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Worklife Crises and Scientific Career Stages

Many grad students and postdocs feel like they live in a world of constant calamity. Something has gone wrong with the latest experiment, the relationship with the advisor continues to go downhill, or pressure from family members to start making money puts them in the crisis mode once again. Or all of the above.

Is this a symptom of something wrong with the current system of science education and training in the United States? Has the system that served us well for so many decades stopped working? Or could this near-universal, early-life crisis be a natural part of the progression of a scientific career? In my opinion, it’s a little of each.

Few in the life sciences would disagree that the training process for Ph.D.’s needs to be revamped, in order to smooth out the supply and demand imbalance we currently face (although there is some difference of opinion about which direction the imbalance is leaning). But the pipeline issue--a bigger topic than I can address in this column--isn’t the only cause of many of the crises reported day in and day out in places like the Science Careers Discussion Forum.

A Natural Crisis Time

Steve Mento, a successful biotech CEO (at IDUN and now Conatus Pharmaceuticals in San Diego) recently spoke about his career at the annual California State University CSUPERB meeting in San Jose. I was pleased to hear him discuss openly the times in his career when he himself was stuck in the pipeline.

“After my postdoctoral period, I went on to a super-postdoc, called a research associate professor, working solely on soft money. Getting out of this crisis took a lot of soul-searching at that time and advice from a mentor who told me that I ought to give serious consideration to an industry job, which he referred to as 'the dark side.'" In discussing his early career, Mento made certain the audience knew that his academia-to-industry transition wasn’t an easy one.

I thought to myself as I listened to Steve that so many others have found themselves in the same situation. I had faced this same "lousy job market" early in my career.

Both experiences--Mento’s and mine--demonstrate a natural “choke point” that often occurs in scientific careers. In the period between education and full integration into the workplace, a crisis often sets in.

Crises Are Like the Seasons

After listening to Steve Mento’s career narrative, I recalled a conversation with John Tarrant, co-author (with Auren Uris) of the book Career Stages, who told me in an interview a decade ago that “success doesn’t lie in the avoidance of the crisis, but in the management and understanding of the crisis.” Recalling that interview, I headed to my library, where I revisited a couple of other classic texts on the same subject.

The Tarrant and Uris book, along with Daniel Levinson’s Seasons of a Man’s Life and Gail Sheehy’s landmark Passages, taught me that there are categories of crises that we will all see in our lifetime. In this month’s column and next month’s continuation, I’ll describe some of these "seasonal" crises and their classifications, derivatives of those used by Tarrant and Uris in the book Career Stages. Hopefully, readers will see that they are not alone in sometimes experiencing many of these same (or similar) down times, and, with this new insight, will be better prepared to push past the crisis point.

The Five Categories of Worklife Crises

Tarrant and Uris wrote about the categories of worklife crises in their book, and I have listed them below, along with real situations that acquaintances of mine have found themselves in. I’ve gathered success stories and horror stories from more than 10,000 interviews with scientists, and although the names have been changed to protect the innocent and the guilty, their situations may help you understand that you are not alone in facing similar crises along the road to success.

The Crisis of Change: Change is all around us, in both our work and personal lives. Where else can you find the pace of change exceeding that of science? The rapid progress in technology means that employers need people with a high degree of “adjustment ability.”

As Susan looked back upon the factors that had made this the worst year of her life, she decided that most of her uneasiness was the result of the difference in culture between her previous university post and the biotech company she was now a part of. What a struggle it had been to adapt, to shift emphasis from building her status and reputation in the academic world to becoming a part of a project team! She recalled her belief that just doing good science would lead her to success. Now, she was struggling for survival in a foreign environment filled with deadlines and goalposts.

When I spoke to Susan about the difficulty she was experiencing, she was still angry--angry at me for not explaining what the company environment would be like, and angry at herself for lacking something very basic to working in a team environment. Later, when successfully integrated into the company, she told me that she had simply woken up one morning and the problem was gone. Time and experience heals all wounds.

