Gordon Shaw

By Leslie Jernegan

Gordon Shaw, Research Chemist, Mass and Force Group at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, Maryland, has some advice for students eyeing the future: focus on the present.

Shaw has a history of doing just that. Aware of his love of science since high school, Shaw had a college professor who also noted his drive, and invited him to participate in summer research – research that, he says, was the key to finding common ground with a hiring employer, and to landing his first job out of college.

After he finished his bachelor’s in chemistry, Shaw explored two interests, doubling as a scientist and musician. However, working in a lab for a private company led him to sticking with science for a career. There, Shaw took advantage of the company’s fast-paced nature, customer focus, and lessons in wearing different hats outside of the lab, such as in sales and marketing.

Desiring career advancement and the ability to discuss research outside of a protected, customer-focused workspace, Shaw switched his attention to UW–Madison, where he pursued his PhD in chemistry. There, Shaw preferred to focus on his research rather than worry too much about his post-graduate career opportunities. Instead, he let his questions and skepticism guide his research, and let his work speak for itself to employers.

It’s important to think about, ‘What are my strengths? Where am I happiest?’ and try to get the sense of moving towards those activities. But whatever it is you pick, do it well, and if you really put your heart into it, opportunities will come.

Shaw did just that, and opportunities did indeed follow. After approaching a speaker from NIST on campus with similar research interests, Shaw was invited to work with the institute, which led to a full-time position, and, so far, ten years with a place where he’s happy working.

“I get to talk about my research now and collaborate with people with similar interests, and sometimes we’ll end up working together to solve a particular problem, which is really cool when that happens,” Shaw says.

To have career gratification like Shaw, he says job-searchers may benefit in thinking less about what they think they want, and pursue whatever currently makes them happiest.

“Sometimes people spend a lot of time thinking about the future at the expense of thinking about the present,” he says. “The important thing is that you are you right now, and that you consider where you’re at this very moment and how you can do the best that you can right now. When you’re able to do that and have that kind of focus, what I found is that you end up doing good work, and opportunities end up opening themselves up to you.”

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