Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Tooling Up, tie
Credit: G. Grullón/Science

Tooling Up: Worklife Crises and Scientific Career Stages, Part 2

Through Science's Next Wave, AAAS has for more than a decade presented information on scientific careers, and you’d be hard pressed to find a niche that isn’t covered in detail. But even the best of this wonderful site is just a snapshot of career choice, a moment in time. Real-life careers aren’t static, and every career is different; that's why real careers require research--individual, on-the-ground research--in order to really understand how they work. No scientist who came before you will ever have a career quite like yours.

Many times in Tooling Up, I have described how networking works and how important it is to talk to people and ask them how they got where they are, or what they would have done differently if they were given the chance. I do this all the time. A few years ago, as I continued to collect feedback on people's career experiences, I started to notice that careers have a certain rhythm, patterns in career successes and crises, and that certain types of crises are especially prevalent at certain career stages. Despite the myriad scientific niches, scientists of all kinds go through roughly the same career cycles. That insight led me to read some excellent books, such as Gail Sheehy’s Passages, Daniel Levinson’s Seasons of a Man’s Life, and Career Stages, by Tarrant and Uris.

Although it's true that every career is different, and that generalizations like these can only take you so far, it is also true that we can learn lessons by observing common patterns. At worst, it's possible to find comfort from the knowledge that other people have been through these crises--or similar ones--before. At best, thinking about them before they occur can help you make it through to the other side.

Whereas Part 1 of this series focused on the patterns of work-life crisis, this month’s edition takes on the shape--the rhythm--of the typical career, and how career crises fit into its natural stages.

The following generalizations--and they are just that: generalizations--are drawn from thousands of interviews I've conducted as a recruiter in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries. I hope these illustrations will illuminate the path a bit further out, beyond the current stage of most readers of Science's Next Wave; postdocs and grad students might be aware that their first job in industry might be as a research scientist or a senior scientist. Beyond that, the picture gets a lot fuzzier or disappears completely. There's value in knowing what lies beyond, if only in a general sense.

On the Threshold

There is the point when a young scientist leaves the shelter of an academic mentor and moves on to an independent position. I call this the threshold stage. When I first started interviewing scientists, the people I met at this stage of their career tended to be ambitious and excited about their work. Although this is still true of many young scientists, the postdoc crisis has changed the face of this career stage over the last decade or so. These days, I see a lot more negativity in early-career scientists:

“When we first interviewed your candidate, Andrew, it was a technical screen in which he did very well. The hiring manager recommended that we bring him in. Unfortunately, in our panel interview Andrew described his postdoc experiences in such a way that it was a turnoff to several scientists at the table. We don’t think he’d be happy here, and that perhaps an academic post may be more to his liking.”

The circumstances of this stage--uncertain career prospects--and the consequences of negativity--damaged career prospects--frame the typical “threshold” crisis. In the case described above, a good candidate lost out on an opportunity because he chose to share his views on the postdoc problem at what his interviewers thought was an inappropriate time. His cynicism was justified, but he paid a high price for it. These days, this is a typical crisis of the "threshold" stage.

The Discovery Stage

A time of inner discovery follows the threshold stage. During the first several years of their (independent) professional lives, scientists move past the uncomfortable transition into a stable and solid permanent position. Industry scientists move beyond independence to the interdependence of the team environment.

This is a time when successful scientists learn important things about themselves, such as what kinds of work they really value and enjoy. It's also a time when some scientists are called upon to make choices that take them away from that kind of work. At this stage, many scientists move into new positions--quality control, regulatory affairs--that they hadn’t imagined during their education, and that might not be a good fit. Finding yourself doing something different from what drove you into science--and from what you've learned you value most--can be disheartening. Some scientists seek new types of career satisfaction and to gain satisfaction from other aspects of their lives. Others struggle with the process.

“My father is a physician. When we came to this country from China, it was always his intent for me to become a doctor. That was my goal, as well, until I fell in love with research at the university and came out with a Ph.D. I wanted to help others, to see my research translate to cures for disease. And now, where did this lead me? To a job in a biotechnology company developing a cure for baldness. This seems so false; somewhere I’ve taken a wrong turn.”

The best outcome, of course, is to resist the pull into areas of work you don't care about. But sometimes a professional has to make sacrifices, at least in the short term. If you find yourself pulled away from the work you most enjoy, it's a good idea to try to find your way back.


In many people’s work lives, after they have broken through the discovery stage and found (or recovered) their niche, they become masters. This period tends to occur between 5 and 10 years of work experience. Scientists become known for their excellence in their field. Their organizations value them greatly. Other companies value them as well, so there is great recruitment activity in this age and experience range.

For some people, this period introduces supervision and leadership responsibilities--another pull away from the work they really love.

“I came to my company with the intent to do some interesting science. After all, they recruited me for just that reason; their project had been going nowhere, and I was a part of the fix. I didn’t realize, however, how much time it would take for me to deal with the personnel issues I inherited. Instead of planning and analyzing experiments, I was writing reports and doing employee reviews. It was a huge letdown, and I found myself back in the job market once again.”

Whereas many companies offer a “dual ladder” and the choice of science or management, at others the move to management is less a choice and more a gradual shift. Scientists who wake up one day and find themselves doing paperwork instead of science just have to deal with it as best they can.


When they reach the power stage, many scientists believe they are doing their best work. All the effort, preparation, and experience come together to put them in their stride. The power stage reaches across a broad spectrum of careers, generally at between 10 and 20 years of work experience. Those at the power stage exert influence up and down the corporate ladder; they will be close to those who actually do the science, but their opinions reach up to the highest levels of management. A crisis of competition frequently sets in:

“It is wonderful to be invited to top management meetings, even some that include board members or the CEO. But one recent meeting was a disaster. Instead of being allowed to freely discuss my ideas for our project, I was shot down at almost every turn by the development section head. I felt as if I was in some kind of competition to win points with the audience, a horse race rather than a chance for me to contribute.”

Is doing good science possible in such an environment? Can it triumph over politics? No one gives lessons in company politics (or academic politics, for that matter). It’s all self-taught.

“Just Rewards” Stage

People with more than 20 years of work experience have sown seeds over the course of their careers, and these seeds have either born fruit or landed on rocks and withered. They've earned their just rewards, and now it's time to reap the benefits of past efforts. At this stage you may find yourself directing a program you developed or running a start-up company with a management team you worked with for a decade in another company. During this period the decisions are more important--and for many, more difficult--than ever before. This vice president of research got caught in this decision trap when mulling over a job offer from a start-up company:

“Suddenly I find myself faced with a decision that I just can’t make. It’s strange, but being 10 or 15 years from retirement puts a new slant on every key decision. This job change is likely to be the last one I make, as it certainly wouldn’t be easy to be 60 and on the job market again. I know my current situation isn’t great, but it's stable. I’m in paralysis, feeling quite a bit of concern about making a move at this time. This decision is going to kill me.”

Stumbling Blocks or Steppingstones?

When studying the subject of career crises, I came across an ancient Chinese saying that translates to “Crisis is an opportunity riding the dangerous wind.” As you think about the crisis situations that come up around you, see if you can find a nugget of opportunity inside. Perhaps you’ll manage to change a stumbling block into a steppingstone.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers