If you get a layoff notice, something that's happening more and more in this economy, you need to be prepared for an extended period away from the work you spent a big chunk of your time on. Unless you're independently wealthy--and not many of us are-- the first thing to worry about is seeing to your and your family's financial and health-care needs. But it's also important to pay attention to your career development. Your career has hit a low point, but it will pick back up again in due time.
You may not have much money, but you've got time, and you should use some of that time (and effort) keeping up your technical and scientific skills. Honing your craft won't just keep you ready to jump back into the working world should an opportunity arises It will also help maintain your confidence. It may even help you find another job.
An Associated Press/MSNBC article last week
quotes career counselors who suggest three ways of keeping your skills in game condition: continuing education, professional organizations, and volunteering. With continuing education, of course, few classes are free, but some colleges offer classes at very reasonable costs. Costs for online training are also quite low.
Professional organizations offer more than just a chance to keep your science up to date. They also provide networking opportunities. Dave Jensen talked about participating in trade groups as a form of "guerrilla marketing" in a 2006 Science Careers article
that still gets a lot of traffic. Professional organizations have committees that often require leadership, so they provide a way of displaying your management abilities. And these groups offer a means keeping current on gossip in your line of work, which can include job openings. In a previous job, I saw many colleagues working on industry-standards committees use their participation to get acquainted with managers from other companies. It was not unusual to have committee members change jobs, leaving one company for another company taking part in these groups.
Volunteering is a way to do good for yourself and your community. The article suggests easing the search for pro-bono assignments through the use of groups that connect people with skills to organizations that need those skills, like the Taproot Foundation
. Other professional volunteering opportunities the article mentioned: teaching or tutoring in your subject at local colleges.
Helping others is also a good networking technique. Networking expert Dick van Vlooten, in a 2004 article for Science Careers
, cites the New Testament: "For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance" (Matthew 25:29). For the more secular, van Vlooten tells how volunteering helps generate reciprocity from the recipients of your efforts and builds your reputation in the community.
Volunteering requires an unpaid investment of your time, but that investment can lead directly to employment with
that organization. The AP article cites the experience of career counselor Shawn Graham, who got a pink slip from a retail company in 1997 and offered his services pro-bono at a local college's career center. A few month's later, the college hired Graham for a paid position, and he is now director of MBA career services at University of Pittsburgh. Van Vlooten says, "you have to give first in order to receive. And when I say you should give, I mean freely, without the hidden intention to get anything in return. This will get you further in the end."
There's one important point the article did not make, presumably because it was not aimed at scientists, but it's related to continuing education mentioned earlier. In a recent conversation, a friend of Science
Careers talked about just how important it is for young scientists--graduate students and postdocs--to take their time and seek out a research problem they love, that can keep them charged up throughout their careers. Scientists--most of them anyway--have an extraordinary skill: They don't need a class, since most have learned how to teach themselves things from a book by the time they finish graduate school. You may have lost your job, but hopefully you kept your library card.
There's no better time than a layoff to explore your options and learn that bit of math, or whatever, that you've been putting off because you're too busy. If you spend your time well, that extra bit you learn during your forced furlough could make the difference between a first-rate career and an indifferent one.