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.