You Can Only Get So Far On Your Own
I wouldn’t be here today with the mentors I’ve had even if I only had them for a short amount of time
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Last month I dipped my toe into the “career” advice arena with How To Get a Job In The Chemical Industry and it has been one of my most read newsletters. With this one data point in hand I can only conclude that periodically writing about career related things is useful and desired by the readership. My career related advice will also be written through the lens of my experience because I don’t know anything else.
If you are reading this then you are somewhat concerned about your career and wanting to do well in your career. You have also probably read that having a professional mentor, someone that is senior to you and in the same field, is a key to being successful in your own career. The problem is that it is hard to find mentors when you are explicitly looking for them and you might not even realize you have a mentor until its too late.
I am going to write about some mentors that I have had even though at the time I might not have realized they were my mentors. Perhaps my story can help inform your own story and we can be better at recognizing our own mentors in people we might not have expected.
I met Odile when I was an intern at the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute in 2007. At the time Odile was doing her PhD at the University of Maryland, College Park (where I was an undergraduate), but she was doing her research at the Museum Conservation Institute. She taught me about Raman spectroscopy and was one of the first people I got to do actual research with as an undergraduate.
Odile was not the person who had “hired” me as an intern for the summer, but we were colleagues working on a project together that she was leading. I essentially learned how to operate different instruments such as an FTIR and a Raman spectrometer during this internship (I was 19 at the time) and I got to analyze a set of cellulose acetate samples that were from the Museum of American History. Our goal was to figure out why some of these cellulose acetate coupons were degrading faster than others and try to conserve a piece of American history.
During my analysis I accidently burned a small spot into one of the coupons with a laser. I had just damaged history in my mind, but I went to Odile and told what had happened after debating if I should try and keep it a secret. These samples had been photographed by the leader of the project who was also my boss, but eventually I came clean and all was forgiven to some extent (I kept working there for another year). I think there was probably more that went down behind the scenes, but we eventually identified what was causing these samples to degrade and we published a paper where I was an author. The fact that things stayed smooth throughout the process from what I could tell I credit to Odile.
Odile showed me in how to be a scientific diplomat. Often when you are working in an art or art adjacent environment people can become difficult or that is what I have seen and Odile seemed to be friends with everyone even though there were clear battle lines drawn at times. She taught me that “please” and “thank you” are free and that giving credit to others is a sign of strength as opposed to weakness. When you walk in on someone doing some online shopping on their computer at work its better to tell them what you think of the shirt they are considering as opposed to admonishing them for shopping online. No one does anything on their own in the sciences or in art conservation I think for that matter.
Julia and the Vedernikov Research Group
Eventually I would have to pursue other paths outside of the Smithsonian due to the financial crisis of 2008 and that is how I ended up doing research with Andrei Vedernikov. While I didn’t work directly with Andrei I did get to work with his top graduate student Julia.
Julia was the graduate student in a research group who everyone respected because she was the best. When I worked with her she had published at least two Journal of American Chemistry Society papers on her own research and even more in journals like Organometallics. Everyone in the group viewed her as the person who would have a good suggestion on a tough synthetic chemistry situation or knew where to look to help you out. I viewed Julia as the idealized version of a graduate student in chemistry. I tried to adopt what I saw as best practices from Julia to my own time as a graduate student.
Julia mentored me in how to be original. As an undergraduate its very easy to fall into this trap of following the procedure or recipe and when things don’t work it must have been our fault. When you transition from an undergraduate to a graduate student or start doing research as your job you need to have your own thoughts and ideas.
During my time at the Smithsonian I was under a lot of direction, but when I worked for Julia she showed me how make some compounds from her own research and the techniques needed for oxygen sensitive synthesis (Schlenk line, glove box, etc). Julia was also writing her thesis, trying to graduate, and looking for a postdoc so she kind of left me up to my own devices in the lab after awhile and eventually I was able to do things more or less on my own. She would push me to think for myself in the lab and after she left I was essentially on my own. This is when I started to think for myself and try my own ideas in the lab even though I felt extremely unprepared. I was in a terrible position here after I graduated, but I ended up getting a job off Craigslist.
One other thing Julia taught me was that its OK to publish even small little bits of research that you didn’t have time to make into a big research paper. I would do this as well later on in graduate school to great effect.
I met Olmert at The University of Maryland in his class Medieval to Renaissance British Literature and then I took his other class Modern British Drama. Before I decided to major in chemistry I had a desire to be an English major, but I felt that was a bit naïve or useless in the sense that I couldn’t fully articulate what I would do with that degree except to try and “write for a living.” I ended up majoring in chemistry since I was good at it and it seemed more likely to lead to a good job, but by the time my senior year rolled around I had some credits that I needed to fill with non-major courses.
Even though I was learning quantum and nuclear chemistry in my other classes and doing research with Julia in the lab I still loved reading and writing. Since I was at a large state university I decided to pick an English class that looked interesting. I’ll never forget the very first day Olmert told us we had to write at least 40 pages for his class where 20 pages would be for him and 20 pages would be for us. I was intimated. I felt like an imposter. Did I really think I could hang with these English majors? Prior to this my last English class had been a technical writing class where I had barely gotten a B.
I did well enough in Medieval to Renaissance British Literature that I signed up for Modern British Drama in my last semester. Since I lived near the metro station and it was a requirement to attend a few plays by British playwrights I got a chance to see Arthur Miller’s The Price. I still think about that play even today and how the choices we make now can have profound impacts on us later in life. The regret of not trying for things we once dreamt of might come back to haunt us as a wily Russian-Jewish furniture dealer looking to get a good price on your recently deceased parents’ furniture.
