Getting Labeled – It’s hard to break out!


I got caught off guard in a recent workshop when one of my audience members asked me to describe the single most difficult career problem. For someone who writes and speaks about these issues all the time, it shouldn’t be hard to select one from the many problems that come up early in a science career. But, which of these many issues is the most difficult? I thought about that question longer than my audience would like, and finally chose to offer up a couple of the usual suspects before moving on.

After a couple of easier Q&A’s, I came back to that person who asked me the tough question. I had realized that there is indeed one no-doubt-about-it tough career problem that would land on most people’s list as #1. And I’ve never written about it before, which floored me.

The single most difficult time of your life, at least for your career, will come at a time when you have become too entrenched in whatever you are doing to break out. I’ll explain as we get further, and illuminate the problem with some examples.

It’s a hard subject to write about, especially since I author a column called “Tooling Up,” where the emphasis is on solutions. That’s because there aren’t a lot of solutions here; it’s best to avoid the trap if at all possible. This column should be considered a warning . . . Every career move you make takes you closer to your goal or leads you down the rabbit hole. (What would it hurt to take just one more postdoc in a side area of your interest? Think again.)

A Major Career Trap

Wouldn’t it be great if employers would pick up your CV and extrapolate all the great things that you can do for them? Or, to have a hiring manager look at your total work experience and decide you’ve had an interesting mix of training that could work to the company’s advantage? (Wait a minute–isn’t this what they are supposed to do?)

Despite how natural it may sound to review a person’s total work experience and decide that he or she is a good fit based upon that, that isn’t what occurs when your CV lands in their lap. Instead, they look to see what you are doing right now, and whether that fits through the tiny window they have open in a set of position specifications.

And that’s why it is so dangerous when what you are doing right now doesn’t have a natural alignment with what you wanted to do in the big scheme of things. If you’ve become entrenched in something that isn’t your lifelong passion, as the examples below describe, you’ve got to break free of those bonds and find some way to get back on the right path.

Here are a few examples of what I’m talking about:

  • The Graduate Student whose goal was to work in industry, but who decided upon a PhD program in a lab that concentrates on an interesting but arcane field. Seven years later, this person has become stuck in a niche with only academic interest, and moving to industry appears to be an unreachable goal.
  • The Postdoc who wanted to secure a position on the ivory tower, but who found that tenure track jobs are very difficult to land after seven years of postdoc. Plan B has become nearly untenable as well, as industry does not welcome those who appear dug-in to academia.
  • The BS-level scientist who went to work for a temp staffing agency and got a great temporary position at a major firm, and then another, and another. Three years later, now entrenched as a “permanent temp,” he has found that industry employers no longer consider him for full-time positions.
  • The Senior Scientist who always wanted to work for a company like Merck or J&J but who spent 8 years in consecutive small company positions. He now finds himself rejected for no reason other than the “wrong company experience.”
  • The Research Scientist, just four years into her first industry job with a company that makes diagnostic tests and reagents, finds as she enters the job market that she is not being considered for bench science jobs in the biotech industry because she has become labeled as a “diagnostics industry” employee.

Being Limited by Labels

Everything about the hiring process comes in small nuggets, and the labels that recruiters apply to job seekers are just a part of that need to clip and condense. Quick glances at a CV, brief contact via the phone or an exchange in passing at a meeting . . . from these snippets we form an impression, and that impression invariably gets expressed in the form of a label.

The person with the label of “small company guy” ends up in a job market of other small companies. The 7-year postdoc with the label of “academic researcher” ends up with job prospects consisting of . . . more postdocs. In what is perhaps one of the most debilitating and ego-crushing aspects of the job market, employers make these 10-second decisions based on labels and then move on to the next candidate.

Have you thought about what your CV says, and the kind of label that you might be assigned? While scientists tend to think broadly about the value of their career moves, believing that it all adds to their marketability, employers think very narrowly–considering only the job at hand and whether that applicant’s work over the last 2 or 3 years fills a need.

The Early Career Strategy

It’s difficult to listen seriously to advice about career planning when you are young, free and easy. Whether it is from your parents or your graduate adviser, force yourself to listen–it’s the single most important advice you’ll ever get. Pick the general area you are interested in and find out what it takes to get there. Don’t take detours, interesting stints or postdocs in an area that won’t benefit you in the end. Each and every move you make needs to be accompanied by rigorous self-examination.

When considering each move, ask yourself, “What does this buy me?” or “How can I later sell this experience to an employer as an advantage to them?” Develop your network early–contacts who can keep you informed of what is hot and what is not in your chosen area of interest. Make decisions about labs, your problem, and the eventual postdoc based upon the advice of these networking contacts and your gut feeling about what the value of the experience will be to your end goal.

The “Oops, I’m stuck” Strategy

Yes, it does feel a bit like a rabbit hole. Being stuck, entrenched in a position from which you can’t seem to break loose, is a frustrating, demoralizing situation. And the only strategy that works when you reach this sudden realization is a tough one to implement. That’s because the solution requires a lot more effort than just continuing on the same path. You need to really shake things up, to break free of all the thinking that got you into this mess in the first place.

Usually, when a person looks back and wonders how he happened to get into this spot, he realizes it is there because he took the easy road at one or more junctures. It was easier to take that third postdoc than it was to keep looking . . . So, if today you find yourself in these straits, resolve to toughen up and take the difficult path.

That difficult path requires you to rethink all the usual methods of job-seeking. Online job applications and letters to employers aren’t going to suddenly turn productive because this labeling problem discussed above will always be there in the background, dampening your progress. Instead, it’s time to forge a new label for yourself, or–if that’s not possible–obscure the present label to the point where you can get someone’s attention long enough to give you a serious listen.

You’ll have to take a cowboy approach to job seeking, and bypass the normal methods that end up with you being screened out of the process because of someone else’s idea of what your background says about you. This approach, the strategy for the stuck, will be discussed in other columns. At this point, suffice it to say that you need to understand that rules in the job market are made to be broken. Just because a company says “Apply on this website” doesn’t mean you have to sit there waiting for a reply to your application. Are you feeling “stuck”? If so, continue reading our columns at CTI.