will you price it? Are you going to compete on low cost and high volume? Or high cost and high quality? Is your offering a need or a want for your customers, and will that affect what they are willing to pay?

Revenue
Will you reply on repeat customers, subscriptions, or contracts? Will you sell over the Internet or are face-to-face sales required? Will you hire your own sales force, or use distributers? Where will start-up money come from? How will you ensure enough money to cover operating expenses until substantial profits arrive? Will you seek investors? If so, how will you attract them and what will you offer them?

There are many more questions your business plan will have to answer, but if you’ve already thought about all these issues, congratulations! You are well on the way to becoming an entrepreneur. If not, you now know how to get started. For more resources, see the US Small Business Administration or SCORE for more ideas, and the new ACS Entrepreneurship Initiative (EI).

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes (lisa@balbes.com) of Balbes Consultants LLC. Lisa is a technical writer/editor and author of Nontraditional Careers for Chemists, published by Oxford University Press.

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Myths and Tricks from a Hiring Professional

18. September 2012

 Lisa M. Balbes

This post was adapted from content on the Career blog of the American Chemical Society (ACS) with the kind permission of ACS and the author.

I recently had the pleasure of listening to a presentation by Jill Lynn, a human resources professional at BASi, which provides research to the global pharmaceutical industry. It’s always interesting to hear from someone on the other side of the hiring process, and she graciously allowed me to share some of her insights with you.

She began by debunking three myths about the job application process.

Myth 1: “My professional experience and skills are the most important thing, and that’s all that matters to get the job, right?” Nope, sorry! A lack of interpersonal skills is the most frequently cited reason for not hiring someone (2005 Leadership IQ Survey), so they are crucial. How well you fit into the corporate culture is a major factor in the hiring decision, and many companies will “hire for attitude and train for aptitude.”

Myth 2: “My resume should be unique, creative, and a reflection of my personality and style.”
Again, nope! Hiring professionals receive a huge flood of resumes. The thing they most want is an easy-to-read and electronically friendly resume (meaning one that scans easily and contains all the appropriate keywords). Resumes that are “unique” are often difficult to read. With so many candidates for companies to choose from, the less work the reader has to do, the better. Your resume should list your professional experience in reverse chronological order, using action words and phrases (not narratives). Make sure to use a professional email address. (
Hotbabe@domain.com may get you a date, but it will not get you a job.)

Myth 3: “A detailed job objective, and information about my hobbies and outside interests, will make me stand out.”
Perhaps, but they will not get you a job. Many hiring professionals view objective statements as “filler” for those who don’t have enough work experience, and hobbies can actually hinder your ability to land an interview because they distract from your professional experience.

Hiring professionals make their living researching and reading people. They may talk to your friends, family and co-workers, and they will read your online social networking profile and postings. Any publically available information is fair game (including your Facebook or Linked In profiles), so make sure you know what’s out there about you and start cleaning it up now, if needed. Be especially careful of whom you let tag you in online photographs or comment on your pictures or posts.

The interview begins not when you meet the interviewer, and not even when you enter the building, but the minute the company receives the first contact from or about you. From then on, everything you say and do is considered as part of the package. You are never off-stage.

Before you go in for the formal interview, make sure to research the company—and, even better, the person with whom you will be interviewing. Always be prepared with a few questions to ask when it’s your turn, and stay focused on the position and the organization.

During the interview, be professional. Dress to impress, matching the company style if possible. Try to connect to the people with whom you interview, but remember that they are investigating you, and may try to “trip you up” by asking the same question in a different way, to see if you give a different answer. Make sure to give a clear, concise, and always accurate, answer to each question. Before responding, think about what they are really asking. Do they actually care where you want to be in 10 years, or do they want to know what you’re most interested in now, and if you have considered your future? Are they genuinely concerned about what your biggest weakness is, or do they want to know how you are working to overcome it?

These few tips will go a long way towards making sure you shine during the hiring process. I hope you find the company that fits your skills, personality and ambitions.

Good luck!

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes (lisa@balbes.com) of Balbes Consultants LLC. Lisa is a technical writer/editor and author of Nontraditional Careers for Chemists, published by Oxford University Press.

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