orange ladder

Credit: A.Graham / Flickr

Climbing crooked ladders

A lot of career advice uses either the ladder analogy—“climbing the career ladder”—or the road trip analogy—the “road to career success.” I’ve used both in my Tooling Up articles, and both work. I prefer the ladder analogy, because that’s how your future human resources contacts will describe it. But regardless of which analogy you use, it’s inevitable that you’ll run into broken rungs on the ladder or potholes in the road; career progress is never a straight and narrow course. Very few of you will move from postdoc to CEO via a straight line. Instead, there are all kinds of surprises and learning opportunities that come up along the way.

In other words, you will encounter a number of different ladder options over the course of your career, and between them, there are plateaus as well. As you navigate your career, you’ll need to find your way to the best ladder when the opportunity arises, and also figure out how to traverse the plateaus.

As you navigate your career, you’ll need to find your way to the best ladder when the opportunity arises, and also figure out how to traverse the plateaus.

Ladders and plateaus

First, let me define what I mean by “ladder.” This is the path that one takes in a particular career, representing your present job—the “rung” you are currently occupying—and the opportunities to move into jobs with higher statuses. The classical career ladder, which my generation grew up with, required that you move up regularly. You’d start at the bottom and work your way to the top—or as close to the top as you could get. But at today’s employers, there’s a good deal of cross-pollination through various departments, and employees can move through many jobs at the same level, sometimes over years. Organizations are also flatter than they used to be, so there are fewer moves “up.”

So these days, when you make a career move, you don’t necessarily go straight up the ladder. When I’m recruiting, the person I am speaking with often finds that the job we are discussing is very similar to her or his present role, but there’s always a twist to make it interesting. Perhaps it’s a different city, a better position from which to grab that next rung on the ladder, or some intriguing element of new responsibility. Regardless of the reason, people move across plateaus, as long as they land on fertile ground and see good future opportunity. Often, the new job is sweetened by a modest increase in salary as well.

At certain times, of course, you’ll have opportunities to take a big step up a ladder. Early-stage scientists and graduate students, for example, have a right to expect a substantial jump, both in the breadth of career opportunities and in compensation, when they move from the academic lab or postdoc into an industry role. And here’s where you’ll start to make those first big decisions about the various career ladders you’ll have in front of you.

Decisions, decisions, decisions!

If you’ve been trained to be a scientist and you’d like to continue on that path in industry, you don’t need to concoct a grand scheme to get onto that career ladder. Most likely, you’ll transition directly into the R&D ranks and begin at what is usually called the Research Scientist level. Your early career will be filled with all sorts of academia-to-industry learning experiences (the stuff of future and past Tooling Up columns), but much of the focus will still be the same: conducting bench science and interpreting the results.

Soon, however, your employer will start to size you up as a potential leader in the organization, and this is where the dual career ladder may present itself. Many companies now recognize that the one-size-fits-all approach to career development doesn’t work very well with scientists. Becoming a manager to advance your career, as was standard practice in the past (and still is in some companies), is no longer required. In dual-ladder companies, you won’t be pressured to take on administrative and management functions unless that is what you want to do. It’s not viewed negatively if you decide to remain a scientist at the bench, and in fact, there’s an entire technical career track laid out for you and others who feel the same way. The top rung on that ladder might be the Principal Scientist level in the company, which often equates to the Vice President level on the management ladder in pay and status.

Perhaps you know right now that you’d like to focus your work at the bench. Other early-career scientists, however, may want to gain experience as a supervisor to help figure out which ladder they want to pursue. Having a few research associates, a technician or two, and maybe another Ph.D. scientist in your group might give you the chance to see how you’d do in that world. But this “Group Leader” designation is about as high as you can go without making the formal decision to proceed onto the management career ladder. That’s because, for most people, this scope of management and administration is all they can handle before losing the connection to bench research.

Moving between career ladders

As I said earlier, it doesn’t take a career strategist to move from being a scientist in academia to a scientist position in industry. But what if you don’t want to remain a scientist? What happens if you’d like to target a business development or regulatory affairs job, or go into sales and marketing, operations, project management, or some other area that utilizes your scientific expertise but doesn’t put you directly in front of a centrifuge? This is where you’ll need to have a plan. Sure, everyone needs a strategy, but a person wanting to make a big transition needs to think it through in advance, because the plan may require that you do something you’d prefer not to do—at least for a transition period.

In 30 years of working with science employers, I’ve found one thing to be almost universally true: Companies are spoiled by the number of people available in the job market. They aren’t going to invest in training you for a new type of work. They want to hire you for what you are doing now—which can get really, really specific. For example, if you’re doing a particular type of assay right now in your postdoc, you’re most likely to be hired by an employer that wants you to do the same type of work in their labs.

Your interviewers probably won’t be receptive to hearing about why you’d rather leave bench science behind and go into the business world. In fact, to some, your alternate interests may be a giant turn-off; the interviewer may pass on any discussions with you at all! So, your strongest card to play is to get hired by any company whose work intrigues you, and where you can contribute in some way, and then implement your desired game plan once you already have a job.

That’s because, as much as I believe in networking, it’s really hard to “network your way into” a job that is completely different than what you are doing today. Savvy job seekers find that getting employed should be goal number one, even if it’s doing R&D when your ultimate goal is to work in regulatory affairs. The internal networking you’ll be doing once you start your new job can help you make the transition you’re interested in. It’s easier talking to people in the same company about new career prospects than it is to do that in the job market. And, because the employer has gotten to know you, the perceived risks of moving you from science to a nonbench position are much lower.

A world of opportunities

During your training, you may have thought that there was only one career ladder in front of you. It was simply “become a scientist” and move up that ladder until you had your own laboratory and staff and postdocs working for you. Now, as you are thinking more critically about what you really want from your career, I hope you’ll see that there will be many different kinds of ladders to choose from, and that an entire world of new adventures lies ahead, whether up one particular ladder or another.

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