Every few months, we will feature a post written by a YCC member that is relevant to younger chemists. They are meant to be didactic, fun, and helpful. Enjoy the pieces featured below and stay tuned for more!
What do you want to be when you grow up? I’m sure we’ve all been asked that at some point in our lives. The reality is, do we really need to know? Certainly not at age 5. What about age 25? 55? I’ll admit, I’m an overplanner. I pick out my clothes for work the night before, I cook meals for nearly the entire week on Sundays, and my lucky husband never has to plan a single birthday or vacation for us. But one thing I learned long ago to never plan too meticulously: my career.
If you ask any lab director, distinguished professor, or CEO what path they took to get to where they are today, most will tell you they had no specific plan. There are very few people who know what they want to be when they grow up and actually become that. For the rest of us, navigating our careers can seem like an open book, a labyrinth of deception and wrong turns, or maybe a happily-ever-after fairytale. We all know how it feels when something doesn't quite go as planned, especially something we’ve worked really hard on. So why do we keep steering down a broken path?
When I was in the 8th grade, we had a career day where we would get to choose 3 professions to follow for half a day. I was so excited because I already knew I wanted to be a chemist and I couldn’t wait to see what one did in the real world. My hopes and dreams came to a staggering halt as my homeroom teacher handed out the list of careers to choose from. Scientist was on there - along with doctor, lawyer, and police officer - but there was one glaring problem. Those careers were listed under a big, bold heading: “BOYS.” Boys? What about girls? The girls careers included hair dresser, teacher, secretary, nurse, and caterer. My 13-year-old mind was blown that even in 1997 I was never expected to be a scientist. I could have let that day be a sign, let it derail me, but instead, that was the day I turned my plan into a purpose. So, how do you find that purpose – that thing that defines you, drives you, empowers you?
There’s something sobering about realizing that not everyone sees the world the way you do. Sometimes, it takes an outsider looking in to give you an accurate depiction of what’s really going on. We all need to be aware of our strengths and weaknesses (we’ll get to that a little later) but we also need to acknowledge and recognize the value that others, even those far removed from our current situation, can bring to the table. And what’s the best way to do that? As chemists, we’re naturally curious about the physical world: not just what’s happening around us but how and why it’s happening. And while we may feel most comfortable analyzing and rationalizing on our own, we also need to be curious about the people around us. Talk to strangers, find out what their hobbies are, ask questions, develop new habits, try new things. Albert Einstein said, “I have no special talent, I am only passionately curious.” Only by being passionately curious can we continue to learn, continue to grow both personally and professionally, and start seeing ourselves and our careers with fresh eyes.
It doesn't take a tremendous amount of time or effort to influence others. Think about all the things we see in a given day that influence our actions - what we wear, what we eat, what we say. No matter what stage you are in your career, recognize that you can be a leader, that you are an influential force. Your actions, experiences, and perspectives can impact people in very powerful ways, often times without even realizing it. My local section YCC performs hands-on chemistry demonstrations at the Salvation Army every year. This year, a 9-year-old boy told me that he’s wanted to be a chemist ever since he participated in our first event almost 4 years ago. I didn't even recognize him. I had no idea that such a small gesture, an hour of my Friday afternoon, could have such a lasting impression on a 5-year-old. We are much more influential than we realize, so own it and you will continue to inspire and be inspired.
People change. Plans change. The world is constantly changing. The important things are how we react and respond to such changes, how we learn from them, and how we continue to move forward. All a career path leads you to is an endpoint. Instead, think about how you can be prepared, be proactive, and act with purpose to lead you to opportunities. When you follow your purpose, the path isn’t as critical. It may twist and turn, go uphill both ways, or even come to a dead end, but as long as your purpose is your guiding beacon, you can adapt and overcome any bump along the way.
An easy way to demonstrate your adaptability in the workplace is to let others (especially those in positions of authority) see you in different roles outside of your technical field or comfort zone. Show your co-workers and superiors that not only can you do your job and do it well but you can also learn new things and take on new responsibilities. Try volunteering for that task nobody wants to take on; assume a leadership role on a company-wide committee to gain visibility across groups/disciplines; become active in professional societies (like ACS!); seek out volunteer opportunities in your community; start a task force to tackle an issue you feel personally invested in. Be heard and seen by people of all ages, backgrounds, and salary grades. When you start taking risks, saying yes to new opportunities, and stretching beyond your boundaries, others will start taking risks on you.
