Science Job Hunting – Part 2, Resumes

All right science readers, you’ve decided you want a new job (or like me, that decision was made for you). You’ve identified some positions you’re interested in. It is time to start writing your resumes. Here are a few of the tips that I have learned on how to write resumes for science jobs, from both a job hunter and as someone who has been a hiring manager.

Note: these are tips for getting an INDUSTRY position. I have never applied nor hired for academic positions so these tips are unlikely to help you get a job as a professor.

#1 – Your resume is the trailer, not the feature film

Ask yourself: what is your goal with your resume?

Did you answer “to get a job”? If so, you’re missing the purpose of the resume. Your resume will NOT get you a job. No hiring manager is going to read your resume and say, “let’s offer her the position.” They will, however, say, “call this person up, I would like to meet her. She has some of the skills we are looking for.” That’s your goal with your resume: to get that call back from the hiring manager.

The purpose of your resume is to introduce yourself. It should give a brief overview of relative experience and skills, but it should be NO MORE THAN 2 PAGES. Seriously. I should be able to print it out on single page.

You need to make sure that everything you include is relevant. This means that you should axe the “objective section”. I have yet to ever read an objective statement on a resume that gives me some meaningful piece of information about the candidate. They all say something to the effect of “gaining meaningful employment…” blah blah blah. Of course your  objective is to get a job, why else would you apply? This statement offers your potential employer no insight into who you are and takes up valuable space.

The other common section that you can do away with is the skills section. It tends to look like this:

  • GCMS
  • LCMS
  • NMR
  • IR
  • XRF
  • Microsoft office

Does that look like a list of techniques that any undergrad with a BSc in Chemistry would possess? Yes! It tells me nothing about your experience with those skills, or the depth to which you understand them. Did you learn how to operate an LCMS in an undergrad lab class or did you spend years studying the technique? (Also, it is 2018. You don’t need to state you understand Microsoft Office.) Cut this section – it doesn’t add anything.

You can whittle down your past jobs and publications etc. by stating things like “selected experience”, “related experience”, “selected publications”. You usually don’t need to include references on your resumes, you will likely be asked for this near the end of the hiring process. Most of my job offers were made contingent on employment reference checks. So well past the resume reading stage.

#2 – Resumes not resume

You need a different resume for every position that you apply for. The meat is likely to be the same, but there will be subtle changes in each application that demonstrate the skills that each posting requires. Keep in mind that many companies use HR software to screen through the hundreds of applications that they receive. This software is looking for key words that are used in the posting. Does the posting say “client” or “customer”? Do they use “KPI” or “key performance indicators”? Mirror the language in your resume to the language in the posting. This will likely ensure that you are hitting the key words the software is searching for. Also, do remember that if you’re successful, your resumes will be read by real, human people, so make sure that they still coherent to human not just a robot.

#3 – Achievements not duties

Remember, you are trying to sell yourself, and demonstrate why you are better than the 399 other folks that applied for the position. This is where you want to give examples and demonstrate you have the skills listed in the posting. You want to state “you did [x] which resulted in [really awesome thing] [y]”.

For example:

Business Development Representative, Environmental Laboratory
  • Sold multiple lines of environmental testing in accordance with Alberta Tier 1 and 2 regulations

This is a perfectly fine description of what a BDR would do for an environment chemistry laboratory, but it does really say anything valuable. Compare it with:

Business Development Representative, Environmental Laboratory
  • Built strong relationships with environmental consultants which resulted in a 300% increase in sales over 3 years.

The second case says a lot more about the skills. You have demonstrated that you have sales skills; you have demonstrated that you have relationship building skills.

By framing your skills and experience in this way, it will also help you really evaluate how your work contributed to the team and prepare you for your interview.

You can also adjust these accomplishments to match the job posting. I have 4 years of business development experience but I have applied for technical chemistry positions. I gained skills in business development that are applicable. I highlight those accomplishments rather than my cut-throat sales accomplishments. This will also allow you to apply for jobs where you know you have the skills, but maybe you didn’t have the specific job title they were looking for. For example: I applied for a position in a non-profit as a fund developer. There is a lot of overlap in necessary skills for business development and fund development. I was a top candidate for this job, up against someone who had worked for non-profits in the past because I focused on the what I achieved which demonstrated I had the necessary skills.

#4 – Read the instructions and spell check

It may seem minor to throw out resumes for spelling errors; however, when grabbing from a pile of hundreds, you need to cut out a lot of people, and this is one way to do so. Make sure you spell check. Have someone else read it to be sure. This is especially important if you are applying for a position in a language where you are not a native speaker. These spelling/grammatical errors won’t be a big deal once you’re interviewing or even in the job, but it can make a difference in the application stage.

