The last few years have been tough for most of us. The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted our education, our workplaces, and our career plans. Many of us had to adjust to remote – or socially-distanced – work, while simultaneously handling greater family pressures and uncertainties. If you feel you’re barely scraping by while your peers are thriving…don’t worry, you aren’t alone.
Social media and emergent technologies do a lot to simplify the work of a STEM professional, but they also contribute to an increased sense of imposter syndrome: the persistent inability to believe that your success is deserved, or was legitimately achieved as a result of your own efforts or skills.
Imposter syndrome is made worse by social media: many STEM professionals post curated career highlights on Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram, or spin their failures into inspiring stories of success and resilience. The need to post regularly on social media sites to keep your profile visible also creates a steady stream of doubt-sowing content.
Many scientists pride themselves on their industriousness and technical expertise, and see success as a direct result of hard work, so to believe you aren’t the skilled expert becomes even more demoralizing. Imposter syndrome can make your work life anxious and miserable, and hold you back from opportunities you’re qualified for, or from sharing your knowledge and skills with others.
Controlling your sense of imposter syndrome is a life-long challenge, but there are several ways you can overcome those intrusive, demoralizing thoughts.
Managing Imposter Syndrome
● Social media consumption in moderation, with plenty of ‘breaks.’ We can’t get away from work-related social media entirely, but online activity yields diminishing returns. Set limits on how long you spend on these sites each day, and give yourself breaks. The less time on social media, the less time you are spending playing the comparison game.
● Regular self-affirmations to combat negative thought patterns. The only way to disrupt the cycle of negative thoughts is to introduce new, positive thoughts into your head. Remind yourself that you were chosen for this job or task for a reason, and that you have as much right to be there as everyone else. Affirm to yourself that the negative thoughts are lies and not an accurate representation of your abilities.
● Build a supportive network. While you might feel like an uncomfortable fraud, your peers know the truth. Find a group of work colleagues or mentors who speak up when they hear you criticising yourself, and who can remind you of your strengths when you feel low.
● Track your wins. Create a physical record of your professional triumphs, big and small. There’s something about a list on paper or a word document that makes those wins seem more real, and it helps put any minor failures into context.
Just remember, most people experience imposter syndrome at some point during their training and career. In 2018 a systemic review of 62 papers and over 14,000 participants found up to 82% of survey respondents had imposter syndrome.
Feeling like an imposter on the job market? The friendly and knowledgeable recruiters at Sci.bio can help you uncover your strengths and make your biotech job application shine. Reach out to us to start the conversation today.
Importance of Peer Networks
Despite progress towards gender and racial parity in the sciences, it can still be tough navigating a STEM education and career when you belong to a historically underrepresented group. Fortunately, surrounding yourself with a strong support network of like-minded individuals will increase your chance of success, and make your STEM career more rewarding.
As you start out and progress in your STEM journey, there are two kinds of support you should seek out. ‘Vertical mentoring’ is when you receive advice and coaching from a more senior scientist, who is often a few steps above you on the career ladder. This kind of mentor will help you prepare for the next stages of your career, and whose advice is informed by hindsight and time.
The other kind of mentorship is ‘horizontal mentoring’: receiving support from people at the same career stage as you, for instance fellow grad students or entry-level biotech scientists. Although they may not have the depth of experience within the field a more senior mentor has, your peers may be more attuned with the current state of the job market and everyday issues you face in your current role. You may find yourself less filtered around peers than a more senior mentor, and more able to have an honest exchange of experiences and ideas.
Your department, university or company may be the easiest place to find your peer network, but it can be challenging if you’re the only student or employee from a particular ethnic or racial group. Fortunately, here is a (non-exhaustive) list of organizations that foster peer networks among scientists. Many of these organizations have university chapters.
Peer Networks for Women in STEM
- AWIS (https://www.awis.org)
- Women In Bio (https://www.womeninbio.org/default.aspx)
- Society of Women Engineers (https://swe.org)
Peer Networks for Racial and Ethnic Minorities in STEM
- Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (https://www.sacnas.org)
- National Society of Black Engineers (https://www.nsbe.org)
- American Indian Science and Engineering Society (https://www.aises.org)
- National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Black Chemical Engineers (https://www.nobcche.org)
- Black In [STEM] Week (Search for hashtags on Twitter). This is not so much a professional society as a collection of grassroots organizations who amplify voices across the breadth of STEM and foster collaboration and discussion on social media. There are weeks celebrating Black in Neuro, Chemistry, Physics, Marine Science, Genetics, and many more!
Regardless of where you are on the STEM career ladder, you’re never too old or too senior for a mentor! A good mentor can guide you into new professional fields, and increase your chances of landing your dream job or promotion. Mentors can act as a “sounding board” for job-related ideas, answer career-related questions, and provide emotional support when things get tough.
Who can be your mentor?
Broadly defined, a STEM mentor is someone more experienced than you who is willing to share their experiences and insights. You can be work colleagues, or be employed at different companies. Although you can be mentored by someone who supervises you (or is in your managerial chain of command), it is often better to choose a mentor who you don’t directly work with, especially if you need to have sensitive conversations about your workplace or job search.
