Being a Hired Gun

Friday, December 11, 2009

Editor's Note: Apologies for the late post. We suffered a DSL outage this morning due to a fire in a manhole somewhere in our neighborhood last night. I'm having to post this over email and will be unable to check my main email account or moderate comments until the telecom company repairs the fiber optics. Thank you for your patience.

Ever since college, I have either worked for the government or in academia. In fact, until I left Houston, I was an academic scientist. But several years ago, I determined that, although I find science interesting, I don't want to remain in academia. There were many things that went into this decision, but I will not belabor them here. The point is that I made the decision long ago, but for a variety of reasons, could not act on it until my move to Boston.

Since I do not discuss my job (at all) or my personal life (beyond a certain point) here, I will also not lay out my exact career objectives. Suffice it to say that the career change I want will most likely involve several steps. Also, there are several alternate paths I could take to meet those objectives. This is because my area of expertise and experience differ too much from what I ultimately would like to do for me to be able to expect to make the entire transition all at once. In any event, thanks to some patient networking and a technological advance I had not heard about, I am happy to say that I can finally take Step One.

The really strange thing is that I am also getting to try one of the paths that I thought was all but closed off to me. And the great thing is that the position is temporary. It might sound counterintuitive, but this works to my advantage in numerous ways. Among them: (1) There is always the potential that the job could become permanent or lead me to another permanent job with the same company based on personal familiarity and the high quality of my work. (2) And yet, because it's temporary, my employer cannot reasonably expect me not to keep looking for work in the other path I was concentrating on (and which I suspect I might prefer). (3) I will be able to list some new skills and industrial experience on my resume. (4) I am now aware of a new type of job for people like me, and know that some Boston-area firms need it done. (5) And, yes, I will be getting paid -- paid, in fact, better than I ever have for anything in my entire life. It isn't riches, but it isn't chickenfeed, either.

I am a bioscientist, which to anyone familiar with Boston, might make getting a biotech job in the area sound like a no-brainer despite the state of the economy. Well, yes and no. My area of expertise and laboratory experience occupy an unusual niche, which recent moves by a couple of major pharmaceutical firms had caused to all but evaporate from the local job market: Those jobs mostly went out of state shortly before I arrived here, making me something of a square peg for a round hole as far as industrial jobs went. As a result, I was almost certain that my next job would lie on one of the other paths I saw myself taking.

In fact, it had gotten to the point that whenever I would meet an industrial recruiter, I'd describe my expertise and end with the following quip, "If that made any sense to you, you know what I do, and if it didn't, you see what my problem is!" I have since met a recruiter who will be able to help me, but my landing this job happened first and is a great example of the maxim, "Fortune favors the prepared mind," in action.

Some time ago -- perhaps as much as a year ago -- a blogging friend (Resident Egoist) who was aware that I was job hunting emailed me to the effect that I really ought to take a look at Nick Corcodilos's Ask the Headhunter web site. I did, and I devoured the Headhunter's contrarian, yet very well thought-out advice. It did not all apply to me, but his words about networking really opened my eyes and caused me to approach my problem in a much more deliberate and patient way.

My focus became getting to know other people like me in occupations I might be interested and qualified in, rather than bottom-feeding from the slim pickings on the Internet job boards. (That said, one such board nevertheless may have already led me to my next position. It will probably take about as much time as my temporary job will last for that process to unfold, however. Moral: Know which weapons are better, but be ready to use any of them. And no, I haven't stopped looking.)

One of my local contacts -- I'll call him Jim -- I met at a networking event back in February or March. A fellow PhD, he and I commiserated a little bit about how our degrees often priced us out of the market and discussed my (then) upcoming move. We exchanged cards and broke off to circulate, and I didn't actually meet him again until very recently.

By the time I actually moved here, I had acquired a very nice group of contacts, and at the urging of my father-in-law, who was a great sounding board the whole time, I emailed my contacts and basically said, "Hey! I'm finally here and I'm looking for [fill in whatever whoever might be able to help me find]. Here's my resume. Let me know if you hear about anything." Nobody replied for weeks, but eventually Jim did, with a job his recruiter had brought to his attention. The recruiter didn't quite know how to fill his client's opening: What they needed was outside Jim's skill set, but, fortunately, mostly well within mine.

Jim referred me to his recruiter and I got an interview through him. The interview seemed to go pretty well. I even knew several people that my prospective boss had also worked with in the past. I was pretty excited as I left. But then that company went in-house. That was tough: All this time, and my job interview count was still lower than the number of tropical storms I'd had to run from while I was finishing up my work in Houston! And this interview came up snake eyes!

