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How fear can limit your career potential

I remember coming out of college and thinking how easy my job search would be. I had an “interesting” (read: unfocused) blend of training in communications and science, and it was my belief that I could apply this in a journalism career or any science-centered business that would have me. But no one appeared interested! After weeks of applying, the entire stack of job search responses I had received could slip into my shirt pocket.

That’s right—back then, resume replies came on postcards. And it was only the rare company that would even take the time to acknowledge the effort of submitting an application. After poring over the research, I sent out over 300 resumes via snail mail, for a return of about five or six postcards over the following weeks. Fairly depressing!

Perhaps you’ve experienced a modern e-version of this and you’re feeling the same way. In today’s column, I’m going to address the mental side of the job search by focusing on three fears that can get in the way if you let them. 

Fear of failure

My thought, after experiencing wasted weeks in the library gathering information on employers, was that it was my fault. I was the oldest child in my family, and I had always felt that I was expected to succeed and provide an example for my younger siblings. Throughout my early education, I had been told how smart I was and how successful I would be, and that “just wait” factor was constantly being reinforced.

And then, quite suddenly, nothing that I did after graduation fit that picture. The grades and the dean’s list honors didn’t matter, nor did the fact that I was a nice guy who would work hard for an employer. It seemed that I was being branded a loser in a process that I knew little about. For me, that first job search brought the onset of a deep-rooted fear: the fear of failure.

The fear of failure can be debilitating. The first thing to remember if you are feeling like this, whether in a job search or a new position you’ve been offered, is to keep moving. Don’t stagnate. Action—almost any type—acts like a balm on your fear. Putting a little piece of yourself into an envelope or onto a web application form can feel like a losing game. That’s why action has such a positive effect: You’re taking the ball and putting it back into your court.

Action—almost any type—acts like a balm on your fear

—David Jensen

My mistake at the time was to think that people were carefully reading the application materials I was sending out—my resume and intricate and time-consuming cover letters. Just as with employers of today, I’d be surprised if one of my applications got 30 seconds of attention. It felt as if, in the process of generally applying for jobs, the whole process was somehow rigged—carefully designed to ensure that I would fail.

Sure, there’s a chance for failure in everything you do. But in the job search, each method has it’s own success ratio, and there’s no worse odds than what you receive from random company applications and generalized mailings of CVs. So, if you are afraid of failing with your job applications, stop applying! That’s right. Get off those company websites. Instead, pick up the phone, go to a meeting, buy someone a cup of coffee, and put the personal touch back into the process. People get hired because they are liked. There’s no way for potential employers to like you if they are simply spending 20 seconds reviewing a PDF you submitted to their database.

Fear of success

The flipside of the fear of failure is the fear of success. At its core, the problem is often referred to as “imposter syndrome,” as we've written about previously. It happens when you begin to doubt that you are good enough for the job you have in front of you or feel that you’ve been promoted beyond your capabilities. It’s a fear that you just don’t have the abilities that others see in you.

People who feel they are in over their heads should know that many others feel the same way. If I asked 10 scientists to honestly share their feelings about this, I’d guess that at least five or six of them have had this feeling at one time or another in their career. Imposter syndrome can affect people at all levels, including professors and research directors. You’re not a fraud just because you’ve earned a Ph.D. You’re not in the wrong place just because you don’t feel you are worthy of the high expectations of others.

You can trounce this fear of success by sharing your concerns with those you are close to. You’ll find out how frequently this happens—and how many of the people you admire have had this same feeling. Most people who overcome this will tell you that it is due, in great part, to unrealistic notions of what it means to be competent. People in this state will finesse a publication for far too long before submitting it, or fine-tune their CV for months before getting into the job market aggressively. So don’t shoot for perfection, and accept good enough.

Fear of change

There is no greater way to stagnate in your career than to resist change. “But,” you may ask, “if I’m comfortable where I am, why mess with a good thing?” For one, many scientific trainees who are comfortable in the academic world will later find themselves forced out for other kinds of permanent employment. This “comfort zone” issue will come up again and again in your career. If you learn now how to deal with it and accept a certain amount of discomfort, you will be far ahead of your job market competition and remain that way any time that change comes into the equation.

For example, fear of change could be behind your decision to wait until the last possible moment to develop a Plan B to look for a job outside of academia. Despite the slim odds of landing a tenure-track position, there will be people who hang in there with the expectation that everything will work out. Sure sometimes it does, but often it doesn’t. That’s the purpose of a Plan B. You don’t have to give up on your life’s passion of working in cancer research, but if you have skills that apply to another kind of career choice, why not drive that Plan B along at the same time to ensure that at least you’ll see these opportunities? That’s a much better approach than not knowing your options until it’s too late.

When you get further along in your career, fear of change might once again be the limiting factor for your success. Jobs will be offered to you in regions far-flung from home and family. Will you consider these, or place geographical boundaries around your career that limit your potential? This is, of course, a very personal question. But the best fit for you might lie on the other side of the world. The person who wanted to go after cancer research in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, may find herself loving her life and career working in a research hospital in Singapore or a small community in Africa. The gate that limits these options is only your fear of change and your own personal setting on how tightly you restrict that comfort zone.

Move ahead fearlessly

For me, writing about fears like these comes right from the heart. I can look back at my career and see how I suffered the related consequences. Action was my elixir. Reading about Steve Jobs recently, I discovered that his approach was to always keep things in perspective. In a 2005 commencement address, he described his thoughts on fear and decision-making: “Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”

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