Chemists in the Real World

 

Harry Elston, Principal

Midwest Chemical Safety, LLC
Ph.D., Physical Chemistry

 


Harry Elston has headed his own chemical and safety consulting business since 1996.

Elston earned his MS from the University of Indiana in 1992, and his Ph.D. in 1996. After completing his undergraduate education (chemistry and physics, Hillsdale College), he served as a nuclear engineering officer with the U.S. Navy supervising radiation safety and chemistry for ships’ propulsion systems. After leaving the Navy, he worked as a chemist and laboratory supervisor in the environmental radiation chemistry laboratory for the state of Illinois.

Today, as principal of his own company, Elston enjoys the autonomy and responsibility of setting his own hours — and finding his own clients and solving their environmental health and safety problems. Two of the keys to his success have been remaining highly engaged in the industry and maintaining connections with other professionals. Since 1999, Elston has served as editor of ACS’s Journal of Chemical Health and Safety, a role that has helped him to build and sustain connections with professionals in areas of chemistry both within and outside his own specialty.

How did you find your first chemistry-related job after you graduated from college?

I found my first chemistry-related job in the days before the Internet, by searching job boards and C&EN and using headhunters related to my nuclear engineering background with the US Navy. I eventually found a position that was a good match for me through an advertisement in C&EN.

What is your major responsibility in your current position?

I am the Principal and sole consultant of Midwest Chemical Safety, LLC. I transitioned into full-time consulting after a lengthy period of part-time consulting, during which I built a client base and professional network. I am completely responsible for the success (or failure) of my company, which means making all financial decisions, accepting or rejecting clients, and handling client work, collections, bookkeeping and other management functions.

What's a typical day on the job like?

First, I wake up every morning UNEMPLOYED, and I love it! Next, and better, there is no "typical day." The next week's work is usually planned on Sunday. I plan my business trips well in advance when possible, but there are times when a client wants me there "yesterday" — and that must be accommodated.

Typically, how many days each month do you spend away from your workplace on travel?

10-15. I frequently visit clients’ sites, which can include warehouses, offices, industrial manufacturing facilities and open environments.

Are there any apps/software/instrumentation/tools that you can't live without?

Computer: Office Suite (I do not need Access); SigmaPlot. I also use a couple of Chrome browser apps: Gantter (Gantt charts) and a technical drawing program.

Instrumentation: I also use industrial hygiene instrumentation as required (sampling pumps, direct reading monitors for indoor air quality, 4-gas meters for confined space entry, etc.). I rent these as necessary, as it is not currently cost effective to own and maintain the instruments.

Apps: My business is wired into Google Apps, and I use an Android smartphone. My business apps are the common ones: Calendar, Contacts, etc. Other apps that I use extensively include Evernote, Marriott, American Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and SKC (an industrial hygiene sampling app).

Describe your work environment.

As necessary, I work in my home office...in a Utilikilt and Henley shirt (might as well be comfortable, right?).

Does your job follow a typical 9-to-5 schedule?

There is no "typical" week. I work as much as necessary to get the job done. There have been 70+ (billable) hour weeks, and there have also been 4-hour weeks. During the quiet weeks, I focus on standardizing paperwork, building a client base and networking.

What do you like most about your job and why?             

I make my own schedule, work on projects that are interesting to me, interact with high-level colleagues, and solve problems for people who appreciate my work.

I’ve long been inspired by something Theodore Roosevelt said in a speech to students at the Sorbonne in 1910: "It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat." I never want to be a "cold and timid soul" — and my job helps me ensure that I won’t.

What is your best productivity trick?

I tend to do my best work in the early morning before people can disturb me. Coffee and correspondence are usually in progress by 6AM.

What's the best career advice you've received?

  • "When it stops being fun, it's time to do something else." (Captain Dayton W. Ritt, Commanding Officer, USS Theodore Roosevelt, 1988);
  • “No education of any kind is ever wasted.” (Prof. Genevieve Quigley, Ph.D.; Hillsdale College, English 102);
  • “The first job of a leader is to define reality. The last job of a leader is to say ‘Thank you.’ In between, the leader is a servant.” (Max DePree, business leader and writer).

Do you have any special talents or traits that make you a great fit for your job?

I seem to be good at what I do, so I continue to do it. I am very type-A, and recognize it. I see innovative solutions to clients' challenges.

In my career in general, and especially in my role as editor of the Journal of Chemical Health and Safety, I have surrounded myself with people who know more than I do, and I have built up a small group of very close colleagues (in the same field) who value relationship over profit. We constantly refer clients to each other when we believe we would not be a good match for the client, or when we're too busy to give the client the time they need or deserve. We also proofread each other's technical documents and professionally criticize each other's work, making it the best it can be.

Is there anything else you would like to mention about your career?

I have been wonderfully supported in career decisions by my wife (of 30 years) and my children. The importance of family cannot be over emphasized. For example, at different times, my daughter and I have been sources of inspiration for each other. I taught her about the importance of hard work, dedication and perseverance. She has returned the favor by following that advice as she’s pursued her own career — and in the process has provided me with a great source of inspiration as well.

Also, NEVER confuse "confidence" with "arrogance." Refute those who do. Stand firm when you are right, know and change when you are wrong.

What essential habit do you have now that you wish you'd started much earlier?

Franklin-Covey has perhaps the best time-management system I've ever seen. I still use a paper planner. I started it in 1992 — and I wish I had started it in college.

What is your favorite ACS resource?

My favorite ACS resource is unequivocally "People." Those close colleagues I previously spoke about are all ACS members and volunteer leaders.

How have you benefited from being an ACS member?

Most certainly. It has been perhaps the best professional decision that I have made.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming"