Career Network for student Scientists and Postdocs at Yale

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Overcoming the Permission Paradox

The “Permission Paradox” is the biggest career Catch-22 there is….

You can’t get the job without the experience, but you can’t get the experience without the job.

Everyone is bound to experience this issue at least once in their careers, but many people will experience it over and over again… whether you’re trying to land your first job after graduation or you’re being considered for a promotion to CEO after 20 years with the company, you’ve never held these respective roles before, so you inherently lack the experience necessary for these positions.

So what on earth do you do?

You have to find ways to get around the Permission Paradox by finding and gaining experience without the job.

This can seem like an insurmountable challenge, but here a few simple suggestions to help you gain the experience you need to demonstrate that you are, in fact, well suited for the position despite that you’ve never had those responsibilities before.


1) Get Credentials.

The easiest way to “gain permission” and be genuinely considered for a position is to obtain the proper credentials, which clearly state that you are qualified for the job.

For example, consider the mentality that an employer has when debating over hiring someone with a Ph.D. vs. a graduate student. Most of the time, the employer will automatically consider the Ph.D.-holding candidate to be smarter, better, and more qualified than the graduate student, even if the graduate student is nearing their defense date. The Ph.D. is a credential that tells the world that you have reached a certain level of achievement and are thus capable of performing at certain level.

This is just one example of a credential. In its most basic form, credentials are indeed degrees, however, credentials can also take slightly less formal forms as well.

For example, if you take a course on Business Management, that would be an incredibly helpful boost for you if you were applying for a position at a start-up company. Between two applicants – a Ph.D.-holder and a Ph.D.-holder who has some sort of training in business management – it is far more likely that the CEO or hiring manager of the start-up company will choose the candidate who has the business management background.

So, in addition to your degree, set yourself apart from your competition by finding a course or a program that you can take or participate in that will give you additional credentials to support the claim that you are a great – and possibly the greatest – candidate for a given job. This tactic is particularly key for transitioning from academic to non-academic positions.


2) Volunteer.

The best way to gain experience is to actually do it – well isn’t that the paradox itself? Yes, but you don’t actually need the JOB to get the experience in some cases.

You can volunteer in similar positions to get the experience you’ll need in order to get the job (wherein you’d actually get paid to do the same activity).

If you wish to stay in academia, you’ll need teaching experience, but as a postdoc, your job is to perform research, not teach. However, if you volunteer to give a guest lecture in an undergraduate or graduate course, you’ll gain some teaching experience. At some institutions, including Yale, there are even part-time paid positions for postdocs who ‘volunteer’ to teach these courses. This is obviously a win-win situation because you’d gain plenty of experience designing lectures and preparing lesson plans and you would also be compensated for some of your time.

Even if there is no compensation though, it’s important to forego instant financial gratification in order to secure the relevant experience necessary for your target job. Sometimes you have to put in the work before the true benefits come back to you ten-fold.

Either way, paid or not, these types of opportunities must be sought out on your own. No one will force you to teach a course (or even take a course to gain credentials) to make sure you are better prepared for your job interview.


3) Re-Envision your Existing Experience.

Many times, we have skills that employers are seeking, but they are disguised as discreet tasks or accomplishments that are irrelevant for the job in question.

For example, if you are applying to a job that lists project management skills as a critical requirement for the position, don’t merely skip over that application submission button. Realize that, as scientists, we do indeed have project management skills.

For your research project, you asked questions and consulted advice (i.e, did your market research), you designed and implemented experiments (i.e., drafted and executed a plan), collaborated with other postdocs and graduate students to get the job done (i.e., organized and led a team), assessed and reassessed the plan along the way as new data were acquired (i.e., performed reviews and assessments and redirected the plans/team accordingly), and eventually put the report together and published it (i.e., compiled a summary and completed the project).

Thus, even if your target employer isn’t interested in your research at all, what they will appreciate is the fact that, by doing that research, you have the desired project management skills they seek. However, they won’t view your experience this way unless you re-envision it for them in this manner. It’s about learning how to strategically sell yourself and your skillset.