For the instructions, do what the positing says. Do you need a cover letter? Should you apply directly to a hiring manager? Should it be one document or two? Word or PDF? Make sure you follow the instructions.

#5 – Some random things

This is my experience of what makes for a strong resume. There may be more details out there from other hiring managers and other scientists. I hope you find it useful. But I won’t be hurt if you don’t.

I can’t stress enough about making the resume short and obvious. I have had to sift through 200 applications. If I can’t find what I need, I toss your resume. I will not read past page 2. If what I need isn’t up front and centre, I am very unlikely to get to it. Short and sweet.

Put your education near the end – I want to see your relevant experience and skills before seeing your education.

If you’re a student, I caution you on applying for industry using your boss’s academic CV as a template. Just as I can’t help you get a job in academia, your graduate supervisor may not be the best resource for how to get a job in industry. What your graduate supervisor can do, however, is put you in touch with former students and other people in their network who can help you. I know that I will personally be happy to help any student that any of the professors from my alma mater put me in touch with. That’s what networking is about.

Good luck and happy job hunting!



Science Job Hunting – Part 1, The First Day

I have a confession: 3 months ago, I lost my job. I joined the ranks of THOUSANDS of Calgarians who had to have that dreaded conversation with their boss that is basically summed up with “sorry, your job doesn’t exist now”. This represented one of the WORST days for me professionally. As the primary wage earner for my family, I became very aware of the two other people who depend on my paycheque, and was hit with the feeling that I was somehow letting them down. I liked my job. I liked my coworkers. I liked my clients. I even liked my boss (I still do). Having to leave was so difficult and shocking. There is no other way to express that experience other than


However, I am the eternal optimist. Let’s find the positives and look at what I have gained from the experience. Here are a few of the things that I learned from that experience:

First – check your emotions.

I am not generally an “angry” person. It isn’t my first reaction to a situation, though I do have a well-known, slow-burning temper. But there is a lot in this situation that can make you angry.

“I came back from maternity leave early for this job!”

“I met all of my KPIs!”

“We are sitting at my desk! This is so humiliating!”

There’s a reason that every HR policy says that these types of situations should happen at a different location, when a lot of other employees are not around etc., because people are likely to get mad or upset and you don’t want that at the office. Also, it is humiliating, no matter how you try to mitigate that, and having an audience of now former coworkers really ups that “humiliation” factor. Of course, I worked for a company that didn’t do that. We were in fact in my office, at my desk, with my team members all going about their normal work day.

BUT I did check my emotions. There were no tears, no anger, though there was obvious disappointment. I am so glad I did because the result was that I did something that not many people had ever seen before: I announced my own termination to my staff. I was actually the person that rounded up my team, explained the situation, thanked them for their work, and wished them the best of luck. It couldn’t have been a better way for me to walk out: my head was held very high.

Checking your emotions also helps you make sure that your positive references remain intact and you can genuinely say that your boss was just acting in the best interest of the company, because that’s their job. I am now at that place where I can genuinely say, without malice, that my boss was doing his job. And if getting rid of my position saves the jobs of the other members of my team, then that’s the best decision for the company and I can’t fault him.

You may not get over the anger right away, and you don’t have to. But keeping it in check until you leave the building can leave a lasting, positive impression on the people who worked with you. No one can take that away from you. You may even surprise yourself with your mettle.

Second – reach out to your support system/network

Once I was in my car driving home, that’s when I began to cry. I knew EXACTLY who my first call needed to be – it was to my dad. Why? Because 20 years ago, the same thing happened to him: after 20 years working at the bank, he was laid off during a merger. I was 15 at the time and I remember the look on his face when he came in the door that day. I can hear his voice. He was the primary wage earner for his family. 4 other people counted on his paycheque. He understood. He knew where I was coming from. He knew the shock, the anger, the outrage, and disappointment. But he also reminded me that it ended up working out way better for him to lose that job. He went on to one that was significantly more rewarding and enjoyable.

During the job hunting process, I began to reach out to my network (more on the importance of building your network in a later post). As I began talking to key contacts in my network, I discovered something I hadn’t considered before in the importance of keeping a network: support. Every single person I talked to had been laid off at some point. They were understanding. They knew the anger and sadness I felt. And every single one of them confirmed: don’t worry, you’ll find something else that’s great. I began receiving ideas of next steps, other references of people to talk to, and general support and encouragement. This is something that nearly everyone in my network had experienced at least once. I was not alone and definitely shouldn’t be embarrassed.

