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Tooling Up: The Career Contrarian

I recently read an alternative view of investment advice. One part practical and one part paranoia, this stock newsletter asserted that sometimes it is best to do exactly the opposite of what most people are doing with their money. Using that philosophy, that writer/analyst has put a lot into his bank account over the years.

The "contrarian" idea is one that I have seen pay off for careers as well, although paranoia need not be a part of the formula. Often I'll be giving a seminar presentation describing traditional job-seeking methods when an audience member announces their success at doing exactly the opposite of what I am recommending. While this is frustrating for a speaker, it illustrates my current point: Not every piece of advice works universally. Sometimes you need to bend the rules to better your situation.

One contrarian I have come to know through numerous online career discussions is my friend Jim Gardner, a scientist-turned-technical-writer at a major pharmaceutical industry company on the East Coast. Jim's career is a good example of how running away from the crowd can actually lead to success. Despite all the advice that others gave him about doing a postdoc after his PhD, Jim felt that he should try to avoid investing the time that a postdoc would require.

"I was really interested in doing technical writing. I knew that a postdoc wasn't necessarily going to set me out on that path, so I started talking to people in the pharmaceutical industry who had interesting jobs," said Jim. Soon after he began his networking process, Jim met a department manager through a temp staffing firm who had no strict feelings about postdoctoral training. Furthermore, he had an open job that Jim filled quite nicely.

By being a contrarian, Dr. Gardner discovered that individual managers often have rules that differ from what is considered the norm. (If you'd like to meet Jim, stop by the Science Careers Forum where he is a regular visitor.)

Another acquaintance I think of when this topic comes up is Dick Woodward. Dick co-authored a column with me for Next Wave, His Mother Cried When He Went Into Sales. Dick is the ultimate rule-breaker. He has no interest in following the pack. Shortly after finishing his molecular biology training he picked up an interest in marketing and sales. Today he is a top executive selling to the biotechnology community. Read his story for the specifics of how he pulled off the transition. Following the crowd would have been frustrating for a guy like Dr. Woodward.

Recognizing the Urge to Be a Contrarian

How do you know if you are, or should be, a contrarian job-seeker? As a writer of career advice, I'd be amiss if I didn't urge you to read as much as you can about developing your career goals and getting a job-search plan in place. But contrarians aren't afraid to dump that plan at a moment's notice if they aren't gaining traction. Contrarians read as much as possible about all the different ways to approach a problem and then they choose their own road, with perhaps a slight bias in favor of the less traveled road.

Here are some questions to probe whether or not you fall into this category:

- When writing your CV or resume, do you ever wonder why this document is such a key piece of the job search? Does your CV seem like an accurate portrayal of your value to a prospective employer, or could there be a better way? Do you have an intense desire to make a personal introduction?

- Your advisors, perhaps even your parents, have expectations that you'll follow a particular path, but that path may not be the right one for you. Are you seeing yourself in a variety of different roles, none of them in the "right" career area?

- When in an interview, do you have so many questions about the job that it almost feels as if you are interviewing the interviewer?

- How are you with introducing yourself to strangers? That's not a process that is comfortable for anyone, but if you see yourself as a contrarian, you've got to be able to give eye contact and talk about what it is that you do well.

Keys to the Contrarian Job Search

Running in a different direction than the crowd doesn't mean taking a pass on all career advice. With most people getting a job by circulating a resume or CV, and most hiring managers and HR departments sticking to the tried and true, you aren't likely to land a job with nothing but a business card and a smile. Even contrarians have to be practical. Practicality means arming yourself with all the basics, even if that contrarian streak won't allow those basics to dominate your job search. The key to being an effective contrarian is to go beyond the fundamentals.

Here are some of the major concepts that lie behind the success of the career contrarian:

Looking outside of traditional jobs. The term "alternative career" is really a misnomer. When you leave the educational phase of your life, you have a broad range of choices, and all of them are alternatives to all the others. Some jobs may be more traditional than others for people with your pedigree, but that doesn't matter to open-minded contrarians. Contrarians are curious; their curiosity leads them to explore the many options beyond the norm for their degree choice.

Looking outside of traditional industries. Sometimes the options available to the contrarian include moving to business sectors that aren't so obvious. A person with a biotechnology background might normally be found in a health care company; jobs in business areas such as food or chemicals would seem to be off-track. Not so: Many different kinds of companies have biotechnology programs, and some of them spend huge amounts of capital each year to grow these programs.

Making career decisions based upon what you like to do. A few years ago the crowd began to chase after careers in bioinformatics. The media hype about careers in this small-but-important field yielded too many applicants. Instead of running toward trends, the contrarian makes decisions based upon personal tastes ... and, as I wrote earlier, with a taste for the less traveled road. The old axiom that doing what you love will pay off in the end holds a nugget of truth. Joseph Campbell once said, "Follow your bliss and don't be afraid, and doors will open where you didn't know they were going to be." The contrarian often believes that life's decisions are best made inductively, not deductively. Too many people plan their professional lives following an approach that is much too analytical.

Using the law of reciprocity to one's advantage. The "law" of reciprocity-- an implied offer of future help in return for assistance offered--drives successful networking. Although it sounds a bit more selfish than it needs to, the common formulation "I'll scratch your back if you'll scratch mine" gets the point across. For example, when a headhunter calls and asks for advice on reaching a certain type of scientist, there is a future favor implied. Similarly, the contrarian job seeker finds success by remembering each of those people who helped her along the way. Those networking contacts turn into gold when the job seeker follows up later with a note of thanks and something that may benefit them, perhaps an article reprint or a reference to something they may not have seen in their area of interest. Mutual back-scratching can be habit-forming.

Trust Your Instincts

The very best scientists trust their instincts about science. They know that if they arm themselves with as much information as possible, they can use their intellect and critical thinking skills to solve scientific dilemmas. Yet, many of these same people put down their instincts and start following the crowd when the job hunt starts.

Why does a person who is so open-minded and intuitive in the library and at the bench feel so uncomfortable breaking the rules in a job search? Stretch a bit, break free of tradition, and explore the world of options available to you.

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