It’s helpful to think about what you need from a mentor before looking for one: maybe you need help navigating your PhD program, or maybe you are considering a career in biotech and want to learn more about the options available to you. In the former scenario you might benefit from an academic mentor, in the latter scenario someone already working in industry might be more helpful.
How to find a mentor
If you aren’t sure where to find a mentor, here are some ideas:
● University or workplace colleagues
● Personal connections: friends, family or neighbors
● Networking events
● Professional organizations related to your STEM discipline
● Formal mentorship programs
When approaching potential mentors, it’s a good idea to explain what kind of advice or support you’re looking for upfront. You don’t need to enter a formal business relationship with a potential mentor – just ask them if they’d be willing to answer some questions you have and see where things go from there, as you would with other new networking contacts.
The act of mentorship can mean different things. You may email questions to your mentor when the need arises, or schedule monthly coffee meet-ups. A mentor in a formal mentorship program could send you away with “homework exercises” to complete before your next meeting. Mentors may be willing to review your job application materials or introduce you to their contacts.
Managing the mentor-mentee relationship
Most STEM professionals are happy to help younger scientists figure out their career paths – and many enjoy doing so. However, not everyone makes a good mentor. Some don’t have the time to discuss potential career pathways, or forget to reply to your emails. Some established STEM professionals may give outdated advice about the job market, or suggest career options that don’t align with your situation and needs. A person who looks like an ideal mentor on paper may be someone you struggle to carry a conversation with, and who you don’t feel comfortable baring your soul to. That’s OK! You’re never obliged to accept or act upon any mentor’s advice – and you can always politely scale back your interactions with a mentor who isn’t helping you.
It’s also important to know that one mentor can’t help you with everything STEM-related, and having multiple mentors doesn’t hurt. Maybe one of your mentors knows nothing about the current biotech market, but gives really good insight into handling interpersonal conflicts in your research lab. Another mentor may not have time to meet with you regularly, but is great at introducing you to useful people.
Above all – don’t feel shy asking for help! Your mentor may not know what assistance you need until you ask, and as long as you remain polite if they’re unable to help, you won’t damage the relationship. Navigating into new STEM careers can be difficult and confusing, and everyone deserves to receive help along the way.
Want job satisfaction? Look for a company that matches your size preferences
Do you belong in a sprawling corporate campus or in a small loft with a dog snoozing on the rug? Or maybe the open-plan wing of a tech hub?
Science grads searching for jobs in industry often focus on the salary and nature of the work, but ignoring the size (and thus style) of your prospective employer can thwart job satisfaction just as surely as an antiquated laboratory or paltry paycheck. Whether large, small, or somewhere in between, an organization that matches your “size profile” is a place where you’ll be happier, work more productively, and stay longer.
|● Big pharma: household names with a large, multinational workforce
● Small pharma: mid-size companies (fewer than 500 employees) with a leaner operational model
● Biotech/medtech startup: Companies with small teams and (typically) small portfolios
Many people feel a sense of pride at being attached to a large, well-respected organization. Statements like “I work at Vertex” or “I run a lab at Biogen” connote stability and competence, irrespective of your specific role. If you value status—and there’s nothing wrong with that—a large, well-respected organization will satisfy this craving.
It’s not just about dazzle, of course. A large pharma or biotech company gives you the greatest protection against changing market conditions—an important consideration if financial stability ranks high on your must-have list. Decades of experience means that processes have been worked out and standardized. Perhaps most important of all, a large employer offers multiple opportunities for vertical or lateral career changes. If you don’t click with one team, there’s every chance you’ll feel more at home in another department. Or country.
Some people thrive under pressure, while others do their best work in a stable environment. If you fall into the second camp, the stability of a larger organization can bring out your most productive and creative side.
And then there’s the water cooler. The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the social side of work into stark relief: some people don’t miss it at all, while others ache for the human contact. If you’re a people person, a larger organization guarantees a baseline of social interactions and may provide more structured opportunities for connecting with co-workers.
While lacking the status of a big name, a small company nurtures your self-confidence in different ways. Chances are that nobody else in the group has your expertise, so your opinions and suggestions carry more weight. Moving quickly as part of a small team gives you more opportunities to take chances and get recognized for your efforts. In brief, you can be a big fish in a small pond.
Smaller companies also tend to have more fluid boundaries. You’ll likely have more responsibility than outlined in your formal job description—an appealing prospect if you thrive on change. If asked to take on a project that falls outside your area of expertise or comfort zone—perhaps researching new suppliers or designing a patient registry—“that’s not part of my job description” won’t get you off the hook. Additionally, you stand a better chance of convincing a superior to let you run with an original idea and you’ll have less bureaucracy standing in your way when you take action.
On the downside, it is possible to outgrow a small company; the next career rung you seek may simply not exist yet, or the organization may lack the funds or structure to deliver the training you need to get to the next level. Also, some people find a fast-paced environment with an ever-shifting landscape more stressful than inspiring.