The further along in my career I’ve gotten, the more I’ve learned to accept that I will never be a Nobel-prize winning chemist. I will never be a senior technical fellow at a National Lab. I will never patent some life-altering discovery and start my own company. And I’m ok with that! When I came to Savannah River National Lab as a postdoc in 2010, I had no idea what I would be working on or what I was getting myself into. Seven years later, I find myself a technical expert in a field I had no previous knowledge, training, or interest in prior to arriving. But by following the principles I’ve outlined above (asking questions, stretching myself, being available and adaptable), I’ve been very successful not only in my technical work but also in finding out where my true interests lie and how I can best utilize my talents. By seeing me thrive in such diverse roles and leadership positions throughout my early career, my senior management has also recognized that my potential and future in science are not bound by the broken road that led me here.
Being intentional about your career interests and goals is important. Making connections and letting others see your potential is key. But don’t forget to be yourself. Stepping out of your comfort zone, taking risks, welcoming change – none of these things should come at the expense of losing your identity. Stay true to who you are, what you believe, what drives you, because it’s hard to regret a decision made with purpose. When you navigate your career with purpose rather than a plan, the only thing that can stand in your way is you.
Katie J. Heroux is a Principal Scientist at Savannah River National Laboratory in Aiken, South Carolina. She completed her Ph.D. in Inorganic Chemistry at the University of California San Diego and her undergraduate studies at the University of New Hampshire. Katie is an Associate Member of the YCC in the Membership Engagement (ME) subcommittee and also serves as Alternate Councilor and Past Chair of the Savannah River local section.
Whether you have made up your mind, are curious or just stumbled here, reading this article will provide you with more insight about how to transition from chemistry to business. Once you make that decision to leave lab, prepare yourself for the next steps to ensure an easy and efficient transition.
UTILIZE YOUR RESOURCES & NETWORKS
When I made my transition, I was lucky enough to have many resources to help me make the appropriate move confidently. Utilizing academic advisors and professors is a great resource when you’re still in school. It is important to not only talk to those working in the College of Science, but also journey over to the College of Business to learn more about opportunities outside of lab. Do you want to work in management, marketing, operations, sales, design, or product development? This is the time to ask for help determining your future direction. For those still in school, you have FREE resources that will provide insight into industry and disciplines. For those out of school, you can utilize your immediate network of coworkers, family and friends, who can connect you to the right person in the field you’re most interested in.
In fact, don’t just utilize your network at school and work, but also utilize your network online. LinkedIn is a great tool to help connect you to those who can provide guidance and even a referral for a job. I would also look online at professionals with the job title I want (product manager or technical marketing manager), working at a company I’d like to work for to see what skills they have and the terminology they use in their profile.
PRO TIP: Get introduced to recruiters. I’ve had some amazing talks with recruiters in the biotech industry that have directed me to the positions they thought I would like and they are always spot on!
PUT YOURSELF OUT THERE
Do you attend local, regional, or national conferences? This is the time you should!
My first national ACS conference was in Indianapolis, Fall 2013. I wasn’t presenting, but was so excited to learn more about current research and meet more likeminded scientists. I had no idea that the ACS had so many resources, from career counselors to local executives, to committee members who can help you find opportunities. My coworker and I were very persistent and ended up meeting a group of students involved in the Younger Chemists Committee (YCC). From there, we decided to create a local YCC section and get more involved in local programming. It was the start to my career in the YCC and my transition out of the lab, and it wouldn’t have happened without attending ACS conferences. I also have met many professional contacts that have helped me get my foot in the door in industry.
Although I attend ACS meetings twice a year, I try to attend local events as well. I am involved in my local section in San Francisco where I get to meet successful, driven chemists who have the potential to mentor me or can provide contacts for those interested in mentoring. Don’t know how to get involved? Check out the YCC website to find your local section. If you don’t have a local section, contact us and we’ll help you set one up! (firstname.lastname@example.org; http://ycc.sites.acs.org)
Finally, get involved in organizations outside of chemistry and science. One great organization for women is HBA, Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association. This is a great place to network and meet new people in the biopharmaceutical and healthcare industries. Another great organization is Toastmasters, which prepares you for public speaking, such as leading work meetings and giving presentations. Interested in something else? Look online to find some other interesting organizations and networking events in your area. Platforms like Meetup.com make it easy to find events near you in your area of interest.
LEARN SKILLS OUTSIDE OF YOUR DISCIPLINE
One of the best things I’ve done for my career is take classes in the College of Business. I focused so much on chemistry in school that I never really thought about my career outside of chemistry. My school offered a “Business Minor” to allow for science and engineering students to receive additional skills for their future careers. And you know what? This was the best decision of my career! I ended up completing the entire program to receive my MBA. Microsoft Excel and Adobe InDesign were software programs I had never really learned before these classes. Have you worked with Asana, Basecamp, Trello, Salesforce or Slack? These are other great tools that the industry uses that will help you prepare for most industry positions.
