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Career Choices: A Work Environment Approach

The other day, in the grocery store, I faced a dilemma: Should I buy the Valencia or the navel oranges? The Valencia oranges looked perfect, uniformly orange in color with no blemishes. The navel oranges had some green spots and blemishes. But the last time I had a Valencia orange, it had seeds in it. The navel oranges wouldn't have seeds, and they might have some of those fun minisections in the center. Although they were not pretty, I bought the navel oranges.

When I made my choice between types of oranges, I based the decision on things I knew, not what I speculated. For example, I could determine which orange looked better, but I didn't know which one would taste the best. Sometimes, when making a decision such as choosing between two job offers, it's useful to examine the two positions based on the concrete facts you know about the jobs and not on speculation about what you expect it will be like to work at either place or the career advancement possibilities each job might open up. One way to do this is to create a list of what you want in the work environment of your next job. Here are 10 considerations to explore when thinking about what you want in the work environment of your next job.

  • Type of institution. Do you want to work for a major research university, a small college, the government, a privately held or publicly traded company, or perhaps for yourself? What do you perceive to be the pros and cons of each?

  • Number of co-workers. Does the size of the department, lab, or company you work for matter? Do you prefer to work alongside others in the same unit to achieve common goals, or to work alone?

  • Type of workspace. Are you most comfortable with a desk in the lab, a communal group office, a bullpen environment, a shared office, or a private office? Do you aspire to have an office with a view? Will you be sharing lab space or have a dedicated space to yourself?

  • Length and type of commute or parking. Do you want (or need) to take public transportation, drive a few minutes, drive more than a half-hour, or bike or walk to work? Where is parking located, and is it free or low cost?

  • Décor of workspace or age of building. Would you prefer to be in a nice new building, or is a functional old one just fine? Do you desire a workspace that is generally messy or neat? Do you value a pleasant decorating theme or a mishmash of stuff--or do you never notice such things?

  • Setting. Do you prefer living or working in the city, suburbia, a rural area, or at home? Do you anticipant frequent business travel--and do you enjoy it?

  • Salary and other benefits. A great base salary is always appreciated, but what about vacation, holiday, and sick-leave policies? How important are the various benefits, including health insurance, dental coverage, retirement or investment options, childcare, family leave, or professional development opportunities?

  • Amenities. Do you just need a refrigerator to store your lunch, or do you want a lunchroom or cafeteria? What are the library, photocopy, fax, and computer facilities like? Do you want access to a conference room or support staff to assist you? Is there an onsite gym?

  • Supply issues. Are the age, condition, models, brand, and availability of lab equipment acceptable? Are there mandatory lab procedures that will require adaptation on your part? How are supplies ordered? Do you have ready access to general office supplies?

  • Supervision. Do you prefer a hands-on or hands-off boss? Weekly or monthly lab meetings? Absentee or always-present boss? Formal review procedures?

WARNING: Don't overcompensate for what you don't like in your current job!

It's not uncommon to hear a person complain about a new job when they have overlooked a major problem because the job offered a significant improvement in an area of dissatisfaction in their previous position. For example, let's assume that in your current position as a graduate student, you have individual weekly meetings with your principal investigator. You hate these meetings because often you have nothing new to report. So, you are excited to learn that the PI for your postdoc doesn't schedule regular meetings with his lab workers, preferring they check in when they need assistance.

Maybe that looks good in the immediate moment, but what about the potential downsides to this practice? If you rarely meet with your PI, how well will that person get to know you? Will the PI be able to write appropriate letters of recommendation? Or, is this approach to management taken because the PI has no time or interest in dealing with lab issues and is not likely to be around when needed?

To avoid the pitfall of focusing on one thing that is important to you in your new position and overlooking flaws that might have a large impact on you, create a list of important work-environment issues before you apply for your first job. Doing this will help you narrow your job search in the beginning, increasing the amount of time you have to pursue positions that will offer you what you want. Obviously, there might be items on your list that are "wishes" for the future. These depend on the type of position you're qualified for and currently seeking. (Few postdocs will find themselves in a private office with a view.)

It's useful to highlight the items that are most important to you in your work environment. By having thought about some of these issues in advance of your first job offer, you have some concrete criteria with which to analyze the offer. Don't disregard your gut feelings or first impressions, but remember, there are a variety of approaches to analyzing your suitability for a position, with work environment being one thing to consider.

And FYI--my oranges tasted great!

You can send e-mail to Kathie at

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