Tooling Up: Questions to Set Your Sails By (Part 1)

CREDIT: Kelly Krause, AAAS

I wrote in a recent column that it isn’t always your answers that earn you a job offer—it has just as much to do with your questions. That column was about job interviews, but the same concept holds true at an earlier stage, when you're trying to figure out what kind of science career to pursue.

Steering a scientific career is like steering a very large ship: You can’t turn it on a dime. Each transition takes so much time that you have to plan it out well in advance.

This month and next, I'll ask six questions—three in November and three more in December—that should aid you in making some early course adjustments that will help you reach your destination sooner.

If you love working at the bench and are confident that doing bench science will make you happy for the foreseeable future, then you can find opportunities on either side of the academia/industry divide.

Question 1

Academia or industry? This is one of the most important decisions that you need to make, but it's not my first question; it's too big a bite to take all at once. Asked (and answered) before you've thought the issues through, the academia-or-industry decision can set you on a course that you may later regret, and, as we've already established, course corrections can be difficult and slow.

Most early deciders choose academia because it's what they know best. Later, as you learn more about available career options, you may decide you'd be better off in another role, perhaps in a private-sector research lab or working as a consultant. But by then you're likely to have made decisions that make those other options much less viable.

So, my first question is much more basic:

Which do you enjoy most: interacting with people or performing experiments at the bench?

What an important question this is! This is not about how much you love science; different people express that passion in different ways. You may be fascinated by a scientific topic—but your real joy comes not from lab work but from discussing your science with colleagues. Or you may get more satisfaction from days (and nights) at the bench, more or less alone. Whatever floats your boat.

Your answer to this question has implications for the academia/industry choice, but it isn't decisive. If you love working at the bench and are confident that doing bench science will make you happy for the foreseeable future, then you can find opportunities on either side of the academia/industry divide. On the other hand, if you don't love being elbow-deep in reagents, your best opportunities are likely to be outside of academia. But here, too, there are exceptions.

In industry, socially inclined scientists should consider a sales and marketing, business development, or applications scientist career. Each of these tracks combines technical expertise with the pleasure of having a positive impact on people. In academia, scientists with a more social orientation may simply choose a topic in which they'll spend more of their time working as part of a team.

Question 2

Which brings us to the second of this week's three questions:

Do you like to plan, or do you prefer to “wing it?”

Some people like a lot of flexibility in their workdays. They enjoy making progress on a piece of work until they discover an interesting side route, which they love being able to pursue. Other people are most comfortable working within the structure of a plan, with clear goals, plenty of deadlines, and intermediate objectives.

I’m happiest, for example, when I have a tough deadline for a client’s recruiting project. Nothing gives me more satisfaction than making progress toward a well-defined goal. I get great pleasure in checking items off my to-do list.

This question, too, has implications for the academia/industry decision. A scientist on the industry side is more likely than an academic scientist to be working toward clear goals with hard deadlines. And while there's a lot of creativity involved in figuring out how to get there, in industry you usually can't just follow the work wherever it leads.

Academia is the obvious choice for those who love freedom, but there are positions in academia, too—lab management, core-facilities support, and research administration, for example—that could be good choices for people who thrive on structure. And a love of serendipity need not put you off a career in industry: Most employers make room for creative ideas from their scientific team, and many employers allow researchers to spend a fraction of their time working on high-risk, high-reward projects. 3M’s “bootlegging” program allowed the curious “non-permanent, low-tack adhesive” that they discovered by accident to blossom into a huge product category.

Question 3

From Post-it notes to bank notes, we reach our third and final question for this month:

How important is money?

Just about everyone likes money, but some people love it more than others. When salary surveys ask scientists what the most important aspect of a job is, money is very rarely the top choice, but it's almost always among the top choices.

If money is important but not your main concern, then a principal investigator position in academia may be a fine option. Tenured professors earn a good living—a few earn an excellent living—and they enjoy a uniquely flexible lifestyle. (Note, however, that far more people pursue such careers than eventually realize them; in other words, these careers are very competitive.)

If you are one of those for whom money is a primary concern, consider a career on the business side of science. A scientist with a solid technical education, who is also able to make connections and build relationships, can often earn significantly more than $100,000 a year, including commissions, selling instruments, reagents, or technology to other businesses and academic labs, with just 2 to 3 years of experience. Other career choices where the money can ramp up quickly include quality operations (QC/QA), regulatory affairs, and entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship is the highest-risk option, with long odds of success and a big potential payoff.

To be continued

Next month, I’ll conclude this two-part series with three more questions to get you thinking about your working style and the kinds of jobs it may incline you toward, so that you can continue to make the small course adjustments that will point you in the direction of a satisfying career.

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