“Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”
Martin Luther King Jr.
If there were an easy answer to this question, I would give it. The question presumes that trajectories are prescribed and that there is a checklist of quantitative vertical steps one must take to reach the next platform. Reality is a lot less structured. My experience is that career tracks are an illusion – while they exist in concept, most actual career trajectories run contrary to the “track”, such that the “track” is the generally the exception rather than the rule. This is true of most industries and fields, and applies to all career stages, although it’s often more evident in some than others. In the case of life sciences, “the track” presumes the following steps: a bachelor’s degree, a PhD, a postdoctorate, an instructorship, then a tenured faculty position by 40. What challenges this model is that for starters, postdocs have only really been around since the early-1990s, and instructorships are a much more recent development to further accommodate the swelling bottleneck of underpaid scientific talent along this trajectory. As of 2017, only 23 percent of PhDs held tenured or tenure-track positions in academia – a drop of 10 percentage points since 1997. I’m also not sure what is supposed to happen after one becomes a professor (final rung?) since the narrative tends to stop here while most of us will go on to live another 45 years.
The reality is that for those of us on a “track” there will always be another milestone we can accomplish to improve our perceived odds moving on. In the life sciences this is typically another paper we can publish, or another talk we should give. These are effectively career “snooze buttons” we often choose to exercise before convincing ourselves to move on with our careers. While I wholly appreciate that this perspective does nothing to assuage the anxiety of taking the next step in our career, it illustrates that the answer to the titular question is not external but internal. Ultimately, we take our next step when we feel ready.
On its surface this feels like an unsatisfying answer, but it does something very important by shifting the focus within – it returns control of our future to us. The truth is that any decision to do something new is based on our confidence in ourselves to succeed at it. When we are younger, these decisions are driven almost entirely by ego since there is often very little evidence of practical accomplishments yet. As we progress, our accomplishments mount and become external evidence of our capability. Yes, we list these on our CV to show our potential to others or meet professional prerequisites, but the person they really serve to convince is us. Our confidence in our own abilities dictate which jobs we apply for, which projects we undertake, how much responsibility we assume, and most importantly, when we take our next step. Professional titles like “instructor, “non-equity partner”, or “vice president” are really more reflective of accommodating a saturated workforce than personal capability. They are arbitrary and the gating criteria change from year to year and across institutions.
I also appreciate that taking the next step is not the same thing as excelling at it, and there is no innate reason to leave something you enjoy doing and are good at – but let’s also recognize who you are and that imposter syndrome is real. You are incredibly driven, intelligent, hard-working and exceptionally capable. You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t, and you’ll do great at whatever you’re challenged with (you’ve always done great). The rest of us have little doubt that you’ll succeed – it’s only you that needs convincing. If you have a shot – take it. The rest, you can figure out along the way.