One of the blessings of working in industry is the diverse array of career paths available to employees. One trained in the chemical sciences has at their feet the obvious opportunities in research and development. As I look around at Monsanto, I see my chemistry-trained colleagues excelling in non-research areas of sales, marketing, corporate communications, intellectual property, operations, and a host of other non-traditional chemistry careers. A sound training in the chemical and biological sciences provides a framework for questioning and understanding that, when paired with an intellectual curiosity, positions an individual to succeed in diverse areas critical for commercial success.
Navigating your career away from your area of training can often be a tricky proposition. In industry, the myriad of career paths can provide opportunities to tap into other passions within. A scientist with an interest in law might pursue roles in patent science. A data scientist could find a fit as a business analyst. A group leader with a penchant for writing could become a public relations specialist. After years of education and training to become a technical specialist, moving out of the field of expertise can often be a daunting experience. Making such a career move feels like starting over from the beginning and many times your technical credibility may bring little stature in the new field. A palpable enthusiasm will rarely cover for tangible results and many times the road to your new career may not be straight. You might have to build credibility in a role that bridges where you are and where you would like to be.
One key to successfully navigating such a transition is to know exactly what you are. In a discussion about my own career aspirations, a mentor once asked me the question, “What are you?” It seems like such a simple question, but I admit that I stumbled in answering. The obvious answer was biochemist. That is the area of my formal training and expertise. But this discussion was about careers in international development and agriculture, my other passion. I stumbled because it was not obvious that a biochemist was a person needed in the area of international development. If I were a plant breeder, that would be a no-brainer answer. After the discussion, I thought a lot about my answer. In online profiles, I describe myself as a dad, a biochemist, a blogger, and a humanitarian. All of those descriptors are accurate as are many more. I have varying passions for all of them. But they are not all weighted with equal proportion when it comes to career choices or current opportunities.
It’s this inequality of passion and job options that can create a career trap. This especially becomes an issue when we get so wrapped up in defining ourselves as a particular person at the expense of ignoring all of the other traits that make up whom we are. When you see yourself as A (your passion) while the organization sees you as C (your expertise) all the while you are stuck doing the bridging role of a B (neither passion nor expertise), it can become so easy to lose sight of what you are that you can become invisible. It is this invisibility to the organization that can become the career death trap.
Successfully avoiding this trap may be determined by your ability to know and demonstrate that you are both your passion and your expertise and that this combination is what the organization needs to be successful in the role that you desire. If a bridging role in the organization is the path that you choose, keep your passions at the forefront of your thought. People seem to be happiest and most productive in roles that match their passion. If there is a degree of mismatch between your role and your passion, it is easy to become frustrated and non-productive, a potentially career-derailing combination. New opportunities are seldom given to mediocre performing employees.
As an alternative to the bridging role, consider gaining relevant experience in an organization outside of work. Volunteer opportunities are excellent for gaining and documenting expertise and will also fulfill that passion that will keep you engaged. Becoming an externally recognized leader in an area of common interest with your employer may allow you to demonstrate your value outside of your training and create internal opportunities that allow you to more easily make the transition to your new career path. Above all, do not forget what you are.
Jeff Seale is a Science Fellow at Monsanto where he has worked for 18 years building world-class protein engineering platforms and developing the next generation of science leaders. Outside of work he enjoys watching his children's artistic and athletic endeavors, sailing with friends and working to end extreme global poverty with the ONE Campaign. (The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and not necessarily those of Monsanto.)