This is the third article in a series designed to help you create an Individual Development Plan (IDP) using myIDP, a new Web-based career-planning tool created to help graduate students and postdocs in the sciences define and pursue their career goals. To learn more about myIDP and begin the career exploration and planning process, please visit: http://myidp.sciencecareers.org.
As he finished up a major paper from his postdoc, Bob, a cancer biologist, began to think about the next step he would need to take to establish a career. He considered himself a good scientist—good enough, probably, to be competitive for a faculty post at an excellent college or university. His publication record backed that up.
To help him decide what to do next, Bob made a list of the tasks that he enjoyed the most. People had always told him that he was a skilled and dynamic presenter—and because he had been the only cell biologist in his postdoc lab, he had become adept at explaining complex scientific concepts clearly to a broad array of scientists. Furthermore, he enjoyed these activities above all the other things he did in the course of a workday. So, clustered at the top of his list of most favored activities were “giving presentations about science” and “teaching in a classroom setting.”
Yet, Bob was not so enthusiastic about written scientific communications: Despite being an excellent writer, he found writing papers and proposals unpleasant—indeed, he noted that these were listed among his least favorite tasks.
Like most scientists working and training in academia, Bob had long thought of academia as his default career path. There were things about the career path that he liked. Most academic scientists teach, and he was up for that: He was sure he would be a great teacher. Most academic scientists present their work at conferences, and he was up for that, too. But principal investigators (PIs), he realized, also spend a lot of time writing grant proposals and scientific articles. He began to think he might struggle to find the motivation to produce the grant proposals and scientific articles that he would need to succeed.
Bob began to develop a list of careers that would emphasize his interest in presenting and educating, while minimizing the writing tasks he most disliked. He explored teaching-focused faculty posts (these, too, he learned, typically involve writing papers and grant proposals, though not as much), running science-outreach programs (ditto on the grant proposals), business development, and management consulting. In the end, he decided to pursue a position as a medical science liaison (MSL). After some additional exploration, a lot of networking, and a job search that was, frankly, a little longer than he expected, Bob was hired to represent a class of cancer drugs for a major pharmaceutical company.
It was a great fit. As an MSL, he spent most of his time synthesizing information from drug studies and preparing and delivering symposia and seminars to physicians, researchers, and medical societies. Occasionally, he presented to patient groups.
Bob's story is a great example of how career-related interests can influence job satisfaction, and how thinking hard about those interests can shorten the path between scientific training and a fulfilling career. A careful and detailed analysis of "interests" is at the core of the assessment phase at myIDP.
Your top interests are, in myIDP terms, the work tasks you find appealing enough to do frequently when you are given a choice. Before you go very far in choosing your career, it's a good idea to identify those tasks. Equally important is knowing which tasks you least enjoy doing, the ones that would make you miserable if you had to perform them frequently.
No job is perfect. Every job involves tasks that are boring, distracting, or onerous. But as you analyze any possible career path, you need to break it down to the day-to-day tasks required for success in that position, and then think about how those tasks match your own list of most-favorite and least-favorite tasks. If you can find a career option that lets you perform a lot of the most-engaging tasks while mostly avoiding tasks that you dislike, then you’ve found an option worth exploring. If you enjoy the day-to-day work, you'll look forward to going to work, be more energized and more proud of what you accomplish, and—very likely—you'll ultimately be more successful.
Using myIDP to assess your interests
myIDP includes an interests assessment tool that will help you rank many of the tasks scientists perform, from those that you enjoy most to those you enjoy least. (You'll find the interests assessment tool here, though we recommend working through myIDP systematically, from the beginning.) This confidential self-assessment tool asks you to rate how engaging you find each of 39 tasks on a scale from 1 to 5, where 1 means “I would never like to do this in my career” and 5 is “I would like to do this often in my career.” The assessment will be most helpful if you use the full range of scores—that is, don't cluster your scores around the middle.
What if your skills and interests don’t align?
In a previous essay, we described the myIDP skills assessment tool. If you haven't already carried out that part of myIDP, feel free to go do it now—just make sure you've got enough time to think hard and choose carefully.
Upon assessing their skills and their interests, some people find that they don't align. What should you do then?
It’s natural to want a career that requires you to perform tasks you are skilled at performing. But if you find yourself in a career that involves tasks you are good at performing but don’t enjoy, then you're likely to become dissatisfied sooner or later. Bob doesn’t enjoy writing, so he avoided jobs that would require him to prepare manuscripts, grant proposals, or written business proposals.
It can be tempting to believe that things will change, that you can learn to like—or at least tolerate—those parts of your job that you currently dislike. The more time you've already invested in pursuing a career, the more tempting this becomes. Maybe you're still in academia, but, unlike Bob, you get very nervous in front of a classroom, so the thought of teaching the next morning keeps you up at night. Still, maybe someday you'll learn to love classroom teaching.
It happens. But, in our collective experience, it's a better bet to pursue a career that lets you do the things you like to do. Interests do change over time, especially as you become more skilled at performing those tasks, but forcing yourself to do something that makes you miserable, day after day, isn't the best way to make that happen.
Likewise, you may find yourself pursuing a career that requires you to perform tasks you enjoy but requires skills that you are weak in. In this case, you probably should make a plan to develop those skills so that you can continue along a path you so enjoy.
For example, you may be thinking about stepping away from the research PI career path for which you have been training for so many years. Be sure you can identify exactly what you think will be dissatisfying about a career as a PI. If it’s an interests-related issue—that is, if you don’t like the tasks you believe are critical for success as a PI—then be sure to check that your assumptions are correct. If it’s a skills-related issue—that is, if you feel you aren’t good enough at some tasks to succeed as a PI—ask yourself, “Realistically, can I improve on that skill sufficiently to succeed as a PI?” Ask trusted mentors to provide feedback on your abilities in this area.
Choosing or changing a career path is a big undertaking. Making sure you enjoy a job's daily tasks should play a major role in that decision. In this respect, as in all others, myIDP aims to remove the anxiety from the process of choosing a career and help you make rational, well-informed choices. The goal, of course, is a career you find rewarding.