How did you respond the last time someone asked you, "What are you interested in?" Did you comment about the cutie in the lab down the hall? Or did you discuss the research goals of the grant proposal you just wrote? What did you say the last time someone asked you about your skills? Were you at a potluck discussing your awesome carrot cake? Or were you at a job interview describing your laboratory skills?

Just as your answers to these two questions can vary depending upon the setting, your interests and skills can change over time. At 22, I was planning to be a research scientist for the rest of my life. Today, I love helping people make choices about their careers. My interests have changed. And as my interests have changed, I have developed new skills, although I continue to use many of the skills I learned in my scientific training. Your interests may persist, fade, or develop over the course of your career; you'll develop new skills, maintain or sharpen some, and get rusty using others.

Because of the changing nature of your interests and skills, it's important to review them as you consider the future directions of your career. And I think the best way of assessing your interests and skills is by examining how they manifest themselves in your life.

  • In your personal life. We all have activities we do for fun in our spare time. These are things that interest you. So pretend someone is trying to get to know you and write a list. Do you go running, biking, swimming, dancing, bird watching, or climbing? Do you enjoy watching movies, current events, cultural performances, or the sun setting? Do you cook fancy desserts, build furniture, write poetry, or volunteer in your community?

While at first glance these interests may seem irrelevant to your profession, they may provide clues to themes in your life, unique directions you may want your career to take. So examine the skills you use in these activities. Obviously, if you bike only to stay in shape, that's not very likely to help in your career unless you are planning to be a professional athlete. But if you regularly manage your church's food bank or teach dance lessons, you may have important transferable skills gained through your personal activities.

  • In your past and current work life. What would you list as your professional interests? Consider both the type of scientific questions that intrigue you and the routine work activities you enjoy. First, note those scientific areas in which you have experiential knowledge. Next, list your favorite activities. For example, you might enjoy teaching courses, writing research papers, giving presentations, or doing experimental work. Sometimes it can be useful to start a list of the things that don't interest you, too!

It's usually easy for scientists to write a laundry list of familiar research techniques. Spend some time thinking about the skills you have that may be transferable to positions outside the lab. While teaching and presentation skills are obvious, don't overlook skills like these:

-Supervising an undergraduate researcher

-Negotiating with vendors

-Writing for a general audience

-Advising undergraduates

-Developing databases

-Collaborating with others to achieve a common goal.

  • In your future. Here's where you have the opportunity to express the interests you may not have explored. Disregard that nagging voice in your head that says you have no skills in an area of interest. This is not the time to be realistic. If you are interested in running a large company, but have no experience, that's OK--it can still be an interest. Do you have a research project you want to pursue when you have your own lab? Are you interested in starting a family? Do you wonder what it's like to be a lawyer?

Now think about the skills you want to have in the future. You may want to make two lists--one for the skills you need (but don't have) to compete in the job market and another for skills you want to learn just because you want to learn them.

Putting It All Together

When you are finished assessing your interests and skills, you will have compiled quite a bit of information about yourself, especially if you also took the time to evaluate your values and personality as discussed in my last column. Here's how you might apply all that information to your career development:

  • Identify themes in your life. This may give you an indication of the type of work you are happy doing now and may want to do in the future.
  • Gather information for your résumé/CV. Often we forget accomplishments and skills when we write a résumé or CV.
  • Narrow your job search. By examining your interests and skills objectively, you will likely be able to reduce the range of jobs you're likely to get and be happy in over the long haul--whether it's because of the skills you have or (realistically) wish to develop, the range of activities you wish to engage in routinely, or your interests.
  • Make informed choices. Once you have explored who you are in a systematic manner, you can use this new data to make choices about your career path, just as you analyze research results to decide what the next experiment will be. Then you can figure out how to get from where you are to where you want to be: what new techniques you need to learn, areas where you need more knowledge, and so on. Discover what isn't working, and fix it. Investigating yourself can help you determine how to proceed with your life.