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The best way to learn about issues on the career road ahead

I’d love it if there were some kind of app for your career, like Google Maps or Waze, that you could use to hear about the issues on the road ahead of you. Wouldn’t it be cool to get real-time information about what scientists in your field are discovering as part of their job searches, before you encounter those roadblocks personally?

Luckily, there’s another way you can get similar information: your network. At least until that app comes out, there’s no substitute for hearing about the hazards on the road to career success from people who have been there before you.

That’s what I’ve done for years: network, in order to find the best career advice from those who’ve been there and done that. They’ve kept me up-to-date on the technical areas and skills that are hot in industry at the moment, which can change surprisingly quickly. More broadly, though, they have helped highlight the overarching elements of career success that are going to be relevant no matter your technical expertise. Your network can do the same for you. To get you started, here’s my list of essential skills, built based on years of talking with clients and senior managers about the factors they consider most important for success with new hires.

The ability to convince: What employers look for—and what seems to be at the core of so much success—is communication that is personal, that touches people and their emotions. This goes far beyond PowerPoint and numbers or graphs on a projector. It’s adding stories to your scientific presentations, choosing the right analogies, and ensuring that the audience feels something positive about you and your topic when you conclude.

Today, people sit in front of media all day long. To truly reach them, you need to communicate personally. This holds true whether you’re talking to one or two colleagues or a room full of investors. Your audience needs to remember you and your message.

Technical competence combined with flexibility: Companies aren’t hiring lots of generalists right now. They’re looking to hire experts in some niche. But choosing your niche can be tricky—an area that’s red-hot today could easily become a total bore in a few years. This means that, when you’re embarking on a multiyear Ph.D. or postdoc, it’s nearly impossible to know whether the niche you’ve chosen to focus on will still be hot when you’re ready to start your job search. The key is to master a niche—while also adding a fair amount of flexibility along the way.

Employers hire experts who work well with other experts, where each of those individuals has flexibility about what they can do with that expertise. These are people who can be placed anywhere in a project team and come out on top—because they are highly competent, and because they love a new challenge. As Bill Linton, the founder of Promega, once told me, “I hire lifelong learners exclusively.”

Ask yourself whether you’re ready for anything. Can you give up the finely tuned niche you’ve been developing in your academic research and move to some other area or role that you haven’t really been planning on? That’s what Linton and other CEOs like him expect of their best hires.

Efficiency and effectiveness: Quality of life is much more important for today’s workforce than it has been in the past. Conflicting with that need, however, is the fact that employers have gone through great change, especially during the economic downturn a decade ago. Everyone seems to be doing a job and a half—or two. When you combine this with the need to spend quality time with friends and family, it means that effectiveness becomes job No. 1. You’ve got to be effective in the time you are on the job.

Being effective may not come naturally when you’re coming out of an environment such as a Ph.D. program, where time can have a tendency to float by and you are not being graded on getting things done on a schedule. But in industry, every job counts on another one to be done—on time. Efficiency rules the day.

Leadership: The Ph.D. is not the “usual hire” for most organizations. When they bring Ph.D.s on board, they’re looking for people who can take on leadership tasks. Even if you plan to stay on the scientific track at a company with dual-career ladders, where you can be either a scientist or a manager, both ladders require an ability to lead others effectively in order for you to succeed.

Leadership comes in two “flavors.” For one, there’s the classical “boss/subordinate” relationship. As a grad student or postdoc in academia, it’s difficult to get experience as a real boss—this is one that you’ll likely have to learn on the job. However, there is also “leadership via influence,” which is critical to project management—and you can absolutely practice this while you’re in academia. For example, be the one in your lab who trains younger students, attend workshops about leadership skills and project management, and get ready to discuss your experiences at upcoming interviews.

Growth potential: During the job search, you’re actually being interviewed for two positions. One is, of course, the job you’ve applied for. The other is the “hidden agenda” job: the position you’d be in line for when you move up. No company wants to hire someone who is only good for a research scientist role (the entry level position in the company’s Ph.D. ranks). Your employer wants to move you up, to maximize your value to the company by putting you in a leadership role, for example, or by having you run project teams. To get hired, you have to succeed in the interview for both the job for today and the job for tomorrow.

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