Monday, November 20, 2017

Playing the Long Game, by QHV

I'm pleased to host an essay by a long-time reader and friend of the blog about their job search: 
After an arduous, demoralizing, post-Great Recession period of unemployment, underemployment, and job hunting, I wanted to share some happy, hopeful news: I recently landed a new job that I am excited about. It’s more than just a new job, really...this is a return to R&D and a major boost in career trajectory, quality of life, and overall work satisfaction, not to mention pay, all bundled into the culmination of a very difficult decade.  
The way this happened was unexpected and surprising to me. I have, until now, assumed that if you didn’t follow a particular prescribed path (find a job posting, apply for the job, get a phone interview, get a site interview, receive an offer) to getting hired, then you were either gaming the system or cheating. That must have been incredibly naïve of me. I veered from that sequence during my home stretch, achieving my desired outcome, but getting what I ultimately wanted didn’t feel like manipulation or cheating at all; it was hard work and it made sense to me. You are welcome to tell me if you disagree. It won’t subdue my elation.   
I am a former synthetic chemist. In the mid-2000s, I was truly thrilled to be doing medicinal chemistry. I enjoyed bench work, the companionship of fellow chemists, and the fact that I was doing what I wanted to do and had been educated to do…but in 2008 my position (like many folks’) vanished, and I ended up briefly unemployed before taking a string of less-than-interesting positions. These jobs were only tangentially related to my love of chemistry and they paid much less. I hesitate to use the term drudgery, but…let’s put it this way: perpetually looking forward to the end of the day and the end of the work week can be a pretty miserable way to live a life.   
Maybe some of you had this experience, too...it was almost impossible to get a callback on a job application between 2008 and 2012. So, I took the only jobs that were available to me. I have a young family, I was desperate for income, and I felt I had no choice, even when one of those positions involved an almost-50% decrease in pay. We were uncomfortably close to the poverty line for a period and the work hours were long and hard, but at least it was a paycheck. I bounced one more time and experienced some relief by spending the past half-decade treading water in a position that paid slightly better and supplementing our income by spending my after-hours and weekends doing quite a bit of freelance science writing to make ends meet. I had decent benefits at my full-time position, but it has always felt like an insecure dead-end, no matter how diligently I have worked to excel. 
This summer, out of steadily-growing dissatisfaction and a particularly negative series of events at my day job, I began an employment search in my area (It cannot be considered a scientific hub, but I have some compelling reasons to stay.) My criteria for considering leaving my relatively safe current job for another position were two: 1) the potential job had to provide interesting opportunities for advancement and 2) the salary and the commute had to be equal to or better than my current job.  
I sent out my first resume in May of this year, and I accepted an offer this month, so the search took six months. My final tally shows that I applied for 18 positions and made it through various stages of the interview process for four of those. That I had gotten interviews,  in itself, was huge...a seismic shift from 2008. 
I was particularly interested in one of the companies where I interviewed. They are a small-but-growing start-up with a proprietary technology and a great group of scientists, and I really wanted to be selected for the job they were offering. Unfortunately, when they asked me when I could start, my honest answer was that I would need a couple of weeks to gracefully separate from my current employer without ruining my professional reputation, so they ended up going with a comparable candidate who was eager to start right away. A few weeks later, though, they contacted me to ask if I would be interested in doing some contract work for them. I was very willing. The work is enjoyable and satisfying, involving lots of fascinating background research. Moreover, the scientists who share their data with me are communicative, helpful, and upbeat.  
A few weeks ago, unexpectedly, a hiring manager at one of the larger manufacturing facilities I had interviewed at over the summer contacted me personally. The manager wanted to know if I was still interested and asked me to apply for a specific position that had opened in their department. This was earth-shattering news; the job they were offering was a major upgrade from my current job and it met both of my criteria, so the finish line was in sight—but I was hesitant. I knew that if I was being perfectly honest with myself, I wanted to work for the start-up that I was writing for.  
So, I took a deep breath, called the start-up, and I told them  just that.
“This other company has scheduled me to come in for a one-hour meeting. I already interviewed there earlier in the year and I strongly suspect they have an offer for me, but if I could choose my own adventure, career bliss would mean working for you.” I made it clear that I understood they may have budget and space constraints and may not be hiring, so I was more than willing to continue to do the contract work, but that I needed to follow the opportunity that had arisen. 
Their reply? “I’m so happy you’ve let us know.” 
An hour later, they called me back with a verbal offer. I cannot really describe how that felt. Ecstatic amazement comes pretty close. My whole body shook uncontrollably during the conversation and for many hours afterward. 
We talked for over an hour about the scientific contributions that I could make that fit my skill set, salary (perfect!), and a job title: “Research Scientist.” I could not be happier. I have gone from “Chemist” to “Something Else,” back to “Research Scientist” and instead of having found a job for which I meet particular qualification requirements and jumped through the prescribed hoops to land, my new job description is custom-designed for the way my specific skills and talents can meet the company’s needs. 
Obviously, it would be very complacent and dumb of me to think that another collapse like 2008 can’t bring me down again, even very soon, but I have no doubt that the experience of this decade will insulate me in one very important way: if I end up jobless again, I think I will be less inclined to fall into patterns of self-blame and more able to give myself credit for being resilient, creative, and smart enough to survive with kids, family, and sanity (mostly) intact. I feel valuable and valid knowing that having items on my resume that aren’t primarily research-oriented aren’t disqualifying and that my ten-year-old fear is unfounded: having to step out of science doesn’t mean you can’t ever come back. 
Thanks to QHV for their friendship and their story. 

