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This post is part five in a series about factors I have found best enable success in the workplace. Click here to see the other articles in the series.
My experience has demonstrated that the keys to enabling success are: never stop learning, align yourself with great mentors, embrace change, work hard, and leverage your strengths. To these I always add good fortune / luck, since like it or not, it has a role to play. Writing on the theme of workplace success has caused me to reflect on my entire academic and work history. That has helped me draw some new realizations, the latest of which are on this topic. Most of us pushed to the task, can identify our key strengths and weaknesses – though we may not always want to admit to the latter! However, I suspect few of us take the opportunity to consider how much they impact our careers. Whether deliberately (which I recommend) or otherwise, it’s vital to consider our strengths and how we can best leverage them to succeed in all pursuits.
A critical realization in graduate school
As I mentioned in my last post, I elected to leave my originally intended path of medicine to pursue an academic one, and went to graduate school for Biology. I feel incredibly fortunate to have had a very positive experience there, something I have learned from so many colleagues is far from an assured thing. Honestly, I loved my lab. I got along great with my fellow students, the lab technician, and my advisor / lab head very well. Quite honestly, my advisor was the first of the strong mentors I encountered as an adult. Our research group had fun together, I learned tons from them all, and felt productive most of the time – not to discount the constant and wholly normal struggles of science, of course! My selected project provided me with lots of avenues to investigate, and many different technical approaches to learn and master. All that said, it was in the second year that I started to question my chosen path.
I don’t recall how it started, but I realized I was not destined to become an academic i.e. finish grad school, do one or more postdocs, and embark on the path to hopeful professorship at a university. It wasn’t that I thought I was “bad at science”. On the contrary, I was skillful and efficient in the lab – something my advisor praised me for regularly. I was good at designing experiments and sufficiently insightful (I call it “being a good guesser”) to narrow the scope of work to the areas most likely to succeed. This meant my work often advanced quickly. I was also adept at learning new tools and techniques and figuring out how to improve upon them rapidly. However, I realized I didn’t have the drive I was certain was needed to succeed in academia. Sure, I enjoyed teaching and guiding undergraduates. I liked lab work quite a bit as you can no doubt tell. But I lacked the passion to undertake areas of new research, and perhaps didn’t have sufficient creativity to formulate and explore new scientific questions. Without these things I didn’t think I would be terribly effective in leading an academic lab.
A second major shift in “what to do when I grow up”
OK the seeds of doubt had been planted but what to do about it? My gut was to see graduate school through and figure it out later. Enter one of those fortunate chance occurrences in life that helped me decide! A former labmate had joined a biotech startup a few hours drive away. She suggested I should come interview there – it would be a free trip after all, and she was sure I’d think the technology was cool. I put together a talk on my research and took the interview. Needless to say, I was blown away by the experience. When I took time that evening to reflect on my day, I realized that a job there would be a perfect fit for what I truly loved about science and where my strongest skills lay. The role would provide endless opportunities to develop new technology as well as to optimize the existing approaches being used. The pressure was high, timelines short, but I would have access to cutting edge tools to get the job done.
As you have likely guessed, I left my PhD program and took the job. Suffice it to say, my grad school advisor was shocked when I told him the news. He was pretty concerned that I’d regret this decision years later, while also confident the job was as good a fit as I thought. It wasn’t a trivial transition, as they needed me to start in the new role fairly quickly. I ended up writing a Master’s thesis on evenings and weekends while working. I also had to drive back to campus a few times to wrap up some loose ends in my research. This was far from ideal, but that approach enabled me to take this next bold step needed to better leverage my skills. Was that first job perfect? Absolutely not. Did I ensure that I learned a tremendous amount, and did it set me on the course to a very successful career in biotech and eventually early retirement? Without question, it did.
Alternatively, what might have happened had I just stayed the course and finished my PhD? Of course we cannot know for certain. What I do know: my coursework for my degree was already completed and my research was proceeding well. By my advisor’s estimatation, I was on track to finish in another two years or so. More importantly, what would have followed? Honestly, I suspect I would have been an “OK” academic at best. Perhaps I would have done some interesting postdocs that would set me on a good course. But I have doubts that my own research program would have been stellar. I certainly might have struggled for funding, like so many do. Perhaps in the end I would have ended up in industry anyway? I certainly would have been leveraging far fewer of my strengths had I stayed in academia. So I would have far less of a leg up on others vs. the path I chose instead – that means no benefit from skills synergy, no career kickstart, and potentially a very different outcome in the end.
Applying this valuable lesson going forward
I never lost sight of what this experience taught me, and found myself coming back to it often in my career. When considering taking on a new project, an expanded role, or a job change, I often asked myself: “how will this leverage my skills, and is there something else that would do a better job of that?” I believe that evaluating this is vitally important. We all have things that are of interest to us, and possess skills to varying degrees. But to learn most efficiently, to have the biggest impact, and to advance quickly, you need to take advantage of your strengths. Applying as many of these as you can in a given role surely provides tremendous acceleration to success!
When I reflect upon the reasons for each job change in my career, I come back to two concepts without fail: I left a given role because I wasn’t learning enough, or I felt that a different position or company would better leverage my skills and interests. Quite honestly, I never left a job simply for a pay raise or a better title. Rather, my motivation was always to keep growing and to succeed in the workplace to the best of my ability. If you have aims to retire early, this is doubly important. Working hard is essential, of course. But like any of these keys to workplace success, it isn’t enough on its own.
I hope you have enjoyed this series. It has been a rewarding experience for me to reflect upon my career and what I have learned from it. I am humbled that anyone would take time to read about this, and I am grateful for the feedback that has been shared with me. I’ve updated these posts along the way, so please consider revisiting them. I believe that there are lessons for all within this series, irrespective of your field of choice and your tenure in it. I hope that you are able to apply something found within to facilitate your own success, whether or not it includes the goal of early retirement. I wish you all the best in your journey. Please don’t hesitate to share your own experiences from which we can all surely learn!
Postscript: It took about eleven years, but my grad school advisor did eventually agree that it had been a great move for me to leave academia for industry. I saw an opportunity to collaborate with him while at one of my companies, as I had access to tools which could answer a key question of interest for his research. Our project turned out incredibly well, and the findings provided a capstone to some fascinating work he had carried out in recent years. We ended up co-authoring two manuscripts as a result of this project. As I told him afterwards, I felt like I had finally repaid some of the debt I owed him for being such a great mentor and positive influence on my career!