High up on a mountain top, a tiny egg rested inside an eagle’s nest. One day a gust of wind blew the egg straight out of the nest, and down the mountain, towards the valley at the bottom. The egg bounced down the sides of the mountain, all the way into the valley. It rolled and rolled an eventually came to rest in a chicken farm. There, it hatched.
The baby bird blinked and looked around at its fellow birds. It saw them scratching and pecking at the ground, it saw them run towards the farmer’s bucket each morning when he came, and flock away from noises and perceived danger. It saw them flap but never fly, it saw them file in to roost each night, and file out to fatten up each day.
The baby bird, knowing no better, did as they did. It scratched and pecked at the ground. It ran for the food bucket. It filed in to roost each night.
One day, when the bird had grown, a friend came to visit the chicken farmer. The friend looked at the bird, amongst the chickens, and exclaimed “That’s an eagle!”. The chicken farmer smiled and said “No no no, my friend, that is a chicken. See the way it scratches at the ground and pecks for grain. See the way it runs to my bucket. ‘BOO!’ See it run away from me now? Every night it sleeps on a shelf, in a row, with the other birds. It is a chicken.”
The friend looked at the chicken farmer in disbelief, again at the bird, and back to the chicken farmer. “I’ll prove it to you.” The friend let himself into the run. The chickens fled to the other side. He strode purposefully into the flock and scooped up the bird.
With the bird tucked under one arm, he and the chicken farmer travelled up the mountain. When they reached a high ridge, the friend leaned over the side of the mountain, and saw the chicken farm far below. He gave a final pointed look to the chicken farmer, and threw the bird off the mountain.
The bird unfurled its wings, and soared into the air.
“That is no chicken. That, my friend, is an eagle.”
My life coach told me this story when I was at my lowest, shortly before I acquired a job, about 5 months ago. This blog is about the physical and mental journey I have had transitioning from academia into industry, and the six lessons I have learned along the way.
In November 2014 I decided to quit academia and BE HAPPY. Springboard helped me to realise what my values were in life and work, and gave me grounds to hope that by aligning the two, I could achieve some happiness and fulfilment both in my home and work lives. I relocated back to my home county, moved in with my boyfriend, and started to think about a career change within a very specific geographical location. Some other stuff happened which put that on hold for a while (my mum died), so let’s say that I began serious jobhunting in July 2015.
Down this way, there are no obvious opportunities for a physicist. There are few opportunities for scientists with work experience in industry. Award winning communication skills and even more work experience in media don’t qualify you to work in a communications role. Unless you were a student or lecturer, people don’t perceive your university job as a professional role, and so, in their eyes, you have never been a professional. Being a trained scientist with extra skills, like the ability to communicate well, aren’t seen as a bonus which could overcome a lack of specific experience in a REAL job. It just makes you harder to understand, and even harder to place.
Nothing I had ever done equated to the experience that local employers wanted me to have.
Despite my best efforts and “how to highlight your transferable skills” training, my CV put me firmly inside a pigeonhole and no amount of covering letter could really cover me, and the package that I am.
Lesson Two: Recruitment agencies will either get it, or they won’t. It is your job to help them see it.
Recruiters either tried to find a perfect matching pigeonhole to stuff me into (of which none existed), or they struggled to find employers who wanted to benefit more from my attitude and capabilities than my ability to hit the ground running in a professional industry job.
I tried to sell my engineering and chemistry backgrounds to local pharmaceutical companies, but without specific knowledge in specific fields and use of specific scientific techniques, I couldn’t go in at the same level I was used to working at. With too much experience to be considered for a graduate scheme, I quickly learned that the only way in was entry level. I planned to get in and work my way up, eventually focussing in the business fields of Quality or Continuous Improvement.
Lesson Three: Your Ph.D is intimidating.
Not just because some employers can only register that you are more qualified than they are. They worry about keeping you in the role.
I heard “You will get bored” so many times, I got bored of hearing it.
