Contributor, Ben Thomas
The path to a fulfilling science career is steep and lined with obstacles, so landing a comfortable position can feel like a welcome relief. But what happens when you’re ready for a new challenge, a change of pace, or just to find out what you’re really capable of? In this three-part series of articles, workers in the sciences will explain how and why they got stuck in career ruts, and how they broke out into more fulfilling, thrilling careers.
Before you plan your career move, it’s important to take time to consider what it is, exactly, about your current position that isn’t living up to your expectations. This help keep you from falling into similar ruts in the future. A clear set of reasons and goals will also keep you motivated when the job search gets tough, and you’re tempted to fall back into comfortable but unsatisfying territory. Thus, Part 1 of this series of articles is all about seeking a better understanding of your present situation, and figuring out what it is that you’d like to change.
“People get stuck in ruts for a lot of reasons, most of which boil down to this: Instead of doing what we truly want to do, we do what we think we should do, or what other people think we should do, , or—worst of all—what we think other people think we should do,” says Sherry Marts, life and career coach and co-author of The Book of How: Answers to Life’s Most Important Question. “What we want gets buried, and it takes effort to uncover it.”
Have you been asking yourself if your day-to-day data gathering is directionless? Does innovation go unrecognized in your area? Are trustworthy friends hard to come by in your department? All these are perfectly reasonable causes for a career move. The fact that you’ve paid for a Ph.D. in the sciences doesn’t mean you’re locked into a life of bench work, if you don’t want to be. Nor do years of experience in academia or at nonprofits mean you can’t leverage your skills toward a faster-paced job in the corporate or freelance world, if that sounds more interesting.
“First, you have to ask yourself what you really want to do,” says Rebecca Anderson, author of the books Career Opportunities in Clinical Drug Research and Nevirapine and the Quest to End Pediatric AIDS. “That’s harder to articulate than you might think, but it’s a critical step.”
The more precisely you can delineate the factors in your current job that fall short, the better you’ll be able to start mapping out your path. Not only will this understanding help you recognize red flags as you investigate other jobs—it’ll also serve as a powerful motivator to keep looking, even at times when the search seems fruitless.
“It was really three factors—an icy professional climate, my dislike of laboratory research, and my work to revive the near-dormant student government at the university where I did my doctorate—that convinced me that a life in academia was not for me,” Marts says. “I decided to move out of research altogether. So I paid a visit to the university’s career center—I was the first science Ph.D. who’d ever asked them for help, in fact—and they helped me craft a skills-based resume that emphasized my organisation, writing, and speaking skills, and downplayed my research.”
Though your dream job isn’t going to appear overnight, keeping a clear focus on the reasons for the change will help guide you toward connections and opportunities that point in the right direction. And paying a visit to a free career center near you, as Marts did, may also give you some inspiration.
In Part 2 of this series, I’ll explain the next step in the process of a scientific career upgrade: Addressing the obstacles that your current knowledge base, your circle of colleagues and your economic situation may be putting between you and a better career. Until then, take some time to ponder your reasons for making a switch, as outlined above. That way, as soon as you get some practical job-search tools in hand, you’ll know just where to begin.
Ben Thomas writes articles about a variety of topics for the Riley Guide, an online repository for career and education resources. As a freelancer, Ben also covers scientific research and technological breakthroughs as well as social issues involving the sciences. A regular contributor to several leading science news websites, Ben helps scientists and academics connect with the general public by explaining their latest discoveries and controversies in clear, down-to-earth terms. You can follow Ben on Google+.