Lisa isn’t sure how to broach the subject. She doesn’t want to be the person to shatter the dreams of the 12 bright-eyed Ph.D. students in her career development workshop. They’ve just invested half a day in talking about the beautiful careers lying ahead of them. Mark sees himself working as an industry researcher developing cosmetics. Sanna wants to start her career in scientific publishing. Vincent is interested in management consulting. Everyone is enthusiastic and hopeful.
Lisa could leave it at that—ignore the elephant in the room, pretend that times are normal, and just stick to her usual seminar format. But she can’t. It would be unfair.
“Listen,” she blurts out, “perhaps you should all apply for postdocs.”
“But you just said that a postdoc might be a misstep for the careers we want!” Mark exclaims.
Lisa sighs. “That is what I said, indeed. And if this workshop had been earlier this year, I would stand by this 100%—300%! But times have changed. We are in a recession now. You might not enjoy the luxury of choice you once had. A postdoc could keep you out of unemployment and help you bridge the time until the economy and the job market recover.”
“Over my dead body!” Sanna shouts, as if Lisa had just proposed that she drink lava.
“If you’re strongly opposed, don’t go for a postdoc,” Lisa quickly assures her, and Sanna sighs with relief.
“Of course, all of you should try to stick to your dreams first,” Lisa continues. “But not stubbornly so. Let’s put it this way: You might have to temporarily opt for a career that isn’t going to be your true love, but that can be a fair friend.”
The participants slowly start to nod, grudgingly recognizing the logic of what Lisa is saying.
“You can make concessions on different fronts,” Lisa explains.
“Like salary?” Mark asks.
“No, that won’t help. Jobs aren’t auctioned off to the lowest bidder. But you can make a concession on the job type. Now you want to make cosmetics. But if there aren’t many jobs in that area, consider broadening your search to other types of products, such as plastics or glues. Or if it’s hard to find work in R&D, you can try your luck in production. Oftentimes this is the very last department where companies cut back.”
“But what if I really want to work in R&D?” Mark wants to know.
“In that case you could compromise on the job location,” Lisa suggests. “Many people want to live and work in large cities, while companies located in the countryside often struggle to fill positions. Why not go live in a picturesque location for a few years? Gain some experience and then—if you want—come back to the city when things get better here.”
“Welcome to Alaska!” Vincent cheerfully chips in. “We’ve got tundra, sheep, and 65 straight days of darkness.” The group giggles.
“You’re kidding, but you might be surprised at the opportunities you can find in relatively remote locations. For example, there are quite a few biotech and pharmaceutical companies close to the Alps,” Lisa offers.
“Hiking and outdoor yoga with cowbells in the background—that doesn’t sound too bad,” Mark muses. A few others nod as if they already see themselves sidestepping a fresh cowpat on their daily hike to work.
“And if that isn’t for you, then apply for jobs at organizations that are ‘invisible,’” Lisa advises. “We all know the big ones, such as Merck, Unilever, and Dow. We all check their homepages for job openings. Naturally, the competition at these companies is incredibly high. Try looking at lesser-known players in your field. Express your interest while there isn’t necessarily a job posting. Follow startup news and apply at companies that just got a new round of venture capital funding,” Lisa explains.
“Do I have this right—it’s either a postdoc or working for some unknown company in the middle of nowhere?” Sanna asks.
“Not exactly,” Lisa laughs. “Start to consider concessions where it hurts the least.”
“I couldn’t move somewhere else—I need my family and friends nearby,” says Vincent, thinking it through out loud. “But I could imagine taking on another type of work—maybe as a data scientist in industry.”
Sanna says she could envision herself teaching for a few years. Mark shares that he would welcome getting away from the hustle and bustle of the city for a while; research at a midsize company could do the trick.
Finally, Lisa shares her experience from when she received her Ph.D. during the financial crisis of 2008. She had wanted to work as a researcher in industry, but most companies weren’t hiring. She bridged a year as a postdoc, but the job market still hadn’t improved. So, she started her own company. Now, 12 years later, she loves her work—but none of it is anywhere close to the bench she had dreamed about.
“If you would have told me during my thesis defense that I would be living in the town I live, spending my days giving seminars and talks, and running a small company, I would have burst out laughing,” she says. “It all felt like a concession at first, but it was the best thing that could have happened to me.”
The moral of the story
Depending on how strong you and the labor market are, you may have to make a few concessions. When the labor market is particularly bad, more concessions may be necessary.
The main dimensions along which to consider your flexibility are job type, location, and organization size. You can also be creative about your time distribution. Do you really need one full-time position, or might you enjoy a patchwork career instead? You could take on two part-time jobs. Or you could take on one part-time job and work as a freelancer or train yourself in a new field on the side. These kinds of less common career approaches might be a great way to get through this crisis while trying a few things you think you might enjoy.
During these difficult times, almost all of us will have to make bigger concessions than normal. But if we are creative, we might find that this offers an opportunity—or perhaps a justification—to try something unconventional that could lead somewhere great.
Philipp Gramlich (NaturalScience.Careers) and David Giltner (TurningScience) contributed to this article. Philipp combines industry and academic experience in his workshops and talks for scientists. David teaches scientists how to design and build rewarding careers in industry.