Saturday, April 12, 2014

why you always need Plan B (and C and D)

This last week I got reminded yet again why it's imperative that you always, always, have a plan B. (Yes, having a pack of Plan B  - what the Americans call the "morning after pill" - at home if you are sexually active and not in the mood for offspring might also apply here.)

It's been mentioned a bunch of times when talking about career plans, especially for post-docs* who say they know they want to go into academia and TT.
"Please have a plan B if the way of getting into a SLAC or Top tier university doesn't happen." 
"Please assess your skills and keep that CV shiny in case something else comes up and you don't have that TT job offer."
"Please think of a Plan C and Plan D, just in case Plan B doesn't work."

And for the love of importance, if you are on a work visa in another country (like a foreign worker here in the USA), please keep those plans B, C and D in place since too often, if you job is terminated, you have a very short time to stay in the country before they kick you out.

All of this reared its head this last couple of months. Not for me per se this time, but in my vicinity and I ended up with damage control that will continue for another couple of weeks.

First of all, let's set the stage for the idea that you work in a state that is "right to work". This means that at any given time you can be let go of your job. Of course, you can always sue for "wrongful termination" and the company can always give you a pay out to stop that, but for many of us who don't keep a lawyer on retainer or have connections, the "I'll see you in court" does come across as a fairly little threat to the bigger company (who has retained legal help for sure).

Second, this is true for many places, the moment someone wants to quit or wants you out - most likely it is better to try sort out the best scenario for everyone (which quite possibly be you leaving the job, regardless if it is "right" or "fair"). I call this "cut your losses and try and save as much pain as possible" and then move on. Needless to say, this is not easy. I know. It does make it less panicky though, if you have some sort of plan or alternative ready. (CV written, a working network around you, alternative plans with keywords...)

I actually had one of those moments early in my 'career'. I was told it was better if I left, since "I wasn't TT material, it might as well be for the better for me to leave" and it was a quite hasty exit that was planned. It's a story for another day**. However, what it taught me was a few very important lessons.
  • If someone (e.g. boss or someone who boss likes) wants you gone, there will be ways to get you gone (regardless if it is "fair or right"). 
  • If you really want to fight it, you will need to have contacts in high places (more powerful than the boss) and remember HR is not really there for you (worker) but for the boss and most of all, the institution.
  • IF the situation gets resolved, be sure that you let go of those bad moments early on, and not try and rehash it with coworkers (then the situation won't be called resolved for long). Also try and get out fairly fast with a better solution so you can keep it resolved.
  • When you change jobs, remember that it doesn't really matter what you did during your time unless you finish well. Everyone will remember those last couple of months/weeks and how you left your stuff (and connect back to the old job place).
  • Never bad mouth your boss to others (current, old or new doesn't matter. It is just never a good idea).
  • Never, ever burn bridges. You never know who in the mess that will end up being important in the end game of this we call career and life. (Sure, it is tempting to burn down that house when you storm out, but for many that is not smartest thing to do. If nothing else, many people are willing to help you our after the fact you've left IF you haven't demolished everything in the process.)
I've forgotten that this is not something people do all the time. To me it's very strange when I see people shooting themselves in the foot and really ruining the opportunity to get a good reference/memory all in mainly just the last few weeks.

Examples from the fray:
  • The post-doc who moved labs within the department and then tried to publish data (in the new lab) without either new PI or old PI but a third PI in the lab and the post-doc. They thought they were flying under the radar. They weren't.
  • The post-doc who screwed up numerous experiments, didn't keep a lab notebook for an astonishing amount of time and had contact with HR since they were warned. It was a timed contract to start, so it shouldn't have been that surprising that the time was up. Although, somehow they thought it better to tell everyone in lab they found out with less than a week to spare and that the PI was evil, lying and everyone was on the chopping block if they weren't well liked with the PI. 
  • The technician who found the salaries for everyone in the lab on a print out and proceeded to go to the lab and tell everyone what they were making and why this was unfair and who was the favourite in the lab. Then got surprised when it affected the relationship with the PI.
  • The technician who was told during their first review in the new job by a new PI that they "quite bad and extremely disappointing" out of the blue (the had been a tech for another lab for a long time), and then put in the 'communication ice box' where most things are directives and orders and no positives but yet PI depends on them not leaving since they would be in a bind... (you need your CV up to date here, and leave fairly early, since the self confidence gets down and then it's harder to find a new job)
  • The supervisor who applied for the same job as their underling, the underling got the job and the supervisor proceeded to call the new company to cuss them out and how wrongly they'd chosen. And then proceeded to tell this story at their old job to the boss and other coworkers.... (yeah, don't know how that worked out in their head either)
If you are in a (lab) environment where it doesn't feel like 'they' like you or you fit in, I've come to the conclusion that it's better to get out as early as possible. It's a little bit odd in one sense, since I've stuck it out a few times when I probably should've saved myself some headaches and left. Although, it is easier for me since both my times have ended with a good ending (so far at least) and I've been able to turn it around. However, the first time was ONLY because I had friends in high places and played the academia game quite well (and a fair amount of luck with my science results). I also ended up leaving the place without having too much hope for an "extra few months after my graduation" - but all in all, I still go there and chat with them and keep in contact so, who knows what will happen after a decade?!

Back to the "out as early as possible". You can always leave the reference out if it is 6 months or less, quite possibly a year. Claim it wasn't a "good fit" for you or the PI. It's not ideal, but people know this happens and it is way better than staying for several years and then in the end not having anything good to show for it since then you do have a problem if you're not using the reference. Also, most times the PI might be ok with it if you are open about it and make it about the fit rather than the skills etc. Note, "fit" is an HR term that is gaining a lot of attention since it does fall fairly close to the "like" aspect of a worker in an environment. However, I have to admit that there is something there with "fit"- nevermind that I don't like it.***

In order to leave/take a new chance, you need your CV up to par and ready. Nevermind that you have a good job at the moment, things like this happen before you know it sometimes. I have one master list - with EVERYTHING I've ever done - and then I redo it for every job I apply for. I also have two basic resumes that I work from in other times, one in English and one in native tongue, but they always need tweaking based on the keywords for the position I'm applying for.

Oh and this thing with applying for jobs. I found myself the other month applying for a job. Why? I really like my present job, I've just about gotten warm in my clothes and it's really exciting. However this was a really good opportunity and I stumbled upon the ad the same day it closed so I thought "why not?". I highly doubt I will get anywhere with it, but I know the institute and that they check old applications for newer job openings so who knows when someone will glance at my fairly specific resume?

As usual, I'm not sure on how to end my blogpost. I'll leave it as is and see if there are any questions and/or comments. Next time it will be a "how to avoid the biggest mistakes in the application/CV" and "what I've learned from telephone interviewing" (as the hirering person) - I wish I knew these things before.

*exchange for graduate students or any other expendable personnel

 ** I looked through my blog but I haven't written about this, nor the other obstacle I faced as a post-doc. I may do this, since it does have some interesting complications and what I know now I would do differently. Also, I have told the story at a few of the "career developing days" I've spoken at and people seem to like it.

***screening people to hire has a category if they are a good fit for the lab. it's horrendously hard - to me at least - to feel that I'm not only making it about "who do I like", a completely different question. This is one of the many reasons I'm not (yet) HR material but only a support person....

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