Expand your knowledge outside of chemistry; learn more about valuable skills in your field of interest such as data science, project management or computer programming. Online courses through edX and Coursera help you learn more about the foundation of the skills you’ll need for your office job. Lynda.com is another great source that actually teaches you how to use applicable programs and software, such as Adobe and Microsoft.
Finally, remember that a chemist outside of the lab can be unstoppable; you have the skills to analytically think and strategize, while being able to communicate technical information effectively.
Jamie Schwarzbach is a Product Marketing Manager at Clinical Synergy Formulas, a research-based dietary supplement company in the San Francisco Bay Area. She received her MS degree in chemistry and MBA from the University of Nevada, Reno and her BS degree in chemistry from the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is an associate member of the national YCC in the communications subcommittee.
Transitioning to graduate school can be a really difficult time. You have probably moved to a new city, are in an unfamiliar environment, and must somehow manage to study for classes, prepare lesson plans, and be productive in lab. What does it mean to be successful in your first year, and what can you do ensure that success? As a second year graduate student, I wanted to highlight some of the lessons that I learned from my transition, and share some advice on preparing yourself for your graduate career.
1. Finding a lab. One of the first and most important decisions that you will make in your graduate career will be choosing a PI and finding a lab. Although this process varies from school to school, most graduate programs give students time to explore all of the research opportunities within the department before making a decision. At Illinois, I was given roughly 2 months in my first semester before I was able to join a lab. During that time, I attended as many different group meetings as possible to learn about each lab and the research each was conducting.
I would advise you to explore each lab as thoroughly as possible. Schedule meetings with faculty members and the graduate students currently working for them. You never know exactly what type of research you may be interested in until you see it for yourself, so make the most of the time that you have. Aside from research, graduate students will give you a picture of the lab dynamics, typical work schedules, and PI management styles. Choosing your lab will be a difficult decision, but it is important to find the lab that is the best fit for you, and is somewhere that you will be happy to work for the next five years.
2. Wait, read, and think. During my first year, I ran around like crazy trying to run as many experiments as possible, and, unsurprisingly, many of them failed. Looking back, it is very easy to see why. I did not understand my project as well as I needed to, did not have a strong enough knowledge of what had been tried before, and made mistakes that could have, and should have been avoided.
Before you run any experiments, it is incredibly important to pause and critically think through the question that you are trying to answer, and evaluate the best way to answer it. Read through all of the relevant literature and make sure that you understand the strengths and limitations of current approaches. As for learning specific lab techniques, take the time to sit and watch an older graduate student work. They were once in your shoes, and can help you learn from their own experiences. You can learn more in 1 hour from watching an experienced chemist run a column than you could by spending 4 hours trying to figure it out for yourself. By strategically learning techniques from a mentor and critically planning and understanding experiments before you run them, you will be a much more efficient scientist, and your productivity will increase.
3. Defining Success. Don’t be surprised when you don’t win a Nobel Prize during your first year of graduate school. However, luckily, that is not expected of you. You are going to struggle. Experiments are going to fail. It is going to take you longer to complete tasks than the 5th year student who sits next to you. You are not going to be able to spend as much time running experiments as you would like to because you are bogged down by studying and grading exams. However, if you set unreasonable expectations for yourself, you are going to become overwhelmed and feel like you are unable to do anything right.
Keep pushing forward, learn from your mistakes, and always keep in mind that your PI does not expect you to revolutionize your field in one semester. The more you learn during your first year of graduate school, the better position you will be in for the rest of your graduate career. If, at the end of your first year, you have completed your course requirements, made it through a year of teaching undergraduates, learned new techniques, and have a better understanding of your project and how it fits within the landscape of the field, then you have had a very successful first year that has positioned you for success throughout your graduate career.
Rajeev Chorghade is a second year graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign studying organic chemistry. Within the Younger Chemists Committee (YCC), he serves on the communications subcommittee. Rajeev is also the newsletter editor for the Division of Small Chemical Businesses (SCHB).
Congrats! Your hard work paid off! You’ve just been accepted to grad school. You’ve just been selected for a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship. You’ve just landed your first industrial job. You’ve just been awarded an international travel opportunity. Take some time to celebrate your accomplishment with family, friends, labmates, and pets (not necessarily in that order).
Now, once the excitement of your achievement wears off, logistics start to set in. Where will you live? How will you get to work? What will your role actually entail? Where’s the best place nearby to get a sandwich?*
As younger chemists, our lives are full of transitions, but they can become overwhelming since they seem to happen so often. Having recently been through the transition from graduate school to my first industrial job, I have seen a lot of change in a relatively short amount of time. I found myself in a brand new city, again, having to start over. Here’s a few tips based on my experiences that have helped me to adjust.
