How to get promoted as a scientist

You and everyone else thinks they should be promoted. As a scientist, you were likely never taught specific strategies to navigate and excel in the corporate world. So how do you set yourself apart and get that promotion you deserve? In this article, we’ll outline strategies to get you promoted in service of your long terms goals–as a scientist or otherwise.

Focus on what you can control.

In the past, when something didn’t go the way you wanted it to, have you ever felt like:

  • the system was biased against you
  • the decision makers just didn’t like you
  • the expectations were unclear or downright unfair

I bet you have (I know I have). If you’re honest with yourself, you might look back on some of these episodes with the benefit of hindsight, learn something, and approach the next situation with renewed vigor and clarity. Alternatively, you may have been right in the moment. It was unfair. What now? There’s nothing you can do about that situation or the next one that is inevitably also unfair. So relentlessly focus on the things that are in your control.

You are in complete control of your relationships and network.

Let me be the one millionth person to tell you that your network is the most important aspect of landing a job or getting promoted. I didn’t want to hear this advice and wanted to think that my pure merits would jump off the page for the recruiter reading my resume. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Or rather, I should say, fortunately it does work that way. This is yet another thing you completely control. By putting in the smart work and regularly reaching out to people outside your immediate connection, your network will become a differentiating feature for you. By building a solid practice of informational interviewing, you will gain a perspective and develop a diverse knowledge base that will stand out. Talking to people outside your narrow niche and immediate network can be intimidating and uncomfortable—perhaps especially for an introverted scientist. Get out of your comfort zone and be intentional about developing a first class network. Building your reputation and making sure that everyone in your organization knows you (and recognizes your initiative) will go a long way in getting that promotion you want. 

You control your skill set.

You probably already have an impressive skill set and education, but there’s always going to be someone that outshines you in this respect. So stop comparing yourself to others. Instead, turn your focus inward and work relentlessly on self-improvement, whatever that means to you.

A practice of lifelong learning is critical.

There are virtually limitless learning resources (many online) in any area you can imagine. I have personally learned from podcasts, online courses, YouTube, good old fashioned books, and more pretty frequently. See my lifelong learning blog for a more complete description of my philosophy and resources.

Always be learning.

The world is full of interesting things to learn. Just do what interests you, and stitch together a diverse, completely unique knowledge base and set of skills. Whether you’re learning a hard skill (like data science) or one seemingly unrelated to your day-to-day (like playing piano), they’ll all combine to make you more educated, engaging, informed, and interesting. You’ll be one-of-a-kind, a mythic unicorn. Then you can stop competing with others to fit into a predefined mold, and instead figure out to market yourself as a differentiated, value-add asset.

Offer something unique.

Don’t be a commodity

If you’re not unique, you’re a commodity and will be treated accordingly. That means you shouldn’t expect a promotion, a raise, or a flexible schedule. To the contrary, you have to compete to accomplish more work at a lower price. Even if you have a high salary at a stable company, you might still be acting as a commodity, competing to outproduce your coworkers. Working nights and weekends is simply lowering your effective hourly wage. And like other commodities (think corn or Uber drivers), the buyer (your employer) will drive your price as low as you’ll accept. This is no way to live, so stop acting like a commodity.

Elevate yourself above the rat race.

Instead of competing today, look towards the future and project what your company is going to want in a year or two. Suppose you sense that your company is way behind the times in terms of applying digital analytics to clinical trial management. You could leverage your roots in and knowledge of your company’s clinical trials, work on learning some basic analytics skills, and position yourself as a leader in the area as the need naturally arises. You may not get a ton of support from your manager for this idea, because they’re focused on what your company wants today, not two years from now. Either way, you have to make a bet on yourself. 

Carefully consider whether you’re making a good bet.

Don’t mistakenly think that I’m telling you to be very conservative here. To the contrary, I think you should be quite aggressive in betting on yourself. For example, consider the situation just described. The expected value of your investment is that you will learn a valuable new skill and be uniquely well-positioned in the near future when your company recognizes and prioritizes this niche. If everything goes according to your plan, you know what to expect, but your company may never get to the point you expect. So you need to de-risk the bet. Make sure that your new skill set will benefit you even if your company does not change its trajectory. Upskilling in terms of analytics checks that box. The worst case scenario is that you don’t get the promotion you sought, but instead get hired for a different clinical trial analytics position in a different company.

Learning a new skill will almost always have a positive return on investment as long as you keep the costs down.

