Career column

Career column from the "Nachrichten aus der Chemie"

Philipp Gramlich and Karin Bodewits are founders of Natural Science Careers - a company for career counseling and soft skills seminars for natural scientists. For the Nachrichten aus der Chemie, both write about observations from their consulting work.

Issue 09/23 Phrases or invitation to a conversation?

“Let’s talk small talk.” The participants in the workshop on self-presentation grimace. “Could you convert your facial expressions into words?” I ask the group. “Well, I'm not thrilled that I even have to deal with shallow chatter at scientific conferences, which also seems to be crucial for my professional success,” complains Jens. “Sorry, it’s up to you whether you stick with empty phrases or develop the conversation further,” replies Jenny, “I love free interaction with strangers.” Irina, on the other hand, fears that she will always talk nonsense.

We can clear up some prejudices here. First: Not everything a scientist says has to be super smart. A “What brings you to this conference?” means nothing other than: “We’re welcome to talk, but we don’t have to.” Consider your efforts to start a conversation as a service to those who don't dare. Second: The disproportionate weight of networking in our professional lives neither undermines meritocracy nor devalues ​​the long years of study. Your core academic qualifications are the foundation for your Career. To score points, however, you need a broader range of skills.

The basic rules of small talk are very simple. Don't start negatively. Nobody cares that you don't like the weather, conference coffee or the delayed regional train. Also, don't go into the conversation with pre-formed assumptions. “It's probably your first time at this series of conferences, I've never seen you before,” is particularly embarrassing when it turns out that the person you're talking to is one of the organizers of the conference.

Take a playful approach and set yourself a randomly selected goal. For example, try to find out whether the person you are talking to is a biochemist, analyst or synthetic chemist. It doesn't matter whether you succeed. The game forces them to make the first move. If you go into the conversation with open questions, you let the other side talk and give them the chance to help shape the conversation.

Philipp Gramlich,

Issue 07-08/23 Breathe the space

“I'm extremely nervous when it comes to presentations,” admits Simon. “During job interviews I'm even more exposed. “I think the small talk at the beginning is the worst,” he says, summing up his fears.

In fact, the seemingly casual parts of an interview seem daunting to some. Luckily, we can overcome this stage fright. “Okay, then let’s try the simpler situation first, the presentation,” I suggest. “Please come in front of the group and show us the beginning of your last presentation.” Simon immediately begins to speak as he rises from his chair: “Thanks for inviting me to this conference. My talk is about…”

Like Simon, most people find themselves in situations that make them nervous. The speakers want to get it over with quickly and therefore start speaking too early. This creates a hectic start to a presentation – for yourself and for the audience. The speakers are out of breath when it starts and have to do several things at the same time: find a good speaking position, deal with the technology and establish contact with the audience. Such a beginning confuses the audience: Is this already part of the presentation?

In the workshop we practice these first seconds of a presentation. Enter the stage, find a seat, look around the room. At this point we pause for a moment, breathe, enjoy the friendly faces and only begin to speak when we and the audience are ready. Stage fright often goes away when the start of the performance is well practiced.

When we have small talk before a job interview, we also feel a certain rush, want to say something relevant quickly and get confused. Of course, you don't stand in front of the other person for seconds without saying a word, as in our exercise, but you should take time to take a breath.

“Please don’t think that you have to share groundbreaking insights right away during small talk,” I conclude the discussion. Small talk is a warm-up exercise for both parties. A: “Thank you very much, the journey was pleasant” with a relaxed smile is enough. If you can think of something nice, even better.

Philipp Gramlich,

Issue 06/23 Cooperation issues

In a workshop for prospective group leaders, we deal with the topic of third-party funds. Cooperation with industry has a long history in the chemical industry and is hardly considered disreputable in Germany. If the freedom of research is not restricted too much, most selection committees value industry funds like other third-party funds.

