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CAREERS

Unemployed 17 Months And Counting

I've questioned my resume. I've debated leaving the state. I've doubted my self-worth. Life is rough when you've been . . .


Editor's note: At 2,300 words, John McCarthy's CV is almost twice the length of this story. McCarthy, who calls himself a "broadly trained interdisciplinary scientist," has a PhD in biophysics, a medical degree, a master's degree in electrical engineering, and a joint bachelor's in chemistry and physics. He also spent five years in postdoctoral fellowship studies and is completing a master's degree in public health. He has worked in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and - since 2002 - Massachusetts, holding high-paying, top-level positions in the volatile biotech and pharmaceutical industries. Downsizing cost McCarthy his last job, which paid him well over $100,000 a year. Seventeen months later, unemployment "is getting old," he says, and the financial pressures are mounting. He and wife Sarah live in Canton and have three children, two of whom will be in college this fall.

When people ask my wife "What does your husband do?" she usually says, "You'll have to talk to him about that." I don't think you can distill it to a sentence, which is one of my problems. My background in math and engineering, as well as in molecular biology and medical research, lets me approach problem solving and decision making in life sciences from a broader viewpoint than a more traditionally trained scientist. I'm someone who can see the big picture and help move a company forward. During introductions at talks, I've been described as a sort of "scientific renaissance man." For example, once I was in charge of a small group of highly trained scientists who looked at medical, molecular, and insurance claims data. As a result, we were better able to find new markers for early diagnosis and treatment of several diseases.

But sometimes I consider all my degrees a liability. I've said, "Gee, if I just had a bachelor's degree, I'd have no problem finding a job." Being middle age complicates it more. Many companies are looking for fresh-out-of-school candidates. They can't come out and ask my age, but I'm sure they're thinking I'm no spring chicken and it's going to cost more to hire me. If I'm up for a position that involves some niche, like biostatistics, a hiring director will see my resume and say, "You have a good biostatistical background; we'd like to talk to you." Once I get into the process, they say something like, "We have a round position, a square position, and a rectangular position. You seem to be a triangle." Unfortunately, there are a lot of niche positions. I need someone to recognize that my interdisciplinary experience and background might warrant creating a new position.

The first time I lost a job was six years ago, in Pittsburgh. What I felt worst about was when it occurred - the week before "take your child to work" day. My middle daughter was the only one in her class who had to go to a study period instead of off to work with Dad. I ended up with several months of severance pay. It wasn't great, but I was born in Brockton and lived in Weymouth for most of my adult life before I got married, so my wife and I saw it as an opportunity to come back to Massachusetts. The downside is there are a lot of qualified people here - heavy competition - and there's a need to fill more associate-level positions than high-level ones. Also, my job experience was in Pittsburgh and Illinois, so I haven't made local connections. Still, I figured there would be tons of jobs in life sciences. It took 10 months to find something worthwhile, at a start-up in Burlington. The company was venture capital-funded and not showing the short-term huge return on investment the investors expected. It went under in 2003. With a little more runway, I think we could have made it.

It took another nine months to find my next job, working from home as a clinical consultant and computational scientist for a California company that develops models to simulate clinical trials. When they had cutbacks last year, I was an easy target, given my salary. For six months afterward, I was eager to get on some of the online bulletin boards every morning, and I still talk regularly to several recruiters, although they mostly find hands-on positions that pay $80,000 to $100,000. Given my background and experience, company wouldn't seriously consider me for a job at that level. I've also sent out about 100 resumes.

My wife is a clinical-nurse team manager at Liberty Mutual, so we're living on her salary and spending down our reserve cash. The first priority is making sure we don't interrupt the kids' education, and second is the mortgage and food and all that. We can last another year or so, but beyond that we'd be in hot water. I had a couple offers to do consulting work. Other than keeping me busy, it wouldn't generate the kind of money we need and would keep me from looking for other employment. It's a last-ditch option.

The best time to look for work is December into the early part of the year. People are planning ahead and have budgets. I don't really anticipate a whole lot happening for me before the end of this year unless I get lucky. It's not that there haven't been interviews; I've made it onto the short list for several jobs. At one biotech company, I had an excellent interview with a hiring manager. I got a call back, and he said everyone loved me, but I didn't hear anything more for a week or two. Eventually, he sent me an e-mail saying they had decided to split the position into two lower-level jobs. He felt I was too senior for either one - overqualified. Another company said to me, "You're exactly where we'd like to be in two years, but we don't have a spot for you now."

Lately, I've started thinking about expanding my search beyond Massachusetts. I've told interviewers out of state that for the right package, moving is an option. But the prospect of packing up and finding a new house and putting our house in Canton on the market isn't something I relish. I don't think my older daughter - she's 21 - has ever forgiven me for making her move from Pittsburgh when she was in high school.

Naturally, my kids look at me as a role model, and that worries me. My 10-year-old son early on expressed interest in being a scientist, because he thought it was really neat. But maybe he's looking at my current situation and thinking, "If I'm a scientist, what if I can't find a job?" At this point, I don't really feel comfortable about being a positive influence.

This isn't all about finances, either. Until about six months ago, I had a sincere interest in doing science simply because it's fun and benefits society in the long run. And, really, I still do have that passion. It's just that this period of my professional life has been so frustrating. I believe there's a lot of value in what I've built during my career. So far, I haven't been able get anyone else to see it from that perspective.

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