CAREER COLUMN

Convert your weaknesses into assets

Work out what you really enjoy doing, and pitch your skills accordingly, says Lia Paola Zambetti.
Lia Paola Zambetti is a senior project officer at the University of Sydney’s Research Portfolio in Australia.

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“I’m afraid I won’t renew your contract. I am giving you as much advance notice as I can so that you can find something else.”

Hearing these words from my supervisor’s mouth left me reeling. As a native of Italy, and as a postdoctoral researcher in a nation outside the European Union, I had a visa that depended on my having a work contract. Without a job, I would have to leave the country shortly after the end of my contract.

Furthermore, the words felt like a death knell for my research career. Surely no one would ever hire me for a second postdoc when this one had failed to yield any research papers. What would I do in a few months’ time when my postdoc ended? I was literally dizzy — I needed a strategy to find another position, and fast.

That was a tough week, but I am now grateful for that shocking announcement: it gave me clarity and enough time to make a plan.

The deadline made me think hard about my next steps. Somehow, I was able to start spelling out to myself what I emphatically did not want to do any more. It doesn’t sound like the most logical step ever — surely, planning what you actually want to do makes more sense — but it was spectacularly helpful in clarifying my thoughts. Soon, I came up with a two-pronged strategy: first, look only for a research project that perfectly matches my wishes and skills; second, explore non-academic options as a real possibility — for the first time.

Because it looked increasingly likely that my future career was going to be outside academic research, I set out to turn my weaknesses into strengths. All the points that my supervisors and potential employers had highlighted as faults for a researcher — a poor publication record; no specific research niche; a tendency to ‘waste time’ reading papers from very different fields; and indulging my passion for writing — I aimed to turn into strengths for non-lab-based jobs.

Because I couldn’t count on papers to speak for my research, I decided to network more. I converted my lack of a speciality into a ‘broad and diverse background’ and an ability to speak knowledgeably to scientists from different fields. My keen interest in writing, seen by some as a time sink, nudged me towards jobs in editing and science writing — something I had considered only as a vague dream.

I was not sure whether a good occupational fit for me existed, but I still had a few months to find out, so I set up informational chats with nearly everyone I could think of. And, for the first time ever, I was always straightforward about what I was — and was not — looking for in my new role.

One serendipitous talk on a Saturday led to a meeting with the director of the institute where I was doing my postdoc, which in turn led to an informal chat with a senior representative from the institute’s marketing and corporate communications unit. She had been tasked with forming a science-communication team on an institution-wide level, and wanted to recruit a scientist.

Three months and two interviews later, the representative became my boss, and I had found my perfect fit in a role that focused on science communication and editing and that was completely away from the bench. As it happened, I also received an offer for a postdoctoral research project that aligned perfectly with my skills and interests. I regretfully felt obliged to decline it.

In the end, although it took all the time I had, I got not one but two great offers. And both matched my skills and interests — all because I had been clear about what I no longer wanted and because I had turned my weaknesses into strengths.

Nature 556, 265 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-04162-9

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