Coping With Change

Since we've just passed into the year 2000, this is a perfect time to discuss one of the toughest parts of developing your career and your life: coping with CHANGE. Change is the single biggest source of stress, anxiety, frustration, and fear for people developing their careers. One's ability to make the best out of change is a key factor not only in one's career success but one's happiness.

The Science of Change

You would think that scientists are particularly good at change. After all, we work in a profession that thrives on discovery, innovation, and new ways of doing things, right? Scientific disciplines are periodically wracked with radical change, such as the discovery of the electron, the theory of evolution, and the big bang. We love change, right?

Actually, if you look at the track record of science you will find that we do a horrible job of coping with change! Scientific theories take years to become accepted--not because it takes that long for the facts to come out, but because it takes that much time for scientists to change their minds. Some never do!

In the same way, scientists can become severely stressed out by the prospect of change in their career. As you know, a scientific career involves many years of training, commitment, and apprenticeship. Decisions you make in your first or second year in graduate school lock you into a specialization that lasts not only through your graduate education but possibly through the rest of your professional life. Being forced to confront change can feel devastating like you're a train that has suddenly lost its tracks.

But why can career change be so difficult for scientists? I think there are several reasons. First, you have made a huge investment of time and energy to get where you are. Facing an unplanned change such as changing jobs, changing fields, or leaving research altogether can seem like a huge loss of investment. Many people feel a sorrow not too different from that experienced on losing a loved one. Second, change can often mean losing one's professional identity. It was easy to describe yourself as a scientist. You knew what the label meant, and so did everyone else. But in undergoing a career change what do you call yourself? And what do other people think about you? Finally there can be a sense of embarrassment or even shame at not having managed your life better.

The Age of Change

While people go though change throughout their life, counseling psychologists find that men and women in their 30s often encounter a difficult period of transition that often involves their professional life. The 20s are often described as a "novice period" where you are learning and developing but have not yet gained full independence. Once you have gained independence from graduate school, a number of deep questions rise to the surface such as "What do I really want to do with my life?"

Becoming a Change Master

The process of personal or professional change is made up of a series of fairly predictable steps, like the steps in a chemical reaction. While people may spend more or less time at each point, they ALL go through the steps sooner or later. Most people go through the process without any awareness of what's happening to them. As a result, change can be frightening and disorienting. Understanding the entire transition process before you go though it can help as an emotional catalyst: It can lower the emotional activation barrier of the process and can speed the reaction.

The Four Steps of Change

  • Denial

    Denial surfaces two ways during the process of change. First, you can be unable or unwilling to see the evidence for change around you. Often people construct their lives and behavior subtly so as to avoid reminders of the change that may be looming. One postdoc in our institute completely burrowed into his work in his final year. His strategy for avoiding the painful change to a new job was to ignore it.
    The other way denial rears its ugly head is in the reactions of others. Quite a few faculty members in my department used to dismiss the dismal job situation by blithely saying "if you're the best, you'll get a job." This was not true at all! However, they were unable or unwilling to see the clear evidence around them that their students, even "the best" ones, were having a hard time finding work.
    How do you cope with denial? If you fear you may be in a state of denial Yourself, it is important to confront your fears head-on. Question your assumptions. Try to gather data and see if the trends are clearer. Most importantly, TALK TO PEOPLE.

  • Resistance

    Once the realities of change become apparent, one can enter a state of resistance. This period of dissonance can be extremely difficult, involving anger, sadness, frustration, and depression. It is the period in which the magnitude of the problem is facing you but you are not yet able to mobilize any resources to deal with it. Resistance in others can be equally painful. One grad student I knew was thinking of leaving graduate school and mentioned it to her advisor. The advisor was so resistant to the idea of change himself that he found it practically unbearable to witness it in a member of his group and made her life hell as a result.
    The feelings of sadness, loss, and depression you may feel during this time are genuine and it is important to acknowledge them and deal with them. Often, seeing a counselor can help. (All universities have health centers with folks who are great to talk to. You're not alone!) Physical activity is also very therapeutic, just try to avoid acts of physical violence!

  • Exploration

    There comes a moment when, for the first time, the negative, inward- directed energy you are dealing with begins to break out into a new form. It is the point at which your consciousness decides that THERE HAS TO BE A WAY OUT! This is the moment when resistance becomes exploration. At this point you begin asking questions about opportunities and possibilities.
    The period of exploration can also be frustrating, characterized as it commonly is by a feeling of disorganization and disorientation. You may have broken out of the old mold of thinking, but you haven't quite locked into anything new. You may find that your productivity at work has dropped or that you're spending a lot of time looking around for information or inspiration without being sure where you are going. THIS IS HEALTHY! It's impossible to know where you're going just yet, but by constantly turning over stones you can begin to find clues as to where your new opportunities lie.
    There are a few things you can do to make this process a bit less disorganized. One is to start a career change journal in which you capture some of your thoughts and ideas. Another technique is to block out some regular time in your workweek and go to a particular place and just sit by yourself. This quiet period is very valuable in helping you sort through the things your are learning.

  • Commitment

    The final stage of change, commitment, is both fun and scary. Finally from all your agonizing and exploration, a particular path begins to become clear to you. Just like in a chemical reaction, you seem to regain all that emotional energy you expended during the first three steps. In the stage of commitment you may hear yourself saying:
    "I have just signed up for a career fair."
    "Let me send you my resume."
    "Five years from now I want to ..."
    The process of commitment also represents a change in attitude. You are shifting from:
    facing a problem to gaining an opportunity

  • the present to the future

  • what you can't control to what you can control

A Final Note

You can expect to have three to five MAJOR career changes in your lifetime. Your spouse, colleagues, and friends can expect a similar set of changes. Developing some familiarity with the process of change can not only help speed you thought the process but can make you a more effective counselor, mentor, and friend!

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 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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