Thursday, March 5, 2015

Stories wanted: "My big break"

I'm a frequent listener to NPR's Saturday evening "All Things Considered". I was a pretty big Guy Raz fan (very fond of his conversations with Jim Fallows, among other things), but Arun Rath is growing on me. 

Anyway, one of the neat/hokey things they're doing is interviewing various celebrities about their big break, i.e. something lucky/coincidental that helped them get where they are today. Here's Leland Martin, NASA astronaut (and chemistry degree holder) talking about a training accident that stopped him from being an astronaut for a period of time:
"There was blood coming out of my ear and they rushed me to the emergency room," he says. "They did surgery, they looked around, they couldn't find anything and being an astronaut, you need your hearing. If something happens and they can't explain why it happened, they won't let you fly in space." 
Melvin's hearing slowly came back but he was still medically disqualified. So he traveled to Washington, D.C., to work in one of NASA's education programs instead.... 
...As he flew across the country attending memorial services [CJ's note: after the 2003 Columbia tragedy], Melvin says the chief flight surgeon was watching him closely, assessing his ear injury. 
"He's watching me clear my ears and go up and down in the airplane and he calls me in his office and says, 'Leland, I'm going to sign a waiver for you to fly in space,' " he says. "That was one of my big breaks."
I don't think I have any fantastic stories like that, but I can talk about my first ever campus interview. After failing to get into medical school (yes, I'm one of those), I put my resume in for an on-campus interview with a relatively unknown drug delivery company. I walked into the interview wearing (I think - it's been 10+ years) a clip-on tie and the only button-down shirt that I had. After a nice conversation with the two gentlemen sent from Company T to interview me, they asked me what I was working on for my undergraduate research project. I ended up drawing the structure of the compound that I was trying to synthesize on one of the interviewer's notebooks.

They looked at me in some odd wonder and they said "You're the first undergrad we've talked to that can explain their project to us." I ended up getting the job.

Honestly, I don't think that I was particularly smart -- I think it was just a coincidence that they went out recruiting that day and I was coincidentally the most prepared for a job.

So that was one of my big breaks. Readers, what's yours? Stories of coincidences or dumb, weird luck desired. 


  1. My first big break was my first job after postdoc. My application got buried in the pile, only to emerge on the hiring manager's desk right before he was finishing interviews. He called, asked if I could come interview that same day. I did, and got the job.

    The second was right as company #1 was going under, I emailed a contact I knew and asked if there was any chance he was thinking of starting a company in such-and-such space. Turns out he was, and I got the job.

  2. My first big break was applying to a small biotech after my first job. I had started working in Analytical R & D despite having a synthetic organic background. It brought me from the Great White North to Sunny Cali. All those things that you are supposed to do when negotiating a job, I did. Followed up two weeks after the interview, then a month. I didn't take their first offer. Things seemed simpler back in 1998.

  3. At my school one had to apply to get in to 4th year undergrad (based on marks), which required the signature of the UG chair. I was waiting to see the UG chair, who was kind of a stickler, for said signature the week before classes start. I was quite sure he would not let me in based on my marks. Just as I was approaching the desk he was at he said he was going to lunch and the, much more relaxed, prior chair took his place. He did see that my marks clearly did not merit admission to 4th year, but said he'd sign my form on the understanding that I'd pull my marks up by the end of the year. Phew.....Then at the end of 4th year (I did graduate, though not with the best marks) I was seeking a job as a research assistant in an organic lab that had a big contract with a major pharma. I applied for the job not thinking there was much chance I would get it. I ended up getting the job because the person who was going to be hired had, the week before, been arrested for harboring a felon. At that point I didn't really care much about chemistry, particularly organic chemistry. The guy I worked for ended up being tremendously inspirational and actually made me want to study organic chemistry. Fortunately, despite having a "soft" transcript I was admitted to grad school based on actual experience and was able to graduate quickly, even earning a national PDF prize at the end.

    So a couple of big breaks....

  4. I don't have a "glamorous" job but I love what I do. When I entered my undergrad I knew I wanted to be a doctor. My first semester, as a pre-med, I had to take both biology and chemistry. During high school I hated chemistry because my chemistry teacher was a fuddy duddy. I walked into my bio class thinking "this is going to be AWESOME!" and walked into my chem class thinking "UGH". My chemistry prof was an amazing man. He was passionate, caring and loved what he did. My biology teacher obviously drew the "short straw" and had to teach the freshman. She kept saying things like "this is a weeder class". At the end of the semester I wrote on her eval that she was correct, it was a weeder class, she weeded me right into a chemistry major. At that point I decided I wanted to inspire students in the same way my chemistry prof had inspired me. I TA'd for that chemistry professor for the rest of my undergrad career. Fast forward 10 years. I have a PhD and my dream was to teach at a university. Like many people that dream didn't work out. I applied for a job to teach high school AP and Pre-AP chemistry. There were applicants who had more high school teaching experience than I had (which was pretty much none); however, the school decided to take a risk on me. The professor for whom I TA'd evidently wrote an amazing letter of rec and the principal decided to take hire me. I love my job. I just hope I can inspire someone like I was inspired. In the end, I didn't end up where I thought I wanted to be, I ended up where I belonged and I'm proud to be "wasting" my PhD teaching high school thanks to someone giving me the chance to teach.

