Whether meeting someone new at a conference, or explaining to a potential employer exactly how your background prepares you to meet their needs, scientists are often asked to tell their professional history. While it is hard to condense a lifetime of professional experience into a few minutes, it can be even harder to do it in a coherent way that makes sense to the listener.
When you stop to reflect on your career history (which you should do on a regular basis), do you see that your career followed a straight trajectory, with each job leading logically to the next one, until you retire exactly when and how you had planned? I didn’t think so.
Most people’s careers take many twists and turns, as they take advantage of unexpected opportunities, and deal with unplanned disasters. The problem comes when you try to turn that succession of steps, each of which made sense at the time, into a single, coherent story that others can understand.
When you start thinking about how to tell your professional story, start with the easy part. What elements have remained consistent throughout the majority of your career? Have you always used the same techniques, worked in the same subject area, or worked for the same type of company? Have all of your jobs involved seeing things in terms of how they relate to the big picture, or were they more making sure the details were correct? Finding a common theme that runs through your entire work history will make your story “hang together” when you tell it, and convey a sense of continuity and stability to your background.
Next, think about what changed at the major transition points in your career. Did you take the same skills but start applying them in a new field? Did you expand your skills and learn new techniques, while remaining in the same field? Or did you take the lessons you’d learned at a large company and bring them down to implement in a small start-up? Can you divide your history into a few major transitions, and other more minor transitions?
Think about what you have learned and how you have grown in each of your career segments. What did you learn about yourself, or your field? How have your interests and abilities grown and changed over time? What situations trigger your career changes? Can you use those insights to frame your career transitions? Being able to talk about you why you made the changes you did, and how you grew with each transition, will emphasize your flexibility and broad background.
Finally, think about where you want to go next in your career. Whether you are happy in your current position or are actively looking for something new, you should have an idea of where you would like to go next. Whether it’s a new type of project in your current job, or an entirely new career, you need to tell people where you want to go, so they can help you get there.
Summarizing your entire career path in a succinct way, that connects the dots in a logical manner for your listener, is not a trivial exercise. While it may not have felt logical while you were living it, in hindsight you may be able to see how you were preparing for the change, even if you didn’t know it at the time.
Once the whole story makes sense to you, you can tell it to others in a way that will make sense to them. While it won’t start with “one upon a time”, it will hopefully end with “happily ever after.
This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC. Lisa is a freelance technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists: New Formulas for Chemistry Careers,” published by Oxford University Press.