Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Tooling Up: Time for an Attitude Adjustment?

Pretend for a moment that there is a shrine at the top of a mountain, visited regularly by Nobel Laureates and maintained by a wizened old monk. This curious hermit happens to have had a former life as both a professor at Harvard and an entrepreneurial CEO at a successful biotech company that made millions for its investors. Years later, this old fellow waits for young disciples to make it up the mountain cliffs and sit at his feet while he meditates on the meaning of the universe-and, of course, on the job-seeking process in the life sciences.

Climb up there with me and gaze into this old fellow's face as he moves in and out of a trancelike state. Almost imperceptibly, he lifts one eyelid and stares at us. It is time to ask the question we have come to put to him.

"Tell us, Master: What is the secret of success for a job search in the sciences?" we ask.

He looks us over to determine our worthiness, reaches down his loincloth for a good, long scratch, then poses this brief, mysterious response: "Perseverance and optimism," he says, as he nods back into a trance.

Simple Answers to a Complicated Problem

This month's topic comes up often on the AAAS Career Discussion Forum, where I often lead the charge when emotional discussions arise about the importance of optimism in the job search. Much as I believe that remaining optimistic is a key to success, lots of people disagree with me. The key to understanding the pro-optimism point of view is to make a distinction between an "answer" and a "solution."

Some postdocs feel that they have been led along by false promises; they believe that good jobs should be easy to find after so many years of training. I've had more than one encounter with young scientists who believe that their work sells itself--or should, if employers weren't so dense--and that mental gyrations aimed at convincing others of your worth or keeping a positive outlook amount to so much wasted brainpower. I disagree that it's a waste; yet, these scientists are right when they say that a good attitude doesn't provide a solution to problems inherent in today's scientific culture, and they have also got a point about being misled.

"Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier."

--Colin Powell

There is indeed much that is wrong in the scientific career ladder, and it ought to be corrected. Those problems are complicated, though; it's true that an attitude change by the job seeker isn't going to solve such complicated issues. There are too many people stuck in unfortunate places. Too many postdocs are considering third or fourth so-called training positions because there just aren't enough good jobs to go around.

Yet, there are open positions out there, right now. And these open jobs get filled, overwhelmingly, by people who persist past the obstacles placed in front of them and approach these opportunities with a positive attitude. Many of these job seekers knew that they would be successful. They had a down-deep sense of optimism about their future, and this drove their determination to succeed in the process.

Optimism came easily and naturally to some of those successful job seekers, but others chose to cultivate it because being negative, they realized, was an indulgence they simply could not afford. Remember what a famous British naval officer said as he surveyed the horizon, and use his comment as your own call-to-arms:

"We are so outnumbered there's only one thing to do. We must attack."

--Sir Andrew Cunningham

Optimism and perseverance are not, together or separately solutions to the problems inherent in scientific careers. Yet, these twin capacities are one possible answer. The staggering competition you face for the job of your dreams won't go away soon, but if you adopt a more positive mindset, you stand a much better chance of ending up in the ranks of the seriously employed.

Why have I coupled these two qualities, optimism and perseverance? And why are they so important? Because both are likely to show through in any cover letter, phone call, or--especially--job interview. And negativity, in particular, will drive away potential employers like body odor. Optimism is also important because it tends to precipitate perseverance. It's much easier to keep at it if you're sure that you will succeed. And you have to keep at it.

It may be time to interject some perseverance and optimism into your job search. Here are a few suggestions to help you adjust your attitude.

Learn from sources other than your advisor: Your mentor may have grown up in a different world entirely, when the world's scientific infrastructure was in the growth mode and opportunities on the academic track were more widely available. He or she will probably not know much about careers in industry and other career alternatives, so they cannot help you exploit them.

That's why it is so important to talk to people from different backgrounds--especially people who have seen career success--to learn about these other opportunities and how to locate and approach them. Identify people in industry with jobs that you would like to have someday, meet them, and ask them questions. Don't use this precious opportunity to ask for a job; that can come later. This is the time to network and to learn. See Peter Fiske's excellent article on The Informational Interview as an additional resource.

Bring the same level of persistence to your job search that you bring to the lab--but with maybe a bit more optimism: I've seen many examples of people who persevered through incredible odds to solve a scientific problem, but who give up very quickly on their job search. It surprises me when a person trained to pursue every angle on a problem ends up sitting in front of a computer conducting an online-only job search--filling out application after application in lieu of picking up the phone, going to a job fair, or networking at a scientific conference. There are always five or six things you can do to advance your job search that have nothing to do with the Internet or with e-mailing someone your CV; if you don't know what those things are, read my columns, or persist until you find them out for yourself.

Look carefully at the attitudes of those with whom you associate: There is a lot of negativity around most labs. It's almost as if your lab mates believe there is a rule somewhere that says a Ph.D. program will take 7-8 years, or that the job search is always a nightmare. While you certainly don't want to cut yourself off from your friends and associates, you should steer clear of those extended, depressing conversations about job-market difficulties. Yes, advanced degree holders must work very hard to find a job, but the fact is that every graduating class sees the same lousy job market, in nearly every discipline. Today, very few industrial employers line up at the universities. It is hard. But you can succeed if you put your mind to it, and participating in gripe sessions with your lab mates may lock your subconscious--or, for that matter, your conscious--onto the wrong track.

"Patience and perseverance have a magical effect before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish."

--John Quincy Adams

Yes, the job market stinks. I felt the same way more than 25 years ago. Now, move on and find a way to make it work for you.

Put in more than the usual 30 minutes a day: When I first met Michael Zigmond, Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Pittsburgh, he had just given a keynote presentation at a major university's "Career Day." In that talk, Zigmond suggested to a shocked audience that they commit all their waking hours to the job search. Although he delivered his presentation with humor, I noticed how the young people around me were indeed wondering if this guy was serious. The average job search is 30 minutes a day, tops. It's no wonder the average job search isn't successful. Can you move beyond this?

The Two Vital Ingredients of Any Job Search

One of my friends, now a professor of biology at a small, 4-year college, told me how he felt during the dark days of his first job search. "Graduate advisors don't talk to their students about perseverance and optimism. Typically, the process of finding a job comes second to doing good science," he said. "Many of us have found that despite the great science we've brought with us along the way, the process of finding a job requires a certain attitude that isn't generally developed as an academic. For me, that was a tough lesson to learn, because I sought to emulate my mentor's success. What he had done wasn't working in the job market I encountered."

I keep the cover of an old issue of Business Week framed in my office, as a reminder why young scientists believe they should have better access to good jobs. The headline announces "The Biotech Century," and the article makes it appear that anyone with a biology degree has an open the door to endless riches.

It's no wonder that today's biotechnology graduates don't understand just how much persistence and optimism the job market requires, or why. The job market doesn't live up to the industry hype, unless you force it to yield what you believe it has promised you.