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Opportunities in Times of (Financial) Crisis

I’ve been thinking a good bit about the recent economic downturn. There is no doubt that it is, on balance, a very bad thing for job-seekers. But, I’ve asked myself, are there any bright spots?

So far I haven’t thought of many, but here are a couple. First, if you don’t already own a home, your housing costs could be significantly lower. It’s a scary time to buy real estate, but if you’ve got the courage you should be able to buy a house for significantly less than you could have a year or two ago. If you’re really disciplined and not too choosy you can probably pick up something really cheap. And if you qualify, mortgage rates are very low. Furthermore, as real-estate prices fall, the cost of rentals does, too. An acquaintance even suggested recently that this is a good time to find free house-sitting gigs, though I don’t remember how he arrived at this conclusion.

In an employment context, right now state and private universities are really struggling to deal with endowment losses and state-revenue shortfalls. Many universities are laying off workers–though most layoffs, so far have been restricted to staff. Many faculty searches, however, have been canceled.

Yet this is one time when it’s good to be on soft money. Because, although recent NIH budgets have not been kind, soft money promises to be abundant over the next couple of years. Read our recent entry on the science provisions of the draft stimulus bill.  Anyway, while there may not be much money for hiring new faculty, there should soon be plenty of money floating around to pay postdoc salaries. This might be a good time to hunker down and enjoy a reasonably stable postdoc paycheck.

Another good employment target is community colleges. In times of economic struggle, more people turn to cheaper community colleges, where they can save not just on tuition but also on housing costs (by continuing to live at home). Furthermore, when unemployment rates climb, governments often turn to community colleges to administer vocational retraining programs. Somebody has to teach all those new students–so maybe you can supplement that postdoc income with a part-time gig at the local 2-year college.

In the private, non-educational sector, there’s this: When, as now, companies lay off lots of workers and hiring freezes are in place, temp agencies and contractors often do well. That’s because there’s still basic work to be done that was one by those employees, and people on contract usually aren’t covered by a hiring freeze.

There should be some winners in key industries in the coming years. Venture capitalists are interested in investing in energy companies, especially when there’s a prospect of some public support. There’s been talk of more public-private partnerships, an approach to innovation the Department of Energy has long favored.

Last but certainly not least, lean times are good times to have less but enjoy your time more. Many scientists will have to come to terms with the reduced value of their labor in a market that can’t make good use of it. As the value of labor declines, the relative value of non-remunerative pursuits–hobbies, spending time with loved ones–increases.

I once spent several years in a combination of un- and under-employment, the result of a forced move to an economically (and scientifically) under-developed area. We were hardly rich, but we kept ourselves dry, warm, and fed. But at the time I was too young and stupid to take advantage of my leisure. I indulged my guilt over not working, and took every opportunity to bind myself to one pointless project or another. I realize now that I squandered the last bit of extended leisure that I’m likely to have before I’m old.

This might be the best advice I have for dealing with bad economic times. If you’re forced to take a break, enjoy it.

One comment on “Opportunities in Times of (Financial) Crisis”

  1. Patricia says:

    Just wanted to let you know you are speaking to my soul, so much that I submitted an article to several magazines this week on this particular topic. I agree with your take in the 2nd to last paragraph; when I was younger I would have been beating myself up about the job market, what will I do next, etc. I am not stupid; of course I am concerned. But it makes absolutely no sense for me to be miserable, deprived and all around unwell at this time. It’s only been a few weeks for me, but at 41 years old, I know that while I’m waiting for the phone to ring after sending out resume after resume, it’s perfectly sane to enjoy the simple, inexpensive pleasure I could not only a month or so ago. A bubblebath in the daytime; going to the grocery store during the day when it’s practically empty instead of packing myself into crowded aisles on a Saturday; getting a full eight hours of sleep every single night just because I can. I download audio books for free from the public library so I can keep the tv off and enjoy something new, fresh and engaging.
    While friends of mine (I’m sure) are certain I’ve lost my mind, I just can’t imagine how running around like a chicken with my head cut off would do me any good. I might be unemployed another month or another six, but is it any better to feel and look depleted, anxious and stressed when going to interviews? I think not, so I’ve got to run now. Time for my steam facial. NO matter what I do, the phone isn’t going to ring any faster, so why not be gorgeous, healthy and content while waiting? I start every morning with a delicious breakfast, a good workout, time for prayer and then I’m off and running to the sites. This economy might break my bank, but I’ll be damned if it’ll break my spirits. As Ali would say, I’m just too pretty!

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