  5. My boomer parents gave me advice that is very naive in the context of a Millennial's experience of the economy. But come on, they are boomers who had government jobs. Can we really blame them for telling me that if I study whatever I enjoy and do well in it, I will have a good life and earn good money?

    So anyway, in 2006, at the second best university in my city (there are three total), I finished my undergrad in chemistry with more A+ than A grades. I applied to the best university in my city for the grad program. I asked my undergrad thesis prof for advice on choosing between two potential graduate supervisors, given my preference to work in industry afterwards. He told me to pick prof B, which I did. Prof B had started a collaboration with a startup company, which I worked with, and which by the time I graduated 5.5 years later was growing and hired me ASAP. Now I'm 31, a key technical employee, and earning enough to live a comfortable life, including owning a car, having my own apartment, and putting away about 30k a year in retirement savings. Of course I will never have the standard of living my boomer parents had; for example, housing is wildly unaffordable.

    Of course without my talent and skill I wouldn't be where I am, but without that lucky break it's tough to guess whether I'd be stuck in postdoc hell, or if I could've found a decent industry job somewhere in North America.

  6. Several large breaks in my life were helped by a little luck.

    While applying for a job in St. Louis I saw a similar posting in La Jolla. I thought to myself where is La "J"olla? Then "Who cares, it would be fun to interview in CA". I then clicked the box to send an application there. My first job was in La Jolla.

    The day I was told I was laid off from La Jolla a friend of mine was talking about their MBA for which our employer was paying. I had never heard of employer tuition reimbursement programs before that moment. I thought, gee I could totally do a MBA. So in my next job I completed a MBA tuition free.

    When applying for new jobs after La Jolla I was mostly applying for another pharma position. On the night of Valentine's Day I got completely angry about the lifestyle of a typical pharma med chemists (layoff, move, layoff, move, layoff....) So I drank three Diet Mt Dews and stayed up until the wee hours of the morning completing a very long application outside of pharma. I got the job and took it.

  7. I was working for a very small CRO/CMO where most people who worked there were nice folks, but not exactly scientific talents. I had taken the job out of necessity (depth of the recession, had moved countries because my wife was starting school in Massachusetts) but knew I didn't want to languish in this pit of mediocrity for the next 40 years.

    Fortunately a gentleman joined our organization as an in-house CMC consultant as a resume time-filler while he moved between one big pharma job (site shutdown) and another (multi-month interview process). I was lucky to sit at the cube across from him, and we had many great conversations in our months together. When he had been at his new mid-large pharma co. for a few months I gave him a ring and he set me up with a project manager who had an opening for which I was eminently qualified. Which is how I ended up working at the company where I had dreamed of working a decade earlier, but had never seen a way in.

  8. I can't nail down one thing that could be considered my big break. However, there were several events that led me to where I currently am in life (staff scientist at a specialty chemicals manufacturer, where I've been for nearly a decade).

    1.) I hated the first school I attended for my BS. I was originally a computer engineering major, but when I transferred schools after my freshman year, the school to which I transferred did not offer this major. My mom suggested I major in chemistry, because I liked it so much in high school.

    2.) I was born when my parents were in their 40's. Both of them had major health problems when I was graduating from college, so I narrowed my grad school applications to School A and School B, as these were the two schools closest to them. I was accepted at School A, but didn't hear back from School B until a year later, when I got a letter saying they had lost my application when they moved their admissions office, and encouraged me to re-apply. That mistake led me to attend School A.

    3.) The (admittedly somewhat elderly) advisor I chose in grad school unexpectedly retired when he was rejected for an NSF grant. He set me up with a different advisor, which turned out to be a fantastic relationship.

    4.) When I was a 5th-year grad student, a group from a national lab asked my advisor whether he had any students who were close to graduation. This led to my postdoctoral position.

    5.) As a postdoc, my advisor was awful. However, he left after my first year and was replaced by someone who had transferred from a different agency. We cranked out enough papers in my 2nd year to more than make up for my lost first year.

  9. No breaks yet. However it appears I have made plenty of bad decisions, which I am now paying for.

    1. How about having been born in a prosperous, free, nation in a time during which there was no military draft?

    2. Good point. Living here sure beats being flogged by an ISIS chieftan simply for thinking a little differently....

    3. biotechtoreador: "free"

    4. Yeah, I seem to have made all of the wrong career decisions in my attempts to secure a tenure(d track) faculty job. But at least for the time being have a position with a Bay Area start-up working in materials organic chemistry. So perhaps it was a blessing in disguise. And, according to an NPR interview from Sunday, we all tend to remember our bad decisions rather than our good ones.

  10. I entered this carnival over at my place:

  11. I e-mailed my resume to the hiring contact listed on the company's website and the next day I got an e-mail from my future boss essentially offering me a job. Isn't that how it works for everyone?

    Used up a lifetime of good luck on that.