Changing Jobs: Overcoming the Activation Barrier


When I was stuck in a job I didn’t find fulfilling, it was easy to want to change jobs. What was harder was mustering the energy to overcome the barriers to finding a new job. It took me a long time to go from wanting to leave to actually trying to make it happen. There were seven steps, each requiring more focused energy.

Below are the seven steps that I went through to overcome those barriers.

1.  I disliked my job.

In the first stage, I had been unhappy with my job for years. Basic research was not well-supported by my upper management, and funding was tight. Both problems seemed to be getting worse, not better.  However, when I came home from work, I had a choice: I could pursue interesting projects and hobbies, or I could continue to do the laborious and daunting work of searching for a new job. For many months, I chose the latter.

2.  I applied to companies in series.

Once I got fed up with my job situation and acknowledged it wasn’t going to improve without some effort, I started revising my resume and occasionally searching for interesting companies. In this stage, every few months I’d find a company that sounded like a great fit and focus solely on that organization, while waiting to hear back. I would chase down the opportunity by networking and applying through the company’s recruitment system. While my approach to getting into these companies was fairly good, unfortunately none of these efforts worked out. And because I was working in serial—one company at a time—it often took months to get an answer and then move on to applying to another company.

I knew I should probably be looking harder, but did not want to devote the kind of time a serious job search takes—I wanted to devote more time to other interests. As a result, I just wasn’t getting the attention of enough relevant employers by cultivating multiple leads at once. Applying to a few companies a year when great opportunities come along is fine if there is no hurry to move on, but it usually doesn’t lead to a new job in a timely fashion.

3.  I improved my resume.

Concerned that my resume and cover letter might be holding me back, at this stage I improved my resume by working with an ACS Career Consultant, who helped me flesh out my accomplishments by challenging me to add specific examples to ensure the content was presentable. I noticed the structure of my resume didn’t seem right when I applied to jobs in fields I was looking to break into. Even if I hadn’t worked in a particular field, I knew I had accomplishments relevant to the work. The problem was those accomplishments were scattered across multiple jobs and courses, making the narrative of my resume disjointed.

I happened to see an ACS Careers Blog post on functional (skills-based) resumes and the light bulb went off. When I structured my resume by skills rather than chronologically, I was able to collect all my accomplishments from different jobs and courses which were relevant to the new field. Now, I could gear my resume to one of several new fields I was interested in and show I had accomplishments relevant to that field, even if I hadn’t formally worked in the industry.

4.  I applied to companies in parallel.

Ultimately, staying in my previous job was holding back my personal goals, so I invested more energy in my search by applying to companies in parallel. I applied to many companies, mostly online. In my desire to make something happen, I probably emphasized quantity at the expense of quality, applying for jobs that weren’t great matches for my interests.

I received a few interviews; but I was tired of sending my application into black holes, never to hear from hiring managers or Human Resource professionals.  While this tactic alone works for some people, I was not successful using this method.

5.  I networked in parallel.

In an effort to learn more about my target companies and get the inside track on talking to potential colleagues and hiring managers, I started networking with many more people. For each company I had a serious interest in, I requested telephone networking conversations with several current or past employees. I spoke to existing professional contacts, friends, and even people I’d never met before (LinkedIn ® was a good resource for finding employees of target companies). Not everyone responded; however, those who did were quite generous with their time and insights. They told me about the company’s culture and outlook, how their company compared to competitors, and how to pitch my accomplishments to fit their company. (I looked at the ACS tips on conducting a networking conversation for suggestions on what questions to ask.)

It was especially helpful to talk to people in target fields in which I had no direct experience.  I learned what they did on a daily basis, how their company and industry worked, where their funding came from, and how to transition from hands-on bench research to desk-based analysis.

6.  I attended career events.

Several ACS webinars were helpful. Today’s Job Search Strategies explained industry trends and encouraged me to focus my search. The Road Less Traveled – Alternative Careers for PhD Scientists reassured me that leaving laboratory research would not mean my hard work was for naught, and suggested a variety of fields from lobbying to technical writing. Careers in Intellectual Property for Chemists focused on one such field, its rewards, what career options are available for chemists, and how to pursue those options.

My local ACS chapter, the Chemical Society of Washington, presented a one-day Career Development Workshop for Chemists. It had panel discussions on careers inside and outside the chemical sector. There were also presentations on chemical employment trends (to tell me what I was up against!) and developing a resume. I met employees at companies I was interested in as well as other job-seekers, who shared what they’d found in the job market.

The ACS Mid-Atlantic Regional Meeting had a career development track. One day included speakers and panels of people with science degrees who were working in alternative (non-laboratory) careers. One panelist happened to be the hiring manager for a job I wanted and later interviewed for! Another day included workshops on career self-assessment, resumes, interviewing, and hiring negotiations. I was able to practice my answers to interview questions in a group with other job-seekers.

7.  I planned and managed my job search.

By this point, I was investing the amount of time I should have been from the start. Networking and applying to jobs were becoming a second full-time job. But I felt disorganized and realized I needed to plan and manage my job search better.

Seeking a coherent strategy, I picked one book on career management, bought a copy (rather than checking it out from the library) so I wouldn’t have to rush through it, and worked through the writing exercises pretty methodically. I found this more useful than reading multiple books but not doing the “homework” they suggested.

The book I chose was Get The Job You Want, Even When No One’s Hiring, by Ford R. Myers. I picked this book as it seemed well-written and organized, was geared toward professionals, emphasized networking, and had a good mix of self-assessment (what kind of work do I want to do?), and practical job-search strategy. It was also a reasonable length to work through comprehensively.

While working through the exercises in the book, I thought about what fields I wanted to work in and for which companies. I kept track of my contacts, networking engagements, and job applications. This gave me a sense of control over my job search. Eventually, I found an exciting new opportunity once I generated the energy I needed and developed my plan to overcome my career-change activation barrier.

Jeremy Monat earned a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley. He studied photovoltaics (dye-sensitized solar electricity cells) and energetic materials using laser spectroscopy. He is the author of over a dozen peer-reviewed papers. He is now a Systems Engineer in the Washington, D.C. area.

7 Responses to Changing Jobs: Overcoming the Activation Barrier

  1. JS says:

    This is a great breakdown of the job-searching process! I think it’s important for people to realize that it’s unlikely they’re just going to luck into a new job–that it may take far more work and time than they thought possible, and that even if they’re doing everything right, it *still* may take a very long time for reasons beyond the job seeker’s control.

    As difficult and daunting as job hunting is, I would urge people not to allow themselves to stay in Stage 1 for too long, putting off the inevitable. The longer you stay somewhere you dislike, the harder it is to cope with the vagaries of the search process. It’s best to start looking, even casually, and to get your resume in order as soon as you realize you are not content and things are not likely to improve.

    • @JS: Thanks! Yes, I see many people who dislike their job but aren’t taking any steps to find a better job. I hope they can recognize they’re stuck in stage 1 and start the serious work that a job search requires. It’s tough but should pay off!

  2. Richard Granholm says:

    Nice overview of a successful job-hunting strategy, told like a condensed reality story with useful advice.

  3. […] Check out this post on the American Chemical Society’s blog from Jeremy Monat, a trained chemist now working as a systems analyst in the Washington, D.C. area: Changing Jobs: Overcoming the Activation Barrier […]

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