Zach Peters

Forced to settle for a nonideal job Here’s how to make the most of

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created: 2021-12-06T07:08:21 (UTC -06:00) tags: #good-articles source: author: Alaina G. Levine

Forced to settle for a nonideal job? Here’s how to make the most of it | Science | AAAS


Don’t lose sight of your long-term goals, our columnist writes in this installment of Your Unicorn Career

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Your Unicorn Career is an advice column about understanding your value and creating professional bliss by career consultant and professional speaker Alaina G. Levine. Oksanita/iStock, adapted by C. Aycock/Science

Accepting a job offer can be exciting. But if the job doesn’t tick all your boxes—if you feel like you are settling—then it can also induce a sense of frustration, anxiety, even sadness.

I have felt the sting of settling many times in my life. In 2009, propelled by urgency after I was laid off, I took a freelance role that at first, second, and third glance led to feelings of dread, despondency, and doom. I saw my goals of being a full-time professional speaker and writer disappear into what seemed to be a life dictated by the vapidness of this soul-sucking commitment. What was once an expanding universe of potential in my career suddenly contracted. Oh, how I hungered for more! Depression and ennui snuck in as I set to work on banal tasks. This is not why I studied mathematics or worked so hard, I complained. I felt stuck.

But the gig came with a perk: business trips to a fascinating and fun city. And once I realized that the job wasn’t entirely gloomy, I started to notice other pluses I hadn’t previously considered, such as the opportunity I’d been given to learn new skills and expand my network in a new sector. Very soon, the prosaic was replaced with promise, as I began to see the role in a new light. This didn’t have to be an annihilation of my professional ambitions. In some ways, the role could buoy them.

We all will take roles at various times in our careers that do not tick all our goal boxes. We may have immediate requirements that must be filled, such as the need for income to pay the bills or a job in a certain location to keep family members together, that take precedent over finding our dream job. We have a good reason for accepting the job offer, and we may even feel happy about it. But we may also have a lingering sense of unease that we are relinquishing the very essence of ourselves and our career strategy—that we are giving up the ability to dream and envision a greater future for ourselves.

If you’re currently in this situation, I encourage you to shift your concept of settling. Instead of taking a role with a sense of desperation, assuming you’ll have to give up on your dreams or put them on hold, consider how you can swap the unsettling notion of settling for something more affirming and empowering—for instance, by thinking about the new skills you’ll develop or the connections you’ll make. Don’t lose sight of your long-term goals because, as the Rolling Stones lyric goes, “lose your dreams and you will lose your mind.”

You alone get to decide how to perceive an opportunity, and you’ll serve yourself best when you cease looking at settling as an action that subtracts something from your career. A job is not a destiny. It is simply a step toward a destination, and our mandate must be to be cognizant of how individual roles, even the most boring or ones that seems to egress our dreams, are still useful, relevant, and beneficial. And when we make this mental move, suddenly we feel stronger. We feel in control, assertive, capable, decisive. Something is not happening to us; on the contrary, we are making something happen for us.

For example, let’s say you have been on the job market for a while, perhaps many months, and you have not had much luck landing interviews or offers. Then you apply for a role that seems to be the definition of settling: It will be a step back, you think, and will cost you time and energy that would be better served in a job more aligned with your goals. But you need the money, so you settle. You could choose to be angry and frustrated about the situation. Or you could view it more positively—as a chance to try something new or as an opportunity to take advantage of institutional resources, such as professional development activities, lab resources, or grant funding. If you choose the more positive path, it doesn’t mean you have to be happy at work all the time. Instead, it means that, on the whole, you are choosing to view your job as an opportunity to take a step forward, not a step back. Even if you end up hating the job, that’s still useful information.

To help you move beyond a negative concept of settling, here are four tactics I’ve found helpful in my career:

Take a long view. Instead of thinking that a career has to be binary, that you either win big or lose, adopt a view of your career that’s more akin to the process of scientific discovery: In science, big milestones and discoveries (usually) only come after scientists take a series of small steps. In your career, you’ll only reach your goal if you take those steps and are able to learn from your experiences along the way.

Focus on yourself. Your graduate adviser or your peers may regard your chosen job as a soul-crushing calamity from which you’ll never recover. But their view isn’t anywhere close to being as important as your own. You alone get to determine how you feel about your job and where it will take you. Stay focused on yourself and your own unicorn career.

Accept and appreciate the turbulent dynamics. A unicorn career is not static. It is a living, breathing, ever-changing matrix of experiences. It includes energetic dreaming as well as moments to quiet your mind, take a breath, and concentrate on the here and now. Jobs that seemingly take you away from your dream career path can provide information about who you are and what you want to do with your life. Appreciate those moments as important stepping stones, even if they don’t satisfy all of your wants and needs. You may even find that the opportunity will lead you down a new path entirely, one that reimagines what your dream job may look like.

Extract value from times when you settle. Ask yourself: Can I use this as an opportunity to sharpen my capabilities, network with others, and showcase my talents? How can I make the most of this situation so I can learn from it and move on to the next stage in my career? Think about the settlement not as a roadblock in your professional plan, but rather as something that will lead you to the job you want. 

The freelance role that I “settled” on years ago won’t be my last. I expect there will be other jobs, gigs, engagements, and experiences that at first glance will seem like I am settling. And so what if I am? It’s my life, my choice. But I will serve myself even better if I see the situation for what it is: a temporary station en route to a fascinating and fun unicorn career. _Concepts in this column come from and build on the author’s previous published works, including articles, speeches, and her book titled_ Networking for Nerds.