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The Mid-Career Crisis: How to Get There From Here

August 7, 2023
This post was derived in partnership with Meghan Anzelc, Ph.D., who is the Chief Data & Analytics Officer at Three Arc Advisory. She has two decades of experience in data and analytics, having previously served as Global Head of Data & Analytics at Spencer Stuart. She has a decade of experience in financial services, most recently as the first Chief Analytics Officer at AXIS Capital. Dr. Anzelc's global experience in data and AI have made her uniquely qualified to shape strategy at businesses adapting to new and emerging AI capabilities ethically while managing risk appropriately. She advises boards of directors and executive teams on AI, data, and digital transformation across strategy and operations, serves as an Advisor to startups, and previously served on the board and as chair of the Nom/Gov Committee of the Chicago Literacy Alliance. She holds a Master’s and PhD in Physics and Astronomy from Northwestern University and a Bachelor’s in Physics from Loyola University Chicago. 

“Always reply when a recruiter reaches out to you.” This was a great piece of advice from one of my work friends in my first job out of graduate school. I was working as a data scientist for an insurance company and I didn’t know what to do when a recruiter reached out cold to me about an opportunity. My friend, who led talent acquisition for the company’s data science and actuarial teams, encouraged me to reply with a polite “thanks but I’m not interested at this time” and see if I could recommend anyone else for the role.

There are other lessons I learned much later and some I’ve learned the hard way. Navigating the middle part of your career, once you’ve built some meaningful experiences but still have things you want to accomplish, can be both frustrating and exciting. Frustrating because, as Marshall Goldsmith’s book title says, “What got you here won’t get you there.” On the other hand, it can be really exciting because you know a lot more about careers and how to navigate them when you were just starting out.

What Kind of Career Do You Want? Crafting Your Career Strategy

After five or ten years in your career as a data scientist, you likely have learned a lot about both what you want and don’t want in your career. I have found that carving out time to reflect on my career at least once a year to be very helpful. At a big picture level, I often start with my longer-term career goals and aspirations and then think through what building blocks I’ll need to have in my career to reach those goals. For example, one of my career goals is to be a CEO or run a division of a company. I know that in order to do this, P&L experience is a critical building block. The reverse can also be done - a former colleague of mine told me he made all of his decisions based not on the next role itself but what options that role could give him for the role after that one. He wanted to maximize the range of future opportunities for himself, rather than narrowing to a path that would have few future choices.

At a more tactical level, it can be useful to think about this from the perspectives of what you’re good at, what you enjoy doing, and what the market needs and will pay for. Soliciting feedback from others about your strengths and especially the areas in which you shine can be enlightening. I had a boss once who out of the blue would pull me into meetings and wanted me to help facilitate the conversation. These were usually meetings with a range of personalities, participants had entrenched positions, and discussions so far weren’t resulting in productive outcomes. What my boss recognized was that I excelled at “translating” the perspectives of those in the room - finding areas of common ground and pointing them out, reframing a point of view so that it resonated with others, and helping keep them from going too far off track. I know that’s one of my superpowers, but it took others around me to help me see that I have a unique and rare ability to communicate across and up and down organizations. Getting outside perspectives on your strengths and how others see you can be incredibly valuable.

Deciding whether or not you want to move into management roles is one common, and critical, decision point. While not unique to data scientists, in all kinds of roles many people move into management because they think it’s their best option to increase their compensation and grow their title and scope of responsibility. Yet we all know how our own managers have shaped our experiences, both for better and for worse, and I’m sure we’ve all wished at times that one (or more) of them had never gone into management roles. In my view, managing people is a serious responsibility, and even those of us who sought out management and enjoy it must continually work to ensure we are actually managing people well.

How Do I Get Where I Want To Go? Building Your Tactical Plan

For my own career, I’ve always used as many different approaches as possible and encourage others to do the same. Once I know what I want next, I work on honing that message, testing out different ways to describe what I’m looking for and iterating based on the feedback and reactions I receive. Generally the bigger the shift or pivot, the longer it takes me to get to a message that resonates.

We’ve all heard networking is important and that has definitely been true for me. I’ve found the best approach is to spend time building and cultivating my network all of the time, at least a little bit every week. I get to know people both inside and outside my current company and seek out people working in very different roles or industries or geographies from mine. When I connect with people on LinkedIn, I’ll personalize the invite and add a note to reference where we met or how we connected; I’m much more likely to accept invites when it’s clear either how we met or what specifically I can do to help. For example, if you’re reading this and want to connect on LinkedIn, send me a connection request and let me know you found me through this post.

As you move into more senior positions, fewer and fewer of those roles are posted publicly. Instead, search firms and executive recruiters look for candidates and reach out to them. This is where your network can be a huge help - you want others to think of you and recommend you to recruiters for roles. Additionally, the diverse network you’ve built can be really valuable when you’re exploring new opportunities, as you’re more likely to have contacts who can provide warm introductions into companies or provide informational interviews.

Other opportunities to build your network include both in-person and virtual conferences and other events. I have sought out opportunities to attend conferences outside of my own industry to learn about new industries and get to know some of the companies and people in that space. Cross-industry conferences can also be good opportunities to hear from a range of organizations and industries at once. Career panels and events where CEOs or other C-suite executives can be useful, both to hear how they talk about their work and their career paths, and to meet others aspiring to those roles. Regardless of event, I exchange contact information (LinkedIn QR codes make this very easy at in-person events!) and follow up with those I want to continue to stay in touch with.

I have also done cold outreach when I don’t already have a warm introduction. I look for people I have something in common with (for example, alumni of my graduate school tend to be very open to helping) and ask for a few minutes to understand the org structure and get their guidance on creating visibility for my profile in their company. Most recently, I’ve started using LinkedIn as a platform to build my personal brand and the additional visibility has led to a few opportunities to speak and write about topics within my areas of expertise.

Bringing It All Together

As you execute your career plan, continue to step back and reflect on what’s working and where you may need help. Continue soliciting feedback from others. If you’re struggling to get traction in a job search, are recruiters and others actively looking also seeing a slow market? Or do you need to rework your approach in some way? In a good market things can move very quickly and it’s easier to make confident decisions about opportunities if you’ve spent time reflecting on your goals and what’s most important to you.

None of us have gotten to where we are alone. We’ve all had help along the way. I try to help others as much as I can, especially in my areas of strength. Providing informational interviews to students or others earlier in their career than you, making introductions to help others expand their networks, providing feedback on messaging or job search strategy, or just providing a few words of encouragement can go a long way in helping others achieve their career goals and aspirations. They’ll remember your assistance and be more willing to return the favor when you need their help.

My career path has turned out very differently than anything I ever envisioned. I’m sure the next decades of my career will turn out differently than what I can picture today and I’m confident no matter what happens I’ll continue learning and growing. Enjoy the journey and best of luck on your career endeavors!