PEERING INTO HIS OWN FUTURE FROM HIS LAB BENCH IN THE NORTH EASTERN US, LARRY, A FINAL-YEAR GRADUATE STUDENT, IS PRETTY SURE HE KNOWS WHAT HE WANTS TO DO WITH HIS Ph.D. BUT DO YOU?

A few years ago, in the midst of an epic battle with a leaking gel rig, a friend of mine called to see if I was going to the "Alternative Careers" symposium that afternoon. "Ugh," I thought, "another seminar when I have gels to run, cells to split, plasmid preps to perform, and transfections to set up. Thanks, but no thanks." Being a good sport, however, I dug for more information before hanging up.

"What the heck is an 'alternative career' anyway," I asked. "That doesn't sound like something for me."

"Not sure," my friend replied, "but they'll have food."

"Really? I'll meet you there."

Thank goodness for the promise of free snacks, because those few hours transformed my thinking about my career. I had never really given the subject much thought and figured, like most students, that I'd follow the standard path to a postdoctoral appointment. But in the symposium, we were introduced to a wide range of career options, including teaching, industry research, patent law, and even venture capital. Although I didn't seriously consider pursuing any of the options presented at the time (except, of course, venture capital ... I think every grad student exploring alternative careers wants to be a venture capitalist at some point), exposure to real options other than a postdoc spurred me to investigate further and to begin to take charge of my own career.

Like nearly everyone who decides to spend 5 years of his life in graduate school, I arrived thinking that I wanted to be a professor. The academic life seemed to have it all: freedom to explore your intellectual curiosity without the economic pressure to find profitable applications for your research; a more laid back lifestyle with flexible hours; a nearly nonexistent dress code; decent pay, prestige, and the chance to mold young minds. Yep, a dream career seemed just around the corner. ...

Of course, now that I'm a few years into the process, reality has set in. And it wasn't just the careers seminar that's got me thinking. There is no longer any obvious linear path to the Promised Land of academic achievement. Moreover, although they're still necessary, the tried and true formulas of good ideas and hard work are not nearly sufficient.

A quick look at the numbers reveals the source of the problem: too many Ph.D.s fighting for too few academic positions. (Yes, the old laws of supply and demand do indeed apply inside the Ivory Tower!) Unfortunately, the job market outside of academia is tough as well, despite the roaring economy. Most research positions in industry require several years of postdoctoral training, often within a very specialized subfield.

So, whether you still plan to work toward an eventual faculty position, or are considering instead the myriad of other options available to Ph.D. scientists, competition for the best jobs will be fierce, and graduates will need to emerge fully prepared from their Ph.D. cocoons.

Given this situation, I find it amazing that most graduate students, especially those in their first couple of years of grad school, seem to be in a collective state of denial about their career prospects. Despite the mountain of evidence pointing to an increasingly difficult climb to a permanent position, discussion of career plans is often greeted with blank stares or shrugs. Ignoring the possibility of mass hypnosis or something straight out of an episode of the X-Files, the only explanation I can come up with is a complete lack of access to reliable information.

Most universities have no organized forum for career planning and development geared toward Ph.D. students. And it doesn't help that most of our faculty mentors have only experienced the academic track. Moreover, whereas other professional degree programs display their placement statistics prominently in their admissions information, I have yet to see anything similar for Ph.D. programs. Let's face it: As grad students, we have to manage our careers ourselves.

One of the most important things to understand about managing your own career is that time is of the essence. Sitting down and dusting off a copy of Resume Writing for Dummies 2 months before your defense date isn't going to cut it. As a recovering procrastinator, I know where you are coming from and I understand the temptation to put off what seems so far away. But in reality, as a career do-it-yourselfer you will need every spare moment to gather the information, network, acquire new skills and experience, and conduct the search. Don't believe me? Then check out the sidebar.

Four Common Myths of the Career Procrastinator

  • Myth: "Time? I've got tons of time. Grad school takes at least 5 years."

    Reality: If you were enveloped in a large, formal career development structure, this would be a lot of time indeed. But as a do-it-yourselfer, starting early is your only viable option. So, the sooner you start considering your options and preparing for employment after graduate school, the better your chances of making a successful transition.

  • Myth: "I can't think about that stuff now. I need to focus completely on my work."

    Reality: While doing good research must absolutely be your primary focus, completely ignoring other activities that may enhance your career will leave you ill-equipped when it comes time to enter the job market. And if you are planning to exit academia upon graduation, starting early is especially crucial. Finding an "alternative" career requires extensive time to gather information, acquire nonresearch skills, and, most importantly, develop an effective network of contacts.

  • Myth: "My PI tells me she will find me a job when I graduate."

    Reality: You and your PI may have a very different understanding of your career goals and needs. Nevertheless, your PI is your number one networking contact: Be sure to discuss your career plans as early as possible so you can realize the full benefit of her experience and contacts.

  • Myth: "I only want to be an academic. I don't need to think about that other stuff."

    Reality: This may be true, but a lot can change in 5 years. Interests drift, family situations evolve, economic realities begin to take greater precedence. Most of us dreamed of an academic path when we started out, but it only makes sense to consider all options before settling by default into an uncompromising position.

  • So get going! Don't be discouraged by the tough path to academia and the dearth of career resources. Take control of your career and start exploring your options. Today! The sooner you accumulate a critical mass of information about your interests and your prospects, the sooner you will be able to make good decisions about how to get there. And if you're not quite sure where to start this journey, don't worry. Next time, we'll go through the critical first steps of career exploration: self-evaluation and information gathering.