For more examples of how you can Rethink and Reshape Your Skills, see our previous blog post dedicated to this topic.


4) Be Willing to Start at the Bottom.

Although it may not be exciting to think about, especially with an advanced degree, sometimes it pays (big time!) to swallow your pride and literally start at the bottom.

In many cases, postdocs and graduate students are overqualified for entry-level jobs, however, without directly relevant experience, it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to break your way into a company at the level you desire or deserve.

In this case, simply getting your foot in the door is the best strategy… and that may mean you have to start at the bottom. But once you’re in, it is much easier to prove yourself worthy of a promotion.

If you’re at least present – at any level – in the company, you can volunteer to take on more projects and responsibilities with which you can demonstrate your true capabilities and highlight your potential. Often times this catches the attention of the higher-ups and allows you to climb the ranks to the position or pay-level that you actually deserve.

So don’t be afraid to start at the bottom, keeping in mind that a number of hires for senior positions actually occur internally from within companies!



Collectively, these strategies will help you overcome the Permission Paradox because, for any job application, despite that you couldn’t possibly know how to perform a role that you’ve never had before, you’ll undoubtedly be evaluated on two fronts: your track record (past experience) and your potential (future experience), and the strategies listed above address both of those critical evaluation criteria.

Your track record – i.e., experience and success rate – must be established before you even apply. This can be difficult to do without the job that gives you the experience you need to GET the job. However, if you can get credentials that prove your worth based on a somewhat standardized scale (whether it be a degree or specific course/program training), volunteer for positions that will give you similar enough experience to speak to in your interview and reference on your resume, and re-imagine your current skillset to format it in a way that applies to the job at hand, you will be able to establish a rather successful track record that should help you land the job.

Initially, your potential for success will shine through in your established track record, but using the last strategy – i.e., taking a lower-ranking job and working your way up to where you want to be – can also be a great way for you to demonstrate your potential once again after you’ve gotten a foot in the door. Once you’re there – regardless of how you got there – you are free to thrive in your position and create opportunities for yourself internally.

Thus, these approaches will undoubtedly help you navigate the ultimate career Catch-22 and allow you to break into your desired career track and achieve the status or position that you deserve.


** Give these strategies a try and let us know how you overcame the Permission Paradox! **

Share your thoughts below by clicking the “Leave a Reply” link or by clicking the chat bubble in the top right of the post.

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  1. Your suggestions are moot. The very reason people are applying for a job is they need money. Either they aren’t making enough in their current role and are feeling underpaid, or they don’t have a job and are seeking entry into the field they spent 4 years and thousands of dollars learning.

    Get credentials: Ok. So I want this recruiting job asking for 2-4 years of experience (and pays crap) with a PHR. Guess what? You need to have 2 years of experience just to get that certificate. Also, credentials and certifications cost money; money that most people don’t have to spend because they’re either underpaid or unemployed and looking. Those who have the capabilities are most likely already in position to get the job without the credentials.

    Volunteer: This equals no pay. People cannot volunteer for 2-3 years without sacrificing so much time trying to keep their lives going (such as working 2 or 3 part time jobs). Those who are working full-time, may or may not have the extra time to volunteer, especially if it’s business-like roles you’re seeking.

    Re-envision your existing experience: Ok, this one kindof makes sense if you’ve been working a while and looking to change industries. However, this does absolutely no good to recent college graduates, thus the paradox exists. How can I re-envision my toilet scrubbing at a retail store for this entry-level accounting position asking for 1-3 years of experience?

    Be willing to start at the bottom: Ok, this is what most people want to do. However, 2-4 years of experience is still required.

    Try again, please sir!

  2. “For example, if you take a course on Business Management, that would be an incredibly helpful boost for you if you were applying for a position at a start-up company” — This is bad advice – startups generally look down on business qualifications because they teach you stuff that only works in big companies and business classes don’t give you practical experience. If you want to get into a startup learn programming, data science, sales, or marketing via a hands-on approach.

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