Plan your career - or not

Career TilesI started out this guide by pointing out that it will be the rare person who only works at one or two companies in his or her lifetime.  This means that you will have to take some initiative at planning your career.  But there are different ways to approach career planning.  I suggest that technology, jobs, and the world in general are changing so fast that trying to plan out a 40-50 year career is insane.  Let's take an example:
I graduated from Michigan (Go Blue!) in 1974.  I went to graduate school and got a PhD in Biology, though I suspect they gave me the degree on the condition that I never actually practice as a biologist.  
I left biology and got a job as a computer programmer at a small consulting company in Harvard Sq. There were six partners in the firm and two of us programmers, and they made the mistake of putting us together in the same room.  We concluded by the end of the first year that we were as smart as the partners (not true) and quit and started our own company, building a database management system for Unix.  Unfortunately, Oracle was a competitor.  
In three years, I left that startup and went to a small company outside of Boston doing state of the art artificial intelligence to generate personal financial plans.  In 2 or 3 years, Price Waterhouse (before Coopers) acquired our little company, with all the attendant culture shock.  I learned all I could about PW and was admitted into the partnership (as a Tax Partner!) when they fired half of our staff and moved the rest to Chicago.  There, I worked for the worst boss I have ever had and made plans for my exit.  
I was rescued by my long-time friend (and founder of the Boston company) and moved to Palo Alto to run PW's Technology Centre - one of the best jobs I've ever had.  In 1998, I was approached by an entrepreneur who convinced me to quit the partnership and join his startup.  We started one of the poster children of the 90's dot-com boom and bust.  After an IPO in 1999, I moved to London in 2000 and then back to California as the business deteriorated with the crash.  
I left in 2001, looked around at the devastation in high tech, and started lecturing at Berkeley Business School on the Business of Biotechnology.  I did that for a few years, along with some consulting in organizational design and eventually hooked up with a graduate school friend (from 20 years ago!) to give some workshops on making the transition from being a science graduate to working in industry.  Hence the birth of I sketched out my career details in this blog entry.
Is this a planned career?  No, but it is an opportunistic one.  My point is that taking advantage of opportunities (or making opportunities) is just as valid a strategy as plotting out your career.  And it provides you with a lot more flexibility.  These days it is the only realistic career planning strategy.
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Submitted by Ronnie Cooper on
Hi Doug, I have enjoyed your blogs so am asking if you have any thoughts on the big "what now?" questions facing older PhD students when they finish the thesis? I started my PhD (in the politics and discourse of technoscience innovation) at around age 50, after 25 years experience in top level policy and parliamentary jobs, as well as lecturing, journalism and a bunch of other things. While much of the advice offered to new-PhD first-time job-seekers is useful, there are also rather different challenges for those of us reinventing ourselves yet again at this stage of our lives. Any ideas???All the best from North Canterbury, New Zealand - Ronnie

Submitted by dougk on

Thanks, Ronnie.  You are right that dougsguides is targeted towards the first-time job seeker, but many of the challenges you face as an experienced new grad will be similar, like establishing your credentials in a new field.  The biggest advantage you should have is an established network of people who are familiar with you as a professional and as a person.  I'm not sure where you are in your degree program, but you should be building on your professional contacts and establishing your professional presence asap.  Start a blog and email your contacts once a month or so about your progress towards a degree.  Describe the kind of work you'd like when you finish and ask your contacts to be on the lookout for appropriate positions.  Have coffees, lunches and phone calls on a regular basis with people in your network who are likely to be helpful.  We older folks face a lot of challenges, especially when changing careers, so make sure you can provide evidence that you are facile and comfortable with all the latest technologies (another reason that having a web page and blog is helpful).  You've got the advantage that you've already demonstrated that you can thrive in a work environment, so you can focus on building your credibility and mining your network.  Good luck!