Let me guess: Every now and then, you don’t feel appreciated. You have completed projects with spectacular results (or have at least made very laudable progress) and haven’t heard an “attaboy” or “attagirl” in quite some time. If so, welcome to the club.
Why is it that no one really appreciates your efforts? Why do only your occasional failures get any attention at all? This feeling comes over everyone now and then. In fact, this is such a popular reason for making a job change that we see a fair number of these “unappreciated” candidates at my recruiting firm.
Unfortunately, entering the job market with a chip on your shoulder (“I’ll show those guys,” or “I can’t wait to see the look on my principal investigator’s face”) is not a great way to land a job or to gain the appreciation you crave. In fact, science careers generally are not a great place for the person who needs a lot of recognition. Your own happiness—your job satisfaction—needs to come from something more solid and dependable than praise.
Many people are in science because their teachers commended them for their smarts over the years; this drove them to seek more of the same in academic science. But only a select few can achieve what so many scientists aspire to: immortality. Many more will be disappointed, ultimately, if they look to others for affirmation.
It's natural enough to desire praise, but that doesn't make it a good thing. If you are one of those people who needs frequent pats on the back, you need to get over it. Learn to find your own satisfaction in the course of your work.
Do you think you’re going to find those hearty back slaps you've been missing after you make the transition to industry? Industry is different from academia in many respects, but not in this one: You won’t be adequately appreciated there, either. Managers are too busy trying to meet their own aggressive goals. They don’t have time for people who require daily stroking.
“For me, the ideal employee simply gets his job done,” a friend and hiring manager explained to me. “The more I have to engage that person to express satisfaction with his or her performance, the less time I have for my job, which is solving problems and not managing people’s feelings.”
True, my friend probably isn't displaying perfect leadership technique. He should focus a bit more on understanding what makes his employees tick. If he would do that, he probably would be able to help them be happier, more motivated, and more productive. Good bosses are able to accomplish this even as they meet their other goals. It’s not the same thing as hand-holding. And yet the point remains that in most companies making people feel good is far less important than getting things done.
Some people are completely driven by outside forces, including the need for recognition, affirmation, or adulation. Others do their work quietly with outstanding results. Members of this latter group, as a rule, are better at finding their own satisfaction.
Here's one way of thinking about the problem: People who require the approval of others probably aren't recognizing—and fully exploiting—the many sources of satisfaction they can find on their own. Frederick Herzberg, an early industrial psychologist, distinguished between “maintainers” and “satisfiers.” Maintainers are things your employer gives you like salary and benefits. They ensure you will be there when your employer needs you. Satisfiers, on the other hand, get us out of bed and into work early, or keep us there late without looking around to see who noticed.
For you, a satisfier may be something as simple as that too-infrequent sit-down in the office of your graduate or postdoctoral adviser when she expresses interest in your work and tells you that you’ve been doing a good job. Yes, that feels great. It definitely keeps you going for the next few days.
The problem is that it is out of your control. By waiting for your adviser's praise, you're playing someone else’s game. You need to rearrange those rules so that you have more control over your happiness on the job.
It's far better to reach inside yourself for satisfiers. Do you think it is the big paycheck that keeps the professional basketball player happy with his game? To the pro, money alone does not satisfy as much as hitting 65% of his free throws at the beginning of the season and then improving that to 78% by the season’s end.
The best satisfiers may tap into the passion that brought you into science in the first place. While a grand goal like curing a disease isn’t going to be easy to reach, the thought of it, held firmly in place and surrounded by hundreds of smaller goals, allows you to go to work each day with enough reason to feel good as you move forward a notch at a time.
To break the cycle of dependence on praise and external signs of appreciation, learn to recognize and appreciate your own accomplishments and to derive your primary satisfaction from meeting and exceeding your own standards. One thing I’ve found common in successful scientists, over thousands of interviews, is that they have each found ways to better themselves over time. They know their “stats” just like pro sports figures do. For an academic scientist, it may be their number of publications. For industry scientists, it may be patents. Such quantitative measures of productivity are problematic of course—one really important paper is far better than several less important ones—but it's very useful to have an aspect of your output that is explicit and that can be monitored. Choose your own metric for yourself and take satisfaction in meeting or exceeding your quantitative goals.
Many of the tasks I do as a recruiter can be broken down into a numbers game. I know how many contacts I can generally make on a project during a day, and I am constantly trying to outdo myself and beat my own records. Nothing can diminish the feeling of satisfaction you gain from watching your daily or weekly improvement of basic skills. As when shooting free throws, there’s an immense satisfaction in seeing an upward trend.
In his excellent book Getting Things Done When You Are Not In Charge, author Geoffrey Bellman describes a number of places to look for appreciation other than from management. Here are some of my adaptations of those concepts.
• Look for the bigger picture. Identify where you fit in and what you are contributing to. Your contributions are necessary to ensure progress on a larger project.
• Take real satisfaction in helping your colleagues become more self-reliant. If you have a particular skill that others find valuable, try to coach more instead of just doing your work. Helping others learn, develop, and succeed is a good way to remain motivated from the inside.
• Be a collaborator. Reach out to other labs. Turn competitors into collaborators. This makes you an in-demand employee no matter where you go, and many people find it very satisfying to be at the center of a collaborative effort.
Of course, science offers sources of satisfaction that need no reinforcement. When that project you've been working on so hard and persistently finally comes together—when things finally work and you discover something new—there's no need to dig deep to find joy in your work.
Can you find satisfiers like these in your day-to-day work so that you are constantly aware of improving your own game?
In basketball, tennis, or any other sport, if something is wrong you change your strategy. If something is missing from your job satisfaction—if you are not feeling quite as appreciated as you need to feel—then it's time for a change of routine.