One of the biggest challenges in a younger chemists’ career is packing up and shipping out to a different geographical location. Give yourself time to acclimate. One thing that helped me get used to my new grad school environment was to arrive early before the semester began. I was able to get situated in my apartment and perform research before the craziness of classes, TA-ing, and research meetings set in. This may not be feasible for everyone, but if it’s an option for you, I highly recommend it as a way to begin a transition in a less stressful way. If you are mourning the carefree days of undergrad, bring a picture or memento for your desk at work. It will remind you of what it took to get you where you are now.
Do your research. You are an analytical person by nature, and chances are, you have already scoped out information about your role and environment. Don’t hesitate to also reach out to your future boss and get his or her opinion on what you can do to be prepared before you start. Read papers or brush up on concepts that are a little dusty. You will have a lot of different tasks to focus on once you step foot into the lab or office, so do as much as you can beforehand. Go on a practice drive of your work route to make sure that you are comfortable. Stock your fridge with easy to prepare meal options. Find a great coffee shop close by to frequent when you need an escape from stressful days.
Connect with coworkers. You will not know much about your coworkers when you first meet them (besides what they have presented on their shiny LinkedIn profiles), but you already have something in common. You are in the same place at the same time. As the newbie, you will also be given a lot of leeway to ask random questions of people. Take advantage of this! Apart from asking about job-related questions, ask senior labmates or coworkers for their recommendations on eye doctors, child care options, or how to get involved with outreach opportunities. You may just find another commonality and make a connection. I once brought up offhand that I used to teach ballet to a group of other chemists, and that led to discovering a whole network of scientists that have a deep love of the performing arts. Look for student tickets or young professional discounts on events to broaden your horizons, and enjoy the company of your coworkers.
Maybe you are having a hard time adjusting or maybe your new role isn’t what you thought it would be. With all of the on-the-job trainings and to-do lists stacking up, it can be easy to get lost in day-to-day tasks. That is okay. Remember that you already persevered to obtain a degree in chemistry and keep moving forward. Your initial goals may (and probably will) change over the next five years. Use the momentum from your job search to develop a new skill in a complementary area. Attend professional meetings, local ACS events, or short courses to further develop your technical skill set. Who knows? As a younger chemist, your next transition is likely just around the corner.
*If in Pittsburgh, I highly recommend Thin Man Sandwich
Kristin Nuzzio is a research chemist at PPG Industries in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She completed her Ph.D. in physical chemistry at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and her undergraduate studies at the University of Delaware. Kristin serves on the Governance Interface and Outreach (GIO) subcommittee of the YCC.
Have you ever noticed how your talent to procrastinate increases at the most inopportune time, such as a heightened workload, incoming due dates, and increased responsibilities? Do you suddenly have the urge to clean your house or continuously refresh your email inbox when you have a million things to do? Instead, you are unconsciously engaged in less important and unnecessary tasks. Here are some tips and advice to overcome those hurdles and be more productive from a busy Postdoc and a former Master Procrastinator:
1) Initiate. Perform your most important task, or the most difficult or least-liked tasks, to initiate you into a productive workday. Sometimes it can be as simple as drafting and sending an email or as tiresome as grading exams. Completing such tasks at the beginning of your workday will mean one less chore and it will be an initiator for more undertakings for that day. Sometimes all you need is a catalyst to get you over that barrier that is preventing you from being productive.
2) Make a To-do List. I am slightly obsessed with to-do lists. The feeling of accomplishment when I check an item off my list is one reason, but the main reason is that to-do-lists allow me to organize, prioritize, and remember the many tasks in my work and personal life. I typically use a note-taking app called Google Keep, but you can use good old-fashioned paper and pen too.
3) “Tomato” for Productivity? There are a plethora of self-help books and apps to increase your productivity; however, sometimes all you need is a distraction-free work environment. A productivity method that has helped me tremendously is the Pomodoro technique. Pomodoro is the Italian word for tomato; the concept originated from the founder using a tomato-shaped kitchen timer to avoid distractions while working on one or more activities in four, short-timed (usually 25 minutes) intervals. After the first 25-minute interval is over, you are awarded a 5-minute break. After the second interval, you will have a 10-minute break, and followed by 15- and 20-minute break after the last two work intervals. Once the Pomodoro series is complete, you start the series over. You can modify this method to your preference, but the most important detail is to work free of distractions. Therefore, make sure that you close that internet browser, shut your office door and switch your phone to silent mode, and just work until that timer goes off. Another important key point to this productivity technique - it is essential to take timed breaks since it is easy to get distracted or lose track of time when you have the opportunity to check email or go on social media.
