I have a confession: I hate running. Of the various exercise programs I have tried over the years, it’s the one that appeals to me the least. I don’t enjoy the pain in my legs or the burning in my lungs.
These days, I don’t run very much, but on occasion, my workout instructor will encourage me to run a couple of miles. It’s so hard to keep track of how long you’ve run, especially when you’re doing laps around the gym. I’ll run for a minute or two and think, “Surely I’m closer to being done.” Wishful thinking.
My career started with a similar feeling of yearning for the finish line. During my postdoctoral fellowship, which coincided with the beginning of the Great Recession in 2008, I spent over 10 months looking for work. I ultimately found a position at a small company, and I didn’t think to complain about the appallingly low salary. I was grateful to have a job, and I thought I was on track to reach my career destination.
That feeling of satisfaction didn’t last very long. After my first day at work, there were sufficient signs of underlying safety and ethical issues, and I remember saying to my wife as we went to bed that night, “In 2 years, we’re going to leave this place.” That’s when it became clear that I wasn’t done running the race for the right job, and it wouldn’t be long before I was lacing up my shoes again.
Many people over the course of their careers will find themselves in a new position with one foot out the door. Perhaps a layoff has forced them to take a different position that isn’t nearly as great as the one they had before. Or for graduate students and postdocs, a long-simmering conflict with an adviser may transform a place of research into a place they regularly think about leaving.
What do you do if you find yourself wanting to get back into the job race? Well, the first thing to do, as best you can, is your job. As the drama rages around you, try to learn or contribute as much as you can. There’s always new science to learn and new techniques to master. Time spent in this temporary spot is time that you can spend expanding your skill set and making yourself a better candidate. You’re preparing yourself to be a faster runner for the job races to come.
Serious runners know that it’s helpful to have a running partner. And during my time in that initial job, my coworkers and I would knock off work and get a beer, reveling in our management’s blunders and indulging in fantasies about our next positions. Making friends was a good way to cope.
Also recognize that being in a job and looking for another job is like having two jobs. After you come home from work, you find yourself with a list of new positions to apply to or interviews to prepare for. Thousands of chemists do it every day, and you can as well, but I want to acknowledge the toll that it can take on your nightly rest. Remember to take breaks and to recharge.
Fortunately, my story has a happy ending. With some cold emailing and happy coincidences, I was able to find a new job. But even as I enjoyed new and more challenging chemistry, I couldn’t help but think, “This may not last. You have to be ready to run again.”
While I don’t get those thoughts nearly as often anymore, I know that I can’t put my running shoes away for good.
Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.