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The Job-Offer Checklist

Thinking about a position in industry? Many of our readers would answer "yes" to that question, not only because the total number of tenure track positions in academia makes that track considerably tougher, but because industry jobs have increasing appeal. Yet, as many people have found, not all industry jobs are right for you. There are great opportunities in industry, as well as situations in which your career could languish. Sometimes, the choice isn't all that clear.

In this month's column, I'll help you ask the questions you'll need to answer before you decide whether a company job offer is for you.

Before You Use the Checklist

The old saw "look before you leap" is still sage advice. This article aims to help you do just that, by providing a checklist for that time when you have an offer in-hand and wish to weigh its positives and negatives. This is a big decision, since once you've moved to industry it's often difficult to come back to academia.

A checklist is useful, but before you start to use it, some preparation, in the form of some serious self-analysis, is needed before you even begin reading the checklist.

I recently re-read my notes from an interview I did more than a decade ago with Richard Nelson Bolles, author of What Color Is Your Parachute?, the largest job-hunting book of all time. I asked Dick about the job-decision process, seeking his advice for a presentation that I was giving at the time for the American Society for Microbiology.

Mr. Bolles, trained in engineering and physics himself, agreed with my assertion that technical people in job-seeking mode will sometimes make very strange decisions because they are used to the scientific process, and job decisions are more emotional than most science-related decisions. Sure, we're dealing with facts, but we are also dealing with issues that are deep inside us and much harder to get to.

"Tell your audience that the most important thing they can do beforehand is to analyze what they like and what they don't like about their present work. In particular, they should spend time thinking about those areas that they really want to change," Bolles advised. "Then, use this list, and write down what scenario would represent the exact opposite for them in a new job."

As I read these comments, I remembered a postdoc friend who, although he loved bench science, had a problem burning out if it consumed all of his day. He finally determined that the ideal job would put him at the bench no more than 25-30% of his time, and he was able to identify a number of industry job types that fit his ideal.

Bolles believes that this approach is much better than developing a set of lofty goals. "Making a list of all your highest expectations doesn't work the same way," he cautioned. "Most of the time, you won't find those in your job offers, and it creates frustration. Instead, the process of identifying the exact opposite of what is giving you dissatisfaction in your current work should put you in the frame of mind of looking for specific scenarios. These will help the decision process greatly."

In short, you'll never find the ideal job based upon a list of must-haves. Instead, focus on solving one or two major issues that are giving you grief in your present situation.

The Checklist

How do the company's finances look?

You don't have to be a financial manager to understand the impact that a company's finances has if you are considering a career in the biotechnology industry. Many small-to-mid-sized biotech companies today are extremely stressed for cash. Moving from one cash-starved venture to another is therefore commonplace in a biotech career.

An aside: even within a cash-strapped company, there are varying levels of job security. If you understand how important your project is to the company, you'll have some impression of your relative job security. Even in a small company with limited financial resources, your job security is much better if you are working on the main area of the company's interests instead of a sideline.

Most biotech companies expect candidates to ask about their financial situation. "How do your cash reserves look?" is a very valid question for a small, early-stage company.

How is the industry sector doing?

It helps to do some due-diligence research on the niche the company is developing within. It doesn't matter if the firm has $200 million in the bank if the major product is just another COX-2 inhibitor, or if the R&D pipeline focused in a niche that the investment community sees as "iffy." The biotechnology industry, even more than most, has cycles where technology is either "in" or "out." Gene therapy was the hot ticket a few years ago, and now it is almost impossible to get funding for companies working in that field exclusively. Today's exciting technology is tomorrow's boat anchor.

What is the company culture?

A new employer can be different than what you're expecting in many subtle ways. Do you know anyone who works there, even in the mailroom, who can tell you what it's like inside the company for people who go there to work everyday? One scientist sensed that his new pharmaceutical employer was "somewhat conservative," but accepted an offer anyway. When he arrived for work, he found that they literally padlocked the doors at 5:30 PM. As a 12-hours-a-day type, he found their culture frustrating enough to leave after just six months.

What is your fallback position?

Imagine the worst-case scenario at the company, and if you can truly say, "I can handle that," then you are OK with the risk. Moving to Montana for a small-company biotechnology job, however interesting, may make you far more vulnerable--your fallback position far less tenable--than if that small biotech was in Berkeley or Boston.

If relocating, does the new location have what you and your family need?

Companies will generally offer you an opportunity to preview the area by extending an interview trip a day or two, perhaps over a long weekend. Make certain that these visits produce more information about the region than the cost of homes. Go to the grocery store and take a spin through the aisles. How do the prices look in comparison to what you are used to? What about the selection? If you're a serious wine-drinker or gourmet, make sure the area offers a few good bottles. How are the local restaurants? If you're a parent or intend to be, check out the local school system. Call the local insurance companies and find out what auto insurance and home or renter's insurance premiums will cost you. Look in the phone book for suitable churches, temples, or synagogues to see if the company has others who share your beliefs.

Are you planning to save the day?

Are you going into the new job with "white knight syndrome?" This happens when you know there are obvious problems at the company, but you think you can make a difference. This may be true--but only if the problem is something that you will have totally in your control. On the other hand, most of the time such problems run much deeper than you expect, and it really isn't possible for a new employee to address them. Many people have found that you can't change the company's "stripes."

Will you be a superstar or a fallen angel?

In a way, this is the flip side of the white-knight syndrome: Sometimes a struggling company will expect you to save the day. If you find yourself being aggressively recruited, consider the possibility that behind the romancing lies a boss with unrealistic expectations of what you will be able to accomplish. This often occurs when a specialist is targeted by a firm that feels it needs those specialized resources; while they may believe that they are hiring a superstar, you may end up a fallen angel in a matter of months. Make sure that you review the boss's goals to make certain that you can perform to his or her expectations. Just as important, once you have the lay of the land (and an offer in hand), make sure your new boss has realistic expectations about what you will be able to accomplish.

A Final Comment

Wouldn't it be nice if the job market allowed you to have multiple offers to compare and contrast? While this may happen occasionally, it isn't the norm. Offers today never seem to be abundant enough or timed well enough that we have the luxury of comparisons.

Theodore Roosevelt once said, "In any moment of decision the best thing you can do is the right thing; the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing."

Using the tools that I have provided in this column will help you do your best to ferret out the right decision. But above all, once you've made that decision, move forward boldly, confidently, and without regrets.

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