4) Be a Mindful Procrastinator. What is your procrastination mechanism? Do you clean, or do you start a new Netflix series? My current preferred procrastination mechanism is exercise - it’s my go-to stress reliever -but it took me some time to realize that I was using exercise as an excuse to avoid work and other unyielding responsibilities. For example, this past academic semester I was overwhelmed with teaching a new class and managing research and other postdoctoral duties. During this period, I decided to start a 12-week half-marathon training program. There were plenty of times I chose running over grading my students’ exams or homework assignments. My avoidance resulted in very late nights, and sometimes all-nighters, to complete grading which would then lead to added stress and falling further behind in my course preparation. When I realized I was using exercise as one of my excuses to avoid my least-liked duty as an instructor, I started setting limitations on when I could run. For example, not allowing myself to train until I graded at least half of my students’ homework assignments. It is vital for you to be mindful to the procrastination tactics that are self-sabotaging and then set up some boundaries to reduce the effect it has on your productivity. Furthermore, use tips 1-3 to assist with your success.
5) Start saying “NO”. Sometimes that overwhelmed feeling arises because you are simply overworked. This circumstance is not due to poor self-regulation, but could be augmented by your inability to say “no”. I am conflicted with this problem; I sincerely want to help, or feel that I need to take advantage of every presented opportunity. There have been plenty of times that I have attended a non-work-related meeting and left with a new leadership role to add to my mountain of responsibilities. However, overloading yourself with more responsibilities is detrimental to your productivity. Such behavior could lead to reduced work efficiency and even impact your ability to live a balanced and healthy life. It is important for you to be aware and carefully consider what you commit to.
6) Take Notes and ask for Help. There will be plenty of circumstances in which chaos is unavoidable. Be mindful during these times; devise and implement practices that could make your life easier now and in the future. For example, instead of retyping that same response for the hundredth time, have an email response bank that you can copy and then paste as a reply. Also, do not be afraid to ask for assistance when you’re overwhelmed with responsibilities.
Some of these tips I use religiously, and honestly, there are a couple that I could be more consistent with, such as saying “no” and asking for help. However, implementing these habits have immensely improved my effectiveness and efficiency at work and in my personal life. I sincerely hope that this list can motivate you to overcome your procrastination barrier, and I would love to hear from readers: What are some of your productivity enhancement habits or tips? Email us at email@example.com.
Dominique Williams is an NIH IRACDA Postdoctoral Fellow at Stony Brook University. She obtained her Ph.D. from Georgia State University and completed her undergraduate studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. Dominique is an associate member of the Membership Engagement subcommittee of the YCC.
The importance of international collaborations came to me not in the form of chemistry at first, but in the form of a stranger on a bus. I was 16 years old and living in a suburb of Shanghai when a woman sat down next to me. We didn’t have much in common but what she shared with me was important: international collaboration, even in the form of a simple conversation, can change someone’s life. Just five years later as an undergraduate student I had the opportunity to ride a different bus, in a different country, in the name of Chemistry. I was headed to the University of Jordan in Amman to attend my first international conference.
I wanted to share this experience to show the way in which international education and outreach has changed the way I view chemistry and how you can get involved as well. I found a new voice during my first overseas conference that gave me the confidence to continue my scientific endeavors. 10 years later and my international network has expanded greater than I could have ever imagined. I’ve had the opportunity to attend two international conferences, work side-by-side with chemists from many different countries, dedicate my time to the International Presence (IP) working group of the Younger Chemists Committee (YCC), and help in the foundation of the International Younger Chemists Network. International exchange and collaboration has quite literally had an influence over every aspect of my life.
International collaborations are increasingly becoming the corner stone of modern day advancements. From Nobel Prize winners to TEDx talks you will hear (and see) about crucial collaborations across every discipline of science. Think cross coupling, think conductive polymers: all of these advancements would not have been possible if chemists didn’t leave the comfort of their home institution, but instead collaborated on a global scale. Chemistry, and especially the YCC of the American Chemical Society (ACS), is no stranger to this notion.
The YCC’s International Presence working group has had the opportunity to work with chemists in over 13 countries through the Younger Chemists Crossing Borders program. The International Year of Chemistry catalyzed these global opportunities and collaborations that have developed in recent years. We strive to expand our global network to provide opportunities for young chemists around the world.
I wanted to share some pieces of advice that my mentors have passed to me and I hope you can apply to your educational journey around the world.
So, what to keep in mind when you are presenting in an international setting?
1. Be Prepared.
Not everywhere will have poster printers or places to print quick business cards, pack these important networking tools ahead of time (especially computer converters and clickers/pointers that are necessary for your talk).
2. Not everyone is working with the same equipment, sometimes you will have to think outside the box.
When I presented in Jordan for the first time I didn’t realize the true sensitivity of the instruments I was working with at my research institution. It helped to think of ways the same analysis could be done using a variety of different instrumentation that may be available in different research settings.
