Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Thoughts on Majors and Career Stewardship

The discussion on yesterday's rant about the scientific job market got me thinking more generally about career stewardship and job markets. I may have given the impression that I think the chaos in the scientific job market is somehow unique. I do not. I can think of many other industries that are undergoing similar upheaval. In fact, I can't really think of an industry that isn't in a bit of turmoil right now.

I think it is sad if parents are steering kids away from majoring in biology because there is no guaranteed job market for people with biology degrees. I think this not because I think we "need more biology majors" or anything like that. I think it because those parents are giving their kids a fundamentally wrong impression, namely that there is any major that results in a guaranteed career path at the end of four years.

Sure, there used to be majors that basically guaranteed their graduates jobs, but those days are gone. I'm even hearing lawyers and doctors fret about their career options now. I think it is time we all faced facts: there is no educational path you can take that guarantees you a job, let alone an awesome career. In fact, I'll make it more general: there are no magic set of steps you can follow that provide a recipe to a stable career. There just aren't.

There is absolutely no point in trying to find the "safe major" or the "secure job." Those things don't exist any more. Instead of searching fruitlessly for a relic of times past, we should accept our new reality and think about (1) what we can do as individuals to build secure and happy lives in this new reality, and (2) what we can do as a society to make this new career environment less destructive of people's lives. 

I don't feel qualified to address the second item (but I'd like to find the time to read and think about it more). I have some ideas for the first item, though:

1. Think about skills as well as specific fields
I have specialized in the drug discovery industry, but I have skills that are broadly applicable to other industries. If necessary (or if I just get tired of drug discovery), I can probably figure out how to market those skills so that I can make a lateral move into another industry. This is why the fact that I do not think I'll retire from a career that looks like the one I have now does not really depress me.

There is certainly more I can do in this area, though, and I'm starting to let the consideration of the general applicability of skills I am learning exert a fairly heavy influence on my career-related decisions. For instance, I want to take a course or two next year. Out of necessity, one course will be something to broaden my skill base withing my current industry. If I take another, though, it will be in a more generally applicable skill.

2. Let go of the idea that there is "one true job" for you
Cal Newport got this one right, I think. "Follow your bliss" is dangerous advice. There are probably a bunch of different careers that can make you happy. Newport cites the research about what makes people happy in their jobs, and it is not having found a perfect match between their interests and their job. It is in more general things, like autonomy.

3. Never stop learning and expanding your skills set
I hear that there was once a time when you could take what you'd learned early in your career and basically use that until you retired. I have never been in the workforce during such a time, and wonder if the stories of its existence are perhaps apocryphal. So maybe we should stop including the advice to keep learning on these sorts of lists. Maybe this is as obvious as "don't forget to put your pants on in the morning." But given the behavior of some of the people I know, I suspect not.

4. Be open to detours off the career path you saw for yourself
My first layoff came during a very bad time for my particular subfield. If I had insisted on finding another job in biotech, working in the exact same subfield, I probably would have been out of work for a long time. Luckily, I happened to meet someone from the contracting company I eventually joined at a networking event, and I was open to the possibility of a slight change in career path. This has worked out fairly well for me- that was the job that first gave me experience managing people and projects. When I did go back into biotech, the management skills that I had learned were crucial in getting me the new job, which was at a more senior level than the job I'd held before I left biotech.

5. Learn how to market yourself
OK, I'm going to freely admit that this is a piece of advice I need to take myself. However, I do know the basics that I'm supposed to do, thanks to my two stints at what I call "layoff school" (i.e., the outplacement services I got sent to when I was laid off). I should have a short "elevator speech" about what I do. I should go to more networking events, and focus more on networking with more senior people. I should find a "sponsor" who can help promote my career. I should talk to more people about my career goals.

Yeah, that sounds like fun.

There are also a lot of new options, with blogging and Twitter providing a way to build a reputation. Since I've chosen to blog and Tweet under a pseudonym, I can't really speak to that. I will say, though, that I've gotten some interesting "secondary" project opportunities out of my online presence- for instance, that is how I connected with the publisher of my upcoming children's book.

6. Save like crazy
Take the idea of having an emergency fund seriously. Really. When I was last laid off, the combination of our emergency fund, my severance check, and my husband's income, would have maintained our lifestyle for roughly a year without me working. That made the lay off a lot less scary.