Luckily for me, the in-house guy didn't work out for them and so they asked about me, their top outside candidate. I start Monday and I may have to put in some long hours at first -- and I probably will have a few blogging hiccups until I settle in to a routine. But that's a relatively minor problem for my writing career that I'm more than happy to put up with for a while.

To end on a positive note, I wish to thank Resident Egoist and my father-in-law for helping me learn how to job hunt, which is something academia does not prepare one to do very well, and especially my wife for her love, patience, and support during what has been in some respects a very difficult and frustrating time for me.

And my contacts, especially Jim, even though most don't know about my blogging. I never forget a good turn.

-- CAV


: Removed superfluous HTML tags.


Realist Theorist said...


Steve D said...

“job hunt, which is something academia does not prepare one to do very well,”

This is very true. When I finished my two post-docs I had a similar issue of being unprepared. In my case I was woefully unprepared and it took me over two years of frustration before I finally got some good advice about what I was doing wrong. In order to do that I had to figure out that I wasn’t prepared and get advice from someone who knew what she was talking about.

Within a few weeks of that I had multiple job offers from government, industry and academia. I chose to work in industry rather than academia. I noticed that there was a lot more energy and excitement in industry. The other attractive thing about industry is that you can be certain you are pulling your weight otherwise you would be eliminated. In academia there are a lot of very good people but I have noticed in almost every department there was also a certain percentage of dead weight.

I’m a biochemist and I’ve worked for a large Ag biotech company in discovery for over 10 years. In a way I have the best of both worlds. I still get to do some basic research and publish but I also have the opportunity to see how my research can lead to products. I’ve managed to keep my lab bench within site although I am not sure how long this is going to last.

Anyway, the government’s and academia's loss is industry’s gain so welcome to industry and good luck in finding the permanent job in the field of your interest.

Richard said...

Good lord. What a bloody pain in the ass. I'm tired just reading that. Finding a job in this economy is a crock.

Gus Van Horn said...




Regarding certainty about pulling one's weight and dead weight, I think there are lots of perverse incentives in government-funded science and how academic science is structured that lead to that. I also think that the ease of getting a graduate education paid for leads to many people pursuing one who perhaps ought to do other things.


Appreciate the sympathy! I chalk quite a bit of my frustration up to credentialism, too. It can be done, but selling your skills as a PhD can be hard when you consider the tendency of most people to pigeonhole you into whatever it was you studied.

Between that and the fact that there is a massive glut of PhDs in certain areas of science, you have whole books (and, natch, government programs) geared towards helping people transition to careers outside academia.


Mo said...

I can relate to the problem as well. I have a Bachelors in Chemistry and doing my Masters in Health Information Technology. I applied through various online boards mainly SEEK which is for those in AUS/NZ. So far a total of 30 jobs mostly entry level requiring 1-2 years experience all in the private sector. got rejected for all of them. So I decided to do some speculative writing to 4 companies so far. 2 have dropped me off and still waiting for the other two.

I have to say academia live in a completely isolated world of their own. Oblivious to how markets and real life work. Worse no internships in the final year of uni and those who can't find jobs either leave, do something in a totally unrelated field or go on the welfare.

Gus Van Horn said...


That sounds painful, and even more so than here.

One problem with job boards here is actually caused by immigration law. A company hires someone, a non-citizen, to do a job, but is required by law to make efforts to have a US citizen holding the position. But the person they HAVE is fine (and finding/training a replacement is non-trivial).

What do they do? Write an ad so ridiculously specific that nobody who answers will be "qualified" and they can then tell the bureaucrats that they tried to find a citizen, but they couldn't.

Of course, I have no problem with non-citizens holding jobs. But I do have a problem with all the wasted time (including some of mine) and money such immoral laws are causing.


Steve D said...

The only way my Ph.D supervisor could afford to do research was to hire students. Over time at least a dozen people probably got Ph.Ds in his lab. Many of them ended up in post-doc purgatory for the rest of their lives.

I remember thinking at the time that educating people on the socialist model and employing them on the capitalist model made absolutely no sense. It virtually guarantees that you will end up with more people than jobs.

I agree the ease of getting the education is one issue. There is also a cultural issue here though considering how extremely over valued post secondary education is by society.

“What do they do? Write an ad so ridiculously specific that nobody who answers will be "qualified" and they can then tell the bureaucrats that they tried to find a citizen, but they couldn't.”

