By Wayne Collins
Lab Manager, September 13, 2017 —
Most scientists entering the laboratory aspire to advance either through the technical ranks or up the management ladder, and most fulfill this ambition to at least some degree. But at some point, advancement may be stymied either through attaining the top level in the progression or being blocked by the occupant at the next level. For example, it is difficult to be promoted to lab manager when that job is already filled by a person who intends to remain there for years to come. In other cases, the job may become routine to the point of being boring or, worse yet, may be eliminated during downsizing.
This leads us to ask: What are the alternatives for those ambitious individuals who are blocked for promotion, those talented individuals whose job has lost its challenge, or those poor souls who have lost their job?
When contemplating a job change, the natural tendency is to look for positions in a similar laboratory where experience may be an asset, but the greater opportunity might lie in expanding the possibilities.
In exploring career options, it is first instructive to examine the skills that are typically possessed by science- trained people who have succeeded in the laboratory. Foremost, success in the lab requires excellent quantitative skills with a fondness for numerical precision. Attention to detail and sharp deductive reasoning abilities are common traits, as are both the willingness and desire to take on difficult assignments—after all, pursuing a science degree is not the easiest path through a university. Lab workers are generally very seasoned in the use of technology, so they are adept at quickly mastering new applications. These are skills that are widely valued in a variety of businesses.
It is also helpful to recognize possible limitations that might hinder aspirations for entry into another field. The stereotypical left brain–driven personality of most scientists may cause them to be typecast and pigeonholed into a narrow range of options by other business disciplines. Some of the things that make one successful in the lab may be interpreted as obstinacy or timidity by nonscientists. For example, the tendency to rely on data before making decisions may give the impression of stalling or unwillingness to act to those in sales, marketing, or other parts of the organization that routinely act on fragmented information. Scientific communication also follows a different standard than most other types. The logical flow of following data to a conclusion might seem tedious to businesspeople who rely on a more subjective approach. So it might be advantageous to consciously work on changing these lab habits when contemplating a move to a new, less quantitative field.
After assessing skills and limitations, one can make a plan to showcase talents for a prospective position and address any potential misperceptions about the ability to perform.
When possible, it is advantageous to select a management champion who has connections with other managers throughout the organization or externally to help sell qualifications. Above all, it is important to be practical and realistic in setting aspirations as to what can be achieved. Patience is also a virtue, since achieving the goal may require incremental steps rather than a leap. Now, let’s look at a few alternative career moves.
The financial industry welcomes science-trained individuals who are willing to use their analytical skills in assessing potential profitability of companies or in building mathematical predictive models to guide investments. These jobs tend to be high stress, require long working hours in return for high financial reward, and are typically located in the major financial centers. Science training also translates well to the internal financial analysis required within larger companies typically using spreadsheets, specialized software, or enterprise computer systems such as SAP. The goal for these analysts is to shed light on the company business in a way that allows management to understand the profitability of each segment and to identify opportunities for investment to grow the business. In one company, an internal transfer from the lab to the financial department was accomplished by the lab manager persuading the chief financial officer to accept one of his best chemists for an open financial analyst position. The move worked extremely well, with the hiring manager later commenting that his biggest challenge was to keep his new employee busy since he completed projects so much more quickly and in greater depth than expected. The chemist found new career opportunities with the move and was easily able to understand the mathematical manipulations required to perform the job, and was even able to automate much of the analysis with spreadsheet routines.
The marketing and service departments of companies selling laboratory instruments or supplies are more familiar opportunities for those with lab experience. These jobs range from developing analytical applications using the company’s instruments to providing the “voice of the customer” for marketing collateral and advertising campaigns. By relying on actual experience in the lab, a scientist can explain to the creative agency the customer benefit provided by the product. For example, the product manager might stress the design characteristics of the instrument such as precision and degree of control while the marketing manager explains how the lab that buys the instrument will use it to make money for the organization or further its research. These jobs may be broadly defined so that the marketing manager becomes involved in many aspects of the business, from research and development to designing marketing campaigns, organizing events, investor relations, customer training, sales training, and other areas far removed from the lab. Service department opportunities include the setup and repair of instruments or assisting customers in establishing their applications on the instrument. These positions require excellent knowledge of the instrument technology as well as good people skills for direct interaction with lab customers.
It might be surprising that even relatively introverted scientists have been very successful in sales positions, especially for technology products used in the laboratory. Scientists who go this route typically acquire a deep knowledge of products and their use so that they are able to effectively explain benefits rather than just features to potential customers considering a purchase. Technical buyers appreciate and value sales professionals who are able to provide product information that is directly relevant to their particular situation. Scientists interested in pursuing this profession should apply to manufacturers of the products that they currently use and prefer since they are more likely to be successful selling products for which they have shown a preference. Sales can also be one of the more lucrative career choices when compensation includes a commission structure.
Some lab workers have close ties and an extensive network of colleagues within professional or trade associations allied with their industry. These relationships might be leveraged to obtain a full-time position, although most of these are nonprofit organizations, so pay scales may be lower than in the industrial/commercial arena but they may offer greater job satisfaction. This type of move can preserve decades-long friendships with peers from competing companies while utilizing strong relationships for the betterment of the industry. The ability to work well with others and to foster teamwork are typically attributes critical for success. Also, the ability to accomplish objectives through persuasion rather than through authority is needed since work may be accomplished by volunteers.
After spending years working in a laboratory, many scientists do not realize the unique industry knowledge that they have accumulated or its potential value outside their organization.
Consulting is a way to take their experience beyond the lab to solve problems for similar labs that lack the expertise. Compensation can be good but irregular, so good financial management and discipline are required to avoid personal deficits—no work, no pay. Acquiring clients and building a reputation can be very stressful for a new consultant, so a strong network of contacts within the field of interest is advisable for those choosing this path; a broad array of associates from professional or trade associations who are familiar with knowledge, skill, and work ethic is helpful. Some of those who have tried this route comment that the first year or two was exceedingly stressful and difficult, but the rewards of perseverance and success were worth it. Typically, a financial cushion to supplement income is needed for the first years.
Quality is such a high priority for labs that staff develop a deep understanding of the quality management system and its intricacies. Some may find it rewarding to build on this knowledge by pursuing a career in this field. For example, firms that register or accredit organizations to the ISO 9001 or ISO 17025 standards hire examiners and auditors to conduct field evaluations. Both commercial enterprises and government agencies utilize quality specialists to eliminate errors and waste as well as comply with relevant regulations. These types of jobs require meticulous attention to detail as well as familiarity with federal and international standards and expert knowledge of the technical aspects of quality principles or standardized test procedures. For those who wish to pursue these types of opportunities, it is advisable to seek the formal certifications obtained through coursework and testing.
Finally, for those who are simply bored with their current position and feel that there is little challenge left, a move to a different industry or type of lab might be the solution. While there are certainly commonalities among labs, each industry has unique features that can challenge the intellect. This type of cross-fertilization can be good for both the individual and the new industry as a source of new ideas. As a caution, no one wants to constantly hear about how things were done at the previous job, but recognizing areas where experience suggests improvements are possible is appreciated by a manager. And a change from an industrial environment to a different type of lab can be exciting. Who wouldn’t want to work in the CSI lab?
Job changes are stressful but can also be beneficial for career advancement or just to preserve self-satisfaction. While it is true that a move might not work out, it is also possible that the change reinvigorates and renews the spirit. For those willing to take the risk, taking a step outside traditional paths to consider a career in an unlikely profession can be intellectually and/or financially rewarding. If a change doesn’t work out, simply try again.