Making a Fresh Start


Dear CareerDoctor,

My higher education consists of a 2:1 BSc in mathematics with logic and philosophy of science from St. Andrews University, followed by a MSc in mathematical modelling and scientific computation at Oxford. As an undergraduate, I found it difficult to get some work experience, so after my MSc I decided I would contemplate doing a PhD once I gained some experience of the real world. However, it took me so long to land a stable job with a branch of the Scientific Civil Service, I thought I might just as well have done a PhD.

I should be relieved to have a job at last, yet I can't help but feel wistful about unfulfilled ambitions. I've always wished to work in renewable energy, but this was met with short shrifts from careers advisers. I also long to speak a foreign language fluently, and I was hoping my job would send me on overseas trips, but the farthest I have traveled in three years is London.

People have asked me why I don't leave. I fear a job change would entail applying for graduate-level vacancies, making me compete against fresh-faced 21-year-olds with masses of vacation work experience. Also, the unresolved problem(s) that prevented me from getting work experience as an undergraduate are still with me today: I was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome after I was fired from a previous job.


Dear Mary:

In your note you mention many difficulties--your frustrated personal and career ambitions, your stalled career progression, and previous experiences you've interpreted as failures. I want to focus on what I see as the root of all these problems: the way that your regrets and self-defeating attitude are holding you back.

Your ongoing dismay about your past, whether it is the time it took you to find your current job or the problems you had with your previous employer, is clearly interfering with your current situation, and limiting your future prospects. For example, try and think about why your peers may be offered overseas assignments when you are not. This time round, put yourself in your manager's shoes. Could they be wary of sending you overseas whilst you appear to be struggling personally? Perhaps they are concerned about how you will cope with the stress of adapting to a new environment, even if you are doing the nuts and bolts of the job.

Now consider your career progression under the same light. Your manager may well be suspecting that you would prefer to work in another sector; don't underestimate the power of the grapevine! A perceived lack of enthusiasm will only support these suspicions and make your manager unlikely to support your career development in that field.

It is easy to get sucked into negativity and to dwell on what might have been. But you need to realise this is doing you no favours. By reliving your previous failures you only perpetuate your insecurities and convince yourself that you are blighted by failure, and that life isn't fair. With this mindset, the more frustrated your ambitions or aspirations are, the more likely you are to think that you are the heart of the problem.

But I think you are only part of the problem. I believe your difficulties result mostly from this negative mindset, and not from of any innate or unalterable defect. To get what you want out of your current job, or even to move successfully to another one, you must first change your attitude. So make the decision to leave this negativity behind you, from today.

Start by putting the problems you have had into perspective. You'll find that most people go through a tough time in their career at one point or another. I have faced relentless rejections while trying to find work myself, and have had to take on jobs at low levels before being able to develop my career in a more rewarding direction. Having been through this situation has made me realise that one of the most valuable things any person has to offer their job, and a prospective employer, is, indeed, enthusiasm and optimism.

Now you may want to get a few self-help books, as they will give you many ideas on how you may change your mindset. The key here is to find a book that inspires you and to engage with the strategies it gives. Passive reading will not do the trick.

If the feelings of negativity prove to be hard to shake off, find a way to get them out of your system. Have you thought about counseling? If you're interested in the idea, you should be able to find out more about it from your doctor. You don't need to tell anyone about this--there are still, regrettably, social stigmas attached to any form of psychotherapy--but I think that talking to someone objective and nonjudgmental will help you put your feelings about this period to rest.

Once you have dealt with the past, you want to act on your present situation and break out of this cycle of self-defeat. So I want you to set yourself three goals for the first 3 months of this year. These three things should be simple and within reach but also challenging and a definite step toward your aspirations. Perhaps finding out about a local environmental action group (which would allow you to do some networking and find out more about opportunities) could be one of these goals. Write them down somewhere where you will be reminded of them--a calendar at home or on a slip of paper in your wallet--along with why they are important and positive to you. Of course it is crucial that you commit to making these changes and are serious about monitoring your progress towards them. Giving yourself deadlines and promising yourself rewards when they are met may both help you with your commitment.

Now, you've mentioned your diagnosis with Asperger's syndrome: do you think it may also be affecting your relationship with your line manager? I'm not an expert on this, but from what I have read it could make social interactions more challenging. Perhaps looking into how you can deal with this issue specifically could be another one of the goals I've mentioned above.

You may start by looking into the work of the National Autistic Society, which is campaigning to improve employers' awareness of autism, Asperger's, and related conditions. If you can, visit one of their local branches, as sharing your experiences and feelings with people who can relate to your condition should be very constructive. They should also be able to advise you on how to interact with your employer, and I hope they can provide you with further sources of local training or support.

I know you also want to think about your future and other possible career directions. But I'm wary about pointing you toward resources for research jobs in the environmental sector or abroad because I think that before you make such a drastic decision, you need to emerge from the shadow of your current state. If you move prematurely, your perception of your job could be tinted by your current mindset; also, as you adjust your attitude you may find that your job suits you better than you think. There is also a risk that the problems you are experiencing will recur in your next job if you haven't sorted them out before you move on. So don't write off your current employer just yet, or use the way you think they might perceive you as an excuse to leave or not to bother changing.

So instead of planning a radical transition, begin by analysing the problems you are having at work. Write down what you perceive as the positive and the negative elements of your current job. Then think about what you can do to build upon the highs and cut out some of the lows in the near future. Build these things into your monthly goals and keep reminding yourself of them. Gaining control over your job in this way is likely to help you change the way you feel and behave. The perceptions that others have of you will then be likely to change in turn, and you may well find that they will give you more support toward your aspirations.

Take a good look at yourself. You have outstanding academic qualifications from two of the top universities in the UK. You have been chosen by a popular organisation--your employer--that has rejected many, many others. You are making a contribution in a challenging career area, despite your diagnosis, and I think you should take pride in this. You are pretty impressive, don't you think?

Good luck with your career,

The CareerDoctor

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers