Choose Your Own Adventure

Remember those books? You’d read a chapter of a story, and then when you reached the end, you got to make a decision. That decision would lead you to one chapter or another, modifying the story arc until you reached some endpoint.

Science careers are a bit like that. You start of down a path. Maybe it leads you to a Ph.D. Then you have a choice: postdoc or job? Academia or industry or something else? Research or teaching or policy or…? There are lots of other decisions that you encounter along the way.

But when it comes to your career, they are your decisions. Which means you have responsibilities.

Occasionally I hear rumblings about how programs and research advisers aren’t preparing students and postdocs for careers beyond the bench, for lives outside academia. Why aren’t they giving us what we need to be [teachers/writers/analysts/…]? As far as I’m concerned, that’s not their job. I’ve never had the impression that a PhD or postdoc was meant to teach me how to think critically, do research, and disseminate findings. They cannot and should not prepare us for every possibility – and they can’t guess a priori which possibilities we might be considering.

No one is more invested in your career than you are. (If this statement isn’t true, it might be time to take another look at the path you’re on.) It’s your responsibility – and privilege – to figure out what you want to do and how to get it.

How do you do that? Danielle Lee has a fantastic, honest post about her approach, and after reading it, I finally got on with doing myIDP. At first, it feels like one of those hokey personality tests that you had to do in intro psych – and it sort of is. But in the end, it uses that info to “match” you with careers. It’s not a declaration from a higher power. It’s simply a statement that, based on these traits and interests, you might like these careers. And for each, it provides links to resources for learning more – articles on ScienceCareers, books, professional organization. Find some things that strike your fancy and start digging deeper. Check out your postdoc affairs office and look for upcoming seminars and forums. And network – with people you’ve met, on LinkedIn, on Twitter, wherever you can.

Hopefully advisers will create an environment that permits open discussion of career paths. If so, talk to them about why you’re interested in a particular career, why you think you’d be good at it, what you think you need to work on. Understand they may have distinct conflicts of interest, like wanting you to stick around for [x] more years or apply for an award intended to move you toward an independent academic path. They’re human like the rest of us – it happens. Also realize that they cannot really mentor you for a career other than their own. They might be able to provide some useful advice, but you’re going to need outside help. However, they might be able to point you toward resources or network contacts. And they might be able to get you on tasks that will help strengthen important skills or beef up part of your CV.

But in the end, it’s up to you. This is your life, your career. You make the decisions. You get to choose your own path.


Related Posts

What’s the point (of the PhD)?

A harebrained scheme for science careers training



A couple of things to add after discussion…

First, I do not in any way mean to imply that if you “take charge”, you’re certain to land well. It’s not as simple as finding the indicated page in your book. The job market is a tough one. There might be detours. You might not have certain options available. I have the privilege of having supportive mentors, flexibility, access to many resources, established connections… It’s also important to note that my story is still very much in flux. Only time will tell how it plays out.

Second, career decisions do not simply involve the work we want to do. There are a lot of factors in the decision matrix – what we’re good at, what we’re bad at, what we value, where we want to/can live, how the career interweaves with the our lives outside work. Decisions take place in the context of a broader reality, which might limit availability of option.

Ultimately I’m trying to say: Be aware of yourself, and be proactive.

Finally, as possible, be patient. It can take time to figure these things out. Actually I’m not convinced the process is ever done 😉

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4 Responses to Choose Your Own Adventure

  1. Pingback: Choose Your Own Adventure | Tools and tips for ...

  2. I completely agree with you about being in charge of your career. In the end, you (the general you) have to figure out what you want and what trade-offs you are willing to make for your career. Those are different for everyone and the choices have to be made individually.

    I somewhat disagree about the role of the PhD program. My program presented ending up on the TT as a definite. An honest statement about the unlikeliness of ending up on the TT and perhaps mention of other careers would be a nice. And a change in the culture to where this “Hopefully advisers will create an environment that permits open discussion of career paths.” was true more often than not would be nice. However, I do agree that the role of the program is not the end-all, be-all of figuring out what you want to be when you grow up.

    • biochembelle says:

      My program presented ending up on the TT as a definite. An honest statement about the unlikeliness of ending up on the TT and perhaps mention of other careers would be a nice.

      Totally agree, and something that I think is really important (it’s becoming a bit of a theme for me :P).

      My PhD program did not address the likelihood of achieving faculty, and in many ways, I often felt that the expectation was going on to faculty. Yet reflecting back, I realize no one ever said that. Actually it seems I’ve encountered the “faculty-or-bust” mentality more among trainees than faculty! Of course, coming from chemistry, industry is (or was) a logical alternative option. But nothing else was really mentioned. In the end, I realize that I don’t think the program actively pushed faculty careers, but it certainly didn’t address a range of possibilities.

  3. psycgirl says:

    I’d like to print this post and put it in all of my grad students’ mailboxes. The biggest distinction between the students I enjoy working with and consider successful is who takes initiative and who is sitting around like a puppet waiting for me to direct them. Drives me nuts!

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