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Questions to Set Your Sails By (Part 2)

(Kelly Krause, AAAS)

In part one of this two-part series, I wrote that asking the right question is often as important (or more important) than finding the right answer. This is never more true than when you sit down to think about your career.

I've been writing about career planning for many years now—long enough to know that however much I or your graduate career adviser would like you to hole up for a few days and emerge with a career plan, that isn't going to happen. Even if you can find the time, if you're like most scientists, you'd rather autoclave your left hand than engage in that kind of deep introspection.

The greatest differentiating factor of all, I find, is their tolerance for risk.

So, instead, I'll make a more modest recommendation: Stop what you're doing for a few minutes and think hard about a few questions—three from part one (if you haven't already thought hard about them) and three more today—and get your career pointed in the right direction.

Question #4: How big of a risk taker are you?

I wish my readers could be in the room for some of the interesting conversations I have every day with successful scientists of all stripes. Each has crafted a successful career in a different way. During those conversations, I have observed some major differences in what people need to be happy in their work. The greatest differentiating factor of all, I find, is their tolerance for risk.

Today I extended an offer for a vice president position in the quality department at an up-and-coming pharmaceutical company. In addition to the usual perks, this growing, early-stage company offered thousands of shares of stock. The offer represented a 3- to 5-year jump in job title and responsibilities and stock options that could make him wealthy in the same time frame. (Of course, those stock options may also be worth dirt in 5 years.)

He refused the offer. For him, the risk of moving from his secure position at a big corporation was too high. And that's OK.

Risk tolerance is very personal, and it isn't something someone can counsel you on. It's in your nature. For the risk-averse, even breaking out of your niche and applying for a postdoc in a new field can be nerve-racking.

I say it's OK to be risk-averse—but too much risk aversion can be a problem. It's dangerous to try and make career decisions without any risk at all. You always need to be willing to take at least small chances.

Question #5: Do you prefer to focus on a specific topic or to have higher-level "big picture" responsibilities?

You can succeed in science with either preference, but knowing how you feel about this will help you find the right position. This question ties into the interview questions a Human Resources person might ask, so it pays to think about it in advance.

If your goal is to be an expert in chromatography, both the largest corporation and the smallest biotechnology company will likely have a special post for you. If that's your ambition and you choose that path, in 5 to 10 years you might be a principal scientist, to use the common company jargon. Remember this when you are asked in an interview, "Where do you want to be in 5 years?" If this paragraph describes you, there's your answer.

Other scientists want to be exposed more broadly to their employer's business. They are better suited for the management ranks.

With the "dual ladder" most companies have, both options are available. You can continue to rise as a scientist or start managing people and projects. You'll likely face this choice in a few years.

Both approaches are valid, but wise job-seekers think this through before interview day. A similar kind of thinking applies to academic job seekers, who may choose to go to a big research university where they'll have lots of resources and maintain a narrow focus (at least at first), or take a position at a smaller state school that comes with a wider range of responsibilities that each requires different skills. (Either path could eventually lead to a management post in academia, as department chair and then as dean or even chancellor.)

Question #6: What is the right mix of "challenge" and "mastery?"

Some people change jobs every few years as religiously as they put new tires on their cars—and money is rarely the reason. Most often with job-changers, the issue is job satisfaction stemming from what one author, Robert Kriegel, calls an “out-of-whack mix of job mastery with new challenges.”

An author and sports psychologist, Kriegel co-authored the book Inner Skiing. He believes that people with finely honed skills in one area, whether it’s the ski slope or the lab, deal daily with what he calls the “Challenge/Mastery Shuttle.” For scientists, it's the balance between new learning experiences and areas of personal mastery.

A microbiologist who has a green thumb for growing cultures also spends time each day running the mundane assays that she is the company expert on. Her job is a balance between the excitement of the new and the use of skills mastered long ago. If the balance is out of synch with her desires, she won't be happy in the job.

Some people love what Kriegel calls the mastery zone, doing repetitive work in an area they know well. For others, the constantly changing, risk-taking atmosphere of the challenge zone is essential to job happiness.

That analytical chemist I mentioned—the chromatography expert—would love to spend her whole day tweaking and improving the company’s chromatography tools, becoming ever more masterful. At the opposite pole is the engineer who thrives on a diet of new challenges while building a huge production facility.

What is your ideal workday like? Do you see yourself enjoying a nonstop mix of new challenges, or digging further into your area of mastery? Each of us has a different set point on this scale. It is wise to think about where yours is in advance of your job search.

Bite-sized career planning

Career planning doesn’t have to be done in one fell swoop. It might be wiser to put each opportunity through the filter of the questions I've asked here.

Right now, your main concern is probably finding a job—any job. But don't settle: Make sure it's the right job. As I've written many times before, it's all about the fit. Knowing what you want will bring you more opportunities, not fewer. So spend some time thinking about the questions in this month's and last month's Tooling Up and the previous one. You'll be better prepared to tell interviewers what makes you tick. You’ll have the clarity of thought that good planning brings, and you'll be pleasantly surprised when a job offer lands on your desk.

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