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what you are doing in ten years because you simply followed the guidance of your academic advisor, friends, or your parents (even though it wasn’t what you wanted to do). None of these folks will trade places with you if you eventually decide your career path was a terrible mistake.
• Ask questions of people who occupy jobs that you are interested in. Find out what the pluses and the minuses are. What sacrifices are required? How long will it take? How many job openings are there? How competitive a field is it? Make as informed a decision as possible. You may live with the consequences for a long time.
• Consider “offshoots and branches” of career trees you are interested in. There are numerous career opportunities in science writing, grant writing, administration, teaching, project management, or communications. You can become an intellectual property attorney, a patent agent, a science writer, or pursue any one of a number of other related careers that will make excellent use of your science background.
• Cast a wide net when looking for a job. Be flexible. Thinking there’s only one job out there that is an exact match for your skills and interests is a recipe for heartache. If possible, don’t limit yourself to one city, one company, or one field. Apply for a lot of positions. If you are lucky, you may find yourself with an actual choice of jobs, and not have to take the first position you are offered.
• Don’t be discouraged by the numbers saying there are X times as many applicants as there are open positions. There are lots of jobs out there, and since individual skill sets are often highly specialized, you are not really competing with as many people as you may think you are. I was trained as a molecular biologist as a post-doc, but it was the fact that I knew how to do site-directed mutagenesis that helped me land my first job. And after using that skill for the first few months, I never needed to do it again. I had moved on to new areas of research.
• A great job fit means more than simply matching the qualifications listed for the position. If a company states that it is looking for a team player, and you like to work alone, this may not be a good fit, no matter how well your scientific skills mesh with its needs. Cultural differences exist among different companies and academic research institutions, and these are important in determining how happy you will be once you have accepted a position and come on board. Act in haste and you may repent in leisure.
• Having said that, your decision isn’t a “forever” one. Taking a job doesn’t bind you to an employer or to a university for life. Circumstances change, or you may realize after some time in a new position that it wasn’t really what you expected. New leadership often means changes in managers, philosophy, and culture. All institutions change and evolve, and you will need to adapt to your surroundings no matter what your current position is. As Charles Darwin put it, “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones that respond to change.”
• Promotions aren’t for everyone and can be counterproductive to your happiness. If you love working at the bench, stay there. Don’t put yourself in a position where accepting a promotion puts you in a job that you’ll enjoy less that your current one. I know a number of prominent scientists who, at the ends of their careers, returned to the bench because that’s what they enjoyed most. Remember the Peter Principle, which basically states that people get promoted until they reach a job that they cannot do very well. They will then either be fired from that position, or struggle to do it for a significant period of time.
• Understand your monetary needs. If you aspire to a lifestyle that requires a high income, then make sure your next job will meet those needs. There may be tradeoffs associated with that choice, such as long hours, frequent travel, or living in a place you don’t want to be.
• What does it take to land a job? For positions outside of academia, employers are focused on hiring people who they think can solve their specific problems. If you can convince them you can do this, you will stand a good chance of getting hired. Simply being a good scientist may not be enough to get you a particular job. Sports teams have been known to draft “the best available athlete” and then teach them a new position. Businesses, in contrast, like to hire people who can readily handle the task at hand without much additional training.
I’ve always thought that it was a special privilege to be able to study biology and to delve into the mysteries of how life really works. An optimistic outlook will see you through numerous challenges in both your career and your personal life. Let me close by sharing a few quotes for you to reflect on:
“Do not take life too seriously; you will never get out of it alive.” Elbert Hubbard
“If you can find a path with no obstacles, it probably doesn’t lead anywhere.” Frank A. Clark
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