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Tooling Up: Getting Stuck

I got caught off-guard in a recent workshop when one of my audience members asked me what I thought was the single most difficult career problem. For someone who writes and speaks about these issues all the time, it shouldn't be hard to select one from the many problems that come up early in a science career. But which of these many issues is the most difficult? I thought about it longer than my audience would have liked, then offered up a couple of the usual suspects before moving on.

But after a few easier Q&As, I came back to the tough question. In the intervening moments, I had realized that there is indeed one career problem that would land on most people's list at #1. And I've never written about it before--which floored me.

The single most difficult time in your life, or at least your career, will come when you find you have become stuck in a place you don't want to be--and that because of the place, or the amount of time you've spent there, it's difficult to break out.

It's a hard subject to write about, especially because I write a column that emphasizes solutions. And I don't know any really good solutions, except to avoid the trap in the first place. Choosing a career requires a lot of introspection and experimentation. But successful people tend to examine each career move very closely to ensure that the whole picture will fit together for some future interviewer. Have you ever asked yourself what harm it would be to take just one more postdoc in an area you think you might like to learn a little bit about, just for fun? Hopefully this column will make you think twice.

A major career trap

Wouldn't it be great if an employer could be counted on to pick up your CV and extrapolate your past experience to all the great things you're capable of doing for them in the future? Or have a hiring manager look at all work experience and decide you've had an interesting mix of training that could work to the company's advantage? Isn't this what they are supposed to do?

But that isn't how it usually works. Instead, they look to see what you are doing right now and whether you are likely to fit through the tiny door they have open, a door that's defined by the specifications for the position they're hiring for.

So it's dangerous when what you are doing right now doesn't align with your long-term career goals. If you're entrenched in something that isn't your lifelong passion--see below--you've got to get off those rails and find some way to get back on the right track.

Here are a few examples of what I'm talking about:

  • The graduate student whose goal was to work in industry--but who decided to do a Ph.D. in a lab that concentrates on an interesting but arcane field. Seven years later, this person is stuck in a niche of only academic interest. Moving to industry doesn't look possible.

  • The postdoc who wanted to secure a position on the ivory tower--but who found that tenure-track jobs are very difficult to land after 7 years in postdoc positions. Also, Plan B--industry--has become untenable, because industry does not welcome scientists who are mired in academia.

  • The B.S.-level scientist who went to work for a temp staffing agency and got a great temporary position at a major firm--and then another, and then another. Three years later, entrenched as a "permanent temp," he finds that industry employers no longer consider him for full-time, permanent positions.

  • The senior scientist who always wanted to work for a company such as Merck or Johnson & Johnson--but who spent 8 years in consecutive small-company positions. Now he finds himself rejected by the majors because he has the "wrong company experience."

  • The research scientist just 4 years into her first industry job with a company that makes diagnostic tests and reagents, who finds as she reenters the job market that she is not a strong candidate for bench-science jobs in the biotech industry because she has been labeled a "diagnostics industry" employee.

Limited by labels

Every aspect of the hiring process comes in small nuggets, and the labels that recruiters and human resources (HR) people apply to job seekers are typical of this tendency to clip and condense. Quick glances at a CV, brief contacts via telephone, or an exchange in passing at a meeting--from these snippets, we form an impression, and that impression invariably gets expressed in the form of a label.

The person with the label of "small-company guy" ends up in a job market of other small companies. The 7-year postdoc with the "academic researcher" label ends up with job prospects consisting of ... more postdocs. In what is perhaps the most debilitating and ego-crushing aspect of the job market, employers make these 10-second decisions based on labels--then move on to the next candidate.

Have you thought about what kind of label an employer might assign you after taking a quick glance at your CV? Whereas scientists tend to think broadly about the value of their experience, employers are looking at one job and considering whether that applicant's work over the last few years fills a current need.

Labels come from two lines of thinking about your background: what you are doing right now--your "current experience"--and what you've "become" by being in one place or one type of position for too long.

By the way, my editor cautioned me that I am making recruiters and HR people sound stupid. I can assure you that no HR person purposely passes over a good candidate, but any system of screening large numbers of applicants will lead to shortcuts. So as a job seeker, you've got to optimize your situation in that process.

Early-career strategy

Every young scientist needs to do a certain amount of experimentation. I don't expect that you'll know today that you want to be a regulatory affairs specialist or a clinical research scientist in a CRO. But you should have some general ideas of what your interests are. You'll know, for example, that you are leaning toward industry, or that a public-policy job sounds great. So take this very serious piece of career advice to heart: Once you have an idea of where you are going, don't lightly take detours, interesting stints, postdocs, or other experiments in an area that won't benefit you in the end.

This doesn't rule out a strategic, well-considered detour when the right opportunity comes along. Carefully chosen detours allow scientists to make connections among fields in which the connection wasn't obvious previously. In academia, this is a crucial engine of scientific progress. Although it is of less importance in industry, many employers do appreciate a unique perspective on a problem--and that can be marketable. Just recognize the risk: If you get off the main track and onto a side track, you might stay too long and end up with a blurry label. If there's anything worse than an inflexible label, it's having no label at all, or one that's fuzzy. If hiring managers can't sum you up, they won't hire you.

Before making an exploratory move, ask yourself, "What does this buy me?" or "Will this experience be seen as an advantage by an employer?" Develop your network--contacts who can keep you informed about what is hot and what is not in your area of interest--early in your career. Base decisions about labs, the problems you choose to work on, and the postdoc positions you seek and accept on the advice of your contacts--and your gut feeling about the value of the experience to your career goal.

Finally, particularly if you are interested in industry, don't do more than two postdocs. The worse kind of "stuck" comes from accepting the (short-term) expedient move in a difficult job market instead of pushing through and getting your "ticket punched" by industry.

The "Oops, I'm stuck" strategy

Usually, when a person looks back and wonders how he got into that spot, he realizes it is because he took the easy, safe road. It was easier to take that third postdoc than to keep looking. And now you're stuck.

There's only one strategy that can help you break out--and it's a tough one to implement. You need to really shake things up, to break free of all the thinking that got you into this mess in the first place. It's time to forge a new label for yourself or--if that's not possible--find another way to hold an employer's attention long enough to give you a serious look.

You'll have to take a cowboy approach to job seeking, bypassing the normal methods. This approach--the strategy for the stuck--will continue in my next column, "The Slightly Irreverent, Shake 'Em Up Job Search."

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