In career exploration, for grad students, for postdocs, jobs: preparation and placement, PhD/Postdoc Blog, professional development

Well, faithful readers, we come to the end of my series of posts on the NIH BEST blog.

Don’t worry, though, I plan to continue blogging about career and professional development as well as other passions of mine (neuroscience, personalized medicine) on my personal website in a blog appropriately titled Reflections.

To wrap up, I wanted to reflect on all that has happened to me since starting this blog series in October 2018. Hopefully this will provide you with some perspective, namely, that a lot can change in 6 months.

When I started blogging for NIH BEST, I didn’t expect to end up in my current position as Postdoc Program Manager at North Carolina State University, largely because I didn’t see that as a viable career for me. I thought this for several reasons – some practical (few jobs exist in this area) and some self-doubt (do I have what it takes to do that job?). Things seem to be going well; the environment is supportive, and I think the work I do is important. Have I found my passion? Is this what I am meant to do for the rest of my life? I don’t know. But, that is OK.

Let’s expound on some of these points.

Do I have what it takes to be successful in job X?

This question is often a killer for individuals wanting to transition outside of a comfortable and familiar area. For me, and most graduate students and postdocs, academia is the area we feel safest. We know the rules of the game, how one progresses in the hierarchy, etc. But envisioning ourselves outside that space can be a challenge. While there is no doubt the skills (leadership, time/project management, critical thinking, written and oral communication, data collection and analysis, etc.) one obtains in graduate school and postdoctoral work are broadly useful, many of us feel we have little to offer potential employers. That is a huge mistake. For some advice on changing your perspective, read this excellent piece on re-branding yourself.

Well, even if I believe I have these transferable skills, how can I find the right career for me?

Informational Interviews

The 21st Century career landscape is complex, and career fields are changing rapidly. On top of this, paths to certain careers are varied and nonlinear. No one can tell you the prescribed series of steps required to land a job. Heck, you might not even know what types of jobs are out there for Ph.D.-trained scholars. Where do you start?

The best way to learn more about potential careers that might interest you is through informational interviews (talking informally within someone about their career, often over coffee). These are powerful means for you to learn about how individuals made the transition to a particular field as well as what their work looks like, what they like/dislike about the job, etc…

Informational interviews are powerful in many ways:

  1. Networking. You are meeting someone new and adding them to your network. Always a good thing!
  2. Information Gathering. You are learning more about a particular career (pros/cons, typical day, what it takes to be successful) and company (culture, values, work-life balance), which leads to…
  3. Decision Support. As you learn about a particular career and company culture, you might realize you don’t want to pursue it at all or at that company. In the process, you’ve honed in a bit more on your target career(s).
  4. Inside info. You might discover that the company has an open position that would fit you well–you have uncovered the hidden job market.
  5. Further contacts/connections. The person you meet with can introduce you to people in their network who you can talk with to learn about a different role in the company, or a different company that employs similar people, etc…

Making the Leap

The fact of the matter is, though, you will never really what a job is like unless you Take the leap and accept a position outside academia/your comfort zone.

Even in academia, I don’t think anyone can really appreciate what it is like to be an assistant professor until one starts working in the position.

The point here is that at some point you can’t hedge and do another pro/con list…you just have to take the job. Hopefully, you are acting on the good information you have gathered during your informational interviews and other interactions with the company/institution and using some of the career exploration principles outlined here on the NIH BEST Blog.

All of us want a big career decision to be a great fit. But what if it’s not?

Design a Life that Works for You

I am currently reading the book Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life, by Bill Burnett & Dave Evans (see an excellent New York Times review here). I haven’t gotten too far into the book, but it has already produced some important points.

From the book, “A common mistake that people make, is to assume that there’s only one right solution or optimal version of your life, and that if you choose wrong, you’ve blown it. That’s completely absurd: There are lots of you. There are lots of right answers.

The book has several key takeaways:


Tryout work that may interest you, shadow someone in that field for a day, or do it on the weekend. See if these other potential paths feel right to you.

Create multiple “Odyssey Plans.”

Map out the next five years of your life in radically different ways. This activity reinforces the idea that there are numerous viable options available to you in your career and life.

Action is ultimately required

You can’t think your way into your future. At some point you have to act and see how things go.

With a little prototyping and having your multiple odyssey plans in hand, you can better accept the fact that many paths can lead to life fulfillment and happiness. In addition, you won’t put so much pressure on yourself that the career you choose now (or have already begun) is the only path available to you.


So remember, readers, life is a journey, a continual process. You don’t need to have it figured out. Live each day the best as you can, doing things you like (whether that is in work or your free time) with the people you like. You define your well-lived life.

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