The Crisis of the Spirit: Have you ever watched your self-image deteriorating right in front of you? Perhaps you spent a few years working for a boss who did his or her best to tear you down piece by piece. Maybe your partner in life stopped supporting your career choice. Regardless of the cause, a crisis of the spirit makes it hard or impossible to gain satisfaction from your work.

As Ramesh drove home that night, he thought about what would happen to his thesis project now that the last 15 months had gone down the drain. He was visibly shaken when he walked in the door; he couldn’t get that conversation with his advisor out of his mind.

His wife suggested that he sit down, update his CV, and start applying for BS/MS-level positions in local companies. Ramesh began listing his strengths and accomplishments, but soon put down the pen and paper and walked away. How could he be such a hypocrite? To list skills and abilities such as these would mean that he had the capacity to solve problems like the one he had been working on for over a year.

Ramesh did quit his Ph.D. program. He got out with a Master’s degree and now works in Analytical Quality Control. Analyzing his “package,” he found that strong instrumentation skills were what he offered his employer and not the ability to do independent basic research.

The Crisis of Competition: Do you ever feel that your job takes place in an arena, with your boss and management sitting in the spectator’s seats? For some people, competition can be just the stimulation they need to get out of bed and in to work early. To others it brings a lifelong string of crises.

Walt couldn’t believe what he had just heard. Despite the 5 years he had spent working in the lab, his P.I. had selected another postdoc to accompany him on the upcoming trip to Europe. Walt was by far the most senior person in the laboratory and was very qualified to represent their capabilities to this Swedish institution, a prospective collaborator. Yet the boss had chosen one of the new postdocs, which absolutely infuriated him. There was no reason for this at all; this postdoc hadn’t been contributing much since he’d started. There was no apparent reason for this slap in the face.

“Walt” brought this anger and anxiety with him to every job interview and never made it past our first screening call.

The Crisis of Failure or Success: What happens in a competition? Someone wins and someone loses; regardless of which side you are on, crises can emerge. Failure has obvious repercussions throughout your work and personal life; success has the potential to create its own crisis through an entirely different, and much more subtle, process.

When Meili first heard the news about the manager job, she took her family out to the best restaurant in town. With a significantly larger paycheck, she could afford it. But thinking back on that night a year later, she wondered if they should have been celebrating at all. Sure, it was a great job title and a career in biotechnology management, but she missed bench science so very much. She used to love her weekly lunches with the other scientists and the laboratory camaraderie. As she stared at the budget report on the screen in front of her, she thought about what a turn for the worse that her career had taken.

Meili was one of the best placements we ever made. Her personal crisis was not apparent to her bosses; within 6 months of the time we spoke to her about her disappointment, she was promoted once again, this time to project management, which kept her much closer to science.

The Crisis of Decision: Which way do you go when you reach a fork in the road? Behind each of your career decisions lies the potential for a serious crisis. And the higher you climb on the ladder, the harder you fall if you make the wrong decision.

Dr. Smith felt the pressure once again, right behind the eyes; another headache coming on. This decision process would surely kill him, he thought, as he readied himself for another staff meeting on the possible acquisition of his biotech company's technology by a pharmaceutical firm. When he had founded the company 8 years before, the only decision he had to make was whether to stay in the lab until 10 p.m. or midnight. Now, the decision he made would affect the livelihoods of more than 60 people who counted on him to earn a living for their families. The pharma company didn’t want his people, just the patents.

Dr. Smith is a composite of several entrepreneurs we’ve worked with whose companies have tanked. Decisions that affect friends and co-workers can create a very real crisis for senior staff. Some are hardened by the process; others find satisfaction by moving back to the bench and working for someone else.

In Conclusion

Crisis periods are like the seasons--we should be able to forecast their arrival. If we expect them, we should be able to move through them with less frustration and a bit more equanimity, since we know that similar crises are likely to happen to nearly everyone. We just have to push on past the crisis to the next period of stability.

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