The 3 Pillars of a HaPPPy Career

“Academia or industry?” How many times have you been asked that during your graduate program? I was asked this constantly. And before that it was, “If you don’t go to school, you’ll wind up working at McDonald’s for the rest of your life.” In my 21 years of schooling, this was the career advice I received. During my PhD, I spent 5 years drowning in data, fully encompassed in solving my thesis question. I thought, once I graduate I’ll finally be able to have the career I always wanted. But what was that career? I defended my thesis in March 2020. It did not change the world. The next morning I didn’t feel any different except now I did not have a purpose. I had reached my goal, a HUGE goal.

But now I was without a goal. I was lost, frustrated, and depressed. I never gave myself the time to think what would be after my PhD and with the pandemic shutting down the whole world, I did what was easy, I became a postdoc in the same lab I did my PhD in. This was not the career suicide I was told it would be.

During that time, I worked as a postdoc, a contractor, a freelance writer, a volunteer, a mentor, an event planner, a bioinformatician, and started a small science communication business called Microbigals. I submitted my resume everywhere, learned how to make a resume worthy of interviews, learned how to interview to be worthy for an offer. I finally was given the time to explore what was the ‘career I always wanted’.

Since then I’ve had postdocs, industry personnel, graduate students and others ask me, “how did you find a career that you love so much?”. It wasn’t by answering the question, “academia or industry?” It was by ensuring that my job, whatever it may be, checked off the 3 P(illar)s of a ‘happpy’ career!

P1: Find A Project You Are Passionate About

This is the pillar most people focus on when searching for careers. Having a passion is stronger than having the right skillset. Passion means you’ll be motivated to learn, you’ll be focused on finding success. No matter what job you have or what skills you’d like to share, the project has to be something you believe in.

In college and graduate school, you get to choose your major. Hopefully you got to choose a major/project that you were passionate about. When you believe in the project’s success this can do so much for your mental health on the days where everything just goes wrong.

Academia often gets credit for having careers in ‘independent research’, to always getting to choose what you are passionate about. Independent research, side projects, and passion projects also exist in industry and government. When you read a job description, regardless of whether it’s in industry or academia, it will paint a picture for the applicant to place themselves in. Can you see yourself in this painting? It should excite you, you should feel full of hope and determination.

Bottom line: If the project/company/job description focuses on something you are passionate about, submit that resume!

P2: Make Sure Your Guiding Principles Align

Gone are the days of rigid and stereotypical work schedules and work places. Going into industry doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be working 9-5 in a cubicle doing mundane tasks required by the bureaucrats above you. Likewise, working in academia doesn’t mean you’ll be working all hours of the day just to try and publish or find your next grant. Universities, industries, biotechs, and governments are all run by people, people with principles. Understanding what your guiding principles are, and making sure they align with the workplace, can help you determine if you’ll find happiness there.

So ask yourself, “what are my guiding principles?” If you don’t know, here are three thought exercises to try.

  1. As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up and why?
  2. What events/roles/positions have you held that made you feel truly satisfied and why?
  3. What makes you different from everyone else? What do you do/believe in that makes you feel like an outsider? This difference is often something you feel so passionate about you are willing to forgo social acceptance.

For example, when I was younger I wanted to be a writer, or a conservationist like Jane Goodall. I loved to participate in volunteer events that had a sustainable focus or that helped animals. I became a vegetarian at the age of 15 in a ‘meat and potato’ kind of family. I also enjoyed teaching whether it was teaching my sister or training an undergraduate. Finally, in my medical microbiology program, where everyone was focused on microbes as villainous pathogens, I saw an untapped potential and hope in the microbial world.

When you boil it down, my guiding principles revolved around sustainability, symbiotic microbiology, and sharing knowledge through writing. It’s no surprise I now have my own science communication blog on microbial symbionts and work for a company whose tagline is ‘waste is failure of the imagination’.

In the job searching process we are taught to fit ourselves into the mold, into the painting that company wants. But this will inevitably lead to unhappiness. It is not worth trying to mold yourself to fit the company that will not fit your mold for your workplace.

Bottom line: An applicant doesn’t just need to impress the company, the company has to impress the applicant as well. For a perfect, happy fit, the company/workplace’s principles must align with your guiding principles. Never end an interview without asking about company principles and culture!

P3: Positive People

This may be the most important of the three Ps. Whether you classify yourself as an introvert or an extrovert, as the life of the party or a hermit, we all need positive people that will believe in us, that will support us, and not intimidate us.

This is also the hardest of the Ps to check during the interviewing process. It’s highly unlikely you will jump on a phone interview and instantly connect with the recruiter/hiring manager. It’s also unlikely you’ll be able to meet every person at a company before signing an acceptance letter. It’s even highly improbable you’ll become best friends with all or any of your co-workers.

However, throughout the interviewing process, you can gather a lot of information on what the people at the company will be like and this can help you ensure the people you work with are your people.

If you are asked to give a technical interview, which is often a presentation of your skills, pay close attention to how they ask questions about the presentation.

  • Do they seem genuinely interested in what you’re discussing?
  • Is their tone curious or undermining?
  • Are people’s body language laid back or more rigid?
  • What seems to be the dress code of the employees? Causal or more professional?
  • Is one person dominating the conversation and questions or does everyone seem to be engaged and confident in participating in the discussion?

Everyone is on their best behaviors during an interview, but these little tid-bits of observation can tell you a lot about the people that work there. Once you gather this information you also need to ask yourself does this align with what you want?

The best way to learn about the people at the company is not when you are the interview but when you are the interviewer. Don’t shy away from setting up an informational interview.

An informational interview is when you interview someone to gather information about the role, company, or career advice. You can ask any number of questions but to respect their time try to keep it to 20-30minutes. My favorite informational interview questions:

  • What’s your favorite/least favorite thing about working at company X?
  • What is the most challenging part of your day-2-day?
  • How has your career/skills developed since joining company X?
  • What advice would you give to someone looking to get into a role like yours?
  • What is your ultimate career goal and how is this position helping you achieve that?

In my experience, people love talking about themselves and generally are very honest about both the highs and lows of their jobs.

So give it a try; next time you find a company that has the principles you believe in and a project you are passionate about, jump on LinkedIn and reach out to someone in a similar role in the company or who has recently left and ask for a short informational interview. The bonus of this tactic is now you know someone at this prospectus company and if the 2 of you hit it off, then they might even refer you or bump up your application!

Concluding Remarks

While it’s hard to know or foresee how your life will unfold at a certain workplace, make sure you’re not just applying to a job to get a job. It’s tempting to base your job on money and maybe even prestige, but in the long run, having a satisfying career is crucial in your overall satisfaction in life and your health. On another note, it’s important to realize that if you landed somewhere that is not working out for you, don’t stay stuck there, learn what you can from that experience and move on to the next!

Wherever you land, ensuring you are passionate about the project, your principles align with the company, and you’re surrounded by positive people that support you will help you find your haPPPy career!

Don’t fall into the trap of asking yourself that dogmatic question: academia or industry? Instead ask yourself: does this job have the 3 pillars of a haPPPy career?

NOTE: The Prophage Blog is excited to host this post from guest contributer Dr Elizabeth Deyett. Dr Deyett is an experienced computational biologist and microbiologist. She is passionate about science communication and runs Microbigals and the Microbe Moment podcast, among other popular programs.

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