I think professors that you remember long after you graduate are the ones who figured out how to mentor you in a classroom with 20–30 other students. Maybe I was a better writer than I thought or Olmert went easy on me, but I got As in both his classes. He told me I was a good writer in front of the whole class and he has been telling me I was a good writer years after I had graduated through Facebook. He would read things that I wrote online and give me advice after I had graduated and long after I had been his student.
Michael Olmert is an Emmy award winning writer, playwright, published author of books, and an English professor. When I started writing on Medium and attempting a mixture of fiction and non-fiction he told me that I should aim for a bigger audience and that the quality of my writing is actually good enough for somewhere like the New York Times. Olmert’s confidence in my writing eventually led to my attempt at something ambitious like this newsletter. The idea that I could write for living lives here right now and I’ll never wonder about “if I tried to do it when I was younger” (see Arthur Miller reference).
Olmert mentored me in that we are more than our major or our profession. I wouldn’t be writing this newsletter today without having been his student. His belief in me and I think it is fair to say his continued belief in me even though we have not written to each other in some time propel me to keep typing out words and sending them out to be read.
Richard Gross and The Research Group
Rich and the rest of the group did more than teach me. I view my time there as if we were soldiers in trenches fighting a war while Rich was in the bunker at the far end of the trench trying to get more money. We were under an immense amount of stress, but we helped each other and we had some great allies at different universities both domestic and abroad.
A diverse and vibrant research group that has collaborations at different universities in different countries taught me that I am at my best when I collaborate with similar minded people. The best results come from teams where working together is more than the sum of the team members. This type of collaboration might seem obvious, but there are a lot of myths and tropes perpetuated by movies and TV shows that there is “one brilliant scientist who does everything.” This could not be farther from the truth. If you want abundance in innovation then there needs to be a critical mass of scientists and engineers who respect one another and this is true of both academia and industry, perhaps even more critical in industry.
My time in graduate school was critical to development of myself as a scientist. I found my limits and I found support from my fellow group members and guidance on how to take criticism from Rich. I don’t think I would be in the position I am now without my time in graduate school and being part of a such a diverse group both culturally and scientific research focuses.
Professional scientists often work with a lot of different personalities and different job functions. Typically we are somewhere near the center of product development and collaborate internally only developing new technologies, but to bring those technologies to market we rely on other functions. Being able to collaborate and have an idea of what the other functions do and being able to anticipate future needs or know certain rules can make you very successful.
Neil Irwin calls this Pareto-Optimal in his book How to Win in a Winner Take All World. Being a chemist who knows some chemical engineering, materials science, marketing, patent law, chemical regulations, what it takes to sell a product, and how to communicate will make you invaluable to any chemical company.
Where Do I Go From Here?
When you are a student, but especially a graduate student all you can think about is surviving to the next level because there are so many opportunities to get fired either through failing classes, failing cumulative exams, failing a candidacy defense, failing in research, failing to get papers published, failing to write a thesis, and failing during the final defense. All I could think about was getting past the hurdle in front of me and then once I was past one hurdle it was time for the next and then the next until the final hurdle of “Getting a Job in the Chemical Industry.” I’ve done it three times now and each time I think my job has gotten better in some way, but once you get to where you are intending to go how do you know where to go next?
This coming spring it will have been 5 years since my thesis defense and I will be well into my second year in my third job as a scientist post PhD. I’ve done a lot of networking on LinkedIn and a former research scientist turned patent attorney gave me some good advice:
As you may have guessed from my profile, it was not a straight journey. Think of your career as a continuous trade-up process. You can do something now. Focus on what else you can do well with what you currently have. Think of your career as a sequence of chess moves. Generally, you want to make a transition on an upswing of the economy, and dig in and consolidate your position and plan your next move during a downturn. The answer is outside and inside. Outside — in the form of advice from competent people, and inside — in the form of object assessment of your abilities. This may be a little cryptic — but you get the meaning of it when you try to act on it. Whatever you do, make sure you do take an action and never let your plan stop in your planning phase. Hope this helps.
Not a straight journey. I think all of us should take some solace here. It is really difficult once you get into the industry to know exactly what you should be doing. There is typically no clear cut path towards “success” insofar as I can tell. About 50% or less of being successful in your position as a scientist actually involves being a good scientist in my opinion. Even the best scientists that I’ve worked with have been laid off.
The one thing I know from being in the chemical industry for the past few years is that everyone in it is seeking stability. Unfortunately, I think we are in for decades of instability. If Covid-19 taught us anything it is that being resilient or anti-fragile will be important for a future that is ripe for change and disruption. Resilience is when you can survive the change whereas anti-fragile means you thrive from the chaos of the change. These are two of many reasons why I started writing a newsletter.
The best case scenario of this newsletter is that I get smarter, grow my own network, maybe generate some side income, and use this as a way to figure out the mid-game of my career. The worst case scenario of this newsletter is no one reads it, but I write more, progress as a writer, and learn more about how the world of chemicals works. This is an asymmetrical risk/reward scenario that I could not turn down. My goal right now is to make it to a year of writing The Polymerist. I hope that I not only have more answers than when I started, but that I am also better at asking questions.
A tool to try and make sense of what you want your life to be in you are a scientists can be be found here. I periodically check in with it every quarter. This is where I generated that picture from above.
Have you had an amazing mentor? Let us know in the comments or if you just want to tell me then respond to this email.
Have you figured out your career completely and are just living your ideal life? Let us know in the comments or if you just want to tell me then respond to this email.
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The views here are my own and do not represent those of my employer nor should they be considered investment advice.
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