"I'm currently negotiating a partnership with a company," reports Jeff. "But I'm not at all sure whether that's ethically clean," he shares his concerns. "What kind of research do you want to do with industry?" I ask. "It's about developing a detector that the company builds into their equipment," he explains. After a few questions from the plenary, we draw a reassuring conclusion: We found no ethical problems in Jeff's cooperation. If successful, a company will offer devices with a higher resolution, which users will be happy about.

Together we think ahead. Are there research collaborations that are morally more complex than a purely technical development? "Smoking," interjects Rachel. Your comment has a kernel of truth. In the past, researchers were bought to cast doubt on the harmfulness of tobacco smoke, certain drugs, sugar, DDT, alcohol or opiates. This is still the case today: the topics are new, the tactics are the same. The scientific consensus is presented as dubious, unnecessary studies are delaying regulations or bans, problems in switching to clean alternatives are exaggerated.

In our discussion, a line emerges: Most people see purely technical developments as ethically unproblematic. The academic scientist as an evaluation body, on the other hand, raises questions.

Possible problems must therefore be addressed before the cooperation. Cooperation and non-disclosure agreements can be checked by scientists with the support of increasingly professional departments at universities: Is a desired result already specified by the study design? Are the results used selectively based on the answer? And most importantly, will the scientist be muzzled? If you answer these questions in advance, industrial cooperations are an interesting instrument for diversifying third-party funds.

Philipp Gramlich,

Issue 05/23 The pitch email

During the coffee break of a workshop on the topic of networking, two doctoral students are amused by an e-mail. "Dear Prof. Kohlenforschung, I would like to pursue a PhD at the institute of Schüth." As the workshop moves on, I refer to this email: "If you're writing to someone you don't know, how do you make your voice heard?" Tim, who spent the rest of the coffee break showing the email around, gestures to his phone: "No way."

Every e-mail starts with the most important part, because it is the most visible, the subject line. The common opinion is that the reason for contact should be stated at this point. This is indeed important, but imagine that the subject is: “Postdoc in your working group.” It's quite possible that you'll be one of many and end up on the "Read when I have time" pile for the time being. If you can make a personal connection, include it in the subject line, such as: "Recommendation from Dr. Gizdakis." If the recipient Dr. Gisdakis knows, he will read the e-mail promptly.

In some cases it will make sense to CC a contact person, in others not. This makes your message a little more personal and creates transparency. However, if you have several requests from the same contact person, you should make sure that their inbox does not fill up.
Next, a polite salutation. That sounds natural. But there are plenty of counterexamples: emails with wrong or misspelled recipient names. Finally, in the first sentence of your email, the "why" should come with one or two short sentences. In the next sentence, mention your preliminary work. Consider the brevity of your introduction and the entire email as a sample of work: will it be a time-waster to engage with you, or will it be a well-prepared, efficient interaction? Babblers usually babble on in both written and spoken form.

Close the e-mail, which makes do with a total of five sentences, with your specific request. This point also seems trivial, but scientists in particular often think that their readership can draw this conclusion themselves.

Philipp Gramlich,

Issue 04/23 The idealism wage gap

In a career workshop, we discuss how personal values ​​influence career choices. The question of whether idealism can or even has to be a selection criterion stirs tempers. "I don't want to work on marginal improvements in lifestyle products for any money in the world," Rodrigo proclaims. "Well, if you work for an NGO, you just have to stay in your shared apartment," Karsten replies mockingly. "Is that really the case?" Frederieke asks, "The more idealistic a job is, the worse it pays?"

As is so often the case, the answer is yes and no. The best-paid jobs are where a lot of money is made, such as in large corporations. These organizations have the goal of earning as much money as possible, which is even an obligation for public companies. Does that make these jobs less idealistic? Certainly not always. If work there contributes to making processes more effective and thus usually more sustainable, that can very well be a positive contribution.

Sometimes chemists can influence the topic they are working on. One lever is the shortage of skilled workers, which is slowly arriving in the life sciences and chemistry. Your workforce fills a gap. It is up to you which employer you choose: improve shampoos at X or switch to sustainable raw material sources at Y.

