I recently did a webinar, along with a colleague of mine, for the American Seed Trade Association, a group of professionals from global companies that deal with plant biotechnology. Our topic, assigned by the moderator, was career “inflection points.”
In math, an inflection point is something very specific; it's a point on a curve where the curvature changes sign. That's not very helpful in a career context -- so, with the help of Google, I dug up an alternative meaning or two. Andrew Grove, the founder of Intel, is fond of the phrase; he has defined inflection point as "an event that changes the way we think and act." It is implied, I think -- anyway, I'm going to use it this way -- that the change is unpredictable, or at least unforeseen. It's something you aren't expecting that blows you radically off course -- that sets you adrift if only for a short time.
This webinar was an eye-opener for me because preparing my talk caused me to think through the dramatic shifts that have occurred in my career, the events that provoked them, and the lessons I learned from them.
Just about everyone experiences inflection points. Perhaps, like a friend of mine, you wake up in the morning and go to work as usual, only to find that your company has been sold and new management is in the hallway passing out pink slips. Inflection points can seem very nasty when they happen.
For others, the change might come as a pleasant surprise: An old friend calls, lets you know she's alive, then says she’d love to employ your skills and experience in her lab in what sounds like the absolutely perfect job. It's at a right angle to your current work, but fascinating nonetheless.
After an inflection point, like a ball hitting the bumper in a game of billiards, you careen off in a new direction -- except the billiards analogy fails because at a career inflection point you bounce off at an unplanned and quite unpredictable angle.
My inflection point
I was in my first real job out of college, managing a small business. I loved the work. True, it had nothing to do with the science journalism career that I had intended to pursue, but it was another recession. (This first career I had built up was in itself the result of an earlier inflection point.)
Despite the great satisfaction I took in managing that small business, and the fact that my business numbers were quite good, apparently I ticked off the wrong people. A few minutes after a conversation with my boss, I found myself packing a cardboard box with my personal items, red-faced and wondering what happened. No one would look me in the eye. There was no goodbye party. There were no farewells or fond wishes for future success.
At the time, I didn't recognize it as an inflection point. It felt like hitting bottom. That’s an interesting thing about times when life takes a sudden, unexpected turn: You feel as if things have stopped. Your career comes to a sudden, grinding halt. But years later, looking back on those moments of uncertainty, you recognize that you were still in motion.
You have options
You’ve probably heard that the Chinese character for “crisis” consists of symbols for both “uncertainty” and “opportunity.” I don’t know if that is urban myth or reality, but the idea is exactly right. A moment of uncertainty may look or feel like a dead end, but options do exist. And with those options comes opportunity.
Great uncertainty can bring opportunity only when you acknowledge the broad range of options available to you. One is to curl up in a corner and become depressed. We’ve seen and heard from more than a few depressed young scientists on our Science Careers Forum and I do not wish to diminish their difficulties. But it's crucial to recognize that they get to decide how to respond.
Some people give up on their careers without leaving their jobs. They continue on, griping and complaining perhaps, but without making decisions that would change their lot, so deeply entrenched that they reject risks that might bounce them around a little bit.
This can be even worse than losing your job. The underemployment eats away at your job satisfaction and cripples your finances. You play it so safe that you avoid the inflection points that could toss you back into your work life with new opportunities, batteries recharged.
Those who allow themselves to be bounced around can find themselves in better circumstances. I have a friend, a Ph.D. cell biologist, who decided to leave dreams of the tenure track behind, a common enough decision these days. After he hit the wall, he tried to change, but he wasn’t satisfied with any of the usual alternatives.
Eventually he became a Wall Street adviser with a major bank. No, it was not his original goal: That was a tenure track faculty post. But it's rewarding in more ways than one.
When it happens to you
I’m convinced that a fair number of scientists can’t see their options clearly, either the usual suspects or the out-there alternatives. Sure, it’s common to give up on the tenure track; it's becoming common to give up on careers in the pharma or biotech industry as well. So knowing your options is more important now than at any time in the past.
Career options are rarely discussed during graduate school. Some mentors make sure their grad students and postdocs remain naïve about opportunities off the tenure track.
Here's a piece of advice: Never let yourself believe that there is only one route to your dreams. You’ve banked critical thinking and analysis abilities that can be of great value to employers in a wide range of industries. Perhaps you will end up far from a research bench, doing satisfying work in a career that all began thanks to a career inflection point and a sudden, unexpected thrust in another direction. Some narrow-minded professors may consider that failure, but that’s just a nasty bit of stereotyping.
There are alternatives. There are alternatives to the alternatives. Yes, you would -- and should -- be labeled a “drop out” if you move into your parents basement and play Xbox all day, or if you set aside your training and your problem-solving skills and end up serving fries at McDonald's long term. And that's exactly why it's so important, at times of great uncertainty and change, to embrace the change, reach out, and lock on to something else that's just as stimulating as what you've been doing, possibly even more so.
The sudden, right-angled thrust of a career inflection point may require even more creativity and idea generation than your research work requires, and it's in an area of your life where you probably are not used to being creative. I suggest a brainstorming session in which you write down absolutely everything that comes to mind.
Think as big as you can. Throw as many ideas as possible into the bucket, even those that seem wild and crazy. Got a family business you could run? Always had an interest in being an entrepreneur? Do you have a hobby that could be developed further if it moved from side-channel interest to revenue generator? Think hard about what you like to do and what you are good at and map it on to work that exists in the world, somewhere.
Extend your networking reach beyond your usual professional circles. Your typical network might include professors, scientists in industry, former co-workers, and so on. But inflection-point networking may include neighbors, friends of friends, business people -- including the business down the street -- people you meet at the coffee shop and the airport, and so on.
In good times, you might need to consider only a couple of the options that you filter out of that bucket. But when you hit the wall at a more difficult economic time, you’ll need to pull from the larger pool of ideas.
It’s in that larger pool of ideas that a cell-biologist-wannabe-professor finds an interest in investment analysis. That’s the place you need to tap when uncertainty and opportunity collide and you find you must move away from the old plan and into something completely, totally new.