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Don't Let Them Wear You Down: How to Take Control of Your Career

It was the single most depressing day of my life. And like all days that are either extraordinarily good or extraordinarily bad, I can remember it as if it had taken place only last week. I was in my office doing some catch-up work on a Saturday morning when the boss came in and asked me to visit his cubicle. His partner was there as well, looking rather grim, and the two fellows stared at my shoes without saying anything. It was the lack of eye contact that gave them away. I was being fired, and I knew it in a heartbeat without anyone having said a word. In the few milliseconds before anyone spoke, I remember asking myself, "Won't someone please tell me why this is happening?"

A Feeling of Powerlessness

The worst part about getting fired--particularly when there is no justification for it--is the feeling of powerlessness. For me, realizing (after the fact) that by training my boss's wife as my replacement in expectation of my moving up in the organization, I may have inadvertently engineered my own redundancy, left me feeling like a pawn in someone else's game.

It is likely that you haven't yet experienced the deep-down depression born of being terminated unfairly. But it is my guess that you can definitely relate to how frustrating it is when an outside force over which you have no control adversely affects your career. For example, you might feel particularly powerless if:

  • Your ability to get job interviews seems to depend upon a weird kind of luck.
  • The negativity in your laboratory about job prospects in general gives you the feeling that you are drifting.
  • You finally managed to get an interview, did your best, but have never heard back from the company or institution.
  • You feel gut-wrenching anger about your career outlook, but you have no one to direct that anger to specifically.

If you see yourself in any of these situations, then you should keep reading. As I discovered personally after being fired, lack of control over your career is only a perception. The reality is that there are seven areas that matter most to your career progression, and--more importantly--you are in charge of every one!

Dr. Waitley's Cure

Getting fired is one of those sudden jolts that makes you sit back and analyze all the things that you could have done differently. I needed some "pumping up," and so I started to read some books by prominent experts in career development and leadership. One of those gurus was Denis Waitley, whose book The Psychology of Winning still sits in a prime position on my bookshelf.

I'd like to relate one of Waitley's credos--the "Seven C's of Control"--and adapt it for this article. And in closing, I will tell you how I used this concept to take charge of my career.

The Seven C's of Control address areas of your life over which you have total command. Maintaining your control over these seven areas, in combination with your proficiency in the core technical areas of your discipline, will keep your career on the right track.

The Seven C's of Career Control

  • You control the clock--Chances are that you spend a very small percentage of each day actually doing something that will advance your career. Think about your job search. How much time are you actually putting in? Adding just one additional hour of networking phone calls per week can have a huge effect on getting control of your career.
  • You control your concepts--What do you most often think about? Do you make the proper use of your creative imagination? When you think about where you are going with your career, remember that there are many unique kinds of jobs and probably many more ways of finding these jobs than you have tried to date. Don't fall into the rut of believing that you'll stumble into your perfect job by mailing out a CV.
  • You control your contacts--When you think back on the reasons for your success, invariably the faces of your mentors, colleagues, and friends will come back to you. There is no other place in your life in which contacts will matter as much as they do in your career. "Whom you know is how you grow" always holds true.
  • You control your communication--Do you remember the scene in the movie Cool Hand Luke, when the warden says to the prisoner played by Paul Newman: "What we have here, son, is a failure to communicate?" In your career, a failure to communicate won't earn you a month in solitary, but it will certainly keep you from moving up the ladder. One element you'll find in almost every formal job description is: "Must have excellent oral and written communication skills."
  • You control your commitments--Think about those whom you admire. How do they treat their commitments? To take charge of your career, you've not only got to keep commitments you've made to others, you've also got to make and keep commitments to yourself. Don't just let it slide. I would put great emphasis on keeping the commitments that I made to others, but each time I made a promise to myself, it was like a New Year's Resolution all over again (i.e., forgotten in less than 6 weeks).
  • You control your causes--Waitley advises you to choose the causes you take up at work very carefully. You only get so many opportunities to champion a project or an idea, so make sure they are the right ones! All the people I know who maintain control over their lives and careers are the sort of people who can focus on making their job search a cause--a "single-minded pursuit."
  • You control your concerns--This "C" refers to the influence of emotion. One of Waitley's key points is that it is important to exercise control over this part of your mind and avoid allowing your emotions to run your life. Can you imagine the negative effect on your health of taking the ups and downs of the job search emotionally?

How I Bounced Back After Career Disaster

After being fired, I buried myself in The Psychology of Winning and the other books for 2 weeks. Although I felt a bit better, this "down" time and the new outlook it gave me didn't totally turn me around. I needed some kind of action--to be reinvigorated. I figured that if I couldn't arrange to jump out of a plane, the other thing that scared me to death might just work--I could commit to some public speaking.

Taking charge of my career began the morning that I woke up and made the mental commitment to give a talk about the Seven C's of Control. Not having a company meeting room available, I had to rent space at a local hotel and borrow some A-V equipment. I circulated some flyers at an outplacement office, hoping to use the presentation to get a group of local job seekers together to do some networking once or twice a month. My wife called the newspaper, and soon the business section ran a feature on what must have been a slow news day: "Unemployed Man Giving Seminar to Attract Job Seekers."

What a great feeling it was to overcome my fear of public speaking and to see that my career wasn't drifting in the winds of fate, all on the same day! And as it turned out, I got my next job directly as a result of the action that I took that day.

Now you know that paying attention to the seven C's really can work, what do you plan to do to take control of your career?


Denis Waitley, The Psychology of Winning (Berkley Publications, New York, NY, 1992).

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