So, how is the New year treating you? Are your resolutions still in place, or have you joined the humbled masses who will swear once again to never make New Year’s resolutions? I know Spiderman (in the 2012 reboot) said that the best kind of promises are those you can’t keep – but are you really going to take advice from someone who goes springing from one place to another in a red bodysuit without any regard to local liability laws?
When we last met as writer and reader, I posed the challenge of asking two questions: “What if?” and “Why not?” Now, let’s see where pondering those two questions might lead you…
If you’re just starting with your career, what if you looked for opportunities in areas for which you might currently have more passion than credentials? It’s admittedly challenging when most Masters and PhD Programs in the hard sciences never offer a course in business, finance, intellectual property, etc. If you are in an initial or early-career position, it is likely the entirety of your responsibilities will be related to your training and classes. You were likely hired for a certain set of skills, so that your employer can have you contribute and bring value from your first day forward. They usually want a “turn-key” employee to the greatest extent possible.
Assuming your skills and personality are truly well-aligned for the needs and the culture of your employer, things in general will proceed favorably and peaceably. The weeks and months begin to accumulate as you get more and more comfortable. Some, or perhaps most, of your job begins to pose less and less of a challenge. The stress of wondering if you can truly perform and succeed diminishes. Time passes, and you relax into a calming routine. You are well-entrenched in your comfort zone.
If you’re already into your career, you have likely become deeper but not much wider in your daily responsibilities. You’ve become more proficient – so either you can do more of the same things each day, or perhaps been given a few more tasks closely related to talents for which you were originally hired. At this point, as with newbie scientists, the protective, complaisant bubble forms as the weeks and months accumulate. Again, comfort increases in inverse proportion to stress. Time passes, and you relax into a calming routine. You are well-entrenched in your comfort zone.
Such is the Sirens’ song of employment. In Greek mythology, the Sirens were beautiful creatures whose beautiful music and singing lured nearby sailors closer and closer to rocky shores – until they drew too close, wrecked their ships, and met their doom. In your job, do you hear their song? You can hear it in the positive formal reviews of your supervisors. You can hear it in the compliments of your coworkers. Don’t get me wrong: praise and contentment are wonderful. They are things to strive for, and are certainly preferable to criticism and self-doubt. Nonetheless, the Sirens’ song of employment lures you into a comfort zone from which it can be difficult to progress away from – or even want to.
Think of yourself as the aforementioned sailor and traveler. You sail calm waters – never venturing far from your comfort zone. There is a calm and sense of security by never wandering so far from your comfort zone so that it begins to become distant. But take out a mental telescope, as though you were not merely a sailor on your ship, but its captain (because after all, you are in charge of where your career goes.) Take a long, hard look at that comfort zone. Among the placid shores, and as you look harder and with more self-examination, rocks begin to appear. They appear more risky and threatening the longer you look. There are ways, though, to steer a course that balances between complacency and fear.
Avoid the Sirens’ song by looking around for ways in which to expand your knowledge – not merely in your chosen specialty, but so that you see more of the “outside world.” What if you were to strive for more? The reality is that most scientists with a deep but narrow skill set find it’s not too difficult holding one job or jumping to another. However, in too many cases, that type of scientist finds the flattest career path. There are too many others who also have a good set of hands. Sometimes, those people are younger with less training – but may be increasingly attractive because they’re cheaper to keep. So, the comfort zone now could lead to the unemployment zone later.
I certainly recognize that, for a large percentage of biotech employees, there is no comfort zone. There are no words of support, no feeling of comfort. Complacency would be a blessing, as it would replace doubt, sadness, and anger. If you are living that reality, then finding a different ship and a different course can be a matter of mental and emotional survival. If you are living that reality, then you don’t need a telescope to see the rocks and the danger; you’ve already made contact. At least for this blog post, though, I’m mostly addressing those who aren’t in horrible situations. (I will address those who are in a future entry.)
For those who are contented on their ship, why not make this the year you leave your career comfort zone? It doesn’t have to be a leap; it can be a small step. Start by seeing what responsibilities you could take on. Your supervisor may be wary at first by inquiries beyond the usual routine. However, assure them that such inquiries are not indicators of dissatisfaction. On the contrary; you are looking to continue bringing great value to your employer while nurturing an environment likely to make employees stay longer.
I don’t pretend that every work environment is one in which you may feel comfortable approaching superiors on matters not directly related to your job. In such cases, you can learn more about your organization by relying more on doing your own homework. Start reading about other organizations doing similar work – regardless of sector. That is – whether you are employed by a professional services group or an academic team or a firm developing medical solutions – you can gain a greater understanding of why your employer is doing what they’re doing. And, consequently, you can gain a greater understanding of why you’re doing what you’re doing.
If you like your job and they like you – wonderful! It doesn’t have to be the “I can’t believe they pay me to do this” kind of happy. Again, being satisfied counts. What you may not realize is that you – sometimes more so than those who hate their jobs – should be keeping an eye out for the next opportunity. You’re actually in a great position, and at a great time in your career, to leave. More on this in my next entry…