That’s how I got my job!

Gus Van Horn said...

What? You're a non-citizen or your qualifications bumped one?

But, yeah. Higher degrees are WAY overvalued. Between us, my wife and I have three doctorates. Any children we may have will know to think long and hard about that kind of time commitment and will know to have a definite "Plan B" before they go to grad school.

Mo said...

for me I can see the value of a Bachelor's in getting a foot in and a Masters as a tad higher. I think PHDs are for those who love pure research and I also happen to be one of those. You are right about the culture. a masters or doctorate is highly valued.

Richard said...

Gosh Gus,

Go Private Man!!


See Quentin Daniels in "Atlas Shrugged".

I experienced a similar epiphany (to Daniels') as I transitioned from University lecture halls to the real 'working world'.

My M.Sc. was more involved and more statistically difficult than 3/4 of the Ph.D.'s that came from the same McGill University department.

Two years later, non-retroactively, the Fac. of Grad Studies agreed to allow M.Sc.s to be converted to Ph.D.s. "Wait! What! You mean my work was, surprisingly, worth a Ph.D.?"

Okay, so what the freakin' H_ll is a Ph.D.? . . . Silence, of course.

Meanwhile, the copycat charlatans who obtained Ph.D.s —by merely copying what other Ph.D.s did (whilst changing the subject a wee bit) and then begging me for help, was disgusting.

Amongst great Pomp & Ceremony, these cretins obtained Ph.D.s, and were welcomed into academia, much as Keating became an architect. It was so disgusting that I was unsure of accepting my own M.Sc., but I understood that I should not spite myself for their corruption.

I had no knowledge of Rand at the time, so in helping them, I only sought to see that their efforts were corrected, so their results would provide Real World sense, and value.

The joke, that I fully grasped at the time, was: "BS, More Sh_t, and Piled Higher and Deeper".

Once I obtained my M.Sc., I pursued the best jobs I could (fortunately it was easy, or was it too easy?). After 15 years of working for the State, or for quangos, I discovered Ayn Rand, and Quentin Daniels of "Atlas Shrugged". I could have thrown up in stunned comprehension.

As fast as I could, I sought to go fully private: better to be destitute (like Daniels) than to help those b_st_rds (please note, I knew what b_st_rds they were, from working with them day-in and day-out for 15 years). A career wide investigation demonstrated that the only way to change was to abandon my specific background in biological field research. I had to 'sell' myself on the broader values I had learned, and so I rewrote my CV accordingly. It was a wonderful testimony to businessmen that anyone working in a terrestrial biology context who read my CV (including education, B.Ed. or not), was willing to hire me

All were happy to cement a business relationship with a handshake... no credentialism, all that mattered was the intellectual character of the applicant (provable through references).

Nope, I'm not doing as well financially, because one must be a welfare biologist to make good pay. But, I have huge Objective respect for myself, in contrast to the bright people I knew who became peons for the state. I would rather retire to a single room with one bare light bulb in the ceiling, than help the swine I once worked with.

Gus Van Horn said...


You're right about the PhD. I would add that, even if you are passionate about a subject area, things can change. Your interests might change or any of a number of other obstacles might make an academic career impossible or undesirable.

Have a "Plan B" anyway.


Your story speaks for itself, but "Go private, man!" struck a chord with me as well.

I privately have been joking to myself that I am on a quest to "privatize my economy."


Steve D said...

“What? You're a non-citizen or your qualifications bumped one?”

I could be a little more precise. My wife and I are Canadians. Because of NAFTA, I could work in the US but she couldn’t (at least not in her field). So we decided to become permanent residents so she would be able to work. Part of the process included my company advertising my job and of course they used the trick of making it impossible for anyone else to fill.

I found it unbelievable that they would let me work but have no provision at all for my family. What an archaic rule!

The INS is consistently ranked near the lowest of all federal government departments. Because most American’s do not have to deal with them there is basically no accountability. For the same reason most American’s have no idea just how bad they are. Dealing with them was one of the most frustrating things I have ever done. The expedited process to get the cards took 3 years!

Gus Van Horn said...


That does sound frustrating.

Also, a minor apology is due. Somehow that comment exchange popped into my mind out of the blue yesterday as we were playing Puerto Rico with another couple we know and I recalled that you had mentioned growing up in Canada before at some point. So, I should have known or had a decent guess as to the answer to that question already.

But still, I've heard similar horror tales before from the other side of these silly rules. Glad to hear it ultimately all worked out for you in the end.


