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I recently came out of an introductory interview for a startup-like company and felt that the interview went well. Not perfect, as I was not invited for a second interview (I did not really fit the position anyway). I think what knocked me out of consideration was that I did not have a good answer to a question like "What do you want to do with your life?". The job was a manager role for a marketing firm, but my degree is in biochemistry and my work history is manufacturing (more recently materials management). So marketing is miles away from my experience.

I don't want to pursue a career in my degree for various reasons and I am applying for jobs that I think are interesting. I'm not picky since I haven't decided on a career path yet, just want to be able to pay my bills and have savings for the future. I'm an excellent worker with a good skill set (got promoted to a lead position within months at my current company with a 40% raise to another position after 1.5 years of employment). However, I'm having trouble getting my foot in the door.

How do I convey in interviews that despite any specific career goals I am a diligent worker?

  • @JoeStrazzere I haven't decided yet. As it stands, I just want a job that allows me to live comfortably and have savings for the future. Obviously I can't state in an interview, which is why I am asking. I'll reword that part. – Lux Claridge Feb 19 at 20:18
  • They're not asking you if you're a diligent worker. They want to know your career goals so you should probably come up with an answer to their question. – sf02 Feb 19 at 20:30
  • @sf02 I get what they're asking. I'm trying to come up with an answer and asking for help here. – Lux Claridge Feb 19 at 20:38
  • @JoeStrazzere I'm trying to figure out my life, but in the mean time I need to get out of my current company. I'm not necessarily looking for management (the position happened to be that, but the job posting wasn't clear on the position. I thought it was data analysis and found out the day of the interview that was not the case. The only reason I went forward was because I really liked the vibe of the company from their website and being in the office.) – Lux Claridge Feb 19 at 20:41
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    As a hiring manager, I'd be concerned that you were just "killing time" and that I'd have to be hiring again for the position as soon as you got bored with it. That would lead me to be wary of hiring you, especially if it is a startup and I don't have that kind of time to waste. – saritonin Feb 19 at 22:21
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"I've switched career paths three times, but I'm a diligent worker, honest!" ...will never work, and it sounds like you're taking that approach.

I think what knocked me out of consideration was that I did not have a good answer to a question like "What do you want to do with your life?" The job was a manager role for a marketing firm, but my degree is in biochemistry and my work history is manufacturing.

If I was looking at a candidate like this, rightly or wrongly, my initial reaction would be "This guy flits around a lot between industries - he has a degree in something, a background in something else and now he's applying for something else completely unrelated." I don't think I'd be alone in that assumption, and it doesn't work in your favour.

This means you're immediately on the back foot - so you need to do one of two things.

  • Either you need to correct my thinking, showing that you're not flitting around at all;
  • You need to show concrete reasons why this "flitting around" can be seen as a positive, showing what you're learnt on the way, and pressing home how transferable skills you've picked up elsewhere could be really useful in this sector.

It sounds like option 2 is much more likely in your case, and that means you have to have a really good, convincing answer to that question. To form a good case, you need to:

  • Be honest. Feel free to lead with something akin to "I certainly don't have a typical career history for this sector do I! However, because of that I think I can bring something really unique to the table." (then present your argument.)
  • Do tons of research in your target industry. Get to know the common terms, and use them. Don't pretend you know everything about the sector, but show that you're able to have a meaningful conversation without someone explaining every little item to you from the ground up.
  • Have a really convincing argument prepared as to why you're going to stay in this industry and this role. You've changed tactic twice before, what's to say you won't again? Be prepared to present a good case there, again showing you've thought about the options.
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    This is really helpful. You're right, option 2 is my case. At first glance, I'm not a great candidate for these very reasons and I need something to show them that maintaining an interest in me won't be detrimental in the long run. Thanks! – Lux Claridge Feb 19 at 22:25
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I think what knocked me out of consideration was that I did not have a good answer to a question like "What do you want to do with your life?" The job was a manager role for a marketing firm, but my degree is in biochemistry and my work history is manufacturing (more recently materials management). So marketing is miles away from my experience.

