"Oh! People skills! I forgot!" bemoans a job candidate after propounding that his knowledge of engineering was far superior to that of his interviewer's--office cartoon character, Dilbert. Attendees at the American Chemical Society's national meeting, held in Washington, D.C., 20 to 24 August, were similarly reminded that the balance between self-confidence and communication is a delicate one, but both are crucial to bolstering your chances of winning the jobs that suit you best.

To help them achieve that balance, sharpen their competitive edge, and become better prepared to enter today's job market, the ACS hosted a number of career resource programs for students and scientists. One presenter, Don Bly, a chemist-turned-consultant, proposed that assessing your personal values is the first step toward nailing down your ideal job. And because, according to the ACS department of career services, almost 90% of chemistry doctorates are in full-time industry employment (only 2.0% of the chemistry "workforce" represent postdoctoral researchers), navigating the job market and staying competitive are imperative.

Values and Drive

"We all have values that we apply to our jobs," explains Bly. "We all have our basic drives. You have to ask yourself, what drives you?" Bly suggests that your job is built around core values, which dictate how well you work and the kinds of employment opportunities you consider ideal.

Core Personal Values

  • Advancement

  • Security

  • Autonomy

  • Challenge

  • Balance

"Which value is dominant in your life?" asks Bly. If the answer is "advancement" then Bly predicts those scientists are primarily concerned with "visibility" within a company, or financial rewards for their work. Alternatively, "if you prefer to set your own schedules or do things your own way," then jobs that tolerate "autonomy" or individualism may be a more fitting match. Deciding which value you consider to be most important to you will help you choose where to look for jobs and to identify those companies that have corresponding goals.

"Balance"--between work and personal life--was the key value for almost half the audience attending Bly's seminar. "That's great," he muses, "but you know what? Companies want employees who regard challenge as their dominant value!" Employers are interested in people who are successful in overcoming obstacles and solving problems, and who are willing to take on novel and difficult projects, discloses Bly.

Meet Their Challenges

Tell the interviewer, then, "that you'll meet those challenges. Sell yourself into the company's challenges. Don't tell them that you're looking for good schools for your kids." Family is important, but bring such concerns up later if given the chance, he suggests.

"Companies don't often change their values," says Bly. "So don't take a job offer if you don't fit in with a company." Harboring differing opinions and ulterior motives will ultimately lead to a "downward spiral" and "failure at work," he believes. So use the interview to find out exactly what drives a company and what values employers hold in high regard.

Pathways to Success

  • Know your dominant values and what drives you.

  • Rise to meet your potential employer's challenges.

  • Compile your accomplishments.

  • Prepare an extensive and comprehensive skills list.

  • Identify weaknesses and change them as best you can.

Accomplishments and Skills

But getting to the interview also takes skill and planning. Many organizations now screen potential candidates over the phone--often while candidates are at their current workplace and are not expecting the call, says Bly. Companies do this deliberately to identify candidates who react and communicate well under unexpected pressure. Many on the receiving end of the phone call, however, are easily flustered by such approaches, and are caught off guard.

It would be much easier--and more productive--to speak with phone interviewers while holding your resume and a list of your accomplishments right in front of you, says Bly; so it's an extremely good idea to "keep a current copy of your resume and a skills list in your top desk drawer."

Such lists are important because they give you self-confidence, identify strong areas, boost your resume, and help you answer interview questions concisely. Over a couple weeks, "think of everything you ever did during each part of your life"--from high school through to your current job, instructs Bly; and then categorize those accomplishments according to particular skills: Communication, computer use, creativity, leadership, and so on. By sorting your accomplishments according to skills, you'll end up with a comprehensive list of all your personal and professional attributes. You may even discover strengths in areas you hadn't previously considered, thereby widening your job search possibilities.

Don Bly, ACS career consultant, recommends following this four-step process to help you achieve the improvements you need to make you more attractive to would-be employers:

  • To do: "an activity"

  • In a way that: "makes something happen"

  • So that on the job: "an object is achieved"

  • So that in my broader life: "an object is achieved"

  • An example could be:

  • To do: "Write more."

  • In a way that: "Improves my English and style."

  • So that on the job: "I can better write papers and grant applications."

  • So that in my broader life: "I can improve my publication and funding opportunities."

  • Achieving Change

    As well as reinforcing your strengths, such exercises can uncover your weaknesses and highlight areas in which you need to improve, says Bly. It is important to identify those areas, because they may already be holding you back in your current job. To address these needs, Bly proposes you write down what you need to accomplish, as well as why and how you're going to achieve those aims.

    "Once you try a few examples, you'll see how you can easily begin to improve yourself," says Bly. As long as you stick to it and make sure you actually enforce your actions, you will start making improvements, he assured the audience.

    To remain competitive, work out your most important values, compile your accomplishments, be prepared to overcome your weaknesses, and above all else, steer clear of being inspirational fodder for Scott Adams's next strip: Dilbert's experiences should be as close to real-life as you get!

    Useful links to American Chemical Society resources