Dr. Nicole Tschierske

Successful Career Change and Work Fulfillment with Dr. Sian Rowsell

In this interview with Dr. Rowsell – a Ph.D. and research scientist by training – we talk about the importance of finding out what you love and enjoy doing. Changing company, career, or path isn’t always the answer when you’re feeling frustrated and demotivated. So what can you do instead? How do you find out what steps you should take next? And how can you make a successful career change if you need to and find fulfillment in the work you do? 

(You can also 🎧 listen to the episode or 📷 view the bite-sized version of this article.)

About Dr. Sian Rowsell

Dr. Sian Rowsell did a Ph.D. in protein crystallography and subsequently worked in a pharmaceutical company for 17 years. When Dr. Rowsell realized she wasn’t enjoying her work anymore, she resorted to coaching to figure out what to do next. She wanted to re-discover what she enjoyed doing and dedicate her energy to. Coaching helped her understand that what she loves the most is working with people and helping them realize what lights them up.

So over six years ago, Dr. Rowsell left her role and set up independently as a coach. She now helps people figure out what they love and how they can get more of that in their lives to ensure the work they choose to do is fulfilling. The key is that it’s not always about leaving your job and starting your own business. Because sometimes making a small change means you can have more fun and enjoy your work again.

When do people do better work? 

Dr. Rowsell thinks that better work is what we love doing. You do your best work when you’re enjoying what you do, when you’re having fun, and feel you’re good at it.

In her work, Dr. Rowsell comes across a lot of people who say they’re frustrated. They feel unsatisfied and under-challenged. But is the answer always to go and find a new job? Not necessarily. You can always make a change, but it doesn’t have to be major – it doesn’t always mean leaving the role you’re currently in. It might be a matter of changing something around what you’re doing, and it’s important to tell someone at work about our frustrations and wishes – to be proactive about making a change, rather than complaining with friends and family and not following up at work.

What people often fail to realize is that there are always other options. We can all get a bit blinkered in thinking our choices are limited when in reality we have a lot more of them. There’s never going to be a perfect time to make a change, but the perfect time is always now. And sometimes it’s about being brave and going for it.

How to find out what change you need to make

Often, we stay in jobs or situations we don’t like because they meet one or some of our needs – for example because they give us financial security and stability. But it’s important we ask ourselves what we really love doing. And to do that, we might need to take ourselves out of our normal environment – away from our desk or wherever we normally work, in order to tap into some different thinking.

It’s about getting yourselves into a good state and thinking creatively about the last time you felt time was flying. What were you doing? What was around you? It’s helpful to try and draw this as well, Dr. Rowsell believes, especially if drawing isn’t something you do often. This helps tap into a different part of the brain and come up with things you wouldn’t think about in your normal working environment.

Some strategies to discover what you enjoy doing

You don’t have to be too literal in this exercise – it’s not about making a list. In fact, Dr. Rowsell encourages people to do this exercise in a form that isn’t too logical. Ask yourself:

  • Is there something, in particular, you remember about an activity?
  • What type of work were you involved in?
  • Who were you with?
  • What did the environment look like?
  • What is it that you really enjoyed?

You can also keep an energy diary and think about what you enjoyed over the last couple of weeks, for example.

  • What were you doing and how did you feel while doing it?
  • Did you feel drained of energy?
  • Who and what was around you at that point?

Another strategy is asking people you know (friends and family) what they think you enjoy doing. They can remind you of things you used to love doing as a child, for example. However, it’s also important to be careful in taking this advice to the letter, as sometimes people can inadvertently put constraints on you that you wouldn’t put on yourself. So by all means, ask the question but approach the answers with caution. Think about what you enjoyed doing when you were a child and perhaps that you feel you’re now missing and you could tap back into.

Is leaving science always the answer?

When discussing her experience of leaving her career in science behind, Dr. Rowsell shared that when working with people as a coach, she often finds that someone might be feeling stuck where they are. They might feel like the only possible option is to leave science – an idea that pains them. But it’s the one they believe because they feel they have no other alternative.

So, Dr. Rowsell tells us, it’s about opening your mind to considering other options.

  • How can you change things?
  • What are you missing?
  • And how can you get what’s missing without leaving science, necessarily?

You might be missing fun or recognition, for example. Or feel you’re not being taken seriously. Often what’s frustrating isn’t the science part of your role. And if it isn’t, then how can you tackle that?

Are managerial roles always the way forward? 

It’s rare to see people in STEM jobs in the industry who progress in their careers while still doing a lot of science in their day-to-day roles. Often, the only way people can progress is by becoming managers or leaders. But managing a team means not doing a lot of science anymore. And that’s not ideal, especially if people management isn’t one of the person’s skills or something they particularly enjoy. It would be great to have a science ladder that’s separate from the managerial ladder, but not many organizations work like that.

For some people, choosing not to go into a managerial role might be a very conscious decision – one that is often met with prejudice and seen as that person not wanting to progress or not having what it takes to embrace a managerial career. For this reason, it’s important we learn to tune out the noise. We need to know what we want and what we love, which is something we might need to take some time to discover. And once we do, we need to focus on that and turn down the volume on everything else.

At some point, you might come across this crossroad in your career where you need to make a decision between staying on the expert path or taking on a managerial position. People may try to woo you with title, money, responsibility, or the prestige that comes from certain roles and the opportunity to shape, create, make decisions, and have status. And we’re typically raised to view to see these things as something worth pursuing.

According to Dr. Rowsell however, it’s important we first stop to understand what these opportunities are so we can try to uncover their hidden price, especially if management isn’t the optimal career for us. For some people, it will be. There are people who will love or be perfectly suited for positions that others would hate. So it’s about figuring out what’s the right one for you and then forgetting anyone else’s expectations.

