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July 2001
Vol. 10, No. 07, pp 27–28, 30.
 
 
 
Workplace Perspectives
John K. Borchardt
How many hats can you wear?

Breadth of knowledge is increasingly important in today’s career market.

Having multiple job responsibilities—wearing different hats—is common in many jobs, including laboratory positions. According to Stephen W. Helmholz, a managing director with the executive search firm Korn/Ferry International (New York), “Few workers remain tethered to a specific functional silo, and most of us do the job of at least two people. Employers, therefore, want team members who are able to play more than one position.” How can you become one of these people and let managers know this?

The Chemist’s Skill Sets
Practical Experience
Business Orientation
Flexibility/Versatility
Leadership Skills/Interpersonal Skills
Communication Skills
Time Management
Computer Literacy
Problem-Solving Ability/Initiative & Follow-Through
Breadth of Knowledge of Science
Mastery of Chemistry
(Adapted from ACS Current Trends)
Your chemical knowledge, while usually remaining the bedrock skill for your career, is only the foundation (see box, "The Chemist's Skill Sets.). Breadth of knowledge is increasingly important in these days of multidisciplinary research. These first two layers of knowledge must be translated into problem-solving ability. Only thus can you translate chemical knowledge into profitable products, processes, and services.

In today’s restructured R&D environment, there are fewer first-line R&D managers to oversee the work of bench chemists. Because of corporate restructuring, these managers are less supervised than in the past, a trend that has reduced the number of managers and the layers of management. The same is true of sales and business management positions. Less supervision means that you must have a sense of initiative and follow-through. Only with these skills and good communication skills can you translate the results of your problem-solving ability into profits for your company. In addition, a business orientation is very helpful in selling the results of your work to others so that your company gains new business or improved ways of doing things.

Computer literacy has become mandatory in today’s professional workplace. As your firm’s preferred software and other information technology products and procedures change, you must adapt to keep pace. Finding the time to do so can be difficult. Time management skills are necessary to fulfill the many responsibilities of your job while reserving an adequate amount of time for your family and outside interests.

Good communication skills, both written and oral, are necessary in today’s increasingly team-oriented work environment. Interpersonal skills, in combination with leadership skills, are also essential to supervise technicians and work on teams.

As job responsibilities increase, practical experience becomes increasingly important for identifying the most cost-effective solutions to problems in the minimum amount of time. Practical experience is an important credential; it indicates your competence and helps make others respectful of your opinions.

Continuing Education
Obtaining more advanced degrees in chemistry increases your depth of knowledge. Although deeper knowledge can be valuable, increasing your breadth of knowledge may be even more desirable. One way to do this is to take courses and perhaps complete degrees in fields that either add scope to your current job or equip you to enter other fields. For example, a chemist working for a biotechnology company or interested in doing so might take courses in fermentation, biochemistry, or microbiology. Chemists interested in entering sales or the management side of the business have long taken courses in these areas, often earning MBA or finance degrees.

Taking computer courses can improve and broaden the skills you use in the laboratory or give you an entrée into information technology careers. A chemical company webmaster who has a good knowledge of chemistry can have significant career advantages over one who does not. For example, one laboratory technician I worked with gained his computer skills largely through short courses and practical experience. At first, he used his skills to be the computer guru for his research department. Now he works in the firm’s information technology department.

Mentors and Models
Early in my career, it took a forceful intervention by a supervisor to make me realize I had a problem with my written communication skills. In brief, I was writing reports for myself rather than my readers. As a result, my reports were too long and overly detailed. My supervisor was returning reports with many red-ink notations requiring that I make revisions. Not knowing that such revisions were somewhat unusual in my department, I did not recognize that I should be concerned. Finally, my supervisor initiated a discussion that made me realize I had a real problem. My commitment to solve this problem improved my writing skills, and I have since written corporate bulletins, technical papers, magazine articles, and a book as well as reams of laboratory reports and business correspondence. Throughout my career, I have felt a debt of gratitude to that long-ago supervisor for his intervention.

