Over the past several years, I’ve had the genuine pleasure of speaking with students and researchers about their careers. They look for advice and inspiration for planning their career path. These students and researchers carry an infectious enthusiasm, a real passion for what they do. But there is a problem.
The more students I talk to, the clearer it becomes that they all harbor common misconceptions about what career opportunities they can and cannot apply for. There are assumptions in the way they think–the way a lot of us think–that place avoidable hurdle on the track to success. Whether it’s someone’s first degree, a Ph.D., or advanced postdoctoral position, the questions remain the same:
Where will my career go? What job might I choose? What sort of scientist will I be? How will people react? Is there a correct decision? Will I love my choice? Will I regret it forever?
Though we live in exciting times, uncertainty is everywhere. It is understandable that students and researchers ask so many questions. Many jobs, particularly in academic circles, do not start out as permanent, and often persist in the ethereal limbo of short-term contracts. Many aspiring scientists graduating today will eventually work in and create jobs that don’t event exist yet.
Whether you want to stay in academia, head to industry, or leave behind research altogether, my message to everyone everywhere searching for new opportunities is this:
Challenge Every Assumption You Make About Yourself
I’ve only published X papers, so I probably don’t have enough in my résumé to apply for the job.
Challenge: Some people have NO papers and apply for the job anyway. Why? While buried in the publish-or-perish mindset you have assumed every employer needs to see papers. You have also assumed that even when an employer would like to see papers, they can’t contextualize your current working environment.
Employers are clever people. If you have an article in preparation or submitted, say so. If you worked in a legally or entrepreneurially sensitive topic on which papers cannot be written, say so. There are many ways to stand out from the other (often numerous) résumés on an employer’s desk. Have you considered phoning up to chat about the post ahead of clicking ‘Submit’? Rethink your assumption before discounting yourself from the competition.
I don’t really work in that field. I won’t know enough to apply for the job.
Challenge: How did you train for the discipline you are currently working in?
You worked hard, you tried, you failed, you tried again, and you learned. It is rare that your degree or research position will teach you everything you need to know about a new job. What matters is your capacity to learn, not what you have already learned. Be adaptable.
The more students I talk to, the clearer it becomes that they all harbor common misconceptions about what career opportunities they can and cannot apply for.
What if I want to explore a career outside of my degree? I feel like what I’ve learned is too specific.
Challenge: Business practitioners say that training in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) provides valuable critical and creative thinking skills, which are useful in many career spaces beyond STEM itself. In a recent interview with Freakonomics Radio, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi explained how she views the potential of scientists:
“If you are trained as a scientist in your youth…if you stay with the STEM disciplines…your scientific disciplines play a very important role and ground you very well as you move into positions of higher and higher authority, whatever the job is. [In your youth] stay with STEM as long as you can!”
You may have heard advice along the lines of “you are NOT your degree.” I prefer to say that “You are your degree…and then some!"
It’s OK for that person; they have experience X, Y, and Z. I don’t have any of that.
Challenge: One of the most common forms of intellectual neurosis is the urge to compare yourself to other people. Such thought processes are understandable and often unavoidable, but they need to be managed. Ask yourself: What would happen if you could convert the time you wasted worrying and procrastinating into effort toward that job application? Stop focusing on other people and concentrate on what you can bring to the party.
Some people make it sound like it’s very easy and building a career is one smooth and straight line. Is it?
Challenge: No. Heck no. You need to make and take opportunities. Never wait. Rejection is certain. You have to learn to use every instance of rejection as feedback to fight again. If anyone infers that the road to the career you are happy in is a smooth one, they are lying. The next time you have the thought that a certain successful person you see or chat with has it all figured out, question why that might be? What were the circumstances in which they found success? How did they achieve what you see before you? When you start to break down someone’s road to success, you start to see that success is very rarely plain sailing.
This article might sound like I have it all figured out. I do not. I have struggled and will continue to struggle with my own career assumptions, but I hope these observations can help you question your own assumptions on the road to where you want to be.
If nothing else remember this: Trying and failing are infinitely more manageable than the regret of never having tried at all.