Third – everything is negotiable

When your position is terminated, you will likely receive some sort of severance package. Generally this package is designed to be just enough to make litigation not a worthwhile pursuit. Doesn’t mean you can’t ask for more*. To do this, it helps to know the specifics of your contract and your rights.** Several years of Business Development experience gave me that courage, and I walked away no longer bound by a non-compete clause.

Get your contracts in writing ALWAYS. Read them carefully – do you have a non-compete? How does that impact you if you are terminated? Get the terms of your severance in writing. Don’t settle for any “handshake agreements” with your now former employer. You are in a position of little power here, but you can still ask for things. Does your termination package address all of your questions? If not, ask for clarification.

*Note: don’t be unreasonable or an asshole here. You still want positive letters of reference. Think of doing this the same way you’d negotiate a job offer.

**I am not a lawyer. Don’t take this as expert advice on detailed contract negotiation. I am just saying that you are having a conversation with your employer – you get to say things and ask things too.

Fourth – It gets better

3 months have passed and I now have job offers. YAY! I don’t harbour anger toward my former boss. I look forward to the next time our paths cross and we can chat as colleagues. I learned so many skills while I worked for him and I now have the opportunity to take those skills onto the next chapter of my career. There is something better waiting at the end of this experience.

Curious how a scientist goes job hunting? Well check back soon where I will share my experience on how to get a job in science.

Chemicals are Your Friends-Well Most of Them Anyway

As a chemist, one of the hardest things that I deal with is the fact that most people HATE chemistry. It seems to be the most hated of all the sciences. And of all of the chemistry classes people take in university, the one they hate the most seems to be organic chemistry. This adds to my heartbreak because that is the type of chemist I am. I love chemistry and I really love organic chemistry. You don’t spend 11 years in university studying something that you only have tepid feelings about. So when the first thing people say to me after they find out I am a chemist is “ugh, I hated chemistry,” I start to feel defensive. “Oh ya, well…I hate your chosen profession…you…accountant.” This is of course made worse by idiots who have no clue what chemistry is and want to scare you with “chemicals” and making them sound like something nefarious that Snidely Whiplash is pouring into your water supply.

Here’s the thing: not all chemicals are bad. Actually most of them are great. In fact, you sitting there, reading this, you are a giant, walking, talking chemical reactor. Your cells use chemical energy to function. Your food is all chemicals. Your body is doing some pretty complex chemistry just to make your heart beat. The chemical bonds in fats, proteins, and sugars are broken down and put back together in important ways that allow you to survive. Chemistry is life.

There are some chemicals that are terrible for you, both man made and natural. Strychnine comes to mind as a chemical that is not so good for you. Botulinum toxin, produced by the bacterium C. botulinum, causes botulism-not a good chemical, unless you’re the bacterium. Man made chemicals are an interesting mix: we make them to solve certain problems, but they might also create a few problems of their own. Here’s a quiz for you: name the chemical that you think has saved the most lives? I am talking of hundreds of millions of lives. What did you guess? Did you guess DDT? That’s right, the pesticide DDT has actually saved the most lives. It is the most effective chemical in killing malaria-carrying mosquitoes. It is also inexpensive compared to alternate pesticides, which is matters greatly, since the vast majority of people impacted by malaria are in the developing world. Now, I am not advocating for the use of DDT. Its environmental impact is severe. But I do think it highlights some of the complexities regarding what makes a chemical “good” or “bad”.

Now when people hear chemical names, they sometimes get scared because they think “well that sounds like a toxic compound I do know, so this must be bad too”. I remember hearing a woman say that the traces of tertiary butylhydroquinone in fryer oil was harmful to human health because “butyl” is like the lighter fluid “butane”. These two compounds are so different, it is kind of like saying Michael and Michelle at your office are practically the same person because their names are so close. I hear variations of this argument a lot. “This chemical is ALMOST the same as a really bad one, therefore it must also be bad.” The thing is, when you look at the periodic table, the different between each type of element (all 118 of them) differ only by one single proton. But that proton makes a huge difference. Just like changing one proton in an atom changes the element, changing one atom in a molecule can drastically change that molecule.