Today many chemists are less fortunate because their supervisors don’t have the time to coach and mentor individuals. Increasingly, performance reviews are a matter of checking off categories in boxes on standardized forms. Important skill categories (such as report-writing skills in my case) may be omitted from the form and thus are not part of the performance review discussion. This was the situation for me, and my first managers did not advise me about my inadequate writing skills.

To compensate for the possibility of such situations, chemists need to take the initiative and develop mentors on their own. They should also identify role models for outstanding skills and professional behavior. The chemical professional often needs different role models for different job responsibilities. For example, one chemist may be an outstanding researcher and would serve as a good role model for developing laboratory skills. However, this individual may have poor interpersonal skills, so a different role model is more appropriate for those career skills.

Another aspect of choosing good mentors and role models is to pick individuals whose outstanding skills are appropriate for today’s, not yesterday’s, workplace. For example, one of the reasons I had trouble with written communication skills is that my primary mentor early in my industrial chemistry career was an excellent researcher who advised me to write every research report as if I were writing a paper for the Journal of the American Chemical Society. Consequently, my reports had highly detailed experimental sections and extensive sections interpreting results and discussing their theoretical as well as practical significance. I spent an immense amount of time laboring over each report.

Seek Assignments
Continuing education courses and knowledge gained through experience and observation enable you to take on additional job assignments. For example, with excellent writing skills you can volunteer to write corporate product bulletins and operating manuals. Other writing opportunities include papers for trade journals and Web site content. You can capitalize on your oral communication skills by making presentations to customers and project presentations to managers. You can capitalize on computer skills by becoming an informal computer guru for co-workers (and sometimes supervisors), helping them to solve computer problems.

Leadership and interpersonal skills exhibited in the course of your work can result in your being named team leader or manager. A good way to develop and demonstrate these skills is to volunteer to head task forces and project teams. In fact, with less supervision available at many firms, chemists are increasingly assigned budgetary responsibilities and must monitor spending on their projects. So even without volunteering, you may become a project manager. Ideally, combining time management skills with leadership skills will enable you to fulfill such extra duties.

Opportunities to assume additional job responsibilities are usually greater in small companies. For example, at Tomah3 Products, one sales representative volunteered to find a firm to update the company Web site, which needed a major overhaul after the firm’s purchase of Shell Chemical’s specialty surfactant businesses and plant. Other chemists, both in sales and R&D, contributed content to the Web site. Researchers and sales representatives work together to develop PowerPoint presentations for use in calling on customers.

Managers’ Challenges
If you’re a manager, you are less likely to stay in management assignments than in the past. Many managers’ career tracks are speckled with assignments to staff positions. Managers must keep their technical capabilities up to date to fulfill the responsibilities of these increasingly frequent staff assignments. These assignments can be useful opportunities to learn new skills or polish old ones. For example, a manager could be assigned to a transition team associated with creating new structures in the wake of a merger or divestment. This position usually results in great demands on interpersonal and communication skills as well as problem-solving abilities.

As Helmholz notes, “There are unparalleled opportunities today to switch jobs, change careers, or reinvent yourself.” To do this or to proceed along a single career path, it is critical to develop career management skills. Benevolent supervisors and mentors who have the time to manage someone’s career for them are almost an extinct species. As a result, self-reliance is mandatory. According to James D. Burke, former chair of the ACS Committee on Economic and Professional Affairs, “A new landscape is developing in today’s employment climate; to keep one’s footing, chemists need to develop their own career management plans.” Doing so is an essential career skill.


John K. Borchardt is a research chemist who has published more than 100 technical papers and has been awarded 30 U.S. patents. Send your comments or questions regarding this article to tcaw@acs.org or the Editorial Office 1155 16th St N.W., Washington, DC 20036.

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