The Burden of Capability

Some thoughts on being an early career scientist

Hannah Roberts wrote The Capability Trap for Chemistry World on August 25th and it really resonated with me because I’ve been thinking similar thoughts for the last year. Roberts wrote:

We can all do things that are not our strengths but they will require much more of our time and energy. What I had been lacking in natural ability, I was making up for with sheer grit, determination and hard work. No wonder I was exhausted, while others around me were thriving in the same role.

As a career scientist (my current path) I get to work with a lot of different people from sales to marketing to legal to manufacturing to environmental health and safety to customers and more. In working with these other functions “cross functionally,” as we love to say and write in job descriptions, I’ve ended up doing some things for/with my coworkers in these other functions.

One thing most scientists learn is an ability to research and teach ourselves what we need to know to get the job done. If your job is to get a product commercialized in two years and you are lacking marketing support you might end up doing enough of the marketing job to get your project finished. The same is true for patenting your inventions as it is for scaling up. Scientists are very capable people and if not careful satisfaction that comes from learning new skills can be misconstrued as “I should do this full time now.” The problem comes to a head if the new “full time gig” becomes a job that is hated or if the scientist feels undervalued. This is what Hannah Roberts writes as The Capability Trap.

Scientists I think also have a somewhat unique position because I think it is easier to teach a scientist marketing and project management than it is to teach a marketer or project manager chemistry. It’s easier for a scientist to learn how to run a financial model than to teach a financial modeler how to do experiments in the lab. It’s easier for scientists to become trapped by their own capability, perhaps even—their capability to be good scientists. I know many industrial polymer chemists can become disillusioned with their own industry for numerous reasons and start looking for exits out of R&D.

Transitions into new roles shouldn’t be taken lightly, but the ability to sample these other job functions the way I sample new dishes at a restaurant’s lunchtime buffet is why I advocate starting a career in R&D. Leaving most of what you know and a successful career is a big step. Just because you are capable doesn’t mean that you should make the transition. If you are happy, like your co-workers, the pay is above average, things are stable, and the commute to the lab or place where you R&D is short then you’ve hit the jackpot. One reason for a switch might be frustration from product development cycles or seeking to fix systemic problems within a organization.

If you read a lot of Neil Irwin’s writing in the New York Times like I do though then you also know that the path to becoming a CEO is a winding one. Not that I think everyone should try and become a CEO, but the idea of having multiple careers within a life is one I want readers to think about. If you’ve got ambition, want to have that vacation house, or want to retire way before your 60s then you need to take some risks. Someone that has deep expertise in product development, some experience in marketing, and maybe sales might be the senior leader or CEO that could help turn a company around.

The burden of capability is being able to see the majority of the big picture, knowing you could do things faster if you had the right access, offering to help your overworked and overburdened coworkers, and then waiting for them to ask for your help. Just because you can do the majority of your co-workers' job doesn’t mean you should and it doesn’t make you a better co-worker. A typical scenario: you can end up having additional responsibilities that your coworkers don’t have where you get appreciation instead of compensation. It might also lead to you doing things you shouldn’t and making things worse instead of better and I see this happen a lot when it comes to scientists making decisions around intellectual property without consulting with their lawyers. 

I’ll leave you with this great clip from The West Wing where the deputy chief of staff, Josh Lyman tries to do CJ Craig’s job of press secretary.