A ship in port is safe, but that is not what ships are for. Sail out to sea and do new things. ~ Rear Admiral Grace Hopper
Last week I spent my lunch hour and beyond discussing my career path with the sweetest fourteen-year-old I have ever met. She will be starting high school this fall and is interested in a career in biomedical engineering. One of my coworkers had her tour our company for a day, meeting with people from different functions, to help her see what The Real World is like and hopefully glean some advice and guidance.
One question curious minds frequently ask me is how I got to where I am today in my career. The general assumption always seems to be that I made some kind of conscious effort or decision to move in a certain direction. I have moved, but not in a deliberate, well-planned-out-kind-of-way. Rather, during my time working in industry, I have gravitated toward where I am most comfortable. Here is a biology analogy to help explain:
The cells of your body have different transport mechanisms to move molecules in and out. Active transport requires energy, which is ATP (thus the lightening bolt). Passive transport does not require energy, and molecules tend to move from higher to lower areas of concentration. If you think of a crowded party, active transport could be the host or hostess packing everyone into one corner like sardines. The diffusion form of passive transport is where people disperse themselves more evenly depending on where the food or music is. Facilitated diffusion would be where the host takes one or two people and moves them to another part of the room.
Diffusion allows molecules to go where they are most comfortable, where they would naturally be found in an environment. They stop moving when they reach an equilibrium, which is a state of balance. While all forms of transport in and out of a cell require movement, some expend more energy than others. There is also only so much energy to go around.
My energy for the past almost sixteen years has been used up exclusively in raising my son. While I enjoy my job and do my best every day, I have not performed extraordinary feats of energy expenditure to move up in the company. If I did, I would be exhausted, burned out, and not a good parent or role model. I do not tell people this, especially fourteen-year-old children who are just starting their careers, when I first meet them and they ask about my career path. I actually don’t mention this to my best friends. The only way people notice is by paying close attention to where my own attentions lie.
So if I don’t tell people that actively pushing myself forward in my career would have resulted in my becoming a perpetual Medusa day in and day out, what do I tell them?
Here it is.
I went to graduate school for cancer biology. When I had permission from my thesis committee to begin writing my thesis and look for jobs, here were my options:
1) Stay in academia. No way Jose. At the time, the NIH funding rate for grants was at a low of approximately 10%. That means that for every 1000 grants submitted, only 10 were being funded. As a single parent, there was no way I was going to take a chance on an academic career. Tenure at an academic institution is based largely on how many grants you have funded and how many publications you have in scientific journals, and the first five years can be rough. I knew if I went into academia I would have no time left over for my home life.
2) Teach at a liberal arts institution. This was a definite possibility, except that jobs are highly competitive and few and hard to find due to the fact that they are really good jobs. A liberal arts college or university usually has smaller class sizes, and as an instructor you have the opportunity to become closely involved with your students and in campus life. My last year of graduate school I taught Advanced Microbiology at Augsburg College in Minneapolis and loved it. Several years later, I am still in touch with several of the students who were in my class. Since we were close in age when I taught them, they are now my friends.
3) Do a post-doctoral fellowship for the government. I interviewed for several NIH positions in several parts of the United States. If you want a post-doctoral fellowship that offers you a lot of career options upon finishing, I would highly recommend looking at the NIH. The military also has post-doctoral fellowships, and one of the perks about working on a base is that, as an employee, you may enjoy the same benefits the soldiers do. I almost went to work for the NIH, but then this happened….
4) Go into industry, which is what I did. My graduate school advisor told me repeatedly that this was a definite yes based on my personality and the way I worked in lab, but being who I am I didn’t listen to him. The way I got my industry position is also kind of a fluke, which has started to make me feel a bit guilty when trying to give other scientists advice on how to get into industry. One afternoon while filling out NIH applications, an email popped up in my inbox from my advisor. He had forwarded me a note from the chair of the department with a job opening in a local industrial corporation. On a whim I submitted my resume, and thank goodness the hiring manager couldn’t open it the first time because when I showed it to my advisor he freaked out and made me revise and resend it. When the hiring manager opened it the second time, he called me the next day to come interview for the position. I was one of four applicants, and I ended up being the person who got the job.
I didn’t get my industry job based on my scientific skill set. I was offered the job for two reasons:
- First, I interviewed very well. Social skills, as I told my fourteen-year-old lunch companion, are critical to having a successful scientific career. You can be the most brilliant scientific mind in your field, but if you are unable to communicate both verbally and through writing and / or get along with your coworkers and / or represent your company in a professional manner and /or resolve conflict when it arises, and I promise you it will, forget the job offer.
