Leaving the nest
What did you plan to do after grad school? Did you want to be a professor running your own lab, or did you see the degree as a way to jumpstart your career in the private sector? Did your plans change? Some of the best advice that I didn’t heed is to make sure you have a good reason for going to grad school before you start. Initially, I was leaning toward doing academic research… or maybe it was industry? Despite what my cover letters say, my path was never clear. Halfway through grad school, I met a science policy analyst and decided that was what I wanted to do. Now, after two years spent getting a masters degree, six years of doctoral studies, and a year as a postdoc fellowship, I’m ready to leave the lab, move across the country, and figure out what that next step looks like.
I’m almost ready, really.
Just one more test flight.
One more phone call just to triple-check that the paperwork is in order?
For years I’ve built up relationships and found my place at CU Denver. Now I have to leave this cozy nest and start over again in an unfamiliar location full of people who don’t know me. I acquired these highly technical skills, and now I’m expected to use them in a new field. For the better part of a decade, I learned how to do one very specific thing, and now I’m heading off on a tangent. I thought grad school felt open-ended and lacked structure; now there’s no committee to say whether I did a good job, no guiding advisor with (hopefully) my best interests in mind, no shiny paper at the end to let me know I’m done. Not one class in my 24 years of schooling ever taught me how to ace an interview or decide or how to achieve my career goals. I didn’t get any manual explaining whether it is better to take an offer with low pay but great career potential or hold out for a better paying job that might not come through. Nobody told me what to do if I decide later that this isn’t the thing I want to do.
Ok. Stop panicking. Apply all those lab-management skills to solving this.
Maybe it’s confirmation bias, but I think there is something to all that advice we have been giving for the last six months. I found a postdoc fellowship that let me spend time crafting a resume that would get me where I want to go. I put together the Communicating Science Gong Show to build up my SciComm credentials and Capitol Poster Day to get experience in government. I spent the summer applying to jobs and fellowships, and I spent the last month making pro/con lists to decide which opportunities to pursue and which risks to take. I did that networking thing, and I have my next job thanks in part to those connections. If “chance favors the prepared mind” I’ve maximized both my odds and number of dice rolls.
I also had fun on the way. My involvement with Project Bridge didn’t just look great on a resume; it was where I found my passion. The post-grad time is supposed to let you try something different and see if you like it. In my case, it turns out that communicating science and advocating for science-based policy is a great fit. I also have to give credit to an amazing mentor who encouraged me to pursue these activities and helped me make these critical connections.
If I can leave two last bits of advice, it’s this: Make sure that the things you are doing are helping you get to where you want to be, and find people who will support you getting there.
So, flight check:
- 24 years of schooling
- Fancy letters after my name
- Excellent mentor
- Relevant experience
- Job offer
Guess I’m ready…
(Featured image credit: Andrew Chan, used with permission)