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Develop your career label so that it works in your favor

The Tooling Up column is coming to an end in a few months. As I began to think about how to close the series, I felt that it would be a good opportunity to step back from the many specific job search and career development topics I’ve covered over the years and focus on the big picture. Then it hit me. I remembered a question I was asked years ago by an audience member after a seminar: “What’s the single biggest career problem you’ve identified for scientists?”

At the time, I struggled to answer the question. Scientists can encounter so many career-related challenges—networking effectively, creating a strong CV, handling the pressure of interviewing, to name just a few. How could I label just one as the most difficult?

Now, years later, I think I’ve found an answer. I’ve realized that the single most difficult time of your science career may be when you are entrenched in whatever you are doing. That’s great if what you’re doing is aligned with your passions and long-term goals—but it’s a big problem when it’s not.

Limited by labels

Part of the reason it’s so dangerous is that the hiring process tends to be very compressed. What should perhaps be a hiring manager’s 10- to 15-minute review of your CV becomes a 20-second scan. Or, instead of extrapolating all the great things that you can do for their employer, the recruiter looks to see what you are doing right now and whether that fits in the tiny window of the specifications for the position they are trying to fill. Together, this leads to an impression that can be expressed as a relatively simple label.

Consider these examples of people who have become stuck in places they never really intended to go, and the labels that got in their way.

  • The obscure topic specialist: This graduate student’s goal was to work in industry after completing their Ph.D., yet they decided to join a lab that concentrates on an interesting but esoteric field. Seven years later, this person has become stuck in this niche and moving to industry appears to be an unreachable goal.
  • The dug-in academic: This postdoc wanted to secure a position on the tenure track. After spending 6 or 7 years as a postdoc and sending a hundred unsuccessful applications, they decided that they needed a Plan B—but industry does not easily open doors for researchers with this type of job history.
  • The permanent temp: This scientist was hoping to land a permanent industry job but thought working for a temp staffing agency would be a good short-term solution. They got a great temporary position at a major firm—and then another, and another. Three years later, they have found that industry employers no longer consider them for full-time positions.
  • The small company professional: This senior scientist always wanted to work for a large multinational corporation but spent eight consecutive years at small companies. They now find themselves rejected from jobs at large companies for no reason other than having the “wrong company experience.”

It’s crucial that you think about the kind of label that might be assigned to you based on your CV. Your best bet to avoid getting stuck with a label that won’t get you where you want to go is to appreciate from the outset that every career move you make can take you closer to your goal—or lead you down a rabbit hole.

Get on the right track

Put simply, you need to rigorously examine each and every move you make. Develop some ideas about areas you’re interested in and figure out what it takes to get there. As opportunities arise, consider whether they will benefit you in reaching your ultimate goal or whether they are actually distracting detours in disguise. Before making career decisions, ask “What does this move buy me?” or “How can I later sell this experience to an employer as an advantage to them?”

Your network can also play an important role in this decision-making process, so it’s important to work on developing that early, too. These contacts can keep you informed of what is hot (and what is not) in your chosen area of interest. They can help you decide which labs to join and which problems to tackle so that you gain experience that will help you reach your end goal. 

Being stuck in a position from which you can’t seem to break loose is a frustrating, demoralizing situation. Usually, when a person looks back and wonders how this happened, they realize it is because, at some point along the way, they took the easy road instead of putting in the work required to make the career move that would pay off in the long run. It was easier to take that third postdoc than to keep looking for industry positions. It was easier to make a move to a similarly sized small company than to build the contacts and experience that would get you the job at the large multinational. It was easier to stick with the same highly specialized research project for longer than you should have than to try to figure out what your next move should be. 

There’s no easy way out. You may need to take a lower-level job that repositions you or a post that gives you training you are missing for the area you were initially passionate about. Some years ago, for example, a director-level scientist at a major biotechnology company told me that his long-term goal was actually to be a professor, but he had gotten “sidelined in industry.” So I found him in a nontenure track position as a super postdoc—on paper, a backward career step. “Wow,” I thought, “that’s a risky move.” But it was worth it for this scientist: He is now a high-powered professor at a top institution.

If you’ve become entrenched in something that isn’t helping you reach your long-term goals, you’ve got to break free of those bonds. Find some way to get out of being labeled negatively for those dream positions.

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