3. Be careful with abbreviations, not everyone uses them in the same way.
I often find myself collaborating on projects with chemists from all around the world – when I abbreviate too much it creates unnecessary confusion. Not everyone speaks in the shorthand we so often do here in America.
4. Find some time for the culture within the science, important issues at home may be different than where you are a visitor.
Seeing the sites is always great but really experience the culture of where you are attending a conference, studying abroad, or working. When you connect with the environment of where you are it helps to open your mind to new ideas. Don’t leave those ideas behind though, be sure to bring them home with you and share within both your work and personal life.
Now that you know what to keep in mind, how do you cross that activation barrier to take that overseas flight.
1. Advisor/ Boss/ Company
Many companies and university programs have prior agreements with overseas universities. Take advantage of these!
2. ACS International CenterTM
Visit global.acs.org and see what opportunities await you. This website is the perfect tool to expand your horizons and browse international opportunities.
3. Talk with us within the YCC
YCC members are present at every national meeting and also can be reached through our website (which you are all the closer too since you are reading this). If you have any questions or concerns regarding your international experience I would be more than happy to chat with you more about the experience.
Take some time to step outside of your comfort zone. Before you head overseas do something that makes you a little nervous (grab a meal alone or spend some time at an unknown coffee shop) to prove to yourself that you can handle this. Embrace the unknown, you never know what you may find.
International opportunities in the chemistry world have allowed me to gain confidence that has catalyzed my chemistry career. One of the most important parts of all of this though is to have fun! Enjoy your opportunities and give back when you have the chance to take that flight by sharing your experiences with co-workers, classmates, and anyone who will listen. We all have a common language that surpasses political barriers and unrest: Chemistry! Chemistry is a universal language of atoms that quite literally builds bonds between early career chemists of every state and nation.
Christine E. Dunne is a fourth year Ph.D. candidate at Colorado State University where she studies organic chemistry. She is chair of the Membership Engagement (ME) subcommittee of the Younger Chemists Committee (YCC) and also serves on the Graduate Education Advisory Board (GEAB) of ACS.
Time. It is an elusive and fickle beast. We all need more of it, and it never fails that the moment you think you have a breather, you’re sitting in your office at the end of the day, scratching your head and wondering where on earth the hours went. Time management is a surprisingly difficult skill to master, but even gradual improvement in your time management skills can pay enormous dividends once you get in a groove and apply a relatively simple and powerful method commonly known as the critical path method.
Consider all the things that need to get done over the next day, week, or month. It’s a lot, isn’t it? The first step in this method is to examine their connections. Which task needs top priority? How are the tasks connected or related? Which tasks are dependent on the completion of another? By answering these questions, you will learn to quickly assemble the critical path necessary to guide you through the swampy marshes of despair to the promised land of productivity.
In graduate school, there were times I felt insurmountable pressure; between the innumerable and ceaseless experiments, a full schedule of teaching appointments, daily tutoring sessions, and my own course load, there was so much to do that it was difficult to figure out where to even start. Left out of check, I would have dug a hole so deep that my friends, family, and roommates would have been a distant memory. After a quick tour through the aforementioned swamplands of despair, I quickly realized success was a few minutes of organization away. There were instances where I could set up several experiments in parallel while some experiments had to occur in a specific order, so I quickly planned out an experimentation plan that followed a simplified critical path. While those reactions proceeded to run, I utilized that same time to clean up glassware, navigate the library in pursuit of an obscure Russian journal article, and set up meetings with mentors to discuss life and the pursuit of chemistry. The few minutes I had invested into prioritizing and organizing had paid me back exponentially.
A few minutes of my focused attention up front revealed that each and every task, experiment, and activity had an inherent set of dependencies. While others demanded completion in a consecutive series, others could be accomplished in parallel time or in an order that made sense to my critical path of actions. This simple methodology helped me power through many tough days and, ultimately, allowed me to truly enjoy my graduate school experience while accomplishing vital work in a timely and efficient manner.
Fast forward a few years, and I found myself drowning, again, within the dark murky waters of “new hire” life within corporate R&D. I wanted to use the same methodology that worked in the past, but would it work this time? Everything was different: tighter timelines, higher pressure projects, foreign procurement protocols….. And, call me crazy, but I truly hoped to have a life now that my graduate school training was over. By analyzing, understanding, and implementing a critical path methodology, I established a professional cadence that quickly built momentum early on in my career. I identified where “free time” existed within my normal workload, and subsequently found time to participate in extracurricular activities ranging from professional networking to investigating scientific curiosities that could bring additional value to my company.
