I'm Too Busy! The #1 Obstacle to Successful Career Development: Insufficient Time

Summer is here at last, and for many young scientists it couldn't come soon enough. After a hectic winter and spring filled with classes, teaching, conferences, and papers, many young scientists look forward to summer as a time to focus on longer term projects, catch up with ongoing activities, and to ease up on the work. Right?!

So, dear reader, this is also the perfect time to discuss why you've read these columns month after month but still haven't managed to implement much of my advice! I know, I know, you've been too busy! This is a near-universal condition for young scientists. But no matter how busy you are, your career development is a critical activity, one that can't be left on the back burner. So let's talk about strategies for making time and investing in your future.

You Will Always Be Too Busy

There are very few careers as demanding as science. As a young scientist, you are expected to make enormous investments up front: starting research projects, getting funding, establishing a research track record, getting published, and building a reputation. It can seem as though no matter how hard you work, you are always leaving things unfinished at the end of your day. If you plan to be in a high-powered career, this will never change. Having too much to do is the definition of today's careers. The challenge is to figure out what is absolutely critical and what is merely important. Your career development does not fall into the latter category.

Career Development: Focused Campaigns and Ongoing Exercises

As we have described in Tooling Up, career development represents a range of activities. Some, such as researching specific opportunities, sending out résumés, and interviewing, are focused activities that you engage in when you are actively job hunting. Others, such as self-assessment, exploration, and networking, are activities that you should be engaged in, at least at a low level, every day of your professional life. Too many busy young scientists defer these "strategic" aspects of career development until they are actually embarking on a job search. This is like packing your car and pulling out of the driveway while simultaneously deciding where you're going to go for vacation. Without thinking about your destination ahead of time, you risk ending up in the wrong place and, I might add, wasting time getting there.

Making the Strategic Investment in Your Future

If you are going to have any hope of clearing out some time in your life for strategic investments such as career development, you have to analyze and understand how you are investing your time right now.

Time-management specialists make a profession out of helping busy people find more time to do what they need to do. One common way to approach this problem is to sort your work activities into a 2 × 2 matrix according to whether the activities are "Important" or "Unimportant" and whether they are "Urgent" or "Not Urgent."

At one end of the spectrum are the "Urgent-Important" items. These are obvious: They are the critical activities we do to move us forward in our work, such as our experiments, writing papers, teaching assistant duties, etc. At the other end are the "Not Urgent-Unimportant" activities we engage in, sometimes as a form of leisure. For example, few can argue that alphabetizing your CD collection is a major investment in your future but, hey, it feels good to check something off your list, doesn't it?

The critical part of this analysis comes in being aware of what is "Urgent-Unimportant" and what is "Not Urgent-Important." The former are those myriad little activities that can really eat into your day: social interruptions, responding to e-mail, administrative work, etc. The latter are those activities that represent long-term investments: outside learning, social life, and of course career development. They are valuable but easily deferred. As a result many of them never get started because they are always interrupted; in other words, "I'm too busy!"

Time-management specialists urge their pupils to shed items from the "Urgent-Unimportant" bin and use the time to do more of the activities in the "Not Urgent-Important" bin. David Nadler, founder of Delta Consulting Group, expresses this nicely: "I realized that a 10% difference in how much work I did was not the difference between success and failure." Try taming those "Urgent-Unimportant" items by regulating your life a bit. For example, try only checking your e-mail in the morning and evening.

The 80:10:10 Rule

I have met a few people who have evolved a very specific strategy for ensuring that they invest time in their career development while simultaneously getting everything done that needs to be done. Dr. M___, a Ph.D. geophysicist and senior vice president at Mobil, told me her formula for success. She called it the "80:10:10 Rule."

"Eighty percent of my work week I spend doing the best work possible. I try to focus on the needs of the company, and I try to go after the issues and problems that will really make a difference. Ten percent of my work week I devote solely to personal development. I attend talks outside of my field, I visit other parts of the company. I read. I also try to meet new people. The final 10% of my work week I spend telling as many people as possible what a good job I'm doing ... the 80% of the time I'm doing my job!"

That final 10% translates into more than simple schmoozing. Dr. M___ writes letters to colleagues and experts, she engages in online forums, and she writes popular articles on issues related to oil exploration.

You may think her system sounds a bit contrived or calculating, but consider what this translates into in terms of time: a half-day a week on average spent enlarging your abilities and opportunities, a half-day a week broadcasting your talents and building your reputation. The rest of your time you do your work.

Making the Time

I cannot emphasize enough how important it is for you to make a small but regular time investment in your career. It pays off in more ways than you can imagine. Not only does this regular investment give you a clear focus on your career and your goals, but it gives you a tremendous leg up on actually making the transition from job to job and career to career. Such transitions require a strong and active network. Such a network cannot be built in a day or even during the weeks and months of a typical job hunt.

Try This

For the next month, block out the afternoon of 1 day each week and devote it solely to thinking about and researching yourself and your future. Get out of your office, go someplace where you will not be interrupted, and try some self-assessment exercises. Make a list of the careers you are considering and dig up some literature about them. Or simply sit and think about what's complicating your life and how to reduce these complications.

Thinking about finding a job and a career can be stressful, frightening, and frustrating. Actually spending some time doing something about it can be empowering, liberating, and fun. The small investments you make now will yield rich rewards when it comes time to find that dream job.

Peter Fiske

Peter Fiske is a Ph.D. scientist and co-founder of RAPT Industries, a technology company in Fremont, California. He is the author of Put Your Science to Work and co-author, with Dr. Geoff Davis, of a blog (at phds.org) on science policy, economics, and educational initiatives that affect science employment. Fiske lives with his wife and two daughters in Oakland, California, and is a frequent lecturer on the subject of career development for scientists.

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