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Ten years of career lessons

Bethesda, Maryland—Todd Pihl has changed jobs so many times that when he was speaking at a National Institutes of Health (NIH) career symposium earlier this month he couldn’t recall exactly how many companies he’s worked at. Four or five, he told the grad student and postdoc attendees, though his LinkedIn profile places him at six. When he spoke at the first such NIH career symposium 10 years ago, he was at a startup that worked with universities to set up career development resources for Ph.D. holders. Later, he founded a data-managing consulting firm. Now, he is scientific project director at the contract research organization CSRA Incorporated in Rockville, Maryland.

The key to his fluidity has been the breadth of his network, he emphasized at the event’s opening session, which celebrated the symposium’s 10th anniversary by inviting speakers from the inaugural symposium to reflect on how their career trajectories unfolded since then. “Every job I had was a result of people I knew,” he said. Many of his connections were outside of his scientific field, he pointed out, including connections through his sister-in-law and people he met when walking his dog. He urged attendees that their network “needs to be beyond science.” Of all the transitions that Pihl has made in his career, he said that the initial jump from postdoc to industry was “by far the hardest,” in part because his network—like that of most grad students and postdocs—was somewhat limited. But once you’ve been working for a while, job hunting does get easier, he said.

Joining Pihl was Julie Wallace, a science policy analyst at NIH. In some ways, her experience is the complete opposite of Pihl’s: She’s been at the same job for more than 10 years. But that doesn’t mean that nothing has changed. Wallace was single when she started her job. Now, she is married with two children under the age of 4. Her life changed, meaning what she wanted out of a career has changed, too, she said. She started her career looking forward to a job full of excitement. These days, Wallace welcomes stability and calmness at work. “I have a lot of excitement at home,” she said, “and when I come to the office, I want a cup of tea.” Such changes are natural and expected over the course of a career. The important thing is to be thoughtful and flexible about your goals and expectations.

Being open to changes has also been a key theme for Dana Mahadeo, who was starting out as a patent agent for the pharmaceutical company MedImmune when he spoke at the first symposium. He had been at the company—his first employer after his postdoc—for about a year and a half and thought he would spend his career there. But in 2010, layoffs led him to take a position with a law firm, where he had opportunities to work in areas of patent law that he would not have seen if he had stayed at a drug company. Those experiences, along with getting a law degree, transformed him from a scientist working in patent law to a lawyer with a scientific background, he said. Now an attorney for vaccine maker Seqirus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he called the MedImmune layoffs “the best thing that happened to me.”

These stories hopefully offer some encouragement and perspective for those who are feeling like their job search is a long tunnel with no light at the end. But job seekers also need to remember that it’s up to them to take charge of their career development and job search. The hard—and essential—part is having meaningful one-on-one conversations with people in the career paths you’re interested in, and then using those informational interviews to propel yourself into a job, said NIH Office of Intramural Training and Education Director Sharon Milgram, who helped organize the career symposium. Events like this present possibilities, but for attendees to get the most out of their time there, it “needs to be a day of sitting that leads to an incredible amount of action,” Milgram said.

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