Friday, June 8, 2018

Where do you go, in the middle of your career?

Over at Wandering Scientist, Cloud is thinking and musing about her career:
...It isn't that my career is going badly... it is more that I feel like I've lost the plot of my career. For years, the goals I was aiming for were obvious. But right now, they aren't. I am unsure what I really want to aim for. That's OK: I have a good job at a good company, working with people I like. I don't necessarily see much scope for advancement at this particular company, but that may not actually be a problem. As one of my peer mentors pointed out today, there are other things I could do to get growth. 
The question I have to answer is: growth toward what? That is less obvious to me right now. Strangely, I think I am OK with that, too. I don't have an urgent need to change anything. I might take a little time to think about what my long term goals should be, pick some of the more low key growth ideas my peer group came up with, coast along for a bit without any urgency on them, and see which things sprout...
At this moment in my career, I don't feel the same way, in that I think I know what I am growing towards, and I know that there is a real, definite (and rather scary) set of diverging paths coming in the next three to five years. If we are successful, it will be good for us (and, I hope, good for my career.) But it could go poorly, and it wouldn't be good for us, or for me. 

What do people in the middle of their careers do? Fake-it-til-you-make-it? Strategize constantly? Pick a goal and work towards it? Or do they just keep persisting? 

(Oh, yeah, and how often do you have an existential crisis between 35 and 50? Once a year? Once a month?) 


  1. I'm 34 and I feel like I'm having an existential crisis sometimes weekly, sometimes daily.

  2. Cloud mentioned (in the full article, not the excerpt here) the idea of establishing more of an online presence under her real name. I think this is a great idea. Consulting is a good part-time retirement gig, but you need to build up a reputation in your subfield to do it. I'm also a mid-career chemist, and I'm trying to be active in professional associations and make myself known in my field in preparation for possibly getting some part-time consulting gigs after I retire.

  3. Academia could always use more cheap postdocs

  4. What do mid-career people do? be thankful they have a job. I know plenty of people who lost their job through no fault of their own, and cannot find another job in science, even a post-doc, if they are over 45. This is what happens if you are not lucky enough to be tenured faculty.

    1. The public sees thousands of PhD chemists (and other physical scientists) who either have short-term, low paid gig employment, must undergo DE-training to stay alive, or just leave the field. The ACS has been pushing this situation under the carpet for many decades. Its current goals have very little in common with those under which it was called into being.

      Approximately 4-43% of its are faculty members, correct? Which is more important to the ACS professors: complaining to the federal gov’t for more research funding? Or petitioning our gov't to create long-term employment opportunities for chemistry doctorates? Not just those who graduated last year. The assertion that research funding directly creates a commensurate number of long-term jobs had not been borne out over the past >30 years.

      Which of these plans is in the long-term interests of a socially and economically self-sustaining research/employment environment in the US?

  5. Not mid-career yet, but getting close. I don't know if it's still true, but I used to hear that the forties are when you are supposed to hit your stride and are supposed to be the prime earning years (best balance of experience and age).

    I don't feel so positive about that myself. I feel kind of stuck career-wise, but a big part of that is the "growth toward what" question.

    I work in a very small company, and there's no ladder to climb (at least not now). I feel conflicted: I'm totally OK with being primarily an individual contributor (though I do have a lab tech and he's critical to handling the routine work as well as a few other things I throw his way), but I don't know how this would be judged if/when I need to find new employment.

    The technical aspects of the work are definitely enough to keep me busy and learning new things (in fact, more than enough a lot most of the time!), but it seems that the "soft" skills like leadership and such are at least as valuable in industry.

    So I suppose I need to push myself on the soft skills.

    To answer your questions:

    (1) I suppose I choose to "persist" - don't know what else to do. Not many options in my field, fewer still where I live, and I choose to give a lot of weight to where I live and being able to stay put (so I can put down roots) over constantly moving.

    (2) My existential crises are aperiodic, sometimes weekly, sometimes a few months between them.

    1. Build your own ladder.
      Climb the ladder others built for you is a form of seeking approval and validation from others.
      To be a radical, everyone in a company should be rewarded based on their merit in work not their so call social skills.

  6. Count your blessings. My first PI ran out of money in 12' switched groups to finish w/ a MS in '16. Got hired as a med-chemist(dream job) for medium company in May '17, that company closed in Dec '17. Started as a polymer for very small start up last month, doing more product development than chemistry. Not complaining that I'm working but it's somewhat backwards. My point: sometimes no news is good news.

  7. Existential crises are a good thing (in moderation), and the "growth toward what" question is a very valid one -- and somewhat hard to answer, because our opinions of our own strengths are usually clouded by expectations held by others.

    It's helpful to take some time away from your desk / bench and think carefully about what really "fills your bucket" -- what do you enjoy doing so much that the day passes quickly, what gives you flow. (Not what you feel you should enjoy doing, but what you really enjoy doing.) Then try to point your career in a direction that gives you more of that. It sounds trite, but I think it is the best approach.

  8. As the part of the management team, it helps to remind yourself that integrity, like all good things, is best used in moderation. Get a little taste of it now and then but never overindulge.