Welcome to "Opportunities," my new column for ScienceCareers.org. My name is Peter Fiske. You may be familiar with my book about career development and job-hunting strategies for scientists (Put Your Science to Work: The Take-Charge Career Guide for Scientists), or you may have attended one of the career-development workshops I have given at major research universities around the United States. You may also know me from the column "Tooling Up," which I wrote for Science's Next Wave from 1997 to 2001 and which continues under the able authorship of Dave Jensen.
I'm back at the keyboard after a 5-year hiatus during which I left my research position at Lawrence Livermore National Lab, started a high-tech company, and took it from technology start-up to profitable business (with a LOT of help!). I also completed an MBA, got married, and had two kids. It has been a little hectic.
In the past 5 years, I have met some extraordinary individuals, Ph.D. scientists who are now pursuing an amazing array of careers both in and out of science. I have watched my friends from college and graduate school move from postdocs to faculty positions, tenure (in some cases), senior staff positions, and beyond. I have learned a lot, and this column is one of the ways I intend to share what I have learned with you, my fellow young, youngish, and young-at-heart scientists and engineers.
"Tooling Up" was (and continues to be, thanks to Dave Jensen) about practical career-development techniques for young scientists--very nuts-and-bolts stuff. "Opportunities" is different. In this column, I'll explore deeper and more personal issues about how careers in and out of science really work, about career strategy, and about how each of us, in our own way, can find the best place to make our professional and personal contributions so that we--all of whom, I will assume, aim to make a difference in the world--can live lives that are rich and fulfilling. My "Tooling Up" columns were about how to do the best job search you could possibly do. "Opportunities" is about how to make the biggest impact you can.
I will start off by admitting that I'm a big fan of scientists. I believe that early and midcareer scientists and engineers are the world's core technology innovators and its economic future. I believe that scientists and engineers can play a wide range of roles in society, not just as scholars and technical experts but also as (among many other possibilities) citizens, parents, businesspeople, and teachers.
Our academic training has prepared us to succeed in a wide range of endeavors. I believe that, no matter how low you may be in the hierarchy, you can make an impact because of your analytical skill and the strength of your ideas. I believe that science and technology will continue to transform the world we live in, in ways that are mostly good. It may sound like a cliché, but all you need is the right attitude.
So why are you here?
If you are reading this column (and you clearly ARE reading this column), you must have questions of your own. Like most readers of the columns and articles on ScienceCareers.org, you are probably exploring your career options, looking for good advice, and seeking to make sense of the often uncertain, sometimes turbulent professional environment around you. Like science itself, exploring career options often involves investigating the unknown. This can be unsettling, sometimes even frightening. In time you will find, I think, that the process is also liberating, empowering, even fun--but regardless of whether you enjoy the ride, there's no other way to get where you want to go.
One of the themes I will return to again and again in this column is entrepreneurship. I am an entrepreneur, in the classic sense: I started my own technology company. But I see entrepreneurship as much more than the activities involved in starting a new commercial venture. You might call that part Entrepreneurship with a capital "E." I see entrepreneurship more broadly; call it little-e entrepreneurship. To me, entrepreneurship is a fundamental strategy, a career ethic if you will. Big-E entrepreneurship is about seeking opportunities to make money. Little-e entrepreneurship is about seeking opportunities to make an impact--to leave footprints that will persist after you have moved on, at least until the next high tide, and maybe longer.
The Ph.D. education is unique in that it challenges a person to take on a significant issue or problem--your Ph.D. research--that has never been done before. Most other professional degrees (I have both a Ph.D. and an MBA, so I can directly compare these two at least!) involve learning a discrete set of information-–a curriculum--and learning how other people have solved problems. MBA programs in particular are big on "case studies": compact (and often simplified) summaries of specific, real-life problems that companies or individuals have encountered, and how the problems were solved. There's a lot of analysis of course, and I don't want you to think that an MBA isn't a valuable educational option. But it's a very different approach than the Ph.D.
In the Ph.D., you are tasked with marching to the cliff's edge of what is known in a particular field, gazing down into the vast abyss of the unknown, and taking the next step. It's amazing, if you think about it. Ph.D. students have to tackle a problem the answer to which is UNKNOWN and quite possibly unknowable. In the Ph.D., the most valued product is a body of knowledge that you--the Ph.D. student--have created. And the process of knowledge creation and dissemination is expected to be at the core of your career thereafter.
The Ph.D. process is a creative process--just like entrepreneurship. As a scientist, you make something new.
Young scientists have to be entrepreneurial in all sorts of ways. They rarely have all the resources they need, so they have to be clever and inventive. They have to play an enormous variety of roles: lab technician, teacher, writer, organizer, equipment-repair person, salesperson, advocate, and--if they supervise others--boss. In your research, you have to take a complex and often abstract idea and distill it to a discrete set of concrete, testable hypotheses. You often work alone. All these activities you share with capital-E Entrepreneurs.
But here's the key point about small-e entrepreneurship. It is very easy to get caught up in the details and specifics of your technical career and forget to reflect on the biggest questions: Is what I am doing important? Will it make a difference? To whom? How do I maximize the impact of my work? These are tough questions, but the scientists and engineers I have met who get out of their comfort zones and challenge themselves with these questions tend to have a bigger impact than other scientists--and, of course, than most nonscientists. Not incidentally, they also tend to lead happier and more fulfilling lives.
No matter how beaten down you may feel in your current position--and "beaten down" is a regrettably common feeling among early-career scientists--you have enormous opportunities and a vast array of tools at your disposal. The missing element, very likely, is a habit of mind: the constant, vigilant search for opportunities to make a difference. This column will help you explore your opportunities, illuminate options you may not have considered, and apply those tools to making a difference, especially through your work.
Let's get to work!
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 an upcoming blog 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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