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?
I can only imagine how much effort I would have saved if I had taken the time to learn a bit about myself before setting off to find a career. No, I'm not talking about an Oprah hug-fest where everyone gets weepy and discovers their inner child. I simply mean sitting down and generating a list of my needs, interests, and skills that I could have applied to my search. Instead, I wasted valuable time jumping from one potential career path to the next. You can streamline the whole process if you start your own career search with a simple self-assessment that you can use to evaluate your fit for and the feasibility of each career possibility that interests you.
Believe it or not, you could spend a fortune and a lot of valuable time finding someone to tell you about you. I consider commercial self-assessment products to be similar to dating services: They can cost a lot, they give you tons of information, and they sometimes work--but you're probably better off doing it on your own. Even so, I've considered everything from the local career counselor to the fun, but pretty useless Keirsey Temperament Sorter. These exercises can be interesting, perhaps amusing, but are by no means necessary. Despite my propensity to measure and stick an error bar on most anything, I've come to the conclusion that finding happiness in a career absolutely defies quantification. The whole point is to provide you with a reasonable foundation of self-awareness that will make your career search more productive.
The obvious alternative is to do your own self-assessment. For those of you who only feel comfortable when they've got a manual or formal protocol in front of them, don't worry! Self-assessment can be distilled into three simple questions, the answers to which should provide you with useful filters to serve as a starting point in your career search. Here goes ...
Self-assessment Question #1: What Are Your Skills?
Pretty simple, huh?
Sorry, but this one asks you to look a little harder at what you are good at and, more importantly, what you are not good at. Rather than compiling a random list of skills as if you were playing a single-player version of Outburst, start with the obvious: your research. Even if you have no intention of touching a pipette after grad school, most skills valuable to potential employers were developed during your graduate training. These need not be the literal mechanical skills of producing a top-notch Western or being a champion FACS jockey; those are of minor interest away from the bench. Focus on the broad range of expertise that graduate training is supposed to emphasize: analytical ability, problem solving, a profound understanding of the literature in a few specific areas, etc. Whatever your current opinion of graduate school, you're bound to find that you have learned a thing or two over the years.
But don't stop there! Even the most committed labrat has an interest or two outside of research. If you have participated in any other activities during the course of your graduate training, chances are you have developed skills that may help you identify a suitable career path. Beer drinking and surviving on Ramen noodles for months at a time may indeed take skill, but what about things like teaching experience, participation in student government, computer skills (programming, database construction, etc.), investing wizardry, and your knack for schmoozing? Taking a few moments to actually jot down some of your "other" skills will prove invaluable as you evaluate potential career options.
Skills that you can document are the most valuable of all. When preparing a resume or CV for a job outside of academia, anything that will set you apart from the science-geek masses is a huge benefit. Did you sit on an admissions committee? Teach a lab full of whiney, grade-obsessed med students? Write an investment summary for the local biotech club? Not only are all of these valuable skills, but they also deserve a prominent place on your CV.
Self-assessment Question #2: What Are Your Interests?
This one is actually a simple question, but it's also absolutely essential. Personally, I would rather dig ditches (OK, maybe not quite) than use some of the skills I have acquired during grad school (Western blot, anyone?). Just because you're good at something doesn't mean you'll be happy doing it. So, take a few minutes to examine the things you like and dislike about graduate school and research. If performing the perfect EMSA doesn't make the cut, how about dissecting the arguments in a recent Science paper? Also take time to list your interests outside of the research itself. (One way to do this is to look at where you tend to spend your spare time--even those in-between-incubation times. ...) Is writing fun or a chore? Does preparing to teach a class excite you or give you a sense of impending doom? Do you find yourself contemplating the cash flow of Amgen? Finally, take all these interests and compare them to your list of skills. Hopefully, there are several that overlap; these areas will provide a useful foundation as you examine the specific requirements of the jobs that you think might be most interesting.
Self-assessment Question #3: What Are Your Needs?
This is perhaps the most important but least appreciated part of self-assessment. It's easy to vigorously pursue a career path that fits your skills and interests. However, not all careers that "fit" in this manner are appropriate for everyone. Perhaps your financial situation eliminates the possibility of taking a job for less than $40K or going to business or law school full time. Many students have families and are unwilling to endure the 90-hour weeks that can typify careers in investment banking, lucrative though they may be. If constant travel would make you crazy, then don't consider consulting, even if your schmoozing and analytical skills seem ideal. It's crucial that you consider these types of needs before embarking on a career, or you may find yourself miserable in a job that otherwise looked good on paper.
So how to consider needs in the self-assessment equation? Simple. First list the absolute necessities. Postdoc dough not enough? Put it on the list. Variety in work assignments a requirement? Write it down. After you've made a list of absolute necessities, prioritize your remaining issues. That way, while you are exploring the various career paths available, you can quickly eliminate those that don't make the "absolute necessity" cut and rank the rest by how well they fit with your prioritized list. But remember: Time is not on your side!
There you have it. With these three filters in hand, you will be well equipped to begin sifting through the reams of career information that are available "out there." Next time, I'll introduce you to many of the pages that I've found especially useful and provide you with some hints to help you separate the wheat from the substantial chaff.