Recently I had the opportunity to talk with a friend of mine about his career predicament. Two years ago this fellow had gone from a postdoc into industry, and now a young company in its death throes had laid him off along with 20 others who worked at the bench. According to their press release, the company will be "focusing on priorities." Their priorities must have shifted to financing instead of new drug leads. C'est la vie! So goes the roller-coaster world of biotechnology.

Most readers of Next Wave probably have not gone through a layoff and the resulting period of unemployment; I can tell you that there are few things in life as discouraging as being suddenly thrown into the job market. But although it is undoubtedly an unnerving experience, I have always believed that a lot of good can happen when you are forced into a corner. As I told this acquaintance, unemployment actually has some advantages over its sinister cousin, underemployment.

Here is my definition of underemployment: It is that stagnant period that can occur in any position, in academe or industry, when you have stopped growing, intellectually, financially, in terms of marketability, or all three. It's sinister because it can happen gradually--you wake up one day and realize that you are a year or two behind where you thought you'd be.

Although unemployment thrusts us into change and out the other side, transformed in some way, underemployment happens without our awareness when we follow the path of least resistance for too long. Those who are underemployed avoid change at all costs, taking shelter in whatever job or grant is paying the bills ... instead of seeking new challenges and renewed learning opportunities.

I asked my friend if he remembered what it was like to be stuck in the postdoc rut; he had been in three of those before finally striking out into industry.

Sure, he remembers. And despite the stress and ill feelings he is experiencing due to the layoff, he believes he is in a better position now. My friend plans to bankroll his experience and move (hopefully quickly) into another (hopefully healthier) biotechnology company.

The Postdoc: A Learning Opportunity, or Underemployment at Its Finest?

The postdoc is often the critical learning phase of a young scientist's life. It is a chance to change viewpoints, to establish new relationships and lifelong collaborations, and to get a sense for where you'd like your science to go in the coming years. Despite how uncomfortable it is to be on the low end of the totem pole after many years of grad school, most people value this period and the resulting productivity.

To an industry employer, typically filled with hiring managers who have had similar postdoctoral experiences, it is almost universally a must-have. And yet, despite the fact that most managers want to see a quality postdoc on the CV, those same supervisors have a well-established viewpoint on what represents too much of a good thing.

After five postdoctoral years, the job search suddenly gets even more difficult. Instead of welcoming you with open arms for the wonderful exposure you've had in various laboratories, managers and HR people assume that you are more comfortable in the ivory tower. Interviews are harder to find. HR people question, directly and indirectly, whether or not you'll be able to make the transition. There is a feeling that after too many years of postdoctoral training, a candidate becomes unchangeable--and that the years of underemployment have taken a toll. Your career hasn't even really started yet, and you're already over the hill.

Unless you have a remarkable record of accomplishment through those years, too much of this good thing can actually hurt you in the job market.

Avoiding Underemployment

Although it is entirely possible to continue for 2 decades doing postdoc after postdoc, all the while learning and being stimulated intellectually, you certainly wouldn't be growing in that other important measure of a job, the bottom line. A postdoc position can start out as a good thing but end up as underemployment. I thought of a good analogy for this after a recent workshop I attended in which the speaker likened career stagnation to surfing.

Have you ever been to California or Hawaii and watched those surfers working the big waves? I've always wondered why the best surfers will leave a good wave before heading all the way in. If I had that talent, I'd ride like a hotdog all the way back to the spectators. But when I asked a first-rate surfer about this, I found out why they don't do that.

"The best surfers will never ride a great wave all the way back to the beach," says Brian Klemmer, a professional speaker on management and motivation. "A good surfer dumps a wave while it is still good, and as a result they catch another great wave because they are positioned properly and ready for it. The bad surfer, on the other hand, will ride that wave too far. They end up eating dirt--literally getting ground up on the beach."

Klemmer, who often speaks about career issues, agreed with me that this is analogous to people who ride their postdocs too long. That person ends up with substantially less in the bank and considerably less marketability to new employers. Although it's less sudden than being ground up on the beach, in a way it's similar. And in the long term, it's no less painful.

Here are some questions to ask yourself about whether or not you are on the track to underemployment:

- Are you currently gaining new knowledge that will add to your marketability? Or, are you performing the same tasks over and over? It's also possible to be gaining new knowledge that doesn't actually add to your marketability. The postdoc world is full of bright, young scientists who find an avenue to explore that interests them but has no positive impact on their career.

- Are these learning experiences consistent with your long-term plan? In other words, is what you are stimulated by at work getting you closer to your goals? Mere intellectual stimulation isn't enough: You need to make sure you're progressing in terms of your career potential.

- Take a close look at your CV from 2 years ago. Do you have two new years' worth of new skills, credibility, and growth?

- Publications are important, but does your job also offer other opportunities for you to develop your professional reputation?

- If you are looking at another postdoc instead of moving into industry, is it because you've decided on an academic career or because you haven't gone all-out to land a position in a company?

- What can you do--right now--to move yourself out of a rut and get closer to where you expected to be at this point in your life?

Sometimes, when you need to put food on the table, you have to accept underemployment. I've taken a job or two for similar reasons. You may find yourself in another postdoc because the job hunt in industry did not prove fruitful. If that is the case, keep an eye on your end goal, and choose a postdoc that will bring you the in-demand skills that you are lacking.

My Own Experience

As I think about my own experiences, with both underemployment and unemployment, memories of a number of very discouraging days and weeks come back as strong as ever. I can recall sitting in my house, after being laid off, watching an old episode of I Love Lucy and wondering how I had gotten there and whether my life would ever be the same again.

Sure, those unemployed days were tough, but I emerged from each of them with a fresh outlook and a new career ... and, in both instances, with a brighter future. What was the worst career scenario that I can recall? It was a 4-year period during which, for some reason, I decided to let myself stagnate, languishing in a position that I should have been in and out of in a year's time.

That period of underemployment haunts me now as the single biggest waste of time in my career. And it's time I will never get back!

A writer and speaker on career issues worldwide, David Jensen is the founder of CareerTrax Inc. and managing director of Kincannon & Reed Global Executive Search.