Take a deep breath in, let it out. Are you still alive? Great! That is because what you breathed in was mostly nitrogen gas (and some oxygen of course, but mostly nitrogen.) The nitrogen in our atmosphere is comprised of two atoms of nitrogen bonded together with three bonds (triple bonded). That nitrogen floats around not killing anyone, perfectly happy and inert. Now, let’s change one of those nitrogen atoms to carbon. So instead of two nitrogen atoms triple bonded together we have one carbon atom triple bonded to one nitrogen atom. Take a deep breath of this compound and now you’re dead. See one carbon atom triple bonded to one nitrogen atom is cyanide.

So the moral of this post is that not all chemicals are bad. Don’t believe anyone who says they have something for you that is “chemical-free” because they are lying. If you have questions about chemicals, especially additives and preservatives, send me a message: I would love to answer your chemistry questions, especially if your source is food babe, Gwyneth Paltrow, or Dr. Oz: you deserve someone who actually knows what they are talking about.

I love chemistry!

Pharmaceuticals-How Are They Produced?

I thought I would talk a little about pharmaceuticals. Chances are you take some, know someone who takes them, and have all complained about their prices. A few years ago while I was in grad school I took a pharmaceutical chemistry class taught by scientists from Gilead, and I must say it was very enlightening. I thought I would share some of the lessons I learned and some of the key problems that face those charged with making these chemicals that many people depend on.
Let’s start with a poignant news story. What would you do if you were suddenly unable to get a hold of a medication that you require? When a company decides to stop producing a compound, what can be done? Is that right or wrong? How should medications be priced? These are questions that are very difficult to answer.
To understand a little bit about the complexity of the issues with the pharmaceutical industry I think it is first important to understand how these medications are produced. I know I found it eye opening. Guess how long it takes to produce a drug? 0-5 yrs? 5-10 yrs? 10-15 yrs? 15-20 yrs? If you guessed 15-20 yrs, then you would be correct. It takes 20 years and (as of 2008) $1.7 billion to develop a SINGLE drug. 
The timeline:
Discovery/Preclinical Trials
Time: 1-3 years
In this time, the company will begin by identifying a medical need, such as anti-HIV medications, and then study that disease to determine where drugs can target the disease and the possible interactions of the drug. This is where potential contenders for a drug are determined. This amounts to some 30 000 chemical compounds will be screened! These preclinical trials will involve pharmacodynamics and pharmacokinetics.
Pharmacodynamics: studies how a drug interacts with a target-this is the impact of the drug on the body. Is the drug going to do what is was intended to do? Is it going to do something else? 
Pharmacokinetics: this is how a drug is transported to the target-this is really looking at the impact of the body on the drug. This looks at four things: absorption, distribution, metabolism, and excretion. Remember, your body is one self contained complex chemical reactor. I think one excellent example of the importance of studying this effect is the notorious thalidomide. There are two versions of thalidomide: R and S. One is an anti-emetic (R) while the other causes birth defects (S). Yes it is possible to separate the two and give a person only the version that DOES NOT cause birth defects; however, once in the body, the drug is inter-converted to the other form (a process called racemisation).
Any potential drug will be screened for toxicity using two species: one rodent and one non-rodent. They will be tested for single and repeated dosing. They will be tested by various delivery methods. (Side note: a 14-day rat trial costs $250 000.)
During this time, chemists will be answering the questions of: can the drug be made? How many steps (hint: more steps, more costly, more trouble)? What are the yields (not all chemical conversions give 100% yield-actually very few give 100%)? Is chemical manufacturing possible, feasible, and affordable? 
After all of this, about 100-200 of the 30 000 compounds will make it on to the next step. 
Safety Review
Time: about 30 days 
This is where the pharmaceutical company is trying to get approval from human clinical trials. All of the information gleaned in the preclinical trials must be presented to the regulatory bodies, including the synthetic routes for production. This is also the time that a company will take out a patent on a compound (a process in the tens of thousands of dollars for each one). 
Clinical Trial: Phases 1, 2, 3:
Time: 2-10 years
This is where the human trials begin. 
Phase 1: 
– 10-100 volunteers
– months to 1 year
– involves “proof of concept” and determines whether the drug is adequate, safe, tolerable. 
– 50-70% of the compounds (that made it to clinical trial) will be abandoned. 
Phase 2:
– 50-500 patients 
– 2 years
– 60% of the compounds (that made it to phase 2) will be abandoned
Phase 3:
– 500-2000 patients
– 3-5 years
– only 4-10% of compounds will succeed
Time: up to 7 years
This is the stage where regulatory bodies determine if a drug is safe enough and effective enough to sell to the population. 
Now if you have been keeping track, we are about 15 years from when the patent was filed to the point that the drug can be sold. A patent is only good for 20 years; therefore, a company only has about 5 years to recover the cost of the production. This also means that drugs that are currently hitting the market were just getting out of preclinical trials in 1998.
During this time, optimisation is ongoing to make the manufacturing process safer, cheaper, and more efficient. However, if the process is changed too much, it may mean that a company will need to refile their drug for approval. 
There is lots of interesting chemistry in pharmaceutical production. I think I will leave that for another entry, but if you have found this interesting, please check out these course notes for reference material.  