- Second, I was my advisor’s first graduate student. As the first graduate student, I had my choice of projects, which was wonderful. I also spent an inordinate amount of time helping get the lab set up and running. I trained most of the undergraduates, ran our facilities and ordered supplies when we were between technicians, and actually had a large say in the research direction the lab took based on how my thesis project shook out.
Now we are at the point where I am a cancer biologist working at an adhesives company. I have been at this company for almost a decade, and I have never once been in danger of losing my job, or if I have, no one told me about it. I always have more than enough projects to work on, and three of those have turned into actual products that our company sells. If I do happen to have a few slow weeks, the curious cat part of me starts noodling around with my coworkers to come up with new ideas. Sometimes I have a specific project to work on, but usually it’s more of a concept, a vision that someone has in his or her head. My job is to make it happen and dictate size, shape, color, smell, and so on. The best part of my job is that I learn something new every day.
I spent the first four years of my industrial career in lab, all the time, every day. I love working in lab. Cell culture is meditative to me, with all of the repetition and routine. Trying new procedures and tweaking old ones, such as ELISAs, are always fun. If you need things to work the first time, every time, lab may not be the right place for you to be. For me, however, a failed experiment meant one option crossed off the list and new avenues to explore. The best part is when you get a result and think to yourself, “Hmmm…this is…interesting.” And then the next experiment blossoms up in your mind.
The way I left lab was very circuitous and not something I planned. It was passive, not active. I was assigned as the technical lead on a major program for our group, and in addition to the lab work, I started organizing our weekly meetings. I also became the person who wrote the technical updates, made update slides in Powerpoint when our manager needed them, and putting together our project reviews. I made sure the team stayed on task, kept to our timeline, and maintained good communication with the product development part of our company. If this is sounding less and less like a techie position and more like Project Management, you are spot on. The best part was that I was unwittingly evolving into a Project Manager. A part of myself that I never knew existed had emerged.
After our team finished that project, I started looking around for something new to do and went back into lab. That lasted all of three months until my technical manager asked me to initiate a new platform. A platform consists of several inter-related products, so by saying yes to the request, I knew that I would be unofficially stepping out of my technical role and into a full time Project Management position. The caveat, however, is that the part of the company I was in rated the employees on technical accomplishments. There was no Project Management career path, only technical or supervisory. I believe in bringing my genuine, true, and honest self to every situation, however, so I began managing our platform. The best part was helping advance the careers of the scientists on my team and watching the project progress.
It all paid off because I was offered the job I have now for two reasons:
- First, I have an excellent track record as a Project Manager, previously unrecognized as it may have been. My teams function well together. We communicate at all levels, from our summer interns up to our most important stakeholders. I figure out what my assigned scientists excel at and help them succeed in their own careers. The projects I manage stay organized, on schedule, and we deliver sound technologies that are able to be commercialized. I also do not fear conflict and try to use it to strengthen our team instead of letting it tear us apart.
- Second, I am a risk taker. I do not always do what everyone else does, and often I go on my own way, about my own business, and keep time to my own music. This is not hostile, rebellious, or disrespectful on my part. It is simply part of who I am. I started performing a Project Management function because that is where I was able to offer the most support to my team. I have gone against the grain like this multiple times in my career, often in small ways. Sometimes it is noticed, and sometimes it is not. Sometimes it pays off, and sometimes it does not. When taking a risk works in your favor, however, the results can be significantly life changing.
Now after over half a decade of Project Management under my belt, I am considering yet another transition into Technical Management. After being at my company for only two years, my supervisor at the time strongly encouraging me to go into Technical Management. I did not actively pursue that career path at the time because it felt like a forced fit. I wanted more time to be in the laboratory running experiments and figuring out where I fit in and what I wanted to do with my career. Now, years later, the opportunity for Technical Management has been offered to me again, and this time I am strongly considering taking it. The position is not something I sought out. It came to me because I have a strong network of coworkers throughout the company. Networking is a critical component of career success in any organization, and it isn’t always the quantity of people you know. Sometimes a few excellent connections is all it takes.
My fourteen-year-old left with a big smile on her face and shining eyes after we walked up from my building’s cafeteria through some of the labs on my floor. She saw her future unfolding before her, knowing that she had a lot of work and dedication to do to reach her goals. This is where all of the best parts of all of the bits and pieces of my career add up to one Big Beautiful Best Of Everything – watching a fledgling scientist dip her toes in the water and wonder what lies on the other side of the shore.