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How do I know when it's time to move on to the next job?

Most of our experts agree that if your particular area of focus is no longer holding your attention, or the position you occupy doesn't allow you to do the kinds of research projects you would like, it's probably time to consider moving on to greener pastures. "I would start with the science. If it's no longer as exciting or interesting as when you started, that might be a time to look around," says Steve Henikoff. "I think when the position doesn't allow you to do the research that you desire, or you want more responsibility that you can get at that time, or reach a glass ceiling, then it also might be time to consider a move."

Another sign that you should consider moving on is when you can get by day after day on autopilot without really having to dig into your work. "If you feel like you're beginning to coast in your position, that's a good sign that it's time to move on too," Aline Wildes says. "You should always have some responsibilities on your lap that are challenging you and make you have to really dig in to problem-solve."

Is it worthwhile to pursue an MBA?

When it comes to obtaining some business acumen by going after an MBA, it's important to be clear on exactly what you hope to achieve. According to Wildes, having an MBA listed on your CV is not necessarily a skeleton key to get to the next career level. "I think you really need to think about what you're planning on doing when you get that MBA, because I have seen it as a negative by some hiring managers, in particular if somebody is still very much scientifically focused," she says. "But if you want to get into business development, or get more involved in strategic ad planning, then it makes good sense to go and get that. I'm just not sure it's as necessary as some people think it is."

What is a good approach to re-entering the workforce after an extended leave of absence?

"I've had people who have taken 10, 15, or 20 years off to raise their children, and in each case, they have come to volunteer in my lab and some of them were so good that they were offered an opportunity to come on full-time," Cheryl Ann Winkler says. She adds that it's important to get back into a lab — not only to update your résumé, but also to catch up with new technologies and techniques.

If that's not an option, it's critical that you paint a detailed picture of what you've been up to during your time away from research. "I think it's difficult to just send in a CV when you've been absent for a few years," Winkler says. "But if you do, you have to outline what you've been doing during that time and the type of skills that you can bring." During an interview, our experts say, it's important to emphasize any scientific activities you've been involved in and demonstrate how you've kept up with the literature. If all else fails, emphasize your enthusiasm for science and your burning desire to get back to work throughout the interview process.

What are some effective ways to expand your network?

Despite the popularity of online social networking sites like LinkedIn or Facebook, most of our experts say they are no substitute for face-to-face meetings or making the effort to pick up the phone to make connections. "I'm not sure that [online networking] is ever going to replace the personal relationships you develop over the years and I think that it's very important to keep in touch with people," Wildes says. "There's nothing like someone hearing directly from you, especially those people that have helped you along the way. It's very important to keep in touch with them, and a relationship that you can develop with a good recruiter that can work on your behalf with your best interests in mind is also very valuable in terms of getting introduced to hiring managers and decision-makers within companies."

Perhaps the most obvious way to meet people is to attend as many conferences and events as possible — sometimes, the smaller the meeting the better. "I go to the meetings that are on the order of 100 to 200 people where you can really interact with people," says Ross Hardison. "It's important to go to as many meetings [as possible] to talk to people in your field and to always be collaborative.If you're highly collaborative new opportunities always open up." He also recommends completing a postdoc for similar reasons. "That's the other reason to do a postdoc — I did a postdoc at Caltech and some of those associations that I made I'm still using today," Hardison says.

Would I boost my career more by getting a PhD or by learning new technologies and techniques?

The answer to this question depends on the path you want to take in science, but embarking on the journey to go after a PhD is not one that should be done solely for career-related reasons. "That would depend on whether they want to be the driving intellectual force in answering questions, if they want to be the first in formulating and answering questions," says Hardison. "The PhD track is difficult and there are more people looking for positions than there are available slots. It's good to keep in mind that highly trained technicians are really quite rare — I love having them in my lab."

If you're looking for a quick way to put yourself at an advantage in the job market, learning cutting-edge technologies is probably the way to go. "Highly trained technicians are really quite rare; I would think that would be the best option," Winkler says. "Learning technical skills is worthwhile, and I always encourage people to do that if they have the background for it and feel comfortable with it."

How should I negotiate for a pay raise?

Before you begin any negotiations, you have to build a strong case. Some of our experts say that their argument for a bump up in salary is based almost exclusively on the quality of their publications. "But no matter what argument you are bringing to the table, it's important to begin thinking about the sit-down with your boss well in advance," says Wildes. "Make sure that you understand what the expectations of your position are," she adds. "One of the things that's important to do when getting reviews is make sure you are very clear about what the expectations are for that given year."

When there are explicit expectations and goals involved and your boss indicates that if you accomplish them you could be up for a promotion, ask whether that would include a pay raise. Wildes also says patience is key. While you might expect to get a substantial raise or promotion soon after being hired, generally it takes a few years to get to the next level.

Our panel of experts
Steve Henikoff, principal investigator at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center
Cheryl Ann Winkler, head of NCI's Laboratory of Genomic Diversity and senior investigator in the Molecular Genetic Epidemiology Studies Section
Ross Hardison, T. Ming Chu Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Pennsylvania State University
Aline Wildes, president of Fortune Personnel Consultants, a recruiter specializing in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries

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