Sizing up the benefits
Have a look at the table below.1 Don’t worry about what you “should” value—just pay attention to your instinctive reaction to each list. Which list speaks to you more? If you’re equally drawn to both, a mid-sized company may best meet your needs.
|● Opportunity to progress more quickly
● Greater autonomy and responsibility
● Exposure to a greater variety of tasks
● Often a less formal atmosphere
● Increased interaction with senior staff
● Greater agility in decision making
|● Less unpredictability in job requirements
● Better training resources
● Usually better job security and benefits
● Better networking opportunities
● More prospects for global mobility
● Greater investment budgets
Want to gain still more insight into your own size profile? Take this 9-question quiz to figure out if you would feel most comfortable in a large, small, or mid-sized organization. https://www.monster.com/career-advice/article/what-size-employer-best-fit-quiz
A caveat: such tools are a great start, but cannot substitute for an in-depth consultation with an experienced recruiter. As a biotech recruiting agency dealing with employers of all sizes, Sci.bio will be happy to walk you through the finer points as you weigh your next career move.
1. Smyrnov A. Which size pharma company is the best fit for you? Pharmfield. Sept. 2, 2019. https://pharmafield.co.uk/careers/which-size-of-pharma-company-is-the-best-fit-for-you/
2. Dottie C. What size company is the right fit for you? LinkedIn. Aug. 16, 2015. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/what-size-company-right-fit-you-christopher-dottie/
You’ve landed the biotech job of your dreams: ideal location, great compensation package, the perfect match between your qualifications and the job description. What’s the catch?
Well, reporting to a bad boss can turn a dream job into a nightmare you dread each morning. And on the flip side, a job that looks dissatisfying on paper could – with the right boss – be something that brings you years of happiness and fulfilment.
The hidden costs of a bad boss
A bad boss can – literally – suck the life out of you. A 2009 study of 31,000 Swedish workers found that employees who worked for bosses they perceived as unfair, inconsiderate and mercurial were more likely to suffer cardiovascular disease and heart attacks, despite differences in employee education level, social class, and how often they exercised. Even more concerning, the longer an employee worked for a bad boss, the greater their risk of a heart attack.
A bad boss can stifle worker productivity, slow your ascent up the career ladder, and drive you from a job that is otherwise ideal. Have you ever heard the expression “people don’t leave jobs, they leave managers”? Yes, a manager can make or break your experience at a company!
How to recognize a bad boss
Your supervisor or line manager doesn’t have to be a villain to count as a bad boss. A bad boss may be a poor communicator who gives unclear directions on a project before changing their mind, or admitting after the fact they wanted you to do something else.
A bad boss could be too hands-on, interfering in your work and tripping you up every step of the way, or swing to the other extreme and be inaccessible and vague with their instructions.
A bad boss could lack emotional intelligence and struggle to admit their mistakes, or seem constantly negative and critical of everyone. You may find it hard getting constructive feedback from them, or feel constantly stressed and fearful of triggering their displeasure.
The point is, “bad bosses” are subjective and one person’s ideal supervisor could be another person’s nightmare. Even a boss with good intentions and many positive qualities could still be the reason you dread getting out of bed on Monday.
It might be possible to adjust and work around a bad boss – in the best-case scenario you’ll be able to have a discussion with them about working styles and setting expectations, and they’ll make adjustments. However, you should never assume your supervisor will change. When faced with a bad boss, your options are most likely going to be transferring to another team within the company (which might not be possible) or finding a new job.
How to screen future bosses
Yes, it’s another thing to worry about as you’re interviewing for biotech positions…but it is possible to identify good and bad bosses during the recruitment process before you receive a job offer. After the initial interview, many biotech companies will set up interviews with prospective supervisors or team leads who can shed more light on the team culture.
Recruiters who have worked for several years with a particular biotech company often have great insight into the personalities of the hiring team and department culture, which they will be happy to share with job candidates beforehand. They may also have feedback on what personality traits or soft skills would help someone be successful in a particular team. Allison Ellsworth, Sr. Recruiting Partner and Director of HR at Sci.bio, explains that “it is easy to overlook whether a role is a good personality match, especially if the job and company seem perfect on paper. But taking the time to think critically about what you personally need to be successful can help avoid disappointment and a repeat job search in 6 months”.
When the interviewers ask “do you have any questions for us?” this is the perfect time to ask potential supervisors about their leadership style and the qualities they value in their direct reports. You’ll get a sense of whether these supervisors are a good match for you, and the general workplace culture. Potential colleagues are another great resource to learn more about the culture and how leadership interacts with team members. It is also important to ask why the position is open; this can give you insight into what sort of attributes are valued or a red flag if there is high turnover.
Interviewing for a new job is a good time to get to know yourself better too! Think about your own communication styles and the type of supervision you benefit most from. Be honest: nobody likes to be micromanaged, but do you truly work well 100% independently or is more frequent feedback and clear guidance important to you? How do you like to structure your workload? All relationships are two-way streets; it can be challenging or stressful learning how to “manage up”, but knowing what works for you personally and what you need to be successful is helpful knowledge to bring to the table.
At the bare minimum, you want to look for a line manager who doesn’t take their stress out on others. Basic respect goes a long way. What other factors and managerial skills are most important to you?