NGOs tend to have less money than corporations and are bound by their statutes not to pay exorbitant salaries. But that doesn't mean that all activities in the non-profit sector are badly paid. Salaries in international organizations can certainly keep up with the industry.

"With a degree in chemistry, you're in a luxury position," I summarize the discussion. Even moderate salaries allow you to move out of the shared flat and start a family. You can decide where and how you want to work without financial hardship. You can make a difference in socially relevant issues with your career choice and your commitment at work.

Philipp Gramlich,

Issue 03/23 To do or to talk?

"Science communication is of course important," says participant Wolfgang in a Career workshop. “But as a chemist, I get paid to solve problems. Communication takes over – at least in a large corporation – the PR department.”

Do we get paid for doing or for talking, or do we have to be able to do both? Is science communication a separate profession for people who relieve problem solvers of this task? Or something that is part of the everyday life of all scientists ?

In all professions we have to be able to communicate, always adapted to the respective situation. This also applies to those for whom this is not explicitly stated in the job title.

Communicating with scientists in your own specialty at the university is only part of the whole: you have to make a good impression at special conferences. Your publications will be judged by a small group in your specialist niche. In the case of third-party funding applications, your readership is already broader: they must appear understandable and relevant to colleagues from other departments. When you start cooperations, it is mostly outside of your core competence. Very courageous scientists face the source of their funds, the taxpayers: inside, and communicate with lay people.

Outside the university, the step out of our highly specialized environment is usually abrupt. The ability to justify your work to a boss who has a finance or law degree doesn't come from heaven, it's something you have to learn. Likewise, the backgrounds of your colleagues and external contacts such as customers or suppliers are often more widely spread than at the university.

So we all have to talk about our work in our professional lives, whether we want to or not. No PR department can do this work for us. The good news is that most people enjoy it once they get into it. It's not about bluntly simplifying something, but about making the importance of our topic understandable to a specific target group. Achieving that brings satisfaction.

You get paid for what you do and what you talk about in your job. So try to master both.

Philipp Gramlich,

Issue 02/23 Who needs a job advertisement?

In a workshop we will discuss the different ways of applying. Most applicants choose the classic way of responding to a job advertisement. Gabrielle opens the discussion: "I heard that I can also apply on my own initiative." "And I heard that that's nonsense," Theo replies with little diplomacy. Neubauer heard at the panel discussion of the career day? She said not to waste your time and the company's." "For which company does Dr. Neubauer?” I ask. "By a giant drug company, they should know."

Open applications can be difficult to handle for large companies: where should HR send them? If that remains unclear, open applications are usually a waste of time. The situation is different for medium-sized companies and start-ups: They are less visible than the big ones and therefore have to handle far fewer applications.

Writing an open application is more difficult than responding to a job advertisement. You lack the framework with which you can structure the application. You should therefore consider what a plausible job advertisement might look like. You construct their content from advertisements for similar positions of the same company or a competitor. Write your application for this hypothetical scenario and mention at the end of the cover letter what types of positions you would be open for. You should indicate a plausible range of positions: You don't want to be perceived as inflexible or as desperate.

I can see from Theo's forehead that he is looking for arguments to defend his statement. "In many cases there is no chance of getting a job, otherwise it would be advertised," he interjects. Personally, it happened twice to me that I received a tip: Company X wants to fill a position in the near future. In both cases I applied without the positions being advertised and – surprise – received an offer.

"Without a network and the tips from it, open applications are indeed a tough place," I reconcile the statements made by Gabrielle and Theo. When applying to job ads, it can be difficult to stand out. With unsolicited applications, you have to find out who might actually be interested in you.

Philipp Gramlich,

Issue 01/23 sample and counter sample

We discuss cover letters in a career workshop. Georg brought his application documents with him, which we will analyze together.