So learn as much as possible in relatively inexpensive arenas like online courses and only jump into something like an MBA when you’re absolutely sure of its value to you. It’s up to you to synthesize your varied skill set into a cohesive value proposition that is so unique that you’re not really competing for promotions along traditional lines.

Be your own advocate.

Don’t expect anyone to recognize all the amazing things you’re doing. You’ll be appreciated for your innovative, diligent work, but that often gets lost consciously or unconsciously by your peers, manager, and other decision makers. So you have to make sure that doesn’t happen to you. Here are some methods to adopt.

Always keep track of your accomplishments--big and small. You'll be grateful you did when you want to put together a promotion case.

Meticulously track your accomplishments.

I recommend keeping a running document where all of your accomplishments—even the small ones—are maintained. Get in the habit of updating it at least once a week. Better yet, just leave it open on your computer all the time. As the document grows, put some time and effort into clustering them into progressively larger categories. An outline format with progressive levels of indentation works well. This will help you prepare for monthly one-on-ones and annual performance reviews with your manager. You’ll help them correct any unconscious forgetting, and you’ll create an objective record of your accomplishments that will stand out from your coworkers. Finally, the act of synthesizing your listed accomplishments into a cohesive story will help you hone your professional identity and value proposition.

Contextualize and value your wins.

A list of accomplishments is just a list until you explain why it matters. Get into the habit of explaining not what you did but why it matters. This explanation will require you to understand your business. What matters? The obvious answer is money. If you can frame your accomplishments in terms of dollars generated or saved, do it. Don’t try to claim your entire company’s revenue, but be creative and methodical with your calculations. If you really can’t come up with a dollar value, find something else quantitative. Can you claim a reduction in false positive results, an improvement in manufacturing efficiency, or a more efficient project timeline? If so, claim it, but I’d challenge you to convert that quantitative result into a monetary value. If you can’t get a quantitative value, try to at least strategically frame your wins. For example, align your efforts with a corporate initiative to develop and retain talent. You spend a lot of time on your work. Allocate some time to articulating the value of your efforts.

Establish a wide reputation.

The more people that know and value your abilities, the better positioned you’ll be to get promoted. As with your financial investments, you should diversify your professional efforts. If you only take assignments from your manager then pass the deliverables back to her, your reputation will likely remain narrow. Even if your manager is a good advocate who sings your praises widely, others will not see you as independent from your boss. Establishing this professional independence broadens the potential sources of a promotion outside of your immediate line of reporting. Additionally, you’ll be exposed to a greater set of problems, gain exposure to diverse organizational perspectives, and shine by solving complex cross-functional problems. Solving these complicated problems while navigating the organizational landscape is exactly what senior leaders do. Through this approach, you will act as a senior leader which will force other leaders to think of you as a leader consciously and subconsciously.

Understand the decision maker.

Getting promoted comes down to convincing one person. Your business will likely have a set of policies and procedures that aim to disperse the responsibility, maintain precedents, and control costs. However, a powerful decision maker can generally move mountains, so it’s important to focus on these individuals.

The decision maker you're targeting is more likely to wear a suit than a lab coat. While you're a scientist, you need to think about the business from the decision maker's perspective if you want to make a strong promotion case.

Who is the decision maker?

You need to identify who the decision maker is as quickly as possible, because it’s likely not actually your boss. Your boss will need to be your advocate, so of course you need to build that relationship and deliver on their day-to-day expectations. However, if your boss really wanted to give you a promotion today, could they do it? To get someone promoted, your boss likely needs to build a strong case to pitch to their boss or their boss’ boss who may be the real decision maker. Talking to as many people as possible—particularly those who have been recently promoted and managers one level up from you—will yield the information for you to start constructing this understanding. 

What does the decision maker need that isn’t being served?

Obviously they need to do the normal things—hit deadlines, deliver successful products, etc. That’s likely where you, your peers, and most of the middle managers spend all of your time. However, if you narrowly focus on the goals outlined for you through this normal operational hierarchy, you’ll be competing with many others in a narrow lane where you act as a commodity. Instead, I challenge you to think more broadly. What isn’t working for that decision maker? Are they constantly putting out fires that arise and derail schedules? Has their budget or headcount been slashed? Are the product offerings stagnating and in need of serious innovation? If you can identify a big problem that isn’t being addressed or is only being addressed by throwing bodies/resources at it, you’re set. Figure out how to solve it with an innovative process, technology, or just a fresh perspective, and you’ll be promoted.

Build individual cases for multiple decision makers.