How to decide whether management is the right career path for you

It would be great if companies offered a 30-day free trial where you could ‚test drive‘ the role of managing a team, for example. You’d have someone to support and help because it’s something you’ve never done before. But you’d still have the option to go back to your previous role without feeling you’re stepping down if you decide against taking the role. If you can’t do this, perhaps try to look for opportunities such as secondments or shadowing.

Unfortunately, in general, people aren’t great at asking for what they want. We don’t necessarily try and make things happen for ourselves. And often our managers are waiting for us to tell them what we want help with. And in Dr. Rowsell’s personal experience, it might take a long time for someone to understand that. But once your leaders know what you want, then different opportunities become possible.

How leaders can help staff make better decisions about their career

According to Dr. Rowsell, leaders have the responsibility to help their people do work they enjoy – because that’s how we do better work. So it’s important to find out what motivates members of your team and help them do that. And even if they move to another role in the organization, you’re still helping the company with the bigger picture.

Equally, if you have staff members who leave because they’re frustrated in their role, that’s not necessarily a bad thing for the company. If they aren’t happy, they’re probably not as effective as they could be. And someone leaving gives you a chance to bring in somebody else who is better suited in that role.

Developing people isn’t a bad thing. It’s the leaders’ responsibility to find out what makes people in their teams tick. Because the more they’re having fun and enjoying the work, the better they’re going to be doing.

What conversations should leaders have with their team members? 

According to Dr. Rowsell, leaders shouldn’t wait for the annual appraisal to speak to their staff about what they want to do. In fact, the more these chats can be built into everyday conversations, the better. It’s about getting to know people in your team so you can work together and give them what they need. And in return, your team will give you what you need from them.

Dr. Rowsell is a great believer in relationship building. Sometimes face-to-face conversations aren’t the best to get people to open up, she shares. But a chat side-to-side during a walk or a plane or train ride might be the best way for people to tell you about them. It’s about finding ways to create opportunities to draw out from your team what they want to achieve, what they love doing, and what’s important to them. And if working remotely, you could opt for a phone call rather than a video call, so you can both be on the move while you talk.

This matters because if leaders don’t cater to people’s wants and needs, their staff might get frustrated, not do their best work, and even leave. So the cost of not having those conversations and acting on them is huge. As a leader, you have to invest the time in finding out what makes a difference for people. And in doing that, you might discover that someone’s incompatible with the organization or your team. But it’s always best to know because ultimately that allows you to make better decisions and perhaps not keep someone in a role that isn’t the best fit for them.

How can organizations handle succession planning and talent discussions?

Dr. Rowsell observed that succession planning and talent discussions both work better when a real discussion is involved. This flows more naturally and is preferable to someone in HR sending out a form or a questionnaire. Doing that can be problematic because people might answer questions differently based on the context of their lives. So the more you can consider the human aspect, talk to people, and find out directly from them, the better. That way you have the context on how they answered the question.

While larger organizations might be more rigid and struggle more to create these opportunities, this approach should be easier for smaller companies, which can be more people-centered. They have fewer processes that get in the way of allowing people to do what it is that they’re best at. In the end, it’s about what the business needs its people to be doing. And if there’s a complete mismatch between what the company needs people to do and what staff wants to be doing, then it’s important to the company that they still work towards meeting their objectives.

How do experience and expertise influence your career choices? 

In technical fields like science, people tend to study and specialize in specific areas and become experts. And while it’s possible to teach some things to others (like how to use methods and equipment), understanding what the results mean and coming up with the next steps require expertise.

When people tend to apply for technical roles from different backgrounds or careers, Dr. Rowsell observed, they might not necessarily have the additional knowledge required to work independently and decide on what to do next, for example. Equally, people may want to take a break from science to try something new but fear they won’t be able to go back to their careers after a gap because their expertise would be affected.

How to decide on the next step in your career? 

Having said that, Dr. Rowsell shares that sometimes it’s about taking a chance and becoming a beginner in something else. If you’re passionate about your choices, then you’ll find a way. People often think that it’s too late or we’re too old for a career change, but that’s never the case. It might mean making compromises – perhaps over your salary or your status. But we always tend to regret the chances we didn’t take or the things we do that are keeping us safe.

Making these types of career choices, Dr. Rowsell believes, is more of an art than a science. If you have scientific training, you may want to go down a rigorous process of figuring out what you should be doing. And you can make lists of pros and cons, but in the end, it’s an intuitively guided decision. It’s almost inner knowing – a bit like buying a house when you walk in and you just know. And it might be scary and hard, but it’s also intriguing. Making the decision to change careers is not always logical – sometimes it’s a gut feeling.

Surround yourself with different mentors

The decision we make about our careers can also be influenced by what’s common around us. In Germany, for example, it’s typical for someone to study something and then work in that field for the rest of their lives. However, people from other countries or cultures don’t have that mindset. And this could be for cultural or generational reasons. Newer generations tend to be less attached to their particular field or the company they work for. But if you’ve never experienced someone changing fields and careers around you, it can be hard to imagine.

This is why Dr. Rowsell advises talking to as many people as possible. Ask around, be curious, and have different mentors outside your field who can help you see there isn’t just one way of doing things. Because it’s never too late to make a change. So take yourself out of your normal working environment and find out what you enjoy and love to do. It’s what gets you up in the morning – the thing you’d happily do for free. And once you’ve figured it out, make sure you have more of it in your life.

Further Reading

Better Work Basics​