Pivoting your career - embracing change

In our quest for personal and professional growth, we often find ourselves at a crossroads, contemplating the need for change. The desire to pivot our careers, to shift our life’s trajectory towards something meaningful, exciting, or something that fits our current life situation. But what does it truly mean to pivot, and how can we navigate the uncertainty that accompanies this transformative journey?

Before we delve in, let’s explore the origins of the word “pivot.” No rich history in ancient Greek philosophy or at least my (less than extensive) search didn’t find anything*. Instead, “pivot” is a French borrowing that gradually evolved within the English language. Originally, in the 14th century, it referred to a shaft or pin on which something turned. Over time, its usage broadened to describe any central person or thing around which actions revolve. Today, “pivot” has a prominent place in the business lexicon, often associated with companies changing their business models or redirecting core products.

But what does “pivoting” mean when applied to our personal lives and careers? At its core, it’s about making the decision to leave behind what we know and embrace something new. It’s the act of stepping into uncharted territories, driven by a desire for change, or personal growth.

Yet, such a decision is not without its challenges and uncertainties. Imagine dedicating a decade of your life to a specific career path, only to realise that it no longer ignites your passion. That Monday morning feeling of dread, the lack of motivation, and the stress seeping into your personal life are all too familiar. Many of us start university, particularly in the life sciences, with the aim of becoming a researcher or professor at a prestigious university. Undergrad, postgraduate degree, PhD, Postdoc, only to realise that you can hardly afford your rent despite spending all your time working on a small molecule, probably only you and ten other people on this planet have ever heard about**.

However, life isn’t always a clean slate, and not everyone can simply drop everything and switch careers. Financial constraints, visa requirements, and other commitments often tether us to our current situations. And let’s not forget the allure of that age-old adage: “The grass is always greener on the other side.” It’s easy to romanticise change while overlooking the challenges it brings.

In my own journey, I’ve experienced both successful pivots and the challenges they present. But I’ve come to realise that not pursuing change and sticking something out only works to a certain degree. However, I’m not advocating for reckless risks. Instead, I believe it’s crucial to approach pivots with a well-thought-out plan and exit strategies in case things go awry. What awaits you on the other side of that door is a life filled with a career that truly resonates with your aspirations.

Moreover, if you find yourself paralyzed by the fear of failure and the shame it often carries, rest assured that you’re not alone. Most people harbour these fears. In essence, pivoting your career is a courageous act that can lead to personal fulfilment and professional growth. It’s about daring to explore new horizons, even if the journey comes with its fair share of uncertainties.

We’ve collected some key pieces of advice from seasoned pivoters:

  1. Talk your plans through with someone who knows you well
  2. Find a mentor (Maybe even someone who has made a similar career move in the past)
  3. Sometimes things happen for a reason. Even if a plan doesn’t work out it might lead you to an even better opportunity.
  4. Prepare for the inevitable imposter syndrome by acknowledging it’s a normal reaction to change - and develop techniques to manage it down
  5. Focus on transferable skills and strengths you bring from your previous job (ask for feedback before you leave if you need help figuring out your strengths)
  6. Remember that coming in as an outsider means you have a unique perspective, so ask the stupid questions, they might be the key to success
  7. Have a backup plan then you’re always on the safe side
  8. Keep your LinkedIn profile up to date and make yourself visible
  9. There is a time for everything and sometimes your career needs to play the second fiddle

*a more thorough search will be conducted at a later time point ** there are of course also positive examples, see Hannes for example! He loves his academic career.