21 comments:

  1. I am very happy that you were able to get what you wanted, to your satisfaction! I have to say my experience after big recession was different than your and perhaps your's was more arduous. The trick now is to like it what you have it, while you have it. It will be an accomplishment by an itself, if you can figure it out as to how you can make yourself, indispensable yo your employers. I wish you nothing but good luck, going forward. May be there is something to be said about the old adage-longer the wait, sweeter the reward!

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  2. I would be extremely wary of any company that expects you to quit your current job without 2 weeks notice.

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  3. It wasn't that they expected me to quit...they had someone equally qualified who was weighing another offer. They had to move more quickly with that person. They were very forthright about it, and it's good because now that other person is going to be my colleague.

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    1. Bravo for the honesty to the start-up who had you working part-time. I'm very glad it paid off.

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    2. Me too! I had considered trying to put it in an email and am really glad I didn't, because I don't think I could have effectively conveyed my honest enthusiasm.

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  4. The most epiphanic line of the post..."having items on my resume that aren’t primarily research-oriented aren’t disqualifying". Those types of things help show professional adaptability and flexibility to both learn and take on new things outside of your norm. They are valued traits in potential candidates. Congratulations QHV!!

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    1. Thanks so much, everyone! This post...getting a chance to share the story...feels like part of my celebration :-)

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  5. Congratulations! This looks like a great gig and I wish you all the best and many years of productivity at your new job. I was curious about one thing: how did you market yourself (both on paper and verbally) after you had spent a few years doing work that was only tangentially related to your key interests and bench skills? How did you convince your future employers that even after that gap, you were still more than competent to get back into the game? I think that advice could be really helpful to people who take a break or do something different for a few years.

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    1. There are A couple of facets to this answer. First, I emphasized the high visibility contract work that I had done. (Actually, I got my first contract gig after finding the posting on CJ! When I applied for it, the employer asked for writing samples, so I got to demonstrate my communication skills and ended up getting the contract on a 400+ page manuscript that took 11 months to complete before editing.)
      Second, I diligently crafted each cover letter to emphasize my flexibility with new topics and tasks, instruments, software, etc. I wrote earnestly and combed through my resume for nuance in emphasis each time I submitted it.
      Then, when I got interviews, I studied (crammed, really) like I was going to take an MCAT or something :-)
      I read in depth about the companies,the interviewers (Yay, LinkedIn!), the science, etc., and I had key questions for my interviewers memorized so that I could make them spend time talking about themselves if things got intense.
      In short, I just worked really hard and thought carefully about what I could emphasize with each employer.

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    2. That was quite helpful, thanks!

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    3. This +10000000000

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  6. Great read, I am curious about some of the key questions you had for the interviewers. Thanks!

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    1. I just looked back at some of the notes I made for myself before the interviews. My questions covered a range of topics from company outlook (especially regarding the funding and stability of the start-up), general and specific chemistry and instrumentation questions that I had gleaned from their available publications, trade show posters, and product catalogs, as well as timelines on clinical trials, etc.

      LinkedIn allowed me to be pretty ruthless in my research on individuals. I actually went back and dug up some of the papers that they had authored back in academia, read them, and had questions ready. With one interviewer, I was a little brazen about it: "Oh, when I was getting ready for this interview, I noticed you did your PhD work for [Prof. X] at [Big Public U]. When I was there, I had that person for [chemistry course]." Then I asked a general background question about the paper of theirs I found most entertaining. That was at the manufacturing place. I know this sounds pretty shameless, but you might say it paid off in the end: they did reach out to me with the position they wanted me to apply for...by then, my heart was set on the start-up.

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    2. Oh, and I should mention that I did politely follow up with the manufacturing place, too:
      "I know I am scheduled to come in for a meeting, but my circumstances have unexpectedly changed...thank you so much for thinking of me..."
      They replied with a "No worries! Best wishes," so I feel like that bridge probably wasn't burned.

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    3. Thank you for the answers, I think I applied to about 30 positions over eight months and got 2 on sight interviews. Both were for positions I did not apply for!

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  7. Congratulations! Thank you for sharing your story and for coming back to answer the follow-up questions that others posted. I have more hope after reading your story. I haven't faced this situation yet, but I fully expect that time will come and I'll be sure to come back and read it when I need to.

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  8. This is such a great post! Congratulations, QHV! [I went from thinking I didn't know who this is, to thinking I did, to thinking I didn't again, ha.]

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    1. I don't think our paths have crossed, but I am a fan of SuperScienceGirl :-)

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  9. Back to working for "startups" with something like 6-18 months worth of operating cash and executive management looking to can you the minute they think they have something they can actually sell. Yipee
    How anyone can see this as some kind of a career is ridiculous, much less having a family and taking on a mortgage.

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    1. And a very happy Thanksgiving to you too, sir!

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  10. Thank you QHV for sharing your story.

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looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20