From Newton's apple to Millikan's oil-drop experiment, scientific discoveries are often as much a matter of accident as they are a matter of planning. But it takes an open mind and good training to turn the chance observation of an unexplained event into a breakthrough in scientific understanding. And it is people with properly prepared minds who are best positioned to recognize and exploit such opportunities of observation.

I was reminded of this fact while listening to a friend's amazing "how I found my job" story. A physicist by training, "Elizabeth" had made the shift to patent development and technology licensing and was eager to make a second transition to venture capital. Her background and qualifications were outstanding: a Ph.D. and an MBA from a well-regarded school and several awards and patents. But, as is common in the world of business, without direct experience or an inside contact, Elizabeth found herself unable to penetrate the high walls of the technology-investment community.

She finally gave up the idea of going directly into venture capital and decided to seek a job doing business development for a high-tech company. Coming back from a job interview in New York, Elizabeth found herself stranded at the airport when her flight back to San Francisco was delayed. (Yes, it WAS United Airlines!) The gate agent, feeling sympathetic, suggested that she go up to the Red Carpet Club and relax in the lounge. When she got to the club's door, however, a surly desk clerk refused her entry. Elizabeth begged and pleaded, but her entreaties fell on deaf ears. "Why don't you come as my guest," said the man standing in line behind her. After further arguments with the desk clerk--and the desk clerk's supervisor--Elizabeth and the gentleman (let's call him "Walter") were allowed to enter.

After thanking Walter profusely, Elizabeth asked him where he was headed. Surprisingly, they discovered that they not only were on the same flight but also had seats next to each other (first class--Elizabeth had upgraded). She asked him what he did, and Walter explained that he was checking out an optical-networking company in New York as a potential investment. He explained more about the technology, and Elizabeth, who did her thesis on a related subject, ended up explaining to him the science underlying the technology. She even volunteered that she thought the technology would soon be superseded.

Walter thanked her profusely for her technical assessment, and the two continued their conversation during the flight. He explained that he was, in fact, the founder of a major semiconductor company in the Bay Area and had just set up a venture-capital group in Palo Alto. Elizabeth told him that she had been interviewing for a job and that she thought she'd probably receive an offer.

Walter was obviously impressed by Elizabeth's capabilities. And at the end of the flight, he leaned over to her and said: "I hope you'll reconsider taking that job in New York. I think you'd be a great addition to my team. I'll have my assistant call you tomorrow."

The next day, Elizabeth got the call, went in for an interview, and landed her dream job!

Preparing for serendipity

As Elizabeth's story illustrates, lucky breaks and chance encounters can happen anytime and anywhere. In fact, potential opportunities come our way every day. However, only some of us are able to recognize them as such, and fewer still are quick enough to exploit them. Here are some good habits that will help you see the opportunities as they come up and to seize them more quickly when they do.

  • Keep your eyes and ears open.

No matter how busy you are, you need to take at least some time out of your week to scan the horizon for new career possibilities. Focus on information-rich sources, such as key publications and Web sites, and make a habit of reading them regularly. When you encounter a fact, idea, or issue that rings a bell for you, write it down. I have been doing this for the past 5 years and have a whole notebook of such items.

  • Put yourself in the right places.

No matter your career goals, there are likely to be specific places where you stand a good chance of meeting people who can connect you to your next job. If you are interested in the biotech industry, for example, find out about local industry organizations and start attending their meetings. Or maybe there's a conference that covers the discipline in which you're interested. University campuses are also rich hunting grounds. Interested in teaching high school? Check out the school of education at your university. Interested in tech transfer or venture capital? Try hanging out at the business school library. You never know whom you might meet or what interesting conversation might result.

  • Talk to people.

Many of us scientists are introverts by nature. Chatting up the person sitting next to us on the plane may feel uncomfortable and awkward. But you should get in the habit of getting to know strangers at conferences, professional gatherings, or social occasions. It can pay off enormously for your job search. You never know--maybe the person sitting next to you on the plane will be your next employer!

Serendipity and the prepared job seeker

Like your science, your job search will rely on both luck and careful preparation. It's hard to plan for luck. Just be assured that, by the law of averages, you are entitled to your share of lucky breaks and chance encounters with people who could connect you with your next job. However, careful preparation, through networking, diligent research, informational interviewing, and a dynamite résumé and cover letter, will enable you to better exploit the good fortune that does come your way.

Peter Fiske is a Ph.D. scientist and co-founder of RAPT Industries, a technology company in Fremont, California. He is the author of Put Your Science to Work and co-author, with Dr. Geoff Davis, of a blog (at phds.org) on science policy, economics, and educational initiatives that affect science employment. Fiske lives with his wife and two daughters in Oakland, California, and is a frequent lecturer on the subject of career development for scientists.

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Peter Fiske is a Ph.D. scientist and co-founder of RAPT Industries, a technology company in Fremont, California. He is the author of Put Your Science to Work and co-author, with Dr. Geoff Davis, of a blog (at phds.org) on science policy, economics, and educational initiatives that affect science employment. Fiske lives with his wife and two daughters in Oakland, California, and is a frequent lecturer on the subject of career development for scientists.