Starting your professional development in graduate school

Now that I’m in my fifth year of graduate school, everyone asks: “What will you do after you graduate?” I know they’re expecting a confident, specific answer—I chaired my department’s career development committee, so of course, I know! But I don’t, at least not with exact certainty. I don’t have one career clearly in mind, calling to me from my heart of hearts. However, I do have several good ideas of the work I want to do (and not do) and (relative) confidence in finding a job when the time comes. Four years of career exploration has given me a solidly vague idea of the career I want. Trust me, it’s never too early to start thinking about post-PhD plans! From talking with classmates, most of us have taken similar approaches in figuring out our career paths and gaining skills beyond the bench.

Treat it like an experiment

Like any good experiment, start with a hypothesis—one or two careers you are interested in exploring. For background reading, myIDP from Science Careers is a good starting place. After assessing your skills and interests, there are links to descriptions for various careers. It’s not perfect, and you should reassess often (skills and interests change over time), but it can reveal new options and narrow down the choices. Once you have an idea of what career you’d like to explore, you can find ways to test it (keep reading for some ideas!). Even if you end up disliking the career, you will have learned something, gained transferable skills, and will be able to approach the next career experiment with insight.

Connect with peers, alumni, and others

Peers and alumni are underrated career resources. They are aware of events, resources, connections, and job openings. They understand the environment you’re coming from and know the success stories of people with similar backgrounds. You can speak openly to them and their input can help you form your own ideas about your career path. For more formal guidance, your institution may have a career center that provides individual and/or group career counseling. These counselors can help you identify careers and prepare for the job search. If you don’t have access to these services on campus, ASCB provides career coaches at the Annual Meeting and other resources. When you’re ready to learn even more about a career, it is important to seek informational interviews from people in that profession. They can tell you the day-to-day details and give you the inside scoop that you might not get from other resources.

Read the annoying newsletters

Your university likely sends out newsletters about events on campus. It is even more likely they get sent directly to your spam folder. As tempting as it is to immediately delete these emails, take the time to see if anything peaks your interest, such as career panels or resume writing workshops. You can also sign up for newsletters from professional societies that may host workshops. Did you know about ASCB’s KGI Biotech Course, or that they publish materials and job openings online?

Passive learning only takes you so far

The ubiquitous career event is a career panel. One to four professionals will sit at the front and answer questions from an audience of dozens. These events are useful in learning about different careers, but not very useful in applying anything practical to your life. Passively learning about careers will only get you so far. Take advantage of these panels, ask questions, and use them as networking opportunities. Ask the panelists to speak outside of the career panel for an informational interview to find out what their current position is really like and if they know of any potential internship opportunities or job openings. Outside of these passive learning events, it’s worth it to take the time and physically do what you’re interested in. Say yes and get out of your comfort zone. Volunteer for an outreach activity, join a student consulting group or write for a science blog. Try, fail, explore, and experiment. Actually doing the work will teach you so much more than asking someone else about their work.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are the views of the author(s) and do not represent the official policy or position of ASCB.

About the Author:

Sara Wong is a graduate student at the University of Michigan in Cellular and Molecular Biology. She studies how myosin V-mediated cargo transport is regulated in space and time. Email: Twitter: @sarajwong