Richard said...

Gus: "privatize my own economy"

That is a great way to put it, but it is more important than that (see below).

Peikoff et al. invented a game I call "Connect the Concepts". Two concepts are put forth, and players work through the shortest steps that integrate each. Gus, you and Steve D have put forth two concepts that I find to be highly related.

Steve D wrote;
"Part of the process included my company advertising my job and of course they used the trick of making it impossible for anyone else to fill"

That method was standard procedure in the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. I was working with the OMNR as a Research Biologist (an official job description). A new fellow joined us with the same RB status. I read his M.Sc. & was horrified at how feeble was his experimental design, his data & his analysis —all described in purloined 'statistical language'. On top of that his writing skills would have received a D at my *high school*.

He was always the 'friendly guy' and made a great effort to be friends of his/our superiors. No matter how insane they were, he always found charming ways to praise them, whilst marginalizing his peers' efforts to make scientifically correct decisions.

[They say, "one can attract more flies with honey than with vinegar" . . . but, unless you are rotten meat, who wants flies?]

Well, he applied for a mail-order Ph.D., wrote a high school level essay on the work we were doing, and received his 'Ph.D.'.

To my horror, our superiors all congratulated him on his 'achievement'. Worse, they put him on the Ph.D. Contract stream & Pay Scale.

A year later, they opened a brand new government position worded so that only he could fill it —$80,000/yr, achieved by bureaucratic dishonesty & collusion.

I saw many other, similar, revoltingly unjust, horrifically unrealistic and egregiously uneconomic decisions in my few years with the OMNR.

It was some months after observing the Phony Ph.D. bureaucracy at work, that I first read "Atlas Shrugged".

The foregoing is just one clear example of why I said comprehending Quentin Daniels almost caused me to throw-up.

I suddenly understood that it was only a difference in scale by which I was different from a book-keeper at a Nazi concentration camp. So it was with Dr. Hendricks, who grasped the same point when medicine was socialized. So it is with all Welfare Scientists & their staff.

Anyone who thinks I am being extreme, should ask themselves: how do government bureaucrats obtain the power to promote legislation
to rule or end private medicine,
to rule education,
to rule banking & money,
to rule private business
to rule Wetlands,
to rule private property sales, or
to rule who can produce CO2?

It is those who work with the State —& who do a good job— that increase the political power of their Statist superiors.

Like Dagny, every tiny bit of Good such workers do, only serves Evil.

Get Out. Get the H_ll out.

Do not care about the Science.
Do not care about Humanity.
Do not care about the World.
Don't even care about The Children.

If you work only for what is Right —by your own most rational standards— then in time, all the rest will fall into place.

Gus Van Horn said...


You have my deepest sympathy. I do not wish to elaborate, but in my last position, a less obvious and less disgusting-looking example of state interference with my ability to work became apparent to me and caused me to realize that even if I had wanted to stay I could not.

Let's just say that the state insulted my intelligence and professionalism by riding in like a knight in shining armor to "clean up" a huge mess of its own creation that, incidentally, endangered my career.

Thanks for reminding me of Quentin Daniels. Robert Stadler insulted him behind his back for wanting more pay in private industry, but I don't need to re-read Atlas Shrugged to know that he was wrong.

My desire to leave has nothing to do with money and everything to do with becoming as free as possible to enjoy the use of my own mind.

I have to make that happen myself, and I have to to escape academia in order to do it.


Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus, quite an interesting bundle of comments! First, though, one specific point aout Steve D's comment: "The INS is consistently ranked near the lowest of all federal government departments." In the past, yes, but not any more because of what counts as thorough-going reform these days: It's now called the USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Service).

In any case, as a PhD in the humanities, I oddly have a somewhat brighter view of an academic career, but then again I'm not in anything remotely like Critical Theory, Monster Theory, or whatever other abomination of a so-called "theory" has come on the scene. In my department when I was finishing up, most of the professors were top-notch, real scholars well worth learning from and working with. (Two were more highly reputed than accomplished; they were also outside my area of specialty.) I also reached a generally favorable opinion of my grad school colleagues; the unsuitable ones were weeded out by the MA level.

I suspect part of this is actually because my department was considered significantly underfunded; it certainly didn't attract the usual gadfly-by-night types you find in flush English departments trying to pay people to compete in best parroting the latest craze to issue out of Paris. It was quite a struggle to earn my PhD, and by earn I mean in the literal sense of earning the money to finish it; but by the same token I did so by massive amounts of work on the side that in the end turn out to have made me quite employable outside academia. (Reminds me though of the old saw, "Just how many jobs are there in private industry anyway for Latin teachers?")

