Changing Career Advice

Recently I took a trip that lasted for more than 35 hours, starting out on an island in the Philippines in a small propeller plane, transferring through Manila and Seoul, eventually arriving in Los Angeles and then in Phoenix, and then concluding with a 2-hour drive home from the airport. Isn’t travel fun.

I couldn’t sleep at all during the trip home. My brain was working overtime. Maybe it was the spicy kimchi served on the Korean airline, or the bottle of Lipton iced tea I drank in the Philippines while waiting for the first leg. It was certainly an interesting and productive day and a half. I did more serious introspection on those flights than any I’ve done in a decade.

Today, there are hundreds of niches you can explore—many with closed doors, and only some with a yellow brick road out front.

Some of that heavy-duty self-analysis dealt with my career, but I spent most of that traveling time thinking about how science careers have changed since I started as a recruiter more than 25 years ago. All that cogitation began when the fellow in the next seat asked me for some advice for his son, who happened to be a budding scientist at the beginning of his graduate years.

Today, it’s best to follow the money

Over the years I’ve had many such conversations with passengers in neighboring seats. There have been some great coincidences, and I’ve met some interesting people this way. The businessman I met on this latest trip asked me many of the usual questions about salaries and opportunities. But his most interesting question was, “How has science career advice changed over the years?” This question really got my brain working.

In the late 1980s, there was a catchphrase used by just about everyone who talked about careers. I used it liberally myself because I fully believed in its power. The catchphrase was, “Do what you love and the money will follow.” The idea was around even before a book came out with that title. In career counseling circles, this was the golden advice you could offer any young person who asked for direction.

As I talked to this fellow about his son, I realized how long it has been since I actually believed—and taught—this traditional piece of career advice. It’s a real antique.

Don’t get me wrong: I still believe that you have to love your work, and that it is this passion for your science that will bring you job offers when you are in the position to solicit them. But to just follow—blindly—a path that you love without any serious analysis of the job market and research about your options can be a shortcut to disaster.

What happens when someone considering graduate school starts talking with a professor about a future course of study? Does the professor know where the best jobs are found, or whether that area will even be of interest in 6 or 7 years? Does she even care? Perhaps a couple of decades ago, all that you needed to be employable was a CV that showed a Ph.D. in “molecular biology.” Today, there are hundreds of niches you can explore—many with closed doors, and only some with a yellow brick road out front.

Today it’s best to follow the advice that Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook) gave to reporter Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) in the movie All the President’s Men: Follow the Money. Today, you must thoroughly examine the map before you head off into the woods, because only certain paths have a sure thing at the end while many others lead to the never-ending postdoc. So, talk to as many people as you can, explore as many different wild ideas as you can generate. Some of them will resonate, and one of them will lead to a satisfying career.

Train locally, work globally

Another piece of career advice that has changed over the years deals with where you go looking for work once you have finished your training. In days gone by, it might have made sense to go away to get educated, but when it was time to find a job you went back home, or close enough. Biomedical scientists on the East Coast of the United States found industry employment in regions like Boston or North Carolina’s “Research Triangle,” or in the pharmaceutical corridor between New York and Philadelphia. On the West Coast and in Europe, same thing: Pockets of strong science hiring existed in numerous locations. True, science careers required a bit more mobility than jobs like accounting or sales, but usually you could still find work and not be too far from family and friends.

This has really changed. The global recession and changing hiring trends mean that nowadays if you want to prioritize your science career, you need to be willing to go where the opportunity is—and it may be far away. If you can do that, know your stuff, can play well with others, and are flexible, you’ll almost always have work.

On my trip to the Philippines, I visited the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), a well-respected institution that plays an important role in food security for developing countries. The institute has about 1000 scientific staff members from 42 countries. The alliance they belong to, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), has 15 of these research centers across the world, with a total staff of about 8000. Other “world citizen” employers, including those at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and more, tell me that international development is a good career niche right now. With major pharmaceutical companies setting up shop in India and China, many jobs you might previously have found close to home will now take you overseas. “Train locally but work globally” is the best career advice today.

But—whatever happened to making bold choices?

The advice offered up to this point is straightforward and sincere. If you want to maximize your chances of having a successful scientific career, following the money wherever it leads you in the world is the best advice I can give. But it has another purpose, too: to make sure you start on your science career with your eyes wide open, and with an awareness of the realities of today’s job market, so you can evaluate the risks and decide how much risk you are willing to take on. Things are tough out there.  

Different people have different levels of risk aversion. Not everyone is looking to shrink from long odds. Science has always progressed via personal risk, by scientists making bold choices. Robert Zeigler, the director general of IRRI in the Philippines, had a nice, secure job as a department chair at Kansas State University. He took a big career risk to leave tenure and move to the Philippines to help create a more secure food future for countries in Africa and Asia.

I realize that I’m mixing up the messages here: For Zeigler, leaving home was the daring choice, not the safe choice. He made the move because he was passionate about his science and the good it might do, not for the money. He most definitely did not follow the advice above.

Also, maybe it’s important for you to stay close to family, and a job in Scranton, Pennsylvania is much more desirable than one 3000 (or 10,000) miles away from home. Staying close to home may not be the stereotypically risky thing—most people think of international travel as much more exciting—but in purely career terms, limiting yourself to a small geographical area is a serious risk. Yet, if that’s the case—if those are your values—pursue it.

These days, there’s more risk in a science career than there used to be. A big part of what we do at Science Careers is help aspiring scientists maximize their odds. But, as I told my acquaintance on that 35-hour journey, risk-taking has long been a part of science, one way or another. If risk-taking goes completely out of scientific culture, innovation goes with it.

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