When you first start a job, every day is different. There’s someone new to meet, something new to be a part of, and something new to learn. If your job is in the lab, new things to learn may include a reaction to develop, an analytical technique to master, an impurity to identify, or a physical property to measure, optimize, or explain.
The excitement and energy that come with the novelty of a new job can last 1 year or even 5, but likely not 10 or 20. After a while, it seems that everything is the same. You’ve hit the “career blahs” stage. It’s not necessarily that you hate your job—it’s that you’re bored and don’t see a path to new opportunities. While you haven’t seen it all, you’ve seen a lot, and most days you’re not really seeing anything new. What should you do?
Sometimes the answer is easy: find a new job as soon as possible. A friend was in a position that offered reasonable financial stability. But she was deeply unhappy with her immediate leadership and felt strongly that she wasn’t going to be able to progress in her career. She was already doing freelance work on the side, if only to give her an outlet for her frustrations.
That freelance work connected her with her current employer. Since switching jobs, her career has blossomed, with ever-more fascinating projects and increasing responsibility. Her experience may be a best-case scenario, but the solution to your midcareer blahs could well be on the other side of a side gig or a resignation letter, and there’s only one way to find out.
What about those of us who aren’t ready to hand in our walking papers? I recently caught up with two other friends who are both scientific professionals and slightly further along their career journeys than I am. I was surprised that neither of them had much more clarity than I do about how to deal with the blahs.
I’ve always admired one of those friends for her methodical approach to planning and projects. But finding passion is tough for her, so some ennui crept in. For now, at least, she’s focusing on finding fulfillment in being able to positively affect her workplace.
My other friend juggles work and unusually high levels of family responsibility, and that has taken a toll on his career opportunities. He’s beginning to think about what to do next, with an eye toward better work-life balance and the ability to pursue one of his side passions more fully.
Talking with my friends, I found it heartening to discover that even smart people find it challenging to solve the midcareer blahs.
I also discussed this challenge with Chris Cramer, a professor at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. His approach to encroaching boredom? Find something new to try within your current position. If you teach, there are many chemical education experts who can suggest new techniques to engage students. At the bench, you can brainstorm new approaches to tough problems, learn new techniques, or try different instruments. Scientists often talk about the excitement of “the new,” of knowing that when you run an experiment that has never been run before, every data point is novel. There is real excitement in that, and identifying ways to routinely inject novelty into your workweek would be revitalizing.
Having different stages to a career is normal, as is having periods when things slow down. Those slow periods are good opportunities to reassess what you want out of life and your career and perhaps experiment with new approaches. It’s reassuring for me to know that other chemists think about questions like “Where should I go from here?” and that there aren’t always easy answers.
Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.