7. Think about diversifying your skills, and maybe even your income streams 
This is one of the reasons I like to have secondary (a.k.a. non-work) projects. (The other reason is that I'm a scanner/renaissance soul and I need to explore multiple interests or I go a bit crazy.) I can use my secondary projects to build skills I don't get to build in my job, and some of them may make me a little money. The idea of diversifying my income streams is certainly theoretically appealing, but I don't know how it will work out in practice. I think I'll know more about whether or not my secondary projects is useful for anything beyond skill building at the end of next year.


Given all of this, and my approximately 10 years experience as a hiring manager, here's what I'd tell someone starting out in college and trying to decide what classes to take and/or what major to pick:

1. Pick a subject that interests you, but keep an eye out for future uses for what you're learning
Since no major guarantees a job at the end, you might as well study something you find interesting. But if you find multiple things interesting, it would be a good idea to think a bit about which has more practical applications. Be creative and open-minded in thinking about practical uses, though. A biology degree does not necessarily have to lead to a career in a biology lab, for instance. It could lead to a career in scientific communication, science policy, or informatics, among other things.

2. Use the alumni network to learn about careers
Don't just sit back and wait for career panels and the like- most schools keep a registry of alumni who are willing to answer questions. Use it. We signed up for that registry because we want to give something back and answer questions about career options. In my experience (as a member of two alumni networks), this is a vastly underutilized resource. Either that, or my career path sounds really boring to students.

3. Focus on learning how to think clearly and analytically. Also learn how to communicate your thoughts clearly, both in writing and in speech.
Honestly, this is my number one piece of advice. When I hire someone, I know I'm going to have to train him or her in the specifics of the job. But I don't want to train in how to think or write. Your college probably has a lot of resources to help you in these areas if needed, not the least of which are the professors who want to help you learn. Take advantage of them.

4. Pick some strategic skills to learn
Regardless of what you choose as a major, you can choose electives that build generally useful skills. In my opinion, learning a foreign language, computer programming, and/or statistics is pretty much  always a good idea. Certainly, I regret not learning more about these things when I was a full time student.

5. Learn how to work hard, manage your time, and keep to your commitments
As much as I don't want to try to teach someone how to write on the job, I want to try to teach someone how to manage their time even less. Use the competing demands of your multiple classes as a chance to learn how to prioritize, beat procrastination, and get things done.

6. Use your time to make something
I know you think you're really busy in college- and maybe you are, particularly if you are putting yourself through. But if you don't have to work your way through college, consider making use of some of the free time you have (but perhaps don't realize you have) to make something. Undertake a decent size project and share the results. It will be a really good learning experience, and it may help land you a job after graduation.

That's my career stewardship advice. Add yours in the comments!


  1. Good post, I really have nothing to add but will try to link it one of these days. I majored in a very high-minded but "useless" major back in the day. Everyone thought I would have to go into teaching. I'm glad I studied what I love and that I did end up using some of those skills in the work world, albeit not in a straightforward major to career pathway. I guess I never thought my major would translate to a career!

    I love and second the advice about taking non-related skill-building classes. I know someone who majored in graphic design but took business classes as well. Similarly if you major in fine arts, it doesn't hurt to take some graphic design classes.

    1. I wish I'd had some of this advice back when I was in school. I saw my non-major classes as pure goof off time- I picked just based on what sounded interesting. That is fine, but I wish I'd thrown a stats class in there, too!

  2. I'm surprised this thread has so few comments. When I think back sometimes I want to kick myself for how few of the available resources I used in college -- and I probably used more than most. I studied stuff I really wanted to learn: the history of art, the history of music, the Bible and its influence in great books of the western canon, etc. I freelanced for newspapers and magazines to make money -- which is what I do now! But when I was interviewing people for a job a few years ago, I remember talking with this one young man who'd basically networked himself into a list of who's who of people vouching for him. He was just incredibly smart about meeting them through connections at our university and it turns out people like to meet and help students. They may be less interested in meeting and helping out grown-ups.

    1. Yeah, I am also a bit surprise this didn't generate more discussion. But a lot of my readers are in academia, and it is end of semester crazy time, so maybe I just had poor timing!

      I did not take advantage of my alumni networks when I was job hunting. It was only once I was out and part of that network myself that I realized what a great resource it would have been.

    2. But a lot of my readers are in academia, and it is end of semester crazy time, so maybe I just had poor timing!

      Exactly. I would perhaps repost a bit later.


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