Scientists' Attitudes and the Job Search: Getting Up When Times Are Down

"Attitude is everything."--Mr. Florian, junior high school softball coach

Mr. Florian's favorite expression was thrown at me on dozens of occasions when I was a child. It was also a favorite of the man who taught me how to play the accordion. But quite frankly, it was a philosophy that didn't work on me. My belief was that if I wanted to have a bad day or a bad week, it was my right to feel that way. (Children have very few God-given rights, and this is one of them.)

When my accordion teacher spoke to my parents about this attitude problem and dropped me from his teaching roster, I began to realize that my bad attitude could cost me something. I actually liked making music with that goofy squeeze-box. Years later, tuneless and tone-deaf, the cumulative effect of that early bad attitude on my musical abilities is apparent to everyone who has listened.

Did I fail as a musician because I lacked ability? No. I failed simply because I had allowed myself to drift off into a spot where I didn't let my latent talents be stimulated. Instead of "sharpening the saw" with repeated practice and the right mental images, I wore my bad attitude as a virtual armband.

Your Attitude Will Set the Course

My article this month will upset some scientists who believe that the process of getting a career on track has nothing to do with attitude. They might argue, for example, that the quality of one's science is more important--or that the reputation of the laboratory you come from will determine your success in the job market.

Although I would agree wholeheartedly that doing good science and being associated with the best labs provides a nice head start, I'll wager that people from top labs are complaining as loudly as anyone else about the rocky job market. And just as likely, you'll find certain people from less renowned universities or labs can easily find the job of their dreams.

Expressions like "the job of her dreams" may actually have as much to do with reality as with dreaming. One of my favorite books of all time is a 150-year-old text by James Allen, an often-quoted little 2-hour read called As a Man Thinketh. Allen's premise is that we tend to attract into our lives that which we tend to think about most, both in our thinking hours as well as in the dream world. Although no one could ever prove James Allen's theories, we can certainly find lots of examples of people who have brought negatives into their lives by concentrating on the wrong things.

Before I get too far into New Age rhetoric (an easy thing for a guy from Sedona, Arizona, to do), let's get grounded once again and talk about what this has to do with job seeking.

I believe that attitude plays a huge role in this business of starting a career in science. Your attitude will determine whether your 3 minutes with a networking contact turns into a job lead. Your attitude also makes a huge difference in the way you are treated when you approach resources such as recruiting firms. There are many more scientists exhibiting the bumps and bruises of the job market than there are scientists with an outwardly visible positive expectation. People take notice of you when you are in the latter category.

The Major Element of Attitude

Let's leave generalizations behind us and figure out the major element of "good attitude."

I've found that the most important element of the attitude needed for successful job seeking is a "positive expectation." In other words, successful people tend to have an inherent belief that something good is right around the corner. As opposed to a "Pollyanna approach," where everything is rosy all the time, the scientist needs to realize that the job-hunting process will have ups and downs. This is true regardless of the quality of your science, and no doubt true even if you work for a Nobel laureate.

Are you one of the 300 respondents for a job ad that interests you? Have you had the phone slammed down on your ear in a networking call?

You need to recognize that a bad situation is one bump in the road and is expected ... and remember that around the corner is a situation where a positive expectation may be all you need to move on to the next productive step.

So how do you go about developing this positive expectation when people all around you are only experiencing the potholes in the road to riches? My recommendation is that you use the analytical process you are most comfortable with.

If I talk to 100 scientists and determine how many contacts they had to make and how many letters they had to mail before they found their "dream job," I would find different numbers, but a consistent theme would still emerge. The process would always include X number of worthless contacts before each good one. In other words, no matter what that number X is, you should have positive expectations throughout the process because you know that every step gets you closer and closer to a solid lead.

If you do not allow the negative elements of a job search to affect you and your attitude in the important business of finding a job, the number of calls/letters/interviews will expand proportionately. As Ralph Hodgson said, "Some things must be believed to be seen." Nowhere is this more true than in the job market for scientists!

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