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Avoid the Problem with Problem Solving

Society places great value on problem solvers. Wannabe politicians stand up, identify problems, and talk about what they would do to address them if given the chance by voters. Applicants go to job interviews armed with information that demonstrates their facility for solving their employers' problems. And scientists and engineers are trained to approach their research as an exercise in problem solving.

But there is a big problem with problem solving--most of the time the problem never really goes away.

Why? Well, if you're anything like the rest of us, chances are that as soon as you sense that your efforts are beginning to lessen the problem, your motivation to solve the problem altogether dissipates. And so the problem persists.

Think about it.... Perhaps you'd like to lose 10 pounds, so you decide to cycle to the lab. Within a few weeks, you are starting to look and feel great, but the weather is turning chilly and there are a couple of breakfasts with seminar speakers that you have to get to by car. So you stop riding the bike, and as a result your belt size goes back up a notch or two.

Make Your Job Search Something More Than an Exercise in Problem Solving

Some of the best thinkers I've met struggle with the job search process. Just as Robert Fritz describes (see sidebar), these scientists find that treating a job search as a problem-solving exercise can sometimes make the goal even more elusive. It's hard enough to land a good job when you're just completing a Ph.D. or postdoc. The last thing you want to do is to set off on a course that makes your task still harder!

Robert Fritz, author of the excellent book on creativity The Path of Least Resistance (Fawcett Columbine, New York, 1984), describes the problem with problem solving in this way:

The problem


action to solve the problem


less intensity of the problem


less action to solve the problem


the problem remaining.

In this month's Tooling Up column, then, I would like to demonstrate how to shake yourself out of the usual problem-solving mode and make decisions about your job search from a different perspective. But be warned: This could be a difficult transition for many of you because, as technical professionals, you usually are expected to operate in the problem-solving mode--especially when you're dealing with scientific or engineering issues. When you're designing an experiment, for example, you are trained to focus on the problem. You analyze it and you turn it around in your mind, identifying every detail of the question in front of you. This may well be what you love most about science, but it's not what you need when you're looking for a job.

What you do need to do is something that you've never done at the bench--you need to force a desired result. So, before you begin, you need to scrap the scientific method that you use to solve a science problem and get into a different state of mind.

Career counselors believe that job seeking is a time when you need to be free-thinking about your desired goal and how you can achieve it. Although it's still necessary to have a focus, instead of analyzing a problem and its components, your focus needs to shift to the desired outcome. Think about the job you'll have when the process ends and about the feeling of satisfaction you'll enjoy when you've "made it." Then, put your natural creativity to work and find a way to create that future.

Fritz has studied people like Beethoven and Mozart, who were great technical masters of their crafts but who were also able to apply both their natural desire for technical excellence and their free-thinking creativity. "Creators can not only imagine or envision, they also have the ability to bring what they imagine into reality," Fritz states.

Before you start thinking that this is some kind of woo-woo esoteric thinking from some New Age hub, let me assure you that there are examples of everyday people who have scrapped the classical problem-solving approach in favor of some creative approaches to job seeking (see the table below).

Problem-Solving Behavior Versus a Free-Thinking Approach

The classical job seeker...

The free-thinking job seeker...

...goes to the networking job fair and interviews with the various HR representatives from companies in the area.

...goes to the monthly dinner of the Regulatory Affairs Professionals Society, bringing along business cards with her name and lab contact information on the front and bullet points from her CV printed on the back.

...closes the interview with a cheery "thanks for the opportunity" and then waits for the HR manager to call back, as promised.

...asks his prospective boss at the time of the interview how he did and asks whether there are any perceived weaknesses that they might discuss before he leaves.

...sets up a networking list of her former acquaintances and labmates and contacts them about possible jobs.

...runs an Internet search to identify chemists at Genentech and then contacts them each by phone to ask some brief questions about how they found their first jobs in the industry.

...goes to a resume-writing service to condense his CV down to a one-page résumé that will be targeted to the jobs he seeks in industry.

...writes a dynamite cover letter that focuses the reader's attention on specific points on the CV enclosed with his mailing.

...describes her accomplishments and project experiences when the interviewer asks about them.

...describes her accomplishments and provides an attractive binder showing graphics of projects and accomplishments, as well as reprints of journal articles.

Anytime you are considering moving from one mode of thinking to another, especially one as radically different from the problem-solving mode as this classical one is, it helps to have a few ideas that will get you thinking in this new way. Here are some ideas that may help jump-start your free-thinking abilities to land that job:

  • Look at your job search from someone else's perspective.Think about the smartest person you know, someone you respect and admire. How do you think that this person would go about finding a job?

  • Aim high. Where would you like to be professionally 2 years from now? Most people settle for less than they can get, so instead of applying only to jobs that are at "your level," design a resume or CV that is targeted to those more senior jobs instead.

  • Recognize networking for what it is.The focus of your networking calls should be to gather information and contact names, not to "find a job" with every call. Job opportunities naturally spin down from information gathering. One specific goal for each contact you make might be to get two more names of people to talk to.

  • Focus on the big picture. Employers will hire you for the complete package, and not just because you've got a good pair of hands in the lab. So, give yourself 10 minutes to write a free-form skills inventory (just a list of everything you bring to the table!). Time yourself, and repeat the exercise weekly. Watch the list grow as you learn to include all of your skills, not just technical or job-related ones.

  • Take chances. Consider running an ad in the "Positions Wanted" section of the Sunday newspaper. Describe yourself in glowing terms and stress your flexibility for a variety of work.. You should be prepared for a lot of strange responses ... but you should also look out for an interesting opportunity or two as well.

  • Brainstorm on unique job opportunities by various combinations. What job would you want to do if income were not a factor? Would it be the same job you are looking for right now? On the other hand, what job would you be looking for if you really needed to make some serious money? Can you combine the two somehow?

In Conclusion

Problems don't disappear just because you recognize them and take action. In fact, quite the contrary: Once you start getting a few job leads, you back off on the networking, and oops ... the job "problem" is still with you.

So, instead of focusing on the problem, you should focus on a positive outcome for your job search and on finding any creative way possible to get yourself there. Keep the pressure up. Get some momentum going by doing some job-search free-thinking every day, and never, ever back off until an acceptable job offer--or better yet, a plethora of offers--is in your hand!