Viewing your job through an experimental lens

Career troubleshooting

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Keeping a record of where you expect your career to be can help you decide if it’s time to move on

Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, if feels like you have no opportunity to progress your career in your current workplace. Perhaps you keep getting turned down for a promotion. Or maybe you can’t get the opportunities you need to make those moves – being passed over for project leadership, or denied training opportunities, for example. In many cases, this is perfectly fair – one of your colleagues might be equally deserving, and there just aren’t enough career development opportunities to go around. But how can you tell when it’s worth persevering or if it’s time to move on?

I think we can learn a lot about how to assess our position at work from how we troubleshoot experiments (see Victoria Atkinson’s article for tips on that). In both cases, the first step is to be aware of what should be happening. For an experiment, you should know what kind of product you’re expecting – if you’ve made sludge instead of fluffy white crystals, you’ve got a problem. Similarly, to troubleshoot your career you need to assess what’s standard, both in your workplace and the wider industry. What is the average salary for people in your role with your level of experience? What responsibilities and support do your peers receive? Of course, this information is often not freely available. But by asking friends, looking at reviews on sites like Glassdoor, and looking at those job adverts that do share information about pay, benefits and working practices, you can start to get a feeling for where you stand.

Then there are environmental variables. While experiments might be affected by fluctuations in ambient conditions, career progression can be hindered by cultural factors like financial cutbacks or implicit bias. Identifying their source can help you decide what to do next. For example, if your employer is cutting costs in response to falling profits you might consider moving elsewhere if you’re looking for a pay rise; but if there’s a more widespread recession, higher salaries may be difficult to find anywhere.

Much of this type of career troubleshooting involves comparing your situation with that of other people. This should be approached with care. The value in such comparisons lies in making sure you’re being treated fairly – meaning that if you’ve made similar efforts to someone else in similar environment, you should expect to be offered similar rewards. If you’re not, it could be time to make a change.

But unlike in an experimental repeat, your goal isn’t to replicate exactly what someone else has done. Different people have different priorities in life – the experiment is to find something that works well for you. Much like how progress is made in a research field, you can take what other people have learnt and build on it.