Beyond the academic herd: how to pursue opportunity  


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January 19, 2021 8:18 pm  

Years ago, during my grad school interviews, the late Seymour Benzer told me that I would be forced to decide in grad school whether I would “run with the herd,” or instead become one of the few scientists who would be comfortable operating more independently.

That succinct statement encompassed all of his advice to me—a clear yet puzzling challenge. I have reflected on this comment during and beyond grad school.

In my roles in industry and as a consultant, this challenge has remained relevant. There are rewards and challenges to delving into the unknown and working independently.

Safety in numbers?

In academia, the herd is our community. We depend on that community for input for our ideas, assistance in our work, and readership for our publications. Being part of the group gives us consistency, stability, and identity.

On the downside, academia can all too often be dominated by group thinking. Straying from the herd may leave you lost and nowhere. Even worse, straying from dogma may leave you branded as a pariah. People in groups tend to follow the others in a group. Doing so seems to offer more certain success.  It’s a comfortable habit.

Build yourself and your network

Leaving academia requires that you strike out on your own, moving beyond the group that has nurtured you and given you your identity. You have to tune out negative feedback and freely offered bad advice as you begin. The best starting advice that I received was to “cast a very wide net.” This is the time to look at a lot of different possibilities. People are the key to this process, but this is your own journey.

Your networking will likely begin at your university, as you talk to various colleagues and career center administrators. You may also talk to industry-connected faculty members, and people who have recently made the jump from academia to industry. This initial networking is an important start and may be sufficient to land your first job offers. However, consider that these people are not far removed from your university, and that this immediate network may have herd effects of its own. Advice may be narrow, and the opportunities limited.

The suggestion to cast a wide net and to talk to many types of people is helpful on two levels. First, it will put you more in touch with the world and give you a better vantage point from which to view everything. Second, it will increase the probability that great opportunities find you.

Casting the wide net

Reach out to different types of people and apply to different types of jobs.

Ideally, our social and professional networks should be diverse, far-reaching, and high quality. Building a network involves skills. But, even with good skills, most of us will never be insatiable networkers with millions of twitter followers. I have found it helpful to understand that people serve different functions in our social networks, as described by Malcolm Gladwell.

Ideally, a network is not just a flat list of people to contact for career opportunities, but a dynamic community that you build where contacts will occasionally see an opportunity and contact you. Some of my most far flung contacts have presented me with the most intriguing possibilities, out of the blue.

If you feel like all of the people in your social and professional circles are too much like you, my suggestion is to make whatever efforts you can to network outside of your immediate group. Mix things up a bit. Seek out events and meet ups to attend on websites, or by word-of-mouth. Join groups on LinkedIn and find out events to attend. In some cases, you may also want to reconnect with old friends and acquaintances who work in very different career fields.

Even networking a bit in leisure or volunteer activities may help you diversify your network. I have heard of valuable contacts being made in casual social settings, in running groups, and on a sailing team. These are not likely places for useful contacts, but variety and an open attitude can increase the probability of chance opportunities. Diversity of friends and contacts is good. The various ways of networking, online and in person, fill whole books.

Go forth from the herd: step out of your comfort zone

How can you turn these ideas into action? As the old saying goes, fortune favors the bold. Recognize that venturing out can be uncomfortable and overwhelming. Work to challenge yourself and accept that some discomfort is a good sign. As with any difficult project, break it into small, discrete tasks. Though I try to avoid quotes from political people, the following quote goes right to the point.

“Do one thing every day that scares you”

--Eleanor Roosevelt