There are very few, if any, people who get their dream job right out of school and remain there until retirement. For most people, their career is a series of jobs, each one slightly closer to their dream job (although often that “dream job” changes over time).
So, if you’re not where you want to be, what can you do to move closer to your goal?
Pick Your Position Strategically
When looking for a job, keep your long-term goal in mind, and find a position that is close to it in some way. Maybe it’s working with people who do that kind of work, but in a role that is appropriate for your current level of expertise. Maybe it’s working for an organization that does that kind of work, just not in the department you desire.
Perhaps you find can a position that is geographically close to your ideal employer that puts you in regular contact with people at that company. For example, a job at a coffee shop is good, but a job in a coffee shop closest to the organization for which you want to work would allow you to meet people at that company.
Build Your Professional Reputation
No matter what your job is, do it to the best of your ability. Complete all your work on time, and look for ways to be more accurate and efficient. After you’ve done all your assigned tasks, ask your supervisor what more you can do. Be proactive in suggesting improvements, and implementing when possible. Build your reputation as someone who is reliable, efficient, and hard-working.
Expand Your Professional Skills
Use your current position to build and strengthen your skills, to make yourself even more qualified for your dream job. Technical skills are crucial, so gain experience with the tools and techniques of your field, and keep up with new developments.
But it is just as important to work on your non-technical skills. These interpersonal skills often make the difference between a career that is successful, and one that is not. Especially in the Earth and space sciences, primarily a service industry as opposed to a product-driven industry, being able to understand who your customers are, and what they really want is often the hardest part of the job.
Communication is by far the most important transferable skill. Seek out opportunities to document what you are doing (written communication) or to explain it to others (oral communication). Seek out a variety of audiences, and learn to comfortably discuss technical ideas with both Ph.D.-level scientists, as well as with those with no technical background.
Regardless of what you may have been led to believe, science is a group activity, as Lonnie Leithold pointed out in her recent Paths Through Science profile. As such, negotiation and conflict resolution will be valuable skills. While you don’t want to cause conflict just so you can solve it, you can seek out books and workshops, so you will be prepared when the need arises. For example, setting up a schedule for the HPLC could be an example of conflict resolution.
Other transferrable skills include budgeting, sales, marketing, prioritizing, scheduling, supervising, time management, project management, and the list goes on. Take a good look at what you are doing in your current position, and figure out how to describe your experience in terms of transferrable skills. Which of these skills did you enjoy using? Which are you particularly good at? And which do you hope to never need to use again? Answering these questions can go a long way in helping to refine your idea of your dream job.
Grow your network
Any job is a great place enlarge your professional network. The more people who know you (and coincidentally think highly of you), the more likely you are to hear about new opportunities. Be friendly and helpful to everyone you meet. You don’t know who they are, or who they know. The person ahead of you in line at the grocery store might be the hiring manager with your dream job. Seek out projects that let you work with people on other teams, and in other departments, so they get to know you as well.
No matter what your current position, you should always be actively looking to improve your status, your skills, and your connections. That way, not only will you hear about the next great opportunity, but you will be prepared to take advantage of it.
Lisa M. Balbes, PhD, has been a freelance technical writer and editor at Balbes Consultants LLC for 25 years. She is the author of Nontraditional Careers for Chemists: New Formulas for Chemistry Careers (Oxford University Press).