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Passion: Your secret weapon for job search success

Think about what lies at the root of your interest in a science career. Why did you get into science in the first place—you know, back in your early days? Was it the promise of a big-time salary? Probably not. Science careers have never been touted as a sure-fire way to earn big-time compensation, and salary rarely comes up as a top selection factor for students deciding their future careers. Was it the prestige of an academic appointment at a distinguished university? I doubt it. Perhaps you reflected upon your academic adviser’s cool job as a professor. That, however, probably wasn’t at the root of your interest in science; you discovered it later on, as you were being mentored in the lab. I suspect that neither salary nor prestige were likely to have been a driving force behind your initial motivation to be a scientist.

It’s my guess that, as a young person, you imagined yourself using your abilities in math or science to solve a problem—perhaps to cure a disease or advance the state of knowledge in an area that interested you. And it was this interest—this passion—that drove you into science and kept you motivated through the many years it took to advance your education and career to where they are today.

When asked to talk about your science, show the real you.

It’s easy to dismiss the element of passion when you think about all the things that an employer is looking for. After all, read the job ad and you’ll see six to eight “must have” skills and qualities that the employer considers essential, but passion won’t be listed. Even so, it’s the one factor you won’t get very far without.

Passion at the heart of career success

Our executive and scientific search practice operates with two parallel business tracks: pharmaceutical sciences and agricultural sciences. You can imagine just by the nature of the work in these two fields how difficult it is to cross boundaries: People with advanced pharma careers don’t easily move over to the agriculture business, and vice versa. But despite these two tracks being completely separate, two recent rounds of interviews for clients on either side of this divide helped me recognize what a successful Indian plant breeder has in common with an equally first-rate American cell biologist: The passion they have for what they do still drives their career success a decade after leaving the academic lab.

When I asked Rajesh, the plant breeder, the “what got you into this field” question, he told me about the role agriculture played in his childhood. “I was raised on a very small farm, by parents who dedicated their lives to each harvest, one that barely put us at a level above subsistence,” he said. “We were growing pearl millet. It was tough, especially as the ground was difficult, the weather unpredictable, and the crops suffered disease regularly due to drought or insects. The big seed companies had no interest in these poor man’s crops, but I knew that science could have an impact on our lives by solving these plant problems through breeding and biotechnology.” I could tell that every one of Rajesh’s career decisions had been a result of his passion to make lives better at home. And as Chris, our human resources contact at this agricultural research client, says, “The better candidates all have this passion; it is what lies at the heart of 99% of our successful hires.”

After my meeting with Rajesh, who impressed me and is now in line to do the same with my client, I met Susan, a cell biologist whose career in science has been driven just as surely by passion as Rajesh’s was. “I was always fascinated by science,” she said when I asked her why she went into biology. “I was an avid science fiction reader, and did rather well in early science and math classes. But it wasn’t until my favorite aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer that I got the bug to make science my life and passion. I knew that someday someone would find a cure, and I wanted so much to be that person. My career goals originate entirely from the way I felt about my aunt.”

Of course, not everyone’s interest in science is due to an intensely personal reason, but a successful response to an interviewer’s question about motivation simply needs to recall the emotions, and the reasoning, behind your decision. What I particularly respect when I ask this question is candor and the interviewee’s ability to express emotion. No made-up interviewing BS, please!

Tapping into your passion

If I ask an acquaintance how they became a salesperson or a taxi driver, they’re likely to tell me how it is that they “fell” into their career. But in 30 years of interviewing scientists, no one has ever told me that they “fell” into science. There’s always a story, something that brings a sparkle to their eyes.

You might not be aware of your own story, though. It could be buried in your subconscious, guiding your science trajectory with an invisible hand. That’s why, at the beginning of this column, I asked you to think about how it is that you found yourself in science. The answer you come up with will be worth talking about when you interview for jobs.

You won’t be asked about this in the early discussions; those questions tend to be primarily about the fit, your experience with the techniques you’d use in that job, or your attitudes about working with others in a team. But as the conversation continues and you become one of the finalists, the hiring manager will want to know more about what makes you tick. A key part of that will be your story of how and why you decided to get into science. That’s where your work to review the emotion and reasoning behind those early decisions will lend real value to your job search.

Working past burnout

Unfortunately, some people start out with a passion much like Rajesh or Susan and end up, after years of training, feeling like the passion they used to have has been beaten out of them by the process of pursuing a career in science. That’s understandable, and it happens to more than it should.

If that describes you, you’re going to need a re-injection of passion, because interviewers can spot burnout from a mile away. I would recommend two approaches. First, reconnect with your strengths. Second, get excited about the potential of learning something new.

My own personal experience has taught me that, when my passion for work runs low, I must go back to my areas of strength. Every job consists of a number of skill areas, and some of these are going to be your “sweet spots.” In my case, there are certain elements of my job that I’m just really good at, and sometimes I need to remind myself of those and focus on them for a while. You can try this too: Reconnect with those techniques and skills in which you really shine. Feel good about them so that, when you discuss your science, you’ll be able to show some passion as you talk about what you are good at.

The other element to be excited about, besides your present strengths, lies in the opportunity to learn something new, which you will certainly be doing if you move outside of academia. Carefully read all you can about the company you will be interviewing with. In that research, you’ll uncover interesting nuggets about the completely new and tantalizing work you could end up doing. Yes, companies will only hire you if you bring something to the party as well, but every hiring manager loves a person who just seems to be crackling with excitement to dig into something new.

Interviews are filled with moments of opportunity—and missed opportunities as well. When asked to talk about your science, show the real you. Drop the canned responses, and reveal the passion that got you into your career in the first place.