Monday 15 June 2009

Triple-Point Careers™ in Science and Technology

The cartoon phase diagram of a substance is shown in the figure. There is a unique combination of temperature and pressure at which all three common states of matter (Gas, Liquid and Solid) can be in equilibrium, the triple point.

Using this as an analogy we can define the space of opportunities for science knowledge workers who want to remain in science as the “phase diagram” of science careers. The solid state = Corporate R&D, the liquid state = Academic Research and the gaseous state = SME/startups.

Many people occupy positions fully within one of the three discrete phases these people manage their careers by following the norms of the profession. They understand the rules of the game for progression and can see how to piece together a career development plan for themselves. Their managers can understand how to help them develop and have many points of comparison by which they can judge performance and progression.

Many science careers also include a single, or small number, of transitions from one phase to another. Typically, for example, an academic may act as a consultant to a corporate R&D organization and then leave academia to take up a full time senior R&D manager position in the corporate. It is also quite common for a senior R&D manager, perhaps later in their career, to move from corporate R&D into a senior management position in academia. There are a number of national and international assistance schemes around to help scientists make these phase transitions at some stage in their career.

However, in addition to more mainstream careers and “phase transitions’ there are a number of interesting career opportunities at the boundaries between the different states.

Solid-Liquid boundary = Corporate R&D staff who are successful in the corporate and manage to develop a successful part-time or visiting academic position (e.g. professorship).

Liquid-Gas boundary = Academic scientists who have spun out a company and act as CTO, or more rarely CEO.

Solid-Gas boundary = Corporate R&D staff who have a spin-out company (e.g. from UV type activity).

Triple Point = people who successfully manage a corporate R&D career with parallel activity in an academic position and spin-out.

Staff who are occupying one of these boundary positions require specialized career advice and management. Their career development is non-trivial and not catered for by the mainstream career development methods adopted in the Solid, Liquid or Gas phases.

The triple-point career is a relatively rare combination today but is likely to be more common in the future. This is what is known as a Portfolio Career in other professions (e.g. banking/company directorship = see Financial Times 24/1/2006).

It is likely that in the knowledge economy people who are at, or who gravitate towards, a boundary or triple-point career will be uniquely skilled. It may be that at any one time a triple-point career person is flexing two of the three positions they occupy, i.e flipping at boundaries. However over a period of time (2-3 years say) they will flex all three components of their career portfolio.


Trying to successfully develop and sustain a triple point career is difficult. There are few guidelines for how to get into one of these positions or manage the psychological pressures of being successful there.


  • Develop a core intellectual skill set that is deployed into maximally different application of the skill set within each “phase”. This is cross-disciplinary working. It allows a lower psychological stress.
  • Find a number (at least one) mentor who has a triple point career.
  • Develop tools for personal “Imagination Management”.
  • Develop tools for IP and idea management.
  • Hone to a high level the art of handling contradictory and possibly “conflicting” confidential information. Never waver from this.
  • Build a network of people who are also triple point career makers but in particular people at the other interfacial positions (Solid-Liquid etc).