Tooling Up: My Career Dissected

CREDIT: Alvin Chua

If you are a regular Tooling Up reader, you'll know that I'm a great believer in the lessons that come from studying other people's experiences. In my columns and talks, I use examples from job candidates whom I've met throughout 2 decades in my recruiting practice. However, in the more than 100 articles I've written for Science Careers, I've referred to my own career story infrequently.

In this month's column, I'll dissect my career to illustrate how I moved into the role of a scientific recruiter. My path and ultimate destination are quite different from yours, but the message here is in the lessons learned, and those are universal. I hope this offers you some guidance and that my final (somewhat desperate and ultimately successful) attempt to find my life's calling provides some inspiration. Plus, after years of pointing out other people's career mistakes, it's only fair to highlight some of my own.

A Unifying Theme

I find a disturbing theme running through my early-career experiences: the complete lack of a plan. In college, I was passionate about biology, and I loved to write. Not knowing whether I wanted to exit college as a journalist or go on to be a scientist, I made my first really big blunder. Instead of choosing one of my loves and tightening my focus, I combined them into what my university called a "general studies degree." What a mistake.

After graduation, I started looking for work--in a recession--with a degree that appeared to offer absolutely nothing to employers. I took the first paying job I could find, which, as it turned out, was in the electronics industry. It didn't remotely resemble my dream to work as a science journalist.

  • Lesson: Make sure the education section of your résumé or curriculum vitae says something meaningful to a hiring manager. Graduates of specific programs such as biochemistry or cell biology find jobs faster than "biotechnology" graduates do. That's because the "biotech" degree means nothing to the employer, but the others suggest a very specific education. When employers hire newbies, they want to mitigate risk. When the degree matches their open requirements, they are much more likely to offer an interview.

Self-Inflicted Wounds

Eight years after I took that job, I looked back and wondered where the time had gone. Although I had advanced to a director position inside the U.S. subsidiary of a Japanese electronics company and was making decent money, I had little job satisfaction. So I made a stupid move.

I found out what another co-worker was making and decided that I wasn't being treated fairly by my boss, whom I thought of as a friend. So, when a contact of mine casually mentioned that he had an opening in his company, I told my boss over a beer that I was considering leaving. Maybe it was my immaturity or maybe it was the beer, but I stopped thinking clearly and shared these thoughts with this friend, my boss.

Unfortunately, he knew my contact better than I did. He called and learned that I hadn't even interviewed for, let alone been offered, a job. When I was asked into his office the next day, the boss told me in no uncertain words that I had played a bad poker hand and that my career with the company would suffer as a result.

  • Lesson: You will have many bosses and a lot of work buddies. Don't get the two mixed up. Never have a conversation with your supervisor as though he or she were your friend, because that person is likely to put the "big boss" hat back on when you least expect it. Finally, consider all career decisions thoroughly before you take them to your boss, no matter how friendly you are. Remain professionally detached and clear-headed in every discussion with that person.

Falling Into Another Job

A month later, things were really uncomfortable at work. I had started some quiet networking and got a call from a headhunter about a job that sounded enticing. Another local employer was looking for a vice president and wanted to interview me. It seemed like a stroke of luck because I hadn't yet considered myself to be "VP material." Had I looked a little closer, I would have known this was indeed the case.

I lasted about 6 months. It turns out that my new boss had a running feud with the CEO of my old company. He took devilish delight in removing managers from the enemy organization. They would either sink or swim in his employ, but at least he got a shot at weakening a company he disliked. Talk about politics!

I'd been fired before, but this wasn't Burger King, and this time I was crushed. These were the dark days of my career, standing in line at the unemployment office, watching I Love Lucy at 2 in the afternoon, and feeling sorry for myself. I remember telling my wife, "I'm lost."

  • Lesson: Every job offer needs to be analyzed carefully. Here's another opportunity to remain cool-headed and professional, as you detach from pure emotion and use as much of your analytical ability as you can muster. I was hooked by emotional bait: a sudden leap up the corporate ladder. A careful, pragmatic look at the new environment would have revealed high employee turnover and flaky management. I could have saved myself with a bit more research and some outside counsel.

Risks and Rewards

Suddenly, a switch went off and I was shaken out of my slumber. Luckily, both my wife and I can handle risk; her job wasn't all that exciting, either. So, we put geography first and started looking at other cities in which we could be happy. We settled on the beautiful desert Southwest, sold our home, and moved more than 2000 miles in fewer than 60 days.

Finding a job wasn't any easier in Tucson than it had been in Cleveland, but this time I had a fire under me--and in me--because of the gamble I had taken. With bills piling up, I developed a plan to form a local job-seekers networking group, to be kicked off at our first public meeting at the local Holiday Inn. I traded some audio-visual equipment with the hotel for the use of their meeting room. I worked for 2 weeks on my "keynote" presentation about networking and the common pitfalls of job-seeking.

An amazing thing happened on the day of the big event. The Arizona Daily Star ran a picture of me on the front page of their morning business section, in a huge article titled "Jobless Man Delivering Seminar For Jobseekers." All I can figure is that it was a slow news day. The free publicity drove more than 100 job-seekers to hear a presentation on job seeking delivered by a jobless man--who was scared to death of public speaking.

For me, the experience was cathartic. I blew my fear of public speaking out of the water and got my mojo working again. Plus, I met the fellow who would soon become my boss. He ran a local recruiting office and was anxious to have someone build a biotechnology practice for his company. Science had come back into my life, after nearly a decade of trial by fire.

  • Lesson: Finally, passion and 150% commitment brought me my dream job and restored my confidence. It's probably best to avoid leaving a job until you have something else lined up. But even if you're still employed, tap into your passion and mix in some commitment. Forget half effort. Job searches start to click when you are out there hanging in the breeze, doing things that used to scare you. Perhaps for you this will be cold-call networking or informational interviews. Whatever. The final key to success is all about decisiveness and forthright action.