I continue using this process to this day, as it allows me to balance the demands of my professional career with my desire to spend ample quality time with my family and participate in volunteer organizations like the ACS. I truly believe that this approach has paid for itself by “creating time” that I would not have had without it.
In life, you may be overwhelmed by the vast amount of work set upon you. I believe that with a disciplined application of the critical path method, almost all people break out of the debilitating shackles of improper time management and empower themselves to reach their full potential. So what are you waiting for...the clock is ticking!
Matthew Grandbois is a Corporate Account Market Manager at Dow Electronics. Matt uses his background in R&D to create and develop strategies for technologies and products targeted for Dow’s customers. He is a member of the YCC and is the current Chair, and Chair-Elect, of the ACS Division of Professional Relations Younger Chemist Subdivision. In these roles, he develops programming at national ACS meetings aimed at developing professional skills for young scientists.
Many young professionals are asked to assume leadership positions, even when they are one of the least experienced people on the team. This can happen to a new volunteer who thinks they are volunteering to “help” with something and suddenly find themselves in charge, a new faculty member on a college or university committee, a summer intern asked to lead a safety program, or the recent Ph.D. graduate leading a small team of technologists. While this is a common situation for young professionals, mid-career professionals taking on new skills or making a career change can find themselves in the same situation. It is important to note that “experience” can come from both technical knowhow and cultural understanding. Cultural understanding can include everything from a knowledge of a corporations best practices to differences in work habits around the globe. Below are some tips on how to be the most effective leader possible when you are, or feel like, the least experienced person in the room.
1. Remember what it means to LEAD
A true leader is able to bring together a team of people with diverse talents to create a specific outcome. A leader does not have to excel at all of the activities that their team undertakes to achieve success. Remembering that you can rely on your team’s expertise will take a lot of the pressure away.
One of the biggest mistakes leaders make is thinking that they have to know everything. Even when they think they can rely on their team, many leaders will ask for advice from team members and then start formulating their own ideas without really listening to their team members. Make a special effort to really focus on what your team members are telling you.
3. Don’t be too transparent about your lack of experience
A recent paper in the Harvard Business Review by Herminia Ibarra titled “The Authenticity Paradox” suggests that leaders who are overly candid regarding their concerns about leading with less experience than of some of their team members can create a very negative impression of themselves early on. Since first impressions are critical, it is important to appear excited and enthusiastic to learn rather than self-doubting.
4. Rely on past experiences
While you may not have had the opportunity to lead in the capacity you currently find yourself in, most times you will have some past experiences that you can draw from. These can include mentoring an undergrad in grad school or during a post doc, being captain of a sports team, choreographing a dance routine, being a section band director, or selling cookies or popcorn in the scouts.
5. Take into account cultural and technical aspects of the team
Your team will have a lot of valuable knowledge that you will need to tap into to accomplish your goals. Some team members will be steeped in cultural knowledge while others may be strong technical leaders. Some team members may have experience in both the technical and cultural aspects. Many young professionals will have gained technical experience through their schooling. Often times these young professionals will rely heavily on their technical understanding, forgetting that there may be significant cultural hurdles to their approach. Conversely, mid-career leaders who are switching roles at the same company may rely on their understanding of corporate culture much more heavily than their technical knowledge. In both cases, it is critically important for the leaders to consult and listen to their team to learn what they are not an expert in.
These steps should start you off in your endeavor to be a new leader in an area where you do not have a lot of experience. These experiences will provide you wonderful opportunities to learn from experts and expand your skills set. Undoubtedly, you will make some mistakes along the way. It’s whether or not you learn from your mistakes that matters.
Christine McInnis is a Dow Microbial Control Global R&D Water Platform Leader at the Dow Chemical Company. She is also the Chair of the Local and Regional Affairs (LRA) working group within the YCC.
Maintaining that Ph.D. Work/Life Balance: Why it Matters, by Marisa Sanders (9/2015)
Let’s face it, grad school can be consuming. You start getting good results and the next thing you know, you’re pulling all-nighters in lab, sleeping on the grotesque sofa in the basement next to the liquid nitrogen fill station, and waking up everyday at 5:30 AM with the fear that the heating elements in your furnace broke or the thermodynamics behind your entire thesis work are suddenly null and void. You get so engrossed in your research that you forget anything else exists. Those cats you acquired over the past several years to “keep you company?” Oh no! Or that yoga interest group you “joined” and on which you blew hundreds of dollars at Lululemon? Hmm. Yes, things may be going well, but that can always change. You start basing your self-worth on your results, taking pride in your ever-increasing percent yield, the impressive size of your crystals, and the magnificent peak shapes in your Rietveld refinements that only a skilled crystallographer (or OCD Ph.D. student) could produce. And then, after months of sleep-deprivation, TLC-ing, x-ray and neutron refinements, and NMRs, you hit a roadblock. And the frustration really hurts.
