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Limited by Labels: How others see you has a lot to do with the brand you've built.

This month is a good opportunity to step back from the many specific job search and career development tips I've covered over the years and focus on the big picture. This topic idea hit me when I remembered a question I was asked years ago by an audience member after a seminar: "What's the single biggest career problem you've identified?"

At the time, I struggled to answer the question. Those of us in the biotech world can encounter so many career-related challenges--networking effectively, creating a strong CV, employers going under, to name just a few. How could I label just one as the most difficult scenario?

Now, years later, I think I've found an answer. I've realized that the single most difficult time of your career may arrive when you've been entrenched in whatever you are doing to the point where you've built a "brand" and this brand (or as I prefer to call it, a "label") turns out to be working against you.

Maybe your brand is "Fermentation Specialist," or perhaps it is "Life Sciences Service Industry Marketer." Either way, that's fine if there are opportunities for you in those fields, but if for some reason you wish to escape that limiting factor, you could be in for trouble: you've been labeled!

It's fine to have a label if what you're doing is aligned with your passions and long-term goals--but it's a big problem when it's not. And it's that misalignment with your dreams where the problem comes in.

How labels can limit your opportunities

Part of the reason that labels are so dangerous is that the hiring process tends to be very compressed. You'd want a hiring manager to give you a 10-12 minute review of your CV, right? Nope. It turns out to be a 20-second scan. Instead of extrapolating all the great things that you can do for their employer, the recruiter you wrote looks to see what you are doing right now and whether that fits into the tiny window of specifications for a position they are trying to fill. Together, this rush to judgment leads to an impression that can be expressed as a relatively simple label.

Consider these examples of people who have become stuck in places they never really intended to be, and the labels that got in their way:

The obscure topic specialist: This scientist's original goal was to work in cancer research after completing the Ph.D., and yet she joined a company that concentrates on an interesting but esoteric field in another area. Seven years later, this person has become stuck in this niche and moving back to cancer research appears to be an unreachable goal.

The dug-in academic: This postdoc wanted to secure a position on the tenure track. After spending 6 or 7 years as a postdoc and sending a hundred unsuccessful applications, she decided that she needed a Plan B--but industry does not easily open doors for researchers with this type of job history.

The permanent temp: This technician was hoping to land a permanent industry job, but thought a short-term solution would be to work for a temp staffing agency. He got a great temporary position at a major pharma--and then another, and another. Five years later, he has found that employers no longer consider him for full-time positions.

The small company guy: This business developer always wanted to work for a large multinational corporation but spent 8 consecutive years doing smaller deals at tiny biotech companies. He now finds himself rejected for no reason other than having the "wrong company experience."

It's crucial that you think about the kind of label that might be assigned to you based on your CV. Your best bet to avoid getting stuck with a label is to appreciate from the outset that every career move you make can take you closer to your goal--or lead you down a rabbit hole.

I love the character Lord "Little-finger" Baelish on Game of Thrones. He's someone who always seems to be winning, always moving up the ladder, despite the fact that he's at heart a very nasty guy. But his philosophy does works well for decisions about career choices. In a recent episode, he says, "I envision my future success. Every time I'm faced with a decision, I close my eyes and see the same picture. Whenever I consider an action, I ask myself, 'will this action help to make this picture a reality?' Can I pull it out of my mind and into the world? And I only act if the answer is yes."

Get on the right track

Put simply, you need to rigorously examine each and every move you make. Develop some ideas about areas you're interested in and figure out what it takes to get there. As opportunities arise, consider whether they will benefit you in reaching your ultimate goal or whether they are really distracting detours in disguise. Before making career decisions, ask "What does this move buy me?" or "How can I later sell this experience to an employer as an advantage to them?"

Your network can also play a key role in this decision-making process, so it's important to work on developing that early, too. These contacts can keep you informed of what is hot (and what is not) in your chosen area of interest. They can help you decide which employers to target and which problems to tackle so that you gain experience which will help you reach your end goal.

Being stuck in a position from which you can't seem to break loose is a frustrating, demoralizing situation. Usually, when a person looks back and wonders how this happened, they realize it is because, at some point along the way, they took the easy road instead of putting in the work required to make the career move that would pay off in the long run. It was easier to take that next technician job than to keep looking for a Research Scientist position. It was easier to make a move to a similarly sized small company than to build the contacts and experience that would get you the job at the large multinational. It was easier to stick with the same highly specialized field for longer than you should have.

There is no easy way out. If you're stuck in this way, you may need to take a lower-level job that repositions you, or a post that gives you training you are missing for the area you were initially passionate about. Some years ago, I was speaking to a director level scientist at a major Bay Area biotechnology company about his career interests. He told me that his long-term goal was to be a professor, but he gotten "sidelined in industry" along the way. Next thing you know, I found him in a nontenure track position as a super post-doc at Stanford. Wow, I thought, that's a risky move. But it was worth it for this scientist, who is now a very high-powered professor at a top institution.

If you've become entrenched in something that isn't helping you reach your long-term goals, you've got to break free of those bonds and find some way to get out of being labeled negatively for those dream positions. Remember that each move you make is either going to bring you closer to your dream role or take you further down a path that will only lead to labeling and stereotypes.

David G. Jensen

Contributing Editor

Dave Jensen, President of CTI Executive search, is an executive recruiter with 30 years of experience in biopharma recruitment, and he can be reached at See his website at for hundreds of open positions across the industry.
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Author:Jensen, David G.
Publication:Contract Pharma
Date:Oct 1, 2018
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