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Just Tell Them You Can Do It.

20 January 2015

Saturday night, BB and I went out to dinner with a person I work with and his wife. We went to a cozy little French restaurant and really enjoyed it. I had the venison. It was a good decision. The four of us enjoyed a wide-ranging conversation over three hours.

BB and I both have lots of friends who are academics, and we enjoy them. But it was enlightening to talk to friends who have other ambitions. Both of them trained as artists. He’s a photographer, she’s in textiles. They met at some ultra-fancy art school in Michigan. She is still doing artistic work, but commercially, designing prints. He works as a business manager at MECMC.

We asked how he got into healthcare. He was young and becoming very successful as an artist when the recession hit back in 2008. He decided that the state of the economy was going to require that he had professional training, not just artistic training. So he went back and got an MBA while teaching photography.

Once he had the degree, he talked an administrator at a local hospital into letting him have a short-term internship helping that hospital out of a financial jam. From there, he was able to apply for mid-level administration positions at MECMC and landed one. In his (paraphrased) words, “I had no idea what I was doing. I just said I could do it and figured it out along the way.”

That deeply echoes my own experience and strategy. My doctoral training, the coursework, was totally unrelated to my research, or to what I am doing now. When I have applied to positions, I’ve simply decided that I can learn what I need to know as I go along. Of course, I’m generally bringing some skill set that they want, I’m not making things up from whole cloth, but it’s always stretching.

Right now, BB is writing a series on searching out different paths after academic training (Start here). I find it fascinating how disciplined and systematic her approach was. Our friend and I seem to have taken a far looser path to finding things. But common to both approaches is the reliance on networks, and the willingness to embrace frightening change and take on unknown tasks.

I’ve had a number of conversations with academics who are finishing a postdoc or approaching a tenure decision and who are terrified about the next step. People who’ve told me that there’s no way they could leave academia because they don’t know how to do anything else. Or that they’re not trained for anything else. Or that they have no experience at anything else. And then that the academic job market is so nebulous and depressing that the only appropriate response is despair.

I don’t believe any of that. I mean, obviously, I accept how people feel, and people always have the right to their own experiences. But I believe that academic training provides us with far more that many academics realize. It provides us with a resourcefulness, a means of investigating the world. And resilience in the face of adversity. Academic training, in any discipline, is hard. Succeeding at it should show us – all of us – that we can take on unknown challenges and risks and prevail.

Academic training in the sciences provides us with specific skills relevant to many different careers. Maybe not jigsaw-piece suited to every different path we could take, but useful and appropriate. We can be more than only professors. Hell: even becoming a professor requires us to take on tasks we’re not trained for. No one teaches us to teach classes or budget grants or manage employees. But professors usually do all those things.

We are more adaptable, more agile, than we think we are. Honestly, I think some of the reason that academics think they can’t do industry is that they’re just hung up on their objections to a commute and a set schedule. Or I hear people talk about how deadening “industry” is because there’s “no intellectual freedom”. These statements are invariably made by people who have never held industry jobs.

So, if you’re an academic who is fearful of finding your place as a professor, know this: there are many places you can land. Your situation is not remarkable in this world. All of us have to make frightening changes, and we do it, and succeed at it, all the time. Your options are not limited to “professor” and “fry cook”.

I really believe that for the great majority of us, if we fail, it is because we decided to fail. Because the difference between failure and success is often simply attitude. I could look at my job and call myself a failure because I have to be at work at 8am and stay until 4pm and work on projects that are not exclusively of my own choosing. Or I can look at my career and see that I’m a success because I’m gainfully employed at something I’m good at, and I contribute.

