Monday, December 26, 2016

Chemist In Limbo

I've written a fair amount on here about my experiences as a professional chemist. Over the past (almost) decade, my career has taken me in directions I never could have guessed back when I was in graduate school working toward my doctorate. As I briefly mentioned on here a month ago, the latest twist was one I never hoped to ever find myself experiencing: laid off. Now that the dust has settled, my head has cleared, and I'm knee deep in finding my next opportunity, I thought it would be a good time for an update. I also thought it would be A) a bit therapeutic for me to write about it, and B) a service to other professionals, scientists or otherwise, who might find themselves in a similar situation as a way to impart whatever scraps of insight I've gained from the whole thing. 

Where to start?  The day I was let go, I was in the middle of a web conference with colleagues from another one of my company's locations when my boss' boss came to my desk and asked if I had a minute. I followed him to his office, thinking it was our routine end-of-year meeting (we always have these in October/November) but as soon as I saw someone from HR sitting in there waiting for me, I knew immediately what was coming. They went through all of the details of why the company was eliminating my position, what my benefits would be, that it wasn't performance related, etc. Looking back on it, I handled it much better than I would've guessed beforehand. After a quick goodbye, I grabbed my keys, jacket, and headed home. I called my wife on the way to let her know what happened, we told our kids, and I finally sat down and exhaled. I told myself in that moment that, since it was a Thursday, I'd give myself the weekend to relax and then hit the ground running on Monday to start look for a new job. As the day went on, though, my initial feelings of handling it well gave way to an almost depression over the fact that my job, my coworkers (many of whom became friends), my daily routine, all of it was yanked away and gone in an instant. The typical thoughts started popping up...was I not good enough? They said it wasn't performance based, but maybe it was? That slowly gave way to a seething anger over the weekend...not at the company or anyone in particular, but just at the situation in general. Unfortunately, it spilled over a bit and I took a little bit of it out on my family, but I'm lucky that they were understanding enough to not take it personally.

When the first Monday in I-don't-know-how-many-years that I didn't have to go to work rolled around, I was filled with a mixture of dread and anxiety. How was I going to find a job? We've all heard that saying that "it's easier to find a job when you have a job," and any time in the past when I'd been actively looking for a new job, I'd never found one. Both times I moved on from one job to the next, the opportunities found *me* via headhunters or personal friends/contacts. Now I had no job and I had to find one on my own. It wasn't a panicky situation since, as part of my termination, I did get several months severance benefits, but the thought stayed in the back of my mind: now I have a hard deadline where I have to find a job or else.

I first had to confront the reality that where I started my career and where I found myself now posed a bit of a challenge. My PhD, postdoc, and the first four years of my career were spent as a synthetic organic chemist working on materials, but for the past six years I've been in R&D working on electroplated metal coatings. I've been a chemist working at an engineering company, and now I have to figure out how to position myself as a chemist (and not an engineer) but convince companies that are in the engineering space that they need me. Quite the challenge...

Going by the thought that it's all about who you know (and this is where I'm hoping to share a little bit of new insight) I first reached out to all of my friends and former colleagues who I know personally and asked them to let me know if there were any openings at their companies where they could help me get a foot in through the back door. I've been going the traditional route as well because let's face it, out of the thousands of applicants for these positions, it obviously has to work for someone, somewhere, right?. It's like playing the lottery, and with odds about as good, but it doesn't hurt to try, I suppose. I've been finding, however, that I get a better response when I use networking. Sometimes this entails reaching out to my friends, former colleagues, and other people I know, but a huge part of it has been finding hiring managers and contacting them directly.

At this point, I've had several phone interviews, am waiting for calls from people who have told me they're interested, and I've even had an on-site interview. This is a tough time of year to look for a job for a couple of reasons: first, with Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's all crammed within a month of each other, so many people take time off for vacation that companies are closed and the people who I'm waiting to hear back from are out of the office for days or weeks; and second, with the end of the year fast approaching, most companies avoid spending money until their books clear and their budgets renew in January. Even companies whose fiscal years don't run concurrent with the calendar year usually wait until their next quarter begins in January before spending money and hiring anyone new.

As it stands right now, I'm kind of in a wait-and-see mode...I'm waiting to hear back from the people I've already been speaking with and most companies are not posting any new openings until the beginning of 2017. While I know that in the grand scheme of things this lay off will be a mere bump in the road that is my life, right now it's a fairly stressful and irritating circumstance. Having finally bought a house within the last couple of years, settled into our neighborhood, and made really good friends, being unexpectedly laid off completely disrupted our life. I was becoming established at my job and had a good reputation as someone who was very knowledgeable, did quality work, and was dependable; now I need to start all over somewhere else and reestablish that again. Our kids had made some really good friends, had settled into their sports teams and after school activities, and were finally okay with the move away from our home are of New England; now they'll have to start over again wherever we end up. We love our house...we've settled in nicely and have been making it our own, changing it around the way we want it, but now we'll most likely need to sell it and find a new house to buy elsewhere. In so many ways, this situation has thrown a huge spanner into the works and while I know that in a year, let alone in five, ten, or more years we'll look back on this as a minor inconvenience, right now it's very real and very much a nuisance.

Anyway, that's where things stand with me as a professional chemist right now. Once there's been a substantial new development in my situation, I'll be sure to write about it here in order to share any insight or information I've learned along the way to try and help my fellow chemists/scientists/professionals who may be going through the same thing.

For anyone reading this, in any field, and especially chemists specifically: have you been in this situation? How long were you between jobs, and what methods did you find worked the best (and worst) in your job search? Please share in the comments below and let's discuss and help each other out!

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