Written By: Derrick E. Rancourt, Ph.D.
It’s funny how a confluence of events can get you to think in a different way.
Recently, I invited Isaiah to be a motivational speaker for an event we were calling Mind the Gap: Competency Awareness.
I thought that Isaiah, more than anyone, could impress upon our trainees (MScs, PhDs, and postdocs) the importance of taking stock of their competency development during their training.
But, what impressed me the most about the event is how Isaiah had trainees glued to their chairs for over 3 hours.
He showed them the alarming statistics about the impossibility of becoming a professor and why PhDs needed to develop a new plan to transition to industry.
The funny thing is that while this was going on, I was also reading Whitney Johnson’s book, Disrupt Yourself.
In the book, Ms. Johnson suggests that when disruption is applied personally, individuals stand a better chance of achieving success in their career and their personal life.
She uses an S-curve model (below) to explain how to use disruption in your career.
At the bottom of the S-curve you are learning and investing in your new job.
In the steep part of the S-curve, you are rapidly growing in your job.
At the top of the S-curve, you begin to stagnate, become bored, and career advancement opportunities become scarce.
As Isaiah was sharing the depressing academic career statistics, I began to think that most of his audience was sitting at the stagnation part of the S-curve.
They needed to make a change, to make a jump.
According to Ms. Johnson, once you reach that stagnation phase, it’s time to disrupt your career and switch to a new S-curve.
I have been doing this for years in my own academic career.
Rather than studying one disease or molecule my whole life, I jump around and reinvent myself.
When CRISPR were just starting to break, I became an early adopter.
Now, I help others generate CRISPR knockout mice and cell lines.
Two years ago, I suggested that students jump on the CRISPR wagon, so that they would be marketable today.
There is no reason to stay on a dead-end career track.
Find your next S-curve and jump on it!
Why ‘Traditional’ Career Paths Are A Thing Of The Past
Most PhD students begin their graduate studies with the goal of becoming a professor.
They think their path is clearly laid out in front of them: PhD → postdoc → professor.
But, this is far from reality.
According to the Royal Society, only 0.45% of PhDs will become tenured professors.
That means 99.55% of PhDs follow a “non-traditional” career path that does not lead to a professorship.
There are just not enough academic positions available to support all of the graduating PhDs.
According to the National Science Foundation, the annual number of PhDs granted has grown nearly 20% over the past 40 years.
This increase has not been paralleled by an increase in the number of professor positions, leaving many PhDs uncertain about their futures.
However, PhDs are highly skilled individuals, with an incredible amount of value to offer employers.
Industry positions offer a place for PhDs to find meaningful work outside the university setting.
Your skills as a PhD are highly valued in industry.
But, even in industry, your career will not be linear.
Long gone are the days of spending your entire career, 30 or 40 years, with the same company.
As reported by The Balance, the average employee will have 12 different jobs over their working lifetime.
Jumping from S-curve to S-curve is the norm.
5 Ways To Embrace A Non-Linear Career Path
Your career path will be unique and it will not be linear.
Stop fighting the urge to move on from your stagnant position and welcome a new and exciting phase in your career.
Here are 5 strategies to truly embrace your non-linear career path and find a job where you can thrive…
1. Divest when you get bored and opportunities are scarce.
In every job, there is a time to learn, a time to grow, and a time to move on.
From a career perspective, Ms. Johnson suggests that the beginning of the S-curve is when you are investing and learning your new thing.
Once you hit hyper-growth, your career gets exciting as you fire on all four cylinders.
However, eventually things start to slow down and get a little boring.
That’s when it’s time to jump on another S-curve.
When things start to get boring and you don’t see room for advancement, it’s time to divest.
Your goal is to spend as much time as possible in the hyper-growth phase, where you are engaged in your work and growing professionally.
Don’t waste time in stagnation. Invest in a new opportunity, so that you can get into the hyper-growth phase again quickly.
From this perspective, your career can be viewed as a series of S-curves, with jumps occurring every 3-5 years.
It is normal and healthy to make career moves that take you in new directions.
Don’t get stuck in a dead-end position. As a PhD, you are highly valuable and there is always another move to make, another position to investigate.
2. Be discovery-driven in your career moves.
Of course, making a career jump means investing time and doing some research before you make the move.
That investment can be as little as exploring career options, boning up on your competencies, and using networking to find your next position.
However, to be truly disruptive, you may want to do more than that.
Instead of just looking for a career that suits you and your interests, why not look for new science and technology trends that you can invest in?
Ms. Johnson calls this being discovery-driven.
Disruptors gravitate to markets where no one else is playing.
Be a trailblazer. Have a goal or purpose and use wayfinding to get there.
Discovery-driven learning can be scary and lonely.
Find your North Star star and use it to get where you want to go.
3. Recognize and leverage your individual strengths.
It sounds cliché, but everyone has unique strengths that make them desirable.
You need to learn to play to your distinctive strengths.
Recognize what you do that makes you stand out.
Is there something in your closet that you are hiding, something that makes you different, or even odd?
Identify a job that only you can do.
Think about how your distinctiveness can be disruptive.
Imagine yourself as a fish that is swimming against a school of fish.
Then suddenly, the fish turn and follow because you were right all along.
This becomes your own personal hyper-growth.
Take the time to identify your strengths and your unique values so that the industry positions you chose to pursue are aligned with your strengths and interests.
When you have identified your core values, this will allow you to seek out new opportunities at companies whose culture aligns with your values.
This alignment is essential for you to thrive and reach the hyper-growth phase in your next career move.
4. Develop a side hustle.
Making a large career jump can be scary, especially if you are thinking of moving into an entirely new field.
But, don’t let this fear hold you back.
A good way to test the waters of a new career or new idea is to develop a side hustle.
A side hustle is where you begin a new gig while you remain in your current job.
This allows you to maintain the security of your current position while testing the market for where you want to move next.
There was a time when you could pick one career and stick with it, but those days are gone.
Hustling is now a way of life.
The opportunities for PhDs to grow and change are endless, no matter where you are starting from.
If you have the good fortune of being inside a company where there is still an opportunity for growth, do not get too comfortable.
There is still an expectation of continuous learning and improvement, so when that stagnation phase begins, you still need to jump S-curves.
If you’re not so fortunate, your career may need to start with developing a portfolio of short-term gigs.
Either way, developing a side hustle is a great way to explore new paths and test the market.
5. Use failures to grow professionally.
Your career will not be linear.
It will be curvy, full of bumps, twists, and sometimes dead-ends.
Instead of becoming frustrated with these setbacks and failures, learn from them.
Recognize that sometimes ideas will fail.
Sometimes you must step down, back, or sideways to grow.
Learn from the failure and move to another side hustle.
Surely, as a scientist, you have experienced failure. Reflect on this.
Recognize how failure helped you build a thicker skin, also known as resilience.
Even though your failure may have prevented you from moving forward, at least you were secure on the S-curve you were on at the time.
Visualize how you might design and test a new idea while on your current S-curve.
As a scientist, seeing career development as a series of S-curves makes sense. You are not expected to stay in one job for 20+ years. Embrace your varied career path by divesting when opportunities are scarce, being discovery-driven, leveraging your individual strengths, developing a side hustle, and using failures to grow professionally. Take advantage of every opportunity to move forward in your career development and find a new industry position that’s a great fit for you.
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