And you know what? I’d have the same choice of outlooks if I were a fry cook.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. 20 January 2015 09:27

    I think this is where I get hung up: evidence. I have a hypothesis that I can maybe do new thing x, but how to test that? I’d like to be a science writer, so I’ve started a blog to explore doing just that (how will that go? I don’t know). As much as we deal with uncertainty in science, our approach almost has to be systematic, safe, we actually follow the culture of the funding trends of the NIH…safe grants that will work out no matter what, having done 2/3 of the work for that grant before it’s even funded/submitted. So when postdocs apply for jobs, the feeling is we need to be 2/3 there, not ‘1/3 and I can make it up as I go’ (though I agree w/ you that is a more reasonable way of thinking as the only certain thing is uncertainty).

    As for commutes and schedules, that’s never bothered me (academics have commutes too; even if we’re flexible). And I’m sure there’s fulfillment to be had intellectually and creatively elsewhere in the world, besides the academy.

    And last, I’d say that it’s hard to connect the dots a priori…after you’ve transitioned, maybe it’s easier to make sense of how it all worked and how it works for you now.

    • 20 January 2015 09:30

      Beg the question. Assume you can do new thing X. Tell someone who needs X done that you can do X. Then, go do X. It works.

      • 20 January 2015 10:05

        Yes, essentially, it’s inducing a placebo response.

  2. 20 January 2015 09:31

    I find it fascinating how disciplined and systematic her approach was.

    I think it’s funny that you view my approach that way. Maybe that’s the fault of my narrative. I felt like I was stumbling in the dark most of the time. It’s easier to break it down in retrospect.

    The biggest (& most persistent) hurdle was confronting the fear of doing something different. But therein lies the thrill too.

    • 20 January 2015 09:33

      I mean it! You used a rubric, you investigated different careers, etc. Way more disciplined than anything I did when job seeking.

  3. 20 January 2015 11:24

    I was recently reading (I know, I know, but I don’t feel like googling this early) some research on gender differences in workplace behaviors, and the strategy you write about here (“just say you can do it”) is very much a guy thing. Women tend to be much more modest – or maybe the word I’m looking for is HONEST – in describing their abilities and experiences. Naturally, employers tend to go with the person who confidently asserts they can do X, not the person who says “well, this is my training and here’s how I think it will apply, but I haven’t ever actually done X before.” It’s not even very clear whether women adopting this male strategy would work for them, since what is perceived as confidence and competence in men is often perceived, shall we say, less positively in women.

    • 20 January 2015 11:35

      I’ve heard this before and there might be weight behind it. I don’t pretend to know the research. But I know that when I “say I can do it” I also say “this is new to me”. I don’t lie. I assert that despite minimal experience I am confident in my capacity to do the job.

      And yes, that might be perceived differently coming from a woman.

      • sciliz permalink
        20 January 2015 14:11

        Sandberg mentions this in Lean In… she cites the 2011 Mckinsey report “Unlocking the full potential of women in the US economy”, which states: “Several diversity officers and experts told us that despite their best efforts, women are often evaluated for promotions primarily on performance, while men are often promoted on potential. ”

        I’d love to see an empirical study on this topic, but I think the safest assumption is that it’s like asking for a raise- it won’t be perceived identically by both genders, and there is a likeability/competence tradeoff for women that there isn’t for men.

  4. Psyc Girl permalink
    20 January 2015 20:59

    +1 to the gender differences. There was an interesting cover story in The Atlantic related to this a few months ago. The approach if being confident you will figure it out is much more characteristic of men where women won’t risk until they have it all figured out (in general)

  5. Bashir permalink
    21 January 2015 12:13

    I generally operate under the assumption that I can do anything if given enough time. It’s a useful attitude. I’m also very upfront about what I know and don’t know. Current knowledge is *not* the same as ability to learn. I feel like a lot of people need that message.

  6. Syd permalink
    8 February 2015 19:11

    In science administration, there still seem to be a preponderance of men. And I think that in so many ways, the good ole boy’s club is alive and well with regard to giving more weight to men in upper level positions. I do think that is changing more and more which is good.

    Men seem to be capable of more BS’ing than women. I think the ego of men can be insufferable at times. I do prefer the honesty of women who are not so driven by ambition that they sacrifice integrity.


  1. Career planning. | postdocstreet

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