But it doesn’t have to be like this.
I used to be a perfectionist. And then I became an experimentalist. I realized early-on in my graduate school career that the only way I could be happy was if I maintained a variety of outlets outside of lab. Some call it “work/life” balance. I call it “preserving my sanity.” It’s definitely necessary for getting through graduate school. Having a social circle (or a life) makes your highs incredible (because you have people to celebrate them with) and your lows not as awful (because you have other things going for you that lessen the pain). Not sure how to get started? Well, you’ve come to the right place! If you’ve chosen to attend graduate school, you likely have the work ethic and motivation to prevail. What I’ve seen more students struggle with is the social aspect. So let’s devise a plan to get that “life” component going too! Just keep on reading.
1. Make friends outside of your department. Sure, misery loves company, but listening to your fellow full-synthesis lab buddy complain about his obstacles can be a bit frustrating. And no one thinks very fondly of the “lab group cliques” that literally do everything together (eat, live, reflux, exercise, titrate, you name it). That can’t be healthy. Find people in other academic areas to befriend. It will help broaden your mind and prevent you from constantly thinking about your work.
My first year graduate school roommate was a female computer science Ph.D with a focus on network security. She has become my best friend. Our areas of study are different enough that when we talk, the conversation isn’t about our research, but lighter matters (think makeup, fashion, food, new K-cup flavors, etc). Tuesday nights have become “wine nights,” where we order-in Chinese food, drink wine, and watch a chick flick. It is detox night. And it is necessary.
But what if you weren’t bestowed with an awesome roommate your first year of graduate school? I’m sure your university sponsors several social events for all graduate students. Go. Maybe bring your lab buddy if you’re hesitant to attend by yourself. But make sure you talk to new people. Exchange numbers, find common interests, and then make plans to hang out at a later point in time.
2. Apply to be a Resident Graduate Student (RGS). Some universities offer an RGS program, where graduate students live amongst undergraduates and organize academic and social events for the college community. This has enhanced my graduate experience in so many ways. I’ve seen that a sense of community is often lacking in graduate student life; being an RGS allows you to gain this sense of community. The study breaks I organize are not only therapeutic for my undergraduates, but also relaxing for me. I’ve developed a biweekly DIY Science Night series, where I lead students in a science-oriented craft that is both didactic and exciting. We’ve already made lava lamps, rock candy, and Silly Putty! A few of my other favorite events are pumpkin-painting (in the fall), cookie-decorating, sundae-making, mural-painting, and my weekly writing circle. When the undergraduates knock on your door wanting to chat, you know you’re doing a good job. And it makes you feel good that they enjoy talking to you! Because I live on campus, I’m also only a five-minute walk from lab. I don’t think it can get better than that.
3. Make time for you. This is pretty self-explanatory. It encompasses everything from exercising to having jam sessions with your friends. Maybe you play an instrument? Carry on! Several departments have their own bands; perhaps you could ask around and join one.
Make an effort to actually attend that yoga group. Perhaps drag a friend along too so you can motivate one another. Watch Netflix, read the newspaper, go for a run. And, yes, you do have time for it.
It’s also important to eat well. I wouldn’t recommend consuming seven servings of chocolate chip cookies in one sitting just because they’re leftover from a symposium (believe me, I watched one of my lab mates do this and he later deeply regretted it). While the free food listserv is indeed a fabulous invention, use it wisely. Just be smart, and remember, moderation is key.
4. Don’t forget about your family. They might not understand what you’re doing in graduate school, but I’m sure they’re proud of you for pursuing that Ph.D. You’re allocated a certain number of vacation weeks annually; go home for the holidays. Your family will always be your support group and you should take advantage of that.
5. Let it go. As if Frozen hasn’t receive enough allusions in the media already, sometimes you actually do need to “let it go” and take a breather. Maybe you accidentally started an alkali fire in your lab? Or one of your quartz tubes exploded in the furnace? Perhaps you used an impure starting material that spoiled your entire 15-step reaction? This is why the intended duration of your program is five years, not one. It’s okay to go for a walk (to Starbucks) if you need to take a break. It’s also fine to blast Ke$ha at 10 PM in lab while working with your lab mates (and then have the scene turn into a full-on dance party) if you feel the need to do so. You learn from each of these mistakes and then start all over again. Just keep on swimming.
So, there you have it! I hope you enjoyed this account and consider the above tips. Graduate school is a learning experience, and you should enjoy the ride. Just take it one day at a time.
Marisa Sanders is a 3rd year graduate student at Princeton University. She is a member of the Younger Chemists Committee (YCC) in the Communications Subcommittee. Insterested in learning more about the YCC and what we do? Follow us on LinkedIn!