How to Cope with Layoffs and Other Career Setbacks

Arrows lead to a graph of a downward trend, then c

Arrows lead to a graph of a downward trend, then c

Andrii Yalanskyi/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Being laid off, experiencing a trial failure or failing to secure funding can feel crushing. Here’s how to maintain perspective and move on.

Pictured: Arrows lead to a graph of a downward trend, then change direction to a graph showing growth/iStock, Andrii Yalanskyi

It’s been a difficult year for biopharma, with many companies doing rounds of layoffs, a parched investment climate for startups and multiple bankruptcies. When these things happen to you, it’s hard not to take them personally or view them as a failure.

“When it comes to setbacks, a lot of people lose vision of their value,” said Divyanka Gupta, a biopharma career coach at FocusRx and former pharmacist. “It may not be a failure in the grand scheme of things, but it definitely feels like the end of the world in the moment.”

We spoke with Gupta and other experts about how to maintain a positive outlook in the face of such setbacks, from missing a funding goal with your startup, to getting laid off, to failing to secure a job after an interview—and how these situations can, in some cases, even be turned into a positive.

Put Funding Goals into Context

When first confronting a setback or something that makes you feel like a failure, it’s helpful to look at the big picture and consider the context for what happened. Overall, 2023 has been a very slow year in biopharma, with investors being very cautious about what startups they fund, said Mohan Iyer, a general partner at SOSV/IndieBio.

“Startups are learning in a new way what it means to make do with less,” he said.

Iyer defines failure as not meeting your goals, but he said it might not constitute a serious failure for startups to miss funding milestones right now.

The same scientific milestones that a startup hits today might have been enough to win over investors and secure funding not long ago, but the standards are higher during this tough cycle, Iyer said.

“In another funding environment, you would have easily gotten money,” he said. “I really wouldn’t feel that bad about what you’ve done… the question is: What’s really important and how do [you] survive? When you boil it all down, the biggest thing a startup needs to do is not die.”

Look at the Numbers After a Layoff

Gupta says one of the best things she does when coaching scientists through a failure is to help them see their position in the framework of the data. When it comes to layoffs, hiring and job availability, it’s really all about numbers. Realizing this can help make it easier to not take things so personally or emotionally, and instead to see a layoff or setback for what it is: an opportunity to rethink where you are and where you want to go.

“A lot of times I find that people with scientific backgrounds don’t really have a rhyme or reason of why they’re in the role they were in,” she said. So this can be a good time to rethink what a person wants their lifestyle to look like, including any desired changes to work/life balance, as well as potential moves regarding department or job functions.

“It helps to show them this may not be a setback,” she said. “It actually might be exactly what you needed at this time.”

Examine Your Feelings Around Job Interviews

Tiahti Young, director of recruiting for life sciences at SRG, said he thinks people most feel like they failed when they lack confidence in what they’re doing.

“Oftentimes I’ll have people reach out to me and they will feel as though they failed because they didn’t get an interview or they didn’t get the job after an interview,” he said. “There’s so many different variables that tie into that. More often than not, the reason why they feel as though they didn’t get the offer would be because they had anxiety prior to the call.”

The best advice for when this situation happens is to practice your interviews ahead of time so that you can go into an interview with confidence, he said. Even if you don’t get a job then, you’ll be less likely to feel like it was a failure.

Remember That Science Involves Failure

When it comes to other types of setbacks, such as disappointing clinical trial or scientific experiment results, Iyer points out that this type of failure is part of the business. The only true failure, in his view, comes from being dishonest and untrustworthy in how you present your business and your product.

In cases where your hypothesis was wrong or the results didn’t show the predicted clinical target, “those are part of what you’re doing in being in a biotech startup world rather than being in a large company with multiple programs and different risk status, and you should pick [yourself] up, feel good about it and go on to the next step,” he said.

Continuously Lay the Groundwork for Recovery

One of the best things to do to make experiencing adverse setbacks easier, both in science and in life, is to continuously grow your technical skills and your network, Gupta said. Even reaching out to one or two new people a month can provide a buffer for future setbacks in your career.

“It’s the one thing that can always help you and will never hurt you,” she said. “When something does happen, you have a larger pool of people to reach out to [who can] help you.”

There are many ways to compound your scientific intellect, as well, that don’t require getting another degree. Gupta recommends volunteering, and finding different types of opportunities within your current role to keep learning technical skills that can help provide a fail-safe against career setbacks.

In Iyer’s view, there’s too much opportunity in the biotech world for a layoff to be seen as a failure.

“When you lose a job, you become very myopic,” Iyer said. “But the pace of innovation has not slowed. . . . I would say, take some time to recover and do some soul searching about what you really want to do in life. But, in the world of biology, the opportunities are going to explode, and you just have to have an attitude to go after and capture them.”

Mollie Barnes is a freelance science writer based in Los Angeles. Reach her at mollie@100yearsco.com. Follow her on Threads and Instagram @shejustlikedtogo and see more of her work at molliebarnes.contently.com and 100yearsco.com.

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