Idealist or pragmatist? For a successful job search, know your priorities

Written by: Karin Bodewits
Published on: Oct 18, 2021

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Image credit: C. Aycock/Science based on image by grmarc/iStock

Elly throws a dumbfounded look across the lab bench at Jane. "The interviewers were nice, they made you a job offer with a fantastic salary—and you declined?" Elly asks, bewildered.

"That's exactly what happened," Jane confidently confirms.

But as the words leave her mouth, all of a sudden Jane isn't so sure she didn't make a tremendous mistake. Hadn't everyone told her that this position would be a lucky hit for her first job after her Ph.D. and that the company is super nice to work for? The job would certainly have prepared her for an amazing and ambitious career. The people she met during the interviews had been really friendly. Still, she declined the offer. 

"Why?" Elly asks with a look on her face as if Jane had indeed just made a fabulous, career-destroying blunder.   

Jane sighs. "Remember the career workshop the other day where we all had to imagine ourselves as an 80-year-old with a grandchild sitting on our lap? And we were asked to think about what we would want to tell our grandchild about our life?"

"I remember," chimes in Alex, another of their Ph.D. student peers. "For me it was the hardest part of the session."

"I found the question difficult, too, and I am still not sure how to answer it. But I do know that I don't want my answer to be that I spent my career developing a deodorant with yet another aroma. I don't think this is what the world needs, and I don’t think it would make my hypothetical grandchild proud. That's why I declined the offer," Jane states.  

Elly rolls her eyes. During the workshop, Elly had concluded that she would be satisfied if she could tell her grandchildren she and the people around her had been happy, she had financially sustained herself, and she had an intellectually challenging job. It hadn’t even crossed her mind to steer her career in a direction driven by idealism or making a grand difference in the world. 

"Like, ‘you wanna make the world a better place’?" Elly asks.

"You make that sound like an idiotic ambition, Elly," Alex says.

"I don't think it is idiotic,” Elly clarifies. “But I do think it is hard to find idealistic positions like that.”

"I have to agree with Elly," Alex adds. "I would love to do something meaningful after my Ph.D. But looking at [nongovernmental organizations] NGOs and other philanthropic organizations, it seems very hard to get in—at least when we talk about a paid job and not volunteer work.”

“Plus, you first think that NGOs are super idealistic and only want good,” Elly says. “But if you start reading about it and talk to people working for them, you quickly find out that many have their own agenda. Working at an NGO doesn’t necessarily guarantee that you make the world a better place.” 

"I agree,” Jane responds. “It’s not that I don't want to work for an organization that makes a profit; I just want to work for an enterprise that produces value to mankind and cares about the environment, too."

"But wait,” Alex says. “I’m pretty sure the company you got the offer from does care about sustainability." He rushes to his laptop, pulls up the corporate web page, and triumphantly exclaims, "See, their packaging is 70% recycled materials!”

Jane laughs. "Yes, but that doesn't say much, does it? Pretty much all companies say these kinds of things about all of their products—but spinning a nice story is easier than actually doing something. I would love to work for a social or environmental enterprise. Remember that Greek guy from the lab next door? He went all the way to Finland to work for a tiny startup that produces carbon-negative protein for food production. That company wants to make a profit, but their products can have a very positive impact on the environment as well as on feeding all the people on the planet."

"Now that you mention it, maybe there are more companies like that than I realized,” Alex says. “I've got an old friend who is working for a startup that recycles cotton."

"But if it is the product that matters to you, could you not have asked for a position in a different department within the same company?” Elly asks. “I mean, they don’t only make deodorants."

"I guess I could have,” Jane agrees. “But for me, two things matter: the actual product I am working on and the management approach. I don't want to work for a company with pure profit-maximization as its only aim. I heard from someone working there that this company is only willing to change something in their production line if it’s cheaper than what they currently do. That simply doesn't fit me."

“So, what’s next?” Alex asks. “How will you continue your job search?” 

“I’ll keep an eye on meetings for social or environmental enterprises. Actually, I found quite a few startup events already. There is a startup competition for green solutions here at the local biotech park next month that looks promising. Also, I found quite a few newsletters announcing which enterprises just got new rounds of investment. If they produce a product I stand behind, I started writing them unsolicited applications.”

“Any success so far?” Elly asks.

“Yes!” Jane exclaims. “I just got invited for a company producing packaging-free and biodegradable detergents.”

“That sounds like a better fit than developing deodorants,” Elly says.

“I hope so!”

The moral of the story

Scientists often want to make a difference in the world—but may have to reconcile this idealism with the financial realities of making a livelihood for themselves and their families. Searching for employers who offer that combination is not an easy task, and the type of organization is only a very weak hint as to their true motives. Some NGOs are essentially greenwashing industries, while some for-profit companies positively impact society, the environment, and their employees.

Whether you identify with your work hinges on the organization and its management, your colleagues, and the product you work on. Some people prioritzse pragmatism while others care more about idealism. Being conscious of your priorities is key in making a decision that’s going to be right for you.

Of course, you can find a lot of information about the products and services of an organization on their web page. But you get the most valuable information by speaking to people working there. When speaking with employees and employers, ask open questions like, "What makes this organization special in your view?," which let people talk freely and highlight what they find relevant about this organization. Do they praise the salary packages or the impact of the products and services? Listen closely, and you'll get a glimpse of the real core of your future employers.

Philipp Gramlich (NaturalScience.Careers) and David Giltner (TurningScience) contributed to this article. Philipp combines industry and academic experience in his workshops and talks for scientists. David teaches scientists how to design and build rewarding careers in industry.

Karin Bodewits is an author, a speaker, and the co-founder of NaturalScience.Careers.