What’s your career exit strategy?

Image Credit: BrokenSphere

Image Credit: BrokenSphere

With the uncertainty of government funding and shrinking research budgets, scientists need to develop a career plan that includes an exit strategy — an alternate career route that will pay the bills during transition periods while you refocus your career goals. I am not advocating that researchers flee from their current positions in mass exodus for fear of losing research funding; rather, I challenge each of you to regularly think about this scenario: What would you do if you found out tomorrow that the funding for your project was ending in a few months?

I faced this harsh reality in my first professional job after grad school. Being a naive newbie in the world of academic research, I believed that funding was secure for my lab manager position because I was told that the university had always allocated funds from an umbrella grant to our lab. But eight months into the job, the Dean demanded two publications by the end of the summer, which was only a couple of months away! Being the meritocratic-driven person that I am, I honestly believed that hard work would prevail, but three manuscripts later, the Dean still threatened to withdraw our funding, which left me desperately scrambling for another position.

In retrospect, I wish that I had better understood the financial and political nature of the lab’s funding situation by asking more questions of my supervisor. Even more importantly, I needed to have taken a more proactive approach to my own professional development by continuously networking across campus, exploring alternative career paths in my field and developing at least two possible career routes in science so that I remained flexible when positioning myself for a career transition. I learned a lesson the hard way that an exit strategy is an essential component of any career plan — even if you have a job, always be on the lookout for new opportunities in case your funding situation changes, you decide to explore other career avenues or you are just ready to advance your career to the next level.

An exit strategy will help you to avoid taking the first random job that is offered to you, a decision that you might regret if the position is not in line with your ultimate career goals. For early career scientists who are often temporary employees with a limited-term assignment, this “contractor” mindset will also help you to stay focused on your long-term career goals because you are strategically thinking about the next step in your career. In the end, you must always be prepared to support yourself financially and to maintain employment in lines with your professional career track during any transition periods that may arise.

If you are worried that a backup plan will make you look unfocused, you have the right to keep this exit strategy confidential. To start developing this plan, take a few minutes this week to think about your career exit strategy and write down a few of your strong skills that could be used to generate revenue, while being transferable to your future dream job. Examples of such professionally acceptable activities include industry consulting, adjunct teaching and technical writing. Further, it is also a benefit to regularly evaluate your current position for growth potential and learn to develop the foresight in predicting when a position may dead-end — this way you can deploy your exit strategy before it’s too late.


How to Compete with a Lab Diva


My first published clip recently came out in the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) Today magazine. Check out “How to Compete with a Lab Diva” to learn strategies for getting ahead when surrounded by diva types at work.

“We all know them — research minions, professor’s pets, lab divas — those bench mates who seem to get all the attention and resources even though you are just as talented as they are. They often exhibit selfish behavior (e.g., leave common lab spaces messy, use up lab supplies, etc.), and for some reason, the principal investigator seems to reward them for this science superstar attitude, creating a perception of lab favoritism among team members.”

[Read the full article in the September issue of ASBMB Today]

Poll: What to do when you’re late for that important date?

lateOne day last summer, I started driving to a late afternoon interview with a few minutes of travel time to spare, so at least I thought. Soon after departure, I realized it was also rush hour for the facilities crews and that we all had to exit on a single-lane road through the security gate at work. As I creeped in traffic staring at the clock and trying not to panic, I put my rehearsed plan into action for such a situation. I immediately called the department secretary to let the interview committee know that I was going to be late and asked if I should still show up or reschedule for a different time. From my point of view, calling seemed to be the only responsible option. They told me to still show up for the interview, but the tone in the room was tense and I couldn’t recover from the bad start. I often replay the scenario in my head to remind myself that I should have been less concerned about using up vacation time and instead taken off half a day to get to the interview early, a mistake that I will never repeat.