"I'm an enthusiastic and broad-minded chemist..." I read. "I would like to work for your company, which is known to be a leader in responsive polymers." Georg immediately jumps into the rhetorical pause that I leave after the two sentences. “I find it very difficult to praise myself, to praise employers. I feel like I'm just writing generalities."

Georg is right and he is not alone. In most cover letters there is a section that many applicants feel is an obligatory mutual belly brush. It doesn't have to be.

Self-praise is not necessary, as described in the column "Show, don't tell" (Nachr. Chem. 2019, 67(3), 23). Think more along the lines of: What is the connection between me and the employer? What do I have that no one else has? And: What does this employer offer that others hardly offer? If you cannot answer these questions, you should still invest time in self-analysis and research. Otherwise, in the worst case, you will receive an offer from an employer who does not suit you.

"But how do I know," replies Georg, "that I sound like a person with a genuine interest in that very employer?"

To find out, first examine the main statements you use to describe yourself and conduct a thought experiment: Could your lab neighbor write the exact same sentence? This is the case with phrases like, "I'm very organized." Here you only name an inanimate attribute, but give the readers no reason to believe you. But if you write: "During my part in the organizational team for the Online conference XYZ, I learned the pitfalls to be overcome when participants from different time zones and cultures come together." Few others can boast such an experience.
Then do the same test for your employer statements. For example, if several companies describe themselves as “leaders in the field of responsive polymers”, then you need to investigate further what makes this employer unique.

Philipp Gramlich,

Issue 12/22 No details

I'm doing interview training with a group of postdocs who are looking for a Career outside of the university. "What is your research about?" I ask Afsheen. After five minutes I interrupt her answer. "You let details overshadow your message," I say. "From what I understand, does your research help us 3D print cars in the future?" Afsheen raises her eyebrows. "Uh, about. But...” I cut her off again, “It's about right, unless it's really wrong. Then you have to adjust the sentence.” “It's very simplified,” she murmurs.

"Simple is good," I reply. “Rather than go into detail, add a sentence why it makes sense to print cars. production speed? Costs? Something like that.” Afsheen remains skeptical. “My research isn't about the whole car, just the body.” “You can always zoom in further into your research if someone is interested. But no recruiter wants you to really go into detail."

It is often difficult for scientists to make something simpler than it is. Every day you work on a tiny piece of the puzzle in a larger whole. Moreover, due to exceptions and frameworks, their results are often very nuanced and their stories about them therefore complicated. scientists have learned for years to show others the last decimal place in order to be considered competent. And when communicating with other scientists , it is important to present the details carefully.

But when you're speaking to laypeople, it's your job to get to the point quickly and craft a main message in a way that's understandable and relevant to the audience. Of course, there are risks involved. Some listeners love to complain when something isn't 100% right. But grumbling can be avoided if you add, for example, "Broadly speaking, that means..." or "Put simply, I'm working on..." This will reassure the critical listener and at the same time give you a better chance of having a good conversation.

Karin Bodewits,

Issue 11/22 The focus of the presentation

I am working with a group of doctoral students to prepare their presentations for a congress. “Who exactly did you give this lecture to?” I ask Mathieu, who has just finished his presentation. He shot through 38 PowerPoint slides in 14 minutes. "For you," he replies. "Unfortunately, it didn't reach me," I say. The presentation reminded me of someone who recently told me they play audiobooks at 1.5x speed to hear more books in less time. My comment on this was: It's not about the amount of books you read, but what you take away from them. Mathieu was way too quick and way too detailed. "In addition, the audience will be upset that you exceeded your speaking time," I conclude. "What should I do?" he asks.

My answer: "Increase the signal-to-noise ratio." With a short ten-minute speaking time, you can get exactly one main point, no more. So identify what you want your audience to take away. They then support that message with three or four slides. Take only aspects that support this main message. If necessary, you can discuss details in the question and answer session – if someone is interested.

“But it is important that I show all the data. Maybe I can quickly show a few slides without explaining them,” suggests Mathieu. "Like a picture book without text but with boring pictures?" I ask. Mathieu sighs. "And if I shorten the introductory story?"

