Today at Genentech we had a Career Day, a Postdoc organized event, where Genentech alumni share their experience and development after a postdoc, in industry and beyond.
A speaker I really enjoyed today was Susan, a consultant and career coach. It was pretty obvious to me that she has consulted primarily with non-scientists, nonetheless I found her insights very impactful. She gave what I thought were very practical advice. Those speakers really resonates with my personality: I prefer practical insights over inspirational talks – which – when not given by people who know what they are doing – fell badly flat.
Susan was part of a larger panel who discussed career options and obstacles. During the discussion, one thing became apparent to me:
we were a group of very privileged individuals.
Job opportunities for people in our business were not a problem. “Jobs are everywhere” the panelists kept saying. They pay well (depending on someone’s expectation, I guess) and you are encouraged to “flirt” with more than one company at the same time, to name your best price. It’s Xmas all year long, if you are in biotech, and live in the Bay Area (or Boston).
The abundance was such that one panelist said that their company has unsuccessfully tried to recruit 200 jobs, but got only 50 applicants.
Back in the mid-2000s, in Italy, when I told my family I wanted to become a researcher, they all raised an eyebrow. Yet, today, a lot of my peers struggle to get a decent job, while I am contacted monthly by a recruiter with a new offer. This, as I said, made me feel very privileged.
As this warm sensation of security and pride grew inside me, I was pretty certain the audience felt equally thrilled. Or did they?
Susan took the microphone: “I consult people in different industries and for the most diverse careers… hearing that there is such an abundance of jobs for people like you is stunning. Can you please give yourself an applause for this?“
She repeated herself, and the second time, I and other people started clapping.
That got me thinking. How well do we appreciate our status? Maybe we now think that becoming a scientist that makes $110,000 a year is just “meh”: we all feel we should have gotten $150,000 a year. We should have gotten a bigger paper, just like the paper or the career that the other guy, in the lab next door, got. Why them and not me?
This conversation reminded me of something I read on a book from S. Pinker, about inequality. The book claims that our view on inequality is relative and not absolute. For example: Martin who rents a flat in NYC , has 1h commute and 10 days vacation a year feels bitter and unfairly treated because his colleague, Sarah, who had a similar career, seem to do so much better than him. Martin would never do an equality comparison with people who has it much, much worse than him. We as PostDoc at Genentech perceive inequality, and what it’s “owe to us”, differently than other people, particularly postdoc in academia, because we set the eyes on a different price all together.
So, I think, even though we are benefiting for a job that is already so valuable, and we have new jobs awaiting, we don’t applaud. We don’t feel like celebrating. We still feel strangely unhappy and unreasonably insecure. But, I argue, if we look across the street, and see the bigger picture: Congratulations! You we are the winner of this week challenge. And the winner of the next week too, and of all the other weeks to come. We have achieved (through luck and efforts) way beyond than the majority of our peers.
It disturbs me that we didn’t applaud. If we don’t acknowledge and celebrate our status, if we don’t think we are doing good and we will do good in life, if we don’t put our options in perspective, how will our peers see us?