Chemists in the Real World
The world of grants can be a tricky one, as Lisa Balbes can attest. Balbes’ career started out traditionally. She earned a Ph.D. in organic chemistry, then did a post-doc in computational chemistry. That’s when things switched course.
“I relocated for a job, but it turned out they didn’t get their grant and so could not pay me,” she says. “While I was trying to decide what I was going to do, I was offered a small consulting project by a company whose products I had used for years. I took it, and they liked what I did so much they offered me a follow-on contract. One job kept leading to another, and to other clients, until I realized I could make a career as a consultant.”
Now Lisa is a freelance technical writer and editor at Balbes Consultants LLC.
What's a typical day on the job like?
I am a freelance technical writer/editor, and have been for over 20 years. I am the only employee of my company, so manage only myself and my time. However, I have multiple clients at any given time, so must balance their competing needs and deadlines. Currently, I am working on documentation for a new medical device, editing a grant proposal for a university professor, and preparing to start a service manual for another device. Each project involves learning who at the client company knows how the product or plan works, then working with them to transform the information into a format appropriate for the intended audience (the end user of a product, review panel for a grant, or service personal for a repair manual).
Approximately 75% of my time is spent researching, writing and editing, and 25% is spent on billing, finding new clients, learning new technologies, and so on. All my work comes through word of mouth referrals from satisfied clients, or though making my services known in professional settings (in the course of my ACS volunteer work, for example). People who are looking for someone to help edit a document generally ask their friends for recommendations. If their friend has worked with me and liked my work, I gain a new client. That means that my professional reputation is my most important asset—it is amazing how small the world of chemistry is.
Are there any apps/software/instrumentation/tools that you can't live without?
I use at least five different word processing tools, depending on the particular project and client (in fact, often the first decision of a project is which tool is most appropriate). Email, texting and Facebook are all used to communicate with clients and send drafts back and forth, but sometimes phone calls or even in-person meetings are required to hash out difficult or complex issues. I love the large monitor that I have connected to my laptop, and the headset on my phone is essential to keep my hands free for taking notes while talking on the phone.
Describe your work environment.
Probably 90% of my work is done from my home office, on my laptop, but I travel to clients’ sites occasionally at their request (and expense). Occasionally a client will send me a piece of laboratory equipment, to test out while I’m documenting it, which is always fun. I like the integration of home and work—I can put in a load of laundry while thinking about how to tackle a complex subject, for example. Sometimes I do take the laptop to a local coffee shop, when I need a change of scenery, and it’s great when I’m on the road on a speaking tour.
Does your job follow a typical 9-to-5 schedule?
I am in my office by about 7am and leave by 6pm most days, but often take time off in the middle of the day to run errands. Most evenings I am at professional society meetings or other volunteer activities. I am always prospecting for new clients. When on a tight deadline, I may work 10-11 hours in a day for a single client, along with weekend work, then take an extended amount of time off (but I only get paid when I’m working). I choose how much work to accept, so can set the pace I like, and one that works with my personal schedule (that is, I can always turn down work, but I can't make more appear).
I was able to take a two week break from almost all electronics this summer, but I had been telling my clients for months that this was going to happen, so they were prepared. It is sometimes hard to remain motivated when there are few paying jobs, but I need to keep my skills fresh and keep going until the next contract comes along.
What is your best productivity trick?
Learn to ignore the phone (and email and twitter and Facebook…) when I’m on a deadline.
What's the best career advice you've received?
“It's not about just having a job, it's about having a job you love.” I love what I do, and look forward to going to work each morning. It’s that sincere enjoyment of what I do that motivates to me keep going when I’m tired, or when the project hits a rough spot.
Do you have any special talents or traits that make you a great fit for your job?
I am self-motivated, and get deep satisfaction from helping others. It requires a lot of personal discipline to work when no one is watching, and to continually prospect for new work. I did not plan on being a consultant, but the flexibility of the work turned out to be a perfect fit when my children were younger, and enabled me to build up a clientele slowly over several years. Now I often have as much work as I can handle, and I can’t imagine working any other way.
What essential habit do you have now that you wish you'd started much earlier?
NETWORKING! I make a special effort to meet new people, help them out as much as I can, and record everything I know about them in my address book. I also use the information available from my LinkedIn connections. I use my volunteer work with ACS and with other organizations to prospect for new clients, share my love of science, and to make a life I love with others. If you’re going to belong to an organization, you need to get involved, not just send in your dues. That’s where the real benefits come in, in the relationships you build with other professionals, many of whom turn into good friends over the years."
What is your favorite ACS resource? Please explain.
More than a single resource, it would be the people I have met through my volunteer work with ACS. I may not know the answer to every question, but I usually know who to ask. That has proven incredibly valuable many times over the years. I wish I had known earlier how important personal connections were, and had started building my professional network earlier.
Learn to ignore the phone (and email and twitter and Facebook…) when I’m on a deadline."