The Difficulty of “Plan B”


It’s quite a transition you’re planning. You know, the one where you leave Plan A behind (you, in a prestigious tenure-track faculty position) in favor of some last minute, rush-rush “Plan B.” The word “transition” is often chosen to describe such a change of direction, but it’s an inadequate choice; one doesn’t “transition” out of a smoke-filled, burning building.

I don’t mean to suggest that, from a career standpoint, academic science is a building on fire (though that is a case you could make). I mean, rather, that in preparing to leave a burning building, you probably don’t want to take the same approach you would for a trip to the grocery store. Abandoning academia, for industry or any other path, is a radical change that calls for a different approach. Yet when some job seekers abandon Plan A in favor of Plan B, they leave the process itself in place, unconsciously continuing on with their old habits. That’s a mistake.

Leaving a burning building tends to work better with a little planning. It helps to know where the furniture is that might block your path, which windows provide the most promising egress, and which rafters are likely to collapse first, blocking your way. But you’re now in a building you don’t know very well, so it’s best to rely on the experiences of others. Even if you can’t avoid those obstacles, you can be mentally prepared for the challenge.

Who Set the Building on Fire?

Most industrialized countries have produced far more Ph.D. scientists than were able to find actual jobs for a long time. My life sciences recruiting career began in the early 1980’s, which was the beginning of the big push for more S&E graduates in the United States. Since then, though it varies by field, the talent pipeline has turned from a dribble to a full-blown broken water main, flush with the resumes and CV’s of well-trained and available prospects. Yeah, I know I’ve switched metaphors here, from fire to water, but you get the idea.

The Knowledge Gap

Most people in the job hunt, especially in the life sciences, find themselves represented by a few sheets of paper in a very, very tall stack of application packages. It’s frustrating for people who have always been the best at everything to find themselves in competition with hundreds of others who are equally accomplished. When this happens, you come face-to-face with the feeling that Marilyn French described for one of her characters in the novel “The Bleeding Heart:”

“I discovered you never know yourself until you’re tested, and that you don’t even know you’re being tested until afterwards, and that in fact there isn’t anyone giving the test except yourself.”

Strictly speaking, this last point doesn’t really apply to the job search. You’ll be tested by perhaps dozens of hiring managers as they measure your application package for quality and focus. And if you make it through that round, you’ll be tested again during the job interview. But the most important part of the test is, in fact, personal: You realize you don’t know as much as you need to about industrial careers or yourself.

I’ve interviewed many thousands of industry scientists over the years. I always ask them what they learned from their first job search. Here are some gems from my recruiter’s notebook:

  • “Looking back, I am disappointed that I had my head in the sand throughout most of my grad school and postdoc days. We had a number of intensive industry-orientation and job-search seminars every year, and even a roundtable forum where successful company people would come and present their careers. I rarely attended these events. Some experiment or my PI always interjected to keep me away from career events.”
  • “I initially knew nothing at all about companies, only that I wanted to work for one. It would have been tremendously useful to have known in advance that I needed a certain amount of resources around me to be happy, and that scrapping about in a startup company wasn’t my cup of tea. I grabbed the first offer I had instead of focusing on a larger employer which would have been a better fit for me.”
  • “I went into the job market like a babe in the woods! All I knew is that I wanted to get away from the loneliness of bench science and into something with more of a people element. With that fuzzy picture in my mind, I interviewed and had no offers for a year until I finally wised up and came up with some focus and a plan.”

So What’s the Test Exactly?

Upon encountering the knowledge gap, some people lose their momentum. Frustration and rejection — and confusion resulting from being out of their element — put the job search into slow motion. They fill out online job applications now and again, and scan the journal ads. They’ll send a batch of CV’s out to unsolicited “Dear Sir or Madam” contacts and keep their fingers crossed. But they won’t stay positive and persistent, energetic and purposeful, as you must to escape a burning building.

So, what’s the test? It’s whether you’re able to find a way to keep moving forward, purposefully and intelligently. You need to get past your depression, press on past the hardship, figure out what to do next, and do it with energy and passion.

In this game it isn’t always the best and the brightest who win; it is the people who put themselves into the position to see the most opportunities, and then to take advantage of them. You need to keep doing that. If you’ve ever been a fisherperson, you probably know that if you want to catch fish, you need to keep a line in water where there’s fish. You have to work the lure with concentration, or if you’re fishing with bait, make sure it stays fresh. The more time you spend with your line in the water — and the more lines you fish, assuming you fish them properly — the more likely you are to catch a fish. This is the first test: You’re fishing in unknown water. Can you keep fishing hard as you learn from your experiences, positive and negative? This is how you fill that knowledge gap.

You have to fish well, but numbers count too. And in order to get your numbers up, you need to work hard and be damn persistent.

Speaking of numbers, here are some numbers based on my own experience with S&E candidates of many different kinds. Compare them to your batting average and figure out how well you’re doing. Keep in mind, however, that these are only averages; numbers vary from one niche to the next.

  • 10 CV’s mailed to good networking contacts or ad responses where there is a good fit should produce 2 or 3 telephone interviews.
  • Generally, if you have 3 telephone interviews, one of them should produce a face-to-face interview.
  • Three face-to-face interviews (with different employers) should, roughly generate one employment offer.

That means that, on average, about 50 CV’s mailed to places where there seem to be good prospects should net one job offer.

The Quiz

Here’s a quiz you can take in advance to help you prepare for your test.

  • To succeed in the job search you will to be receptive to new ideas, since the process is different from academia. Are you ready to incorporate new ideas, and make adjustments, as your search progresses?
  • Every institution offers some career training for non-academic jobs. Do you attend and participate in these events? Do you intend to start?
  • Do you keep a networking database, a log of every potential prospect and contact who might be able to help you in your search? Have you integrated people you do not have a connection with into your networking plans? (These might include potential contacts you find from meeting attendance lists, publications, and Internet research).
  • The best way to make progress is to be persistent, maintaining at least a minimal level of activity on a daily basis (making and maintaining contacts, applying for jobs, researching companies, and so on). Have you decided what that minimum level is for you?
  • Are you prepared to follow all telephone interviews with letters of continuing interest to the particular person who calls? Will you remember to get his or her address, and write them afterwards with your continuing interest?
  • Interviews turn into job offers only when the candidate convincingly converts their experience into the solution for an employer need. Are you prepared to tell likely employers what you can do for them? Have you learned to express this well and succinctly?