If the audience doesn't understand the question and the relevance of your research, they will back out within the first minute. It doesn't have to listen to you. You have to convince your audience of that. You do this by finding a catchy beginning for your story: What does your research contribute to this world? "If you take that introduction away, you might as well give your lecture in front of your bathroom mirror."

Mathieu wants to impress with his presentation but ignores the audience's wishes. But the audience is the focus of these ten minutes. "Think of this and not of yourself," I conclude. "Then both sides get more out of it."

Philipp Gramlich,

Issue 10/22 The order in the CV

“Do I actually write my application documents chronologically or counter-chronologically?” Valeria asked in an application workshop. "As little as possible," I reply, which obviously does not satisfy the desire for a simple answer. I add: "For the parts where it has to be, i.e. professional experience and education: counter-chronologically, i.e. from the current parts to the older ones." It seems logical to structure the entire application documents in counter-chronological order. However, this demand for temporal order has disadvantages.

In the cover letter, applicants often retell the highlights of their CV in the form of an essay, a soporific diligence exercise for the readership. The cover letter is the text that can be formulated most freely. Therefore, you can concentrate on what connects you with the employer: "From Dr. Sanchez, I learned three years ago at Analytica that your company...” This sentence fragment shows a long-term, proven interest in an employer, a personal connection and good documentation skills. Weaknesses can also be addressed there: "Although I do not yet have the required fluent knowledge of German, I have already learned two foreign languages autodidactically at B2 level: ..." This will prevent you from being prematurely screened out because of a missing criterion.

In your CV, too, you can partially detach yourself from the chronology. Let's assume that five years ago you acquired an additional qualification that fits the employer like a glove. This is easily lost in chronological parts. You can make a highlight visible at the beginning of the CV by listing it with three to five indents.

In the body of the resume, you can do yourself and your readers another favor: Summarize your skills in one section. As a result, the descriptions in the chronological section are shorter and redundancies are eliminated. Boring lists like poster presentations or workshops attended can be condensed into descriptions of skills. Advantage: You can arrange the skills in any way you like, emphasizing aspects that are most interesting for the applicants. They will thank you - hopefully with an invitation.

Philipp Gramlich,

Issue 09/22 Where diversity is to be expected

Where is the diversity of your colleagues higher: at the university or in a typical industrial company?” I ask in a career workshop. I can tell from the faces that everyone finds the question too easy. After a break, Xavier takes pity: “In my project I work together with Igor, Pranoti and Ah Lam. My girlfriend works in the industry with Max, Klara and Christian in a team. This is the raw data; I don't know where it's more diverse." If we leave it at the geographical origins, Xavier is right: Except for start-ups from the university and a few large corporations whose teams are actually as international as Marketing promises us, the university offers a more international environment. I dig deeper: “But diversity is a broader concept. What about the other aspects?” There is still interdisciplinarity, level of education or age.

If you describe your research project at the university as interdisciplinary, then you work as a chemist with a biologist or a physicist, for example. In industry, this is suddenly becoming broader. Imagine the intellectual challenge of discussing your findings with a boss who has a law or business degree.

In terms of educational level, the university is probably the least diverse work environment. Most of the people you work with during your PhD and postdoc have a PhD or will have one in the foreseeable future. In industry you have contacts with people with different levels of education. This also challenges your ability to communicate.

Finally, age: Apart from your supervisor, you mainly deal with people in their thirties at the university. Here, too, the industry covers a broader spectrum. The classic: the university graduate who has to manage employees who have 30 years of professional experience.
Finally, I come back to Xavier's statement: "It sounded like you see the international environment as a plus point for the university." Looking for companies that work internationally. If you are generally looking for a diverse work environment with intellectual challenges, then a treasure trove could be waiting for you in the industry.

Philipp Gramlich,

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last modified: 08.09.2023 11:59 H from N/A