Women in Pharma®: Forged in the Crucible
Prathiba Sampath, PMPFor me, both personally and professionally, 2020 started off as an incredible year. My husband and I were expecting the arrival of our first child in April. At work, I was being entrusted with increasing responsibilities and being groomed for a promotion, while having an incredible learning journey. I’d taken the lead on the development project for a new manufacturing facility, and it was looking like I was headed for a high-impact moment in my career.
COVID came and we went into lockdown in March, but I was in high spirits while hoping that we’d all come out of it soon. Our son was born a month later in April, and my only worry was that my parental leave was somewhat short, unpaid, and strictly for the government-mandated period. My life changed quickly though, when I learned a month later that my company had decided to cancel the facility project I was working on. Suddenly both I and all my coworkers in California were laid off.
A Juggling Act
My immediate reaction was one of despair, but by the end of the same day, I decided that I needed to get to work and land on my feet fairly quickly. My baby was just past a month old and feeding, changing, and adjusting to his polyphasic sleep was a steep hill to climb as is. That didn’t detract me from finding the hours to get into the job search process actively. By the end of the same day, I’d drafted a list of contacts and potential companies I should reach out to. I had an updated resume the very next day and had started sending it to recruiters I’d managed to connect with quickly.
In one regard, the job search process gave me focus and made me find strength. At the same time, I was still reeling from the sharp turn of events and wondering why I’d suddenly moved from the happiest phase of my life to the most personally challenging one. I’m still surprised that I was able to find mental acuity and time for as many conversations and follow-ups in a fairly sleep deprived and physically recuperating state of personal affairs.
The only time I gave into hopelessness was when I hit the stark realization that my motherhood had introduced some new challenges that made my search process harder than it already was. For example, one hiring manager breathlessly shared that the role was deemed essential, and I would have the need and the privilege of physically showing up at work even though it was a few weeks into COVID related lockdowns. It was hard for me to describe why that wouldn’t be something I’d look forward to - being a new mother, I had to protect both my health and that of the baby. What got me through this time was a zealous focus on the next opportunity and willful blindness to situations that felt incompatible with my new status as a mother.
You might ask, why did I bother getting back into the job market immediately? It’s simple, since I am in the USA on a work visa, I had 60 days from my termination date to find another job or I’d need to leave the country. Besides being a whole additional stressor, it also meant that I’d need to convince my prospective employer of “sponsoring” my visa transfer, i.e., footing the bill for the attorneys, government fees, and paperwork before I could join them. This also meant that several small and medium-sized companies where there was mutual interest became non-viable at short notice when the conversation led to my work authorization support needs.
In all honesty, I am one of the lucky ones. I had the backup of switching visa classes if I didn’t land a job in the 60-day period. However, that came with a risk of making me ineligible to work for a 6-month interim period and the new status would be much more tenuous than my existing classification. The thought of taking a hiatus filled me with dread - if you look at the statistics of mothers dropping out of the workforce past an employment gap, you’ll learn why.
I scored a win within a few weeks. I went through an excellent interview process followed by a note from the manager that they’d be thrilled to have me join their company. However a few days later, I received a surprise phone call along with the news that I wasn’t considered hired, but I was the “preferred” choice. Someone else had been added into consideration and they wanted to evaluate that person before “closing” with me. What had happened in the days in between the note informing me that they wanted to proceed with hiring me and afterward? Was it the fact that I sent them the details to file my work authorization paperwork? Was it something else? I’ll never know.
I processed the first reversal quickly and moved on. You don’t get a lot of time for feeling down when there’s work to be done and the looming threat of the visa status. I picked myself up when a company that had seemingly passed on my application a couple of weeks before was suddenly highly interested in considering me for a different position. I was happy to get a proper chance and went into my interviews fully prepped up. I hit it off excellently with the hiring manager, the team members, and basically felt like a shoo-in. My wish came true and pretty soon I was working through the compensation details with them and waiting for the offer letter to arrive in an email. However, there was an unexpected two-day radio silence and given the experience from a couple weeks prior, I could sense that something had gone wrong. The hiring manager called to inform me that their company strategy had changed and that they no longer had the approval to make good on the offer they’d spent the previous few days finalizing with me. I thanked them for considering me in the first place and making me an offer.
It felt unreal that I’d been on the receiving end of back-to-back post-offer implosions and I couldn’t tell if I’d be able to resume my career. I didn’t have a lot of time left on the 60 days either.
It was sort of anti-climactic when I finally did land a few job offers. I’d sworn off consulting after a previous stint due to its bracing culture and heavy travel requirements. But after the unexpected U-turns that had eaten up the clock, I turned back to the part of the industry I’d avoided and was surprisingly invited back with a lot of openness. There were people with whom I’d collaborated and left a favorable impression, and they were willing to give me a chance to work with them. I gladly accepted one of them after a brief interview, although it would also mean that I had to take a couple of steps back from where I had been in my career before being laid off.
In spite of my qualms, I’ve found nothing but relief and gratitude for those who showed up to help me out. I’ve had an engaging and learning experience in my current role and although this wasn’t what I planned for, I go to work excited and motivated every day. The unexpected silver lining from COVID is that I don’t have to travel to my clients (or even commute locally). Who would have thought...?
What did I learn?
That balancing motherhood and work is incredibly tough but now I’m better for it because of my experiences in 2020.
- That I can land not one but four jobs even when the deck feels stacked against me. Proving my value in an interview is my responsibility while following through on the offer and commitment is the company’s and the leader’s responsibility.
- That there is an urgent need for thoughtfulness and empathy amongst those who hire.
- That the biotech industry needs to be better for women, mothers, immigrants and all humans in general.
- That you can’t control the outcomes no matter how hard you try, just how you show up for the journey.
To those who helped me through this period - I can’t thank you enough for all that you have done for me.
You know who you are.