In the process of identifying and study your decision maker, you will identify and learn a lot about other decision makers in your organization. Ideate on their problems too. They can create positions that would fulfill your desire for a promotion too. Given your unique perspective from outside their immediate organizational structure, you might even be more likely to identify fresh, innovative solutions to their problems. Regardless of which organizational subunit of your business you end up being promoted in, your broad organizational understanding, initiatives, and reputation will position you as an emerging leader in your business.

Know your value.

While your career shouldn’t be strictly transactional, it can be helpful to step back once in a while and consider your deal. In simple terms, you are trading your time and effort for a salary and opportunities. Can you get a higher salary and/or better opportunities? How would you even know? It’s healthy to educate yourself, gather data on what you’re worth in the job market, and act on this information.

Monitor and learn from the market.

Like artwork, real estate, or memorabilia, your value is determined by the market. The only way to know how the market values you is to engage with it. Talk to people, apply to jobs, and pursue offers. Now, I’m not advocating for you to apply to a million jobs and hope for the best. Only pursue those that truly interest you and don’t waste anyone’s time.

Internal job postings from the company you already work at are particularly important to monitor. You already know the company’s internal machinations and you have a strong internal network. For these types of reasons, there’s a strong argument that you’re worth more to your current employer than to a different company. Additionally, these advantages may make it easier for you to make lateral moves into a different type of job function. Whether internal or external, the only way to know what salary you can command and what opportunities may be open to you is to secure real offers.

Gather information by applying and interviewing.

Recognize that this process is not just a means to the end of a new job. The job application and interview process is an amazingly valuable information gathering opportunity. While applying for jobs, you should be reaching out and talking to a bunch of people in that company. If you get an interview, you’ll be exposed to a lot more people—sometimes in quite senior positions. Furthermore, they have to get to know you and make sure you know them in a very short time, so they’ll likely be quite open and direct. Don’t underestimate this chance to learn and develop your network.

Maintain relationships.

As you apply and secure offers, be cognizant of the relationships you’ve worked hard to build. You’ll reach the point where you have a good offer with both a better salary and better opportunities. You could march triumphantly into your boss’ office and dramatically give your notice. You could, but don’t. Instead, ask them to beat your offer. That could mean a higher salary. Or, perhaps more interestingly, it could mean an amazing new opportunity. Don’t be afraid to ask for the dream position now. However, you should frame this ask with humility. Say: “I’d really like to stay and continue to contribute to our mission, but I have this amazing offer. Could you match the salary and let me start that new group I’ve previously described?”. As long as you’re serious about leaving for this new offer, what do you have to lose? Even if you end up leaving, you want to make sure you maintain your relationships. Your career will be long, and it’s likely that you’ll cross paths again. 

What if a promotion isn’t the best thing for you right now?

You have a long career in front of you, so be patient. Think long term and practice delayed gratification. Don’t just jump at the first job offer with a $10,000 raise. It may not be worth it.

Consider compensation holistically.

Salary is only one component of your compensation. Many positions will offer profit sharing, performance bonuses, or stock options. These incentives may constitute a significant portion of total compensation but may vary somewhat from year to year. Benefits like retirement 401k matching, student loan repayment, medical insurance, paid vacation time, and continuing education reimbursement are all relatively ubiquitous in modern compensation packages, but the details make all the difference here. Then there are myriad less common but differentiating benefits. This group may include things like subsidized gym memberships and onsite childcare. Some of these benefits are hard to quantify but shouldn’t be ignored when considering a complete compensation package.

The cost of starting over.

If you take a new job, you leave behind a trove of resources and assets. You worked hard to build your reputation, network, and equity, but you can’t bring that all with you. You may have gained a level of goodwill and special treatment that only comes from time. Perhaps you’ve become accustomed to a flexible schedule and gained some level of intellectual freedom to pursue innovative ideas. Additionally, there are more formal losses to recognize. You may have accrued additional vacation time or vested benefits in a variety of forms that accompany accumulating years of service. None of this comes with you to a new job.

Where do you want to go?

Ultimately, I would advise you to follow the opportunities that provide the clearest path towards your long-term goals. An extra $10,000 or a new title today will be relatively meaningless in the grand arc of your career. Make sure you’re developing a deliberate, well-articulated plan of where you want to go and how you want to get there. If a particular promotion is part of that plan, pursue it relentlessly. If not, ignore the siren song of a promotion for the sake of money, stature, or vanity. You’ll thank yourself in the future.

We’re here to help you identify, plan, and ultimately realize your career goals. Let’s get started together.

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