Working Life

Taking ownership of luck

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Science  16 Sep 2016:
Vol. 353, Issue 6305, pp. 1330
DOI: 10.1126/science.353.6305.1330

When people ask me how I got my job as the facility director for a biotechnology incubator right after finishing my Ph.D., my answer used to be, “I was lucky.” I felt lucky to land an intellectually engaging job that gives me the freedom to shape the future of a company in the city where I want to live. Actually, I felt lucky to get a job at all. But recently, I've realized that luck doesn't deserve all the credit—I do. I'm not saying that I made all the right choices, and serendipity played its role, but landing my job was first and foremost a result of my own hard work and determination. I'm now learning to take ownership of my success, which will help me continue to progress in my career.

ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT NEUBECKER

“Each of my choices and accomplishments contributed to my success.”

As I was finishing graduate school, my plan was to write a paper while continuing my research as a postdoc before figuring out my next move. (I knew I wanted to pursue something other than a typical academic career.) But the postdoc position lost funding right before I defended my thesis. Suddenly, I had to choose between writing my paper and finding a job. One of my ambitions in grad school had been to publish in a respected journal, and shelving that goal made me feel like I was failing in a major part of my education. But papers don't pay rent, so I chose to leave it unwritten and find a job.

I figured that I was most likely to succeed if I cast a wide net, so I applied for many different types of positions—including grant writer, part-time lecturer, and laboratory manager—but nothing was panning out. With the possibility of living with my parents as a 28-year-old looming, I was getting a little desperate when I happened upon a job ad for a biotechnology incubator facility director, which an acquaintance of mine had posted on LinkedIn.

As I looked into it, I realized that I really wanted this job. The responsibilities included managing the daily operations of the facility, writing grants, promoting the space to potential clients, doing local outreach, and accounting. I didn't know how to do most of those things, but I was confident that I could learn and would enjoy the variety of tasks. I also loved the mission of the organization—to help early-stage biotech startups by providing quality labs. This was a chance to help nurture companies that would offer satisfying work to young scientists like myself.

When I got the job, which started the day after my grad school stipend ran out, I thought, “How lucky! What a serendipitous series of events that led me to a job I actually wanted.” Now, I know better. On my 1-year anniversary at this job, I reflected on all the new experiences I've had and how surprisingly well prepared I was. But the more I thought about it, the less surprising it became. Luck wasn't the only factor in landing this job. My actions led me here.

When I decided in my third year of grad school that I didn't want a career in academia, I took the initiative to seek out experiences that would help me build skills for other jobs. I wrote for a hospital media relations department, planned events, tutored, and attended every networking session I could. These experiences helped me submit a strong application package for the incubator job, and they have served me well as I have written marketing materials, run outreach events, and secured new clients over this past year. Each of my choices and accomplishments contributed to my success, so it's time that I own it.

Adopting this mindset hasn't been easy, in part because I am a woman, brought up with certain social norms. I am used to waiting for compliments only to humbly deny them, to declining to offer ideas if I'm not 100% sure that I'm right, to not talking about my accomplishments unless I'm asked. In being more vocal about how my choices and talents got me the job I wanted, I know that I risk being seen as arrogant. But I remind myself that no one will know what I can do if I don't tell them.

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