There’s this sense that, by the time you’re 30, you’ll have your life figured out. At least there was for me. It wasn’t really conscious, for the most part. It was just there.
I had just turned 31, and I was tossing the plan I’d been working toward for about the last six or seven years. I needed to build a new one.
The mechanics of planning seem simple enough from the outside. Explore options. Find an overlap of what you’re good at and what you think you’d enjoy (or at least tolerate) for some indefinite period to time. Develop/demonstrate skills as needed. Apply for jobs. Presto! You’re on your way!
Of course, the reality is very different. It takes time, energy, and occasionally money to explore and develop and apply. Often you have to manage this process on top of continuing your day job and whatever other responsibilities and interests you’re prosecuting.
All this can be overwhelming. But you know you have to start somewhere. Sometime.
I knew I wanted to apply for AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships, which placed deadlines and markers on my calendar. The application deadline was about six weeks away. There were three rounds in the process, and the start date for selected fellows was September 1, just less than a year away.
I also had to consider the possibility of rejection. These fellowships are prestigious and competitive. What would I do if I didn’t land the fellowship?
From chats with my PI, I knew my position was secure for about a year and half to two years.
I knew people who were searching for or had found jobs outside academia. For some, the process took a few months. For others, it had been a year or longer.
I knew I would be restricting my search to a couple of cities. I had no idea how abundant (or not) the jobs that interested me would be in those cities. And I didn’t want to be in a place of accepting a job primarily because my time as a postdoc had run out.
I set my timeline. It was now late September 2013. I wanted to be in my next position before the end of 2014. I decided that September 1 was a good target, whether I got a AAAS fellowship or not.
I’d been thinking in terms of the “big picture” mostly. It had been necessary for finding some direction. But now that I had some general ideas, I needed to start making tangible progress.
I started thinking about things I could do and needed to do – beyond “Decide what to do with my life.” I needed clearly defined tasks that I could complete. I simply made a list as ideas popped in my head, and often as one idea came in, I could build off it.
Looking back, here were the things that landed on my list.
It was time to call on my network.
I needed letters of reference for my fellowship apps. I wanted to talk to people who’d gone through the application process. I had questions about policy fellowships through other organizations. Of course, those inquiries would also give me an opportunity to let my contacts know I was changing paths and, in some cases, to learn more about the type of work I was interested in.
There were also contacts unrelated to fellowships – people who could tell me about their work outside academia, people who’d told me to get in touch whenever I was starting to look for a new job, and people who’d provided great support and feedback to me over the years.
Restructuring the CV
For several years, I had been working on refining a well-crafted CV – for academic research.
Now that I was heading off another direction, I needed to overhaul the CV – and likely try to convert it to a résumé for some applications. The focus needed to shift. Information that was less (or not) relevant for research could be beneficial now.
Once I had revamped my CV, I would need people – outside academia – to review it. And then I’d better plan on a few more rounds of restructuring and review.
Building up my experience
I had some work that I could point to as evidence of certain skills – organization, leadership, writing. But I knew that some corners of the market were very competitive. So I considered ways that I might further demonstrate skills relevant to the work I wanted to do. I knew of a couple of opportunities like a freelance editor opening or a good chance to pitch an article. I added those to the list and committed to keeping an eye out for other opportunities.
Defining my mission and my professional persona
I had been working this out in my own head. The vision was starting to come together. But I had to figure out how to communicate it to others. In other words, I needed a personal statement. Beyond the abstract exercise, I actually needed to craft personal statements for fellowship applications. And I knew this would also come to bear in cover letters.
Searching for jobs
It may seem counterintuitive to begin looking for positions before you’ve entirely sorted out what you’re planning to do. But I knew there were multiple options I would consider. And I knew that this could be a long process. So I wanted to get an “early” start setting up alerts, finding organizations, and using available resources to improve my search attempts.
After spending an afternoon asking myself tough questions, I was determined to make this career transition. I had generated this list of tasks. I had a timeline in mind. Now it was time to really get to work.
Some part of me wishes that I could tell you that I took an elegant approach. That I explicitly prioritized the list of tasks. That I sorted them into categories. That I had planning calendars and color-coded categories. That it was organized and efficient.
But no. I didn’t explicitly prioritize the list. But I knew at a glance which things were priorities and which were “great if I get to it.” I marked absolute deadlines (i.e. those defined by applications) on my calendar. I had vague ideas in my mind of when I’d start searching and applying.
I don’t necessarily recommend this on-the-fly approach. But I had a full plate. And obsessing over organization a tried-and-true procrastination tool.
I had made a clear decision. I knew what I was going after. I needed to be sure I didn’t get in my own way.
It might have been a pretty plan, but it was one I could work with.
To be continued…