So I played it down. Despite my loathing of the same, I emphasised how I was used to doing repetitive experimental tasks. I told them “I want to be bored. Just put me in this environment, and I will learn sooo much, I’ll improve every process I work on, I’ll anticipate needs and get involved in other tasks, you’ll never see anyone pick this up faster.” But it was precisely that ambition and that inquisitive nature that played against me.
Lesson Four: What most employers want (at entry level) is just enough experience to be able to do the job well, but no drive to do any better.
Despite the sadness of joblessness, it was important to me that I didn’t hide my true nature from potential employers, or pretend to be a potential employee that I wasn’t. Years of experience being miserable in jobs had taught me that I was only going to be satisfied if I could get to be an eagle, and there would be no happy future in selling myself as a chicken. When I told employers and recruiters that I really wanted this basic entry level job, I meant it. But not because doing this basic entry level job was my life goal. I wanted it because of the opportunity to learn, and the potential to move up. And I told them so. Because of Lesson Four, it was hard to secure a job this way.
I don’t think I ever realised quite how much it means to me to work. On my road of self-discovery I realised that it is vital to me that I be allowed to contribute, and be valued for it. I’m sure it is possible to achieve that when your main role is a housewife or mother, but it surprised me when I realised that no amount of food shopping, washing, or babysitting could really fulfil me. (Even after I got really efficient at it.) I needed to work.
After a year of unemployment, it got to me. Why doesn’t anyone want these skills I have? I spent my academic life being told (and telling others) just how precious they are. How clever. How valuable. How much potential they have. How much they could do for the world in more ways than just research. Why didn’t anyone believe me that I could really do something for them?
I would love to be able to tell you that my conviction and perseverance paid off, that eventually I interviewed with an employer who just *got it* and thought “I need this eagle!” but that’s not what happened, and it’s not how this blog ends.
One day, I saw a job advert for a basic customer service role and thought, I could do that. Plus, I needed to remind the recruitment agency that I was still there, waiting, hoping. I phoned them, expressed my interest, was told, “If you really want it, I can send you straight in tomorrow. No interview. You just go to work.” And so I did.
Lesson Five: You need to be willing to start over.
I halved my previous salary, but I didn’t care. I was working. I had enough money to eat and live, and to have money come INTO my bank account instead of just leaving it was a weekly miracle. More than this, I was fulfilling a role, and doing it well. It was tremendously satisfying.
I learned quickly. My manager recognised this, and responded to it. I was rapidly given more tasks to do, which only increased in complication. I was trusted with customer satisfaction. With money and data management. My manager, and his manager, invested time in developing my knowledge of the customer base, the products, the company, business practice, and the wider industry. I was extraordinarily happy.
Lesson Six: Good management is important.
More-permanent opportunities were discussed, and eventually I was headhunted for a next-level role in a different department.
I thought, finally, I have been recognised as an eagle, and someone is carrying me up the mountain.
Within that role I would have the opportunity to build on some existing scientific skills, develop new technical skills, develop my commercial awareness, and learn infinitely more about company-specific processes.
…Alarm bells should have been ringing when they told me that what they needed was someone to take over from the previous employee really quickly, and they were counting on my ability to learn (as qualified by my Ph.D) to enable me to do that. There were other warning signs, but I was so swept up by the idea of what the job (and I) could be, I refused to recognise that all they wanted was a new chicken. We parted ways when we realised that was not going to happen.
Lesson One: Your value does not diminish because others cannot see it, or do not want it.
I’m proud of myself that I did not shut up and put up. 2 years ago I persevered with a job that was making me miserable because I was sure I should be fulfilled. Now I can see that jobs are more than just titles and salaries. There are jobs for eagles, and jobs for chickens, and they are not defined by hierarchy. When company values don’t align with my own, or I have a boss instead of a leader for a manager, I’m not happy. I remain positive that there is a right fit for me somewhere (local), and it’ll be easier to find it because I am no longer in an awkward pigeonhole. I’ve already had an interview somewhere else, and I’m excited about whatever I get to try next.
Never let others dull your sparkle. You’re an eagle.