I originally published this on Chemistry is Awesome

The Trouble With Science Communication

I dedicate this post to Dr. Brent Rudyk and Nathaniel O’Coin.

The other day Nathaniel asked me “What is the Canadian Light Source?” He has a friend who was recently doing research at the CLS and didn’t know what it was. His friend was doing near-edge x-ray absorption spectorscopy. I hit a communication block: how do I explain this? I mean, I know what the technique is; I had a number of colleagues while I was in grad school making trips to the CLS and yet I found myself struggling to explain what CLS and near-edge x-ray spectroscopy is. I mentioned it on facebook and my friend, Dr. Rudyk, came back with a GREAT explanation: “CLS is a synchrotron, where highly intense, tunable x-rays are created by bending near light speed electrons. X-ray absorption near-edge spectroscopy (XANES) is the process of promoting a core electron into conduction states and analyzing the resulting “edge-jump” and the general vicinity of the jump.” I was excited. I couldn’t have said it better. I immediately recalled the classes I discussed it in. But here’s the problem: Nathaniel still didn’t quite understand. See he has no chemistry or science background, meaning that the terms “conduction state”, “edge-jump” still didn’t help him understand what was going on.

This whole situation really demonstrates the challenge in communicating science to a non-technical audience. My friend Brent is a wonderful teacher, easy to talk to, and is a great communicator, and yet, his perfect description of XANES and CLS still didn’t help Nathaniel understand. How do we, as scientists, make our explanations more accessible to non-technical audiences without coming off as condescending? This is what the mission of Curiosity Science is all about. I hope that those of you who follow with interest bare with us as we learn to talk about science most accessibly and I hope that other scientists interested in contributing to the project recognise the challenge and the wonderful opportunity that we have.

So with all of this in mind: here is my attempt at explaining the CLS and XANES-really I am just editing Brent’s answer because it really is one of the best explanations I have read. The Canadian Light Source is located at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. It is a synchrotron, which is a source of light generated by accelerating electrons to nearly the speed of light (2.99 x 10^8 m/s) and then bending these electrons using very powerful electro-magnets. As the electrons bend, they emit intense, highly focused beams of light. This light is at different energies: some are x-rays, others are infrared or ultraviolet. These beams that come off allow scientists to do various experiments depending on the wavelength of light.

Different wavelengths of light have different energies. X-ray is much more intense energy than infrared. When an atom absorbes an x-ray, there is enough energy to kick an electron that is closer to the nucleus of an atom to a higher energy state (excited state). These are the core electrons and require a lot more energy to excite or remove compared to electrons located farther away from the nucleus of an atom. The different types of electrons have very specific energies that are required to excite them, this gives rise to the “absorption edge” because in the actual spectrum it looks like a vertical line, like the edge of a cliff. The specific “edges” that one would see in a spectrum are element specific. You can therefore tell what elements are present, what their oxidation state is etc.

So there you go. There is a little bit about the CLS and what you can do with it. The CLS is a pretty cool, state of the art research centre. It is definitely a claim to fame for the University of Saskatchewan and the City of Saskatoon.

Also, Thanks Brent, for helping me in trying to explain XANES to the world. Let me know if I missed something!

Welcome to Curiosity Science!

Hello Folks and welcome to Curiosity Science!
I previously wrote a blog called Chemistry is Awesome, where I answered your chemistry questions in a non-technical, jargon-free manner. It was fun, but I found myself stymied by the fact that science is so much more than just chemistry and many of the things I wanted to share involved other sciences on top of chemistry alone. I wanted to share all science because really Science is Awesome.
Enter Curiosity Science. This is for anyone curious about any type of science. Science impacts all of us. It isn’t meant for just a handful of people who spent years studying it. Science is meant for everyone. Again, this is a place to fine jargon-free, non-technical answers and information on the science that happens every day.
Do you have science questions? Contact us: Do you want to #askanexpert a question? Send us an email or tweet @thecuriosityscience.
Curiosity Science Mission: to bring great science to every curious mind without the technical jargon. Hope you join us for our 13 week mission!