I was asked the "What do you want to do with your life?" question too for a small biotech startup and I was also doing a career switch into a Technical Program Manager. I answered honestly and said that I don't have the next several years of my life mapped out like some people might. I want to be in a role when I can feel like I'm making an impact and have enough ambiguity that I can really make the role my own.

The recruiter who asked me the question told me that flexibility and making an impact is why she joined the company too and find that people that have same mindset do the best in the company. Early startups in many ways lack of structure and that's what allows them to make decisions and pivot more quickly than established companies. But, for people that crave structure and organization, startups are a nightmare and they aren't a good fit for the company at this stage. Asking the "What do you want to do with your life?" is a good proxy to screen out the people that are too structured for poor culture fit.

Given what you wrote in the question, you seem quite flexible. I suspect you did poorly on another question and not the "What do you want to do with your life?" one.

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For someone changing fields, "what do you want to do with your life?" is a reasonable question. From the hiring manager's point of view, they want to see commitment to the path their job puts you on. If they were rude, they might ask "Why leave behind all your specific scientific training to do THIS job? Are you going to leave this job as soon as you find a job in your own field? Will I be stuck trying to hire another person in a year?"

You need an answer to this question for every interview. It's a big part of explaining who you are and what you bring to a job. My suggestion: work out a good answer to use in interviews. Maybe you should even get a friend to listen to your answer and help you refine it.

Of course your life plan isn't carved on a stone tablet. It changes as your life progresses. Still, it's good to be able to state your plan when you're looking for work.

Do some research on the company and the job before you turn up for the interview. Work out your "do with your life" answer as if you already had the job.

Prepare to say something about why you're switching fields. It can be as simple as "I'm allergic to acetone, so I must leave the lab." It can be "I want to work with people, not pipettes." You need to have a thoughtful and honest answer to this question for interviews.

As for your question about proving you're a diligent worker, simply say so. You can say "my degree field is notorious for being difficult, and I did well in it." And you can say "I like learning new things and I learn quickly." Prepare two or three examples where these personal strengths made a difference to your employer.

(This answer is from a former molecular biology student who went on to a good career in another field.)

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"What do you want to do with your life?"

I don't want to claim to know the best, objective answer to the question, but I have an approach. So when we're saddled with a difficult question, one of the things we (people) do is wrongly try to tackle the whole problem at the same time. As complexity increases, it gets harder and harder to do this. The workaround is decompose the main issue into smaller, more workable problems. So, first you have to know what to break the big issue into, and in part this is why people go to therapy. As for the question what do I want to do with my life, I would decompose life first into the foreseeable future, and then decompose the foreseeable future into a reasonable timeline.

Okay so for me, good milestones are what do I want to accomplish in 1yr, 3yrs and 5yrs. You can also think about 1/5/10 years, whatever you can conceptualize. Then think about what you'd like to see done by those milestones. It doesn't have to be what actually happens, just what you'd like to see happen. And so then when the next person asks you what you want to do with your life, you can firmly tell them how you think your next several years should progress, since no one can see 30 years into the future. Even nailing down a year is more helpful than having nothing planned at all.

How do I convey in interviews that despite any specific career goals I am a diligent worker?

The main hurdle, and as a science graduate you'd probably understand, but if I hire someone to do biological research and I look over their experience and realize they've never used a pipet or cultured cells, I'm most likely to hire someone who has the minimum bench experience over the one who has none. There is a chasm between diligence and experience that you can overcome with hard work, just not in a timeframe any reasonable employer might require. You have positions where the employer expects you will need to be developed, and others where you'll need to hit the ground running. Marketing manager feels like the latter case.

If you think your skillset is worth the lack of domain experience, you need to sell that in your interviews. No generalities, be specific and sell why your skillset will allow you to succeed. You might even find a gap in your understanding that will hold you back in interviews if you try to convince yourself first before you try to convince the interviewer. e.g. "I'm really good with Microsoft Access" versus "I lead the development of an Access database that got our receiving department on track with tracking such-and-such. And this is transferable in that it'll help me ... [something to do with role you're interviewing for]."

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