Copyright: Erik Kalibayev

Career transition: chance favours the prepared mind

As Louis Pasteur once said, “chance only favours the prepared mind”. This applies to the field of scientific discovery as well as to career management. Alas, young scientists very often lack the methods to steer their own career. Our experience of helping PhDs find jobs outside academia shows that once young scientists realise that these methods are quite simple to learn, their quest for a dream job becomes easier.

Needless to say, all PhD students and post-docs will not have the opportunity to get a permanent position in academia. They should therefore explore other opportunities. Senior researchers may also choose to start new projects outside research at some stage. However, a major mistake is to apply for jobs and meet recruiters without an adequate level of preparation.

A few key factors can facilitate career transitions for scientists, either immediately after their PhD or a few years later.

The first key factor is anticipation. Like most careers, a career in science is a succession of steps. It is never too early to start thinking about what the next step could be. Failure to do so can result in the next experience being, at best, more of the same.

Introspection is the next point. Scientists need to ask themselves what they have accomplished until now, and be aware of the kind of skills they have acquired. They also need to analyse what they like, or dislike, doing. This exercise has to be as specific as possible. “I hate teaching” does not make sense. The question is whether you dislike the course conception phase, speaking in front of students, marking exams, or dealing with the politics of the department. Another important aspect is to find out what the next project should bring you as an individual. And it is also useful to wonder where friends see you working in the future.

Openness and networking are also crucial. Scientists are very good at building networks of peers, but such networks lack diversity. To venture outside academia in the future, it is important to seize all opportunities to meet different people working in diverse fields. And to understand their professions, stakes, dreams and concerns. Then, it is essential get in touch and be ready to help them. Some of these people may help you, in return.

A major difficulty is to imagine what you would be able to do in a completely different environment, such as a consultancy firm. The only way to answer this question is to meet people who work in these organisations and ask them about the nature of their jobs. A one-hour interview with any professional will provide sufficient background about their industry, their jargon, and information about key people to meet.

Enthusiasm is the last key ingredient. Everybody wants to work with positive people and any prospective employer can gauge the level of energy of a candidate, or the lack of it. As Pasteur also said: “The Greeks bequeathed to us one of the most beautiful words in our language, the word ‘enthusiasm’—en theos— a god within.”

Vincent Mignotte ( direction[at]

Executive director at ABG, a French non-profit scientific recruitment agency that helps match PhDs with employers outside academia, through training course and a portal called l’Intelliagence.

Featured image credit: Erik Kalibayev via Shutterstock

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2 thoughts on “Career transition: chance favours the prepared mind”

  1. Dear Vincent,
    Many thanks for this very interesting and informative article. Your advice complements a recognised career theory, Planned Happenstance (Mitchell et al, 1999), which identifies personal attributes such as flexibility, curiosity, risk-taking and a positive, proactive approach as key to harnessing ‘chance’ events. In a nutshell, you make your own luck!
    Looking forward to seeing you at the ESOF Meeting.