For most of us, there’s no such thing as the perfect job offer. Even when we have an ideal in mind, when it comes to real life opportunities, there is usually some sort of compromise involved. At the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), taking place in Boston this week, career development expert and Executive Director of Addgene, Joanne Kamens, spoke about the kinds of questions all scientists should ask of a new opportunity to find out if it’s right for them.
Most importantly, Kamens says, remember that taking on a new job is not the final decision – you can always change your mind, or move on to other things if it’s not for you. But asking the right questions before making that decision means you can base your choices on rational thinking rather than gut feelings. So here they are.
What should I be looking for in a job?
The most important thing for job satisfaction, contrary to popular belief, is not salary but engagement. Research shows that salary and benefits are less important for job satisfaction than how much you feel you belong, are valued, and are contributing.
To work out whether you’ll get that out of a new job, try to find out about the opportunities there will be for you to learn and grow, Kamens advises. Will the work challenge you? Are there resources in place to help you cope with the pressures and maintain a good work-life balance – what support is available?
You should also pay close attention to the working environment. Can you see yourself there; do you fit in? And what about the values or the organization? Are they similar to your own?
To answer these questions you need to know yourself and what suits your style, so take some time to consider that before setting out to gather this information.
How big is it?
Size matters, says Kamens. Find out how big the lab or company is and whether it has grown over time. If not, why not (it’s not necessarily a bad thing if it has stayed that size on purpose, but it could be a sign that it’s a stagnant workplace)? For lab jobs in particular, ask whether there are enough projects to go around. What will your initial responsibilities be and how fast can you get your own projects? If you are good at asking for help then a big company might be fine for you, but others may feel lost in that environment. Do you come from a big family? Does hustle and bustle make you edgy? Visit the place and ask yourself how it feels to you.
How competitive is the workplace?
Many workplaces, and labs in particular, tend to fall into one of two categories – ‘dog eat dog’ vs ‘team attitude’. There are ways to tell which one your potential new workplace falls into. In collaborative labs, for instance, papers have multiple authors, whereas in highly competitive labs it will probably just be the PI and one other who publish each paper. Ask yourself whether you like and thrive on competition. Some people do, but you need to accept whether that will make you happy before entering that kind of environment.
Who will be my real boss?
This will depend on the size of the lab or company. Find out who will manage you in the day-to-day. Will it be the person who is hiring you or, say, a post-doc? Ask whether there is a chance your hiring manager will be moving on soon. For a lab, is the advisor really around serving as a mentor? Do you care? Ask the graduate students and the post-docs there whether they meet one-on-one with the lab head, and how often these meetings take place.
Do I want this person as my mentor?
This question is most important if you are looking for a position in a training lab. Once you know who will be leading the group, you need to find out whether they are going to be teaching you the kind of stuff you really need to know to move your career forwards. What’s their involvement in the rest of the department? How good are they at getting funding? Can they deal with conflict in their lab? Do they motivate their group with encouragement or criticism?
Kamens stresses that if you are a grad student or a post-doc, you are going to be working at the mercy of this person for very little money for a protracted period of time. You are supposed to be learning the skills you need to be a good scientist and how to run a lab well. So there really is no need to “work for a jerk”, she says. When it comes to a job, it’s a different story, and you may indeed have less choice in the kind of person you have to put up with as your boss.
Trying to find out all this information about the person who is hiring you can be tricky, so when you have an interview in a lab, try and meet as many of the lab members as possible. Preferably, ask them for a coffee out of the lab where you can talk to them more openly. Ask them whether they respect the PI, whether they are learning from them, whether people in the lab socialise together? These sorts of questions will give you some good hints towards the truth.
Will I be expanding my skill set every day?
You have to care about this, especially as a post-doc or grad student, says Kamens. Half of projects fail, she says, so you need to know how many things you can work on, how many other things you will learn.
Another important question is: do people stay a very long time? Staying too long in post-doc position is bad news because it makes it look like you can’t execute, Kamens says, which is especially crucial if you want to move to industry. If grad students have been in the lab for 10 years and haven’t graduated, don’t go there. They are probably being kept on as cheap labour!
It’s easy to look up alumni, so see who used to be there and where they went on to. Network with people who have left, for instance by contacting them on LinkedIn – this is all data that will help you to make a good decision.
Can I transition to industry?
55% of scientists will leave academia, and if you are already thinking about a future step into industry, choose a lab that is open to both industry and academia. For instance, is the supervisor on boards for companies, or have they founded their own company? What is their connection with industry and how do they feel about it? Did ex-lab members go into industry or academia? Does the advisor support both paths? Is the work applicable to industry? And does the publication record show evidence of industry collaboration?
Are there any warning signs?
Look out for people speaking disrespectfully of each other or the supervisor. Also, be suspicious if you aren’t given the opportunity to speak to other employees by yourself, without a senior member there. Do people seem to be hiding their work and are they not upfront in discussing their findings? Do you have a gut feeling that these people are putting on a fake-happy façade for an interview? If you answer yes to any of these questions, think twice.
What about the money?
Don’t be shy about asking whether you can get more money, moving expenses, conference funds, day care subsidy, extra teaching stipend, and so on. Also, don’t forget to ask whether the position is dependent on a grant application. Look around for clues as to what kind of work-life balance you can expect. Is there a culture of flexibility?
As you ask these questions and do your research, write a pros and cons list, Kamens suggests. Ask others for advice. And understand you have choices: you can always change your mind.
Dr. Kamens received her PhD in Genetics from Harvard Medical School then spent 15 years at BASF/Abbott where she led discovery research projects on small molecule and antibody approaches to inflammatory diseases, ultimately serving as Group Leader in Molecular Biology. In 2007 she joined RXi Pharmaceuticals as Director of Discovery and concluded there as Senior Director of Research Collaborations. In 2011, Dr. Kamens became the Executive Director of Addgene, a mission driven, non-profit dedicated to helping scientists around the world collaborate. Dr. Kamens founded the Boston chapter of AWIS and served as a Director at large of Mentoring for the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association Boston Chapter. She serves on a number of other non-profit boards and speaks widely on career development topics in person and via Webinar. Follow her on Twitter: @jkamens www.linkedin.com/in/joannekamens