Lesson Learned…the Hard Way: Always plan to arrive at an interview location a few hours early to allow for any travel delays or other unforeseen circumstances. If you arrive early then grab a cup of coffee and review your qualifications before the interview. Work hours can always be made up but missing out on a job opportunity is irrecoverable. If you are going to be late then my instinct is to call your contact as soon as possible and explain the situation. However, I saw a recent discussion on LinkedIn among hiring managers that they would never hire a candidate who was late to an interview. I am really interested in getting feedback from other people on this topic. Please take a minute to answer the poll questions below (click “vote”  in each question box to submit the results). If you have any additional advice to share then feel free to leave a comment at the bottom of the page. Thanks for your input!

No Undo Button in Life: Follow-up on Job Leads to Avoid Missed Opportunities

Do you know those moments in life when you wish you had an “undo” button? (Unfortunately, pushing the button on this screen does not magically work in case you were wondering.) Last spring, a recruiter contacted me through LinkedIn about a job opportunity with a local glass company. For some reason, I completely disregarded the email with a quick response of “I’m not interested in sales positions.” Maybe, I reacted in this way because I had heard friends talk about their bad experiences with head hunters? Or maybe, it was the fact that I had been spammed with emails about insurance sales positions after posting my resume on Monster.com?

During a recent local job search, I ran across ads for internships at a local ThermoFisher Scientific subsidiary company, which just happens to be a glass company. Quickly, I scrambled to dig out the old email from the recruiter and was able to read it more clearly: (1) The unnamed local glass company referenced was most likely an industrial leader of lab glassware; and (2) the position title was listed as a “technical product manager” in the email (not a sales person). Of course, I immediately emailed the recruiter to apologize for blowing him off months ago, but I missed an opportunity to learn more about the position and to network with a professional recruiter and industry. In this case, a short phone call with the recruiter would have been worth the time.

LESSON LEARNED…the Hard Way: Follow-up on legitimate job leads to gain more information about the position/company and to build further networking connections—Even if the job does not seem like a good fit, a recruiter or potential employer may know of other potential job openings.

“You, Non-scientist!” or What Not to Say to a Young Science Professional

With two simple words, my fears about making a career change in science have come to a reality. Last week, a well-respected senior scientist at work took a look around to make sure no one could hear him and then shouted, “You, non-scientist!” Of course I, being the non-BS person that I am, looked quickly around to make sure the coast was clear and rebutted with a non-verbal gesture that got my point across quickly. On the surface, I took the seemingly harmless joke and played it off without a care in the world, but deep inside, those two words reverberated throughout my entire core and continue to repeat like a broken record.

To put the comments into perspective, last week I transitioned away from the lab bench and extended my contract for two months to assist a research center with contract closeouts and annual review preparations. In line with my technical project management career goals, I decided that this move was best to gain more hands-on experience with project management tasks. As a master’s level-scientist, I have been seeking a career route that will allow me upward mobility, as I nearly have a panic attack thinking about being chained to the lab bench for the rest of my life. For over a year, I have been evaluating what career path will allow me to merge my technical background with an ability to push projects forward and support scientists in achieving their research objectives. To me, the answer is clear: technical project management. I have come to terms with the fact that I may need to leave science for a while to gain needed business and management skills to achieve these career objectives.

So as I hang up my lab coat for now, I have been worried about how others in science will perceive me, whether I will lose all credibility and end up barring myself from a transition back into science. Perhaps I worry too much or I am just a highly sensitive person (see Zinemin’s post on HSP), but does that really matter? If the words of one scientist have such a profound effect on another, are they worth saying? The egotistical side of science continues to perpetuate, and no wonder scientists (especially women) continue to leave this world behind them at disappointing rates.

LESSON LEARNED….the Hard Way: Mentors need to learn the value of supporting young science professionals in a wide range of science careers and to internalize their personal career biases. (Or, as in the words of the slogan made popular by the American Chemical Society in the 80s, research mentors need to recognize that “it takes alkynes of people to make a [science] world!”)