And as a result, if I don't find an academic position, that's no problem for me, since I don't buy into the "humanist mystique," that only by avoiding moiling amidst toiling hoi polloi inside ivy-covered ruins is Noble, Good, and True, and I don't have the fear I hear from so many others of being unable to make a living otherwise.

Yes, academia is the sort of place I'd work happily in, but I could be just as happy as an independent scholar. It's a viable way of life (more so than a couple of decades ago and much more so than many newly-minted PhD's seem to realize, what with their grasping at any feeble post-doc straw to keep out of the "real world"), but it requires a great deal of discipline and steadiness and you have to truly feel that your work is worth pursuing. (I wonder, now that I mention it, if that niggling nagging little doubt is what drives so many to continue pursuing an academic career despite the glut and living in relative poverty, in addition to the humanist mystique. The two aren't contradictory, of course.)

Snedcat said...

And in conclusion:

As for job-hunting, there it's true that there's a relative lack of training for many people in grad school. My department had an on-going series of semi-monthly talks by professors on tips for job hunting, so perhaps I was better-served than most, but I've actually found having to work on the side throughout grad school to have been far more valuable in job hunting elsewhere than any of the talks I heard. For one thing, in some ways finding a good job requires much the same mental frame as finding a good romantic partner: Primarily a well-based, unwavering self-confidence, and working all the time while earning a PhD instills that. But more than that, there's the passel of business-world experience, no-nonsense hard-headed focusing on what is essential and how to get to it that isn't so well inculcated by graduate education, in my experience.

Though ideally it would--you have to sink or swim, and the great thing about my graduate education is that it gave me the intellectual tools to swim well in any branch of my discipline...but when you go from coursework to working on a dissertation, it's very easy to lose bearing and drift along until you birth a skeleton acceptable for that last round of hoop-jumping. (The practice of having your last courses all be seminars for which you have to write papers is a good transition, but nothing quite prepares you for producing that dissertation on your own.)

Steve D again: "I remember thinking at the time that educating people on the socialist model and employing them on the capitalist model made absolutely no sense. It virtually guarantees that you will end up with more people than jobs."

Which is why I liked to shock other grad students by saying I hoped they cut funding even more. Not entirely seriously, of course, but not entirely jokingly either.

"I agree the ease of getting the education is one issue. There is also a cultural issue here though considering how extremely over valued post secondary education is by society."

I often refer to my BA as my white-collar union card and my MA as a failed attempt at an upper-management restroom key. Mine were in fact more than that, but many BA degrees are precisely certificates of make-work suitable for allowing over-bureaucratized corporate drudges to check the appropriate boxes on the hiring forms. Given the amount of remedial work the colleges have to do at the undergrad level on a population many of whom are just looking for four years of boozed-up high school with the P's in absentia, most BAs are precisely white-collar union cards that certify you've paid your dues--financially, not otherwise.

Gus Van Horn said...


Indeed it has been an interesting bundle of comments! And thanks for adding your $0.02. Your comments about having to work in the meantime remind me of how I always thought my brother's work-study made him very well-prepared for his career.

Also, I look forward to reading your emails tonight. I'm rushing out the door after a couple of post edits here, so I'll just congratulate you and your wife in advance for now.


The Headhunter said...

Hey, Gus - Thanks for your very kind comments about Ask The Headhunter. If something I wrote helped, I'm glad!

Nick Corcdilos

Gus Van Horn said...


Thanks for stopping by! Your advice is like an "Art of War" for job hunters.

You deserve lots of credit and I very much appreciate your advice.


Steve D said...

[They say, "one can attract more flies with honey than with vinegar" . . . but, unless you are rotten meat, who wants flies?]

If you want to know the best way to attract flies visit an outhouse. I don’t think it was honey that the 'friendly guy' was using.

“to rule who can produce CO2”

Now that would give you the power of life and death because all living organisms produce CO2, through respiration. Want to bet someone eventually proposes this as a reason to regulate the number of children couples are allowed.

“My desire to leave has nothing to do with money and everything to do with becoming as free as possible to enjoy the use of my own mind.”

That’s even better than my reason about pulling your own weight. There is probably no way to completely escape the clutches of the government these days but privatizing as much as possible is the right way to go when you can afford it.

Gus Van Horn said...


"Want to bet someone eventually proposes this as a reason to regulate the number of children couples are allowed."