The Career Exploration Funnel

 In PhD/Postdoc Blog

Early on in graduate school, students are encouraged to throw themselves into their projects, blinding all distractions and proving they are more than capable of producing publishable data. In a previous article, I discussed the dangers of “data-driven blinders” and how it is important for students to schedule time for career exploration, starting in their first year of graduate school. Now, a little over two years into my Ph.D., I’ve realized that balancing my responsibilities between data production and post-graduate career development is a much more involved process than I originally anticipated. In this article, I’d like to share my experience in fine-tuning and focusing the amount of time I spend on career exploration, an experience I’ve termed the Career Exploration Funnel.

During my first year of graduate school, I talked to many senior students about the next phase of their career. I noticed that, more often than not, discussions of plans post-Ph.D. were met with much anxiety and hesitation.  Students often despairingly said something to the tune of, “I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.” This was a bit unsettling. I didn’t want to spend 4-5 years pursuing an advanced degree, only to be unprepared entering the job market and possibly forced to take a job I wasn’t necessarily thrilled about for the sake of a paycheck. This prompted me to actively explore career options early on in graduate school, hence my first article, which helped me plan out my professional development accordingly. I got involved with numerous extracurriculars that I anticipated might complement my degree coming out of graduate school. With a clear idea of what the next step might be, I thought I had it all figured out. Thinking back, this wasn’t out of character for me. I decided during my freshman year of college that I wanted to get a Ph.D., and planned the next four years accordingly. Everything I did was to make me a more competitive applicant for graduate school, so preparing for my career post-Ph.D. was just the same, right? WRONG, kinda.

Although I still whole-heartedly believe that actively exploring career options is important for early graduate students, I might have taken on too much too fast. I may have been spreading myself too thin for a while, but it never really hit me until it was time to prepare for lab meeting. I had good data, but not as much as I would have liked. All of the extracurricular commitments combined with an unexpectedly heavy course load had taken me away from a few experiments that I would have pushed my project further along. I decided it was time to streamline.

First, I quantified all my extracurriculars as professional and non-professional. I was involved with: four different blogging engagements, three different editing engagements, participated in two business-oriented clubs, wrote pro-bono fitness and nutrition plans, and was starting my own website. With everything listed in front of me, I needed to ask myself what was important for my current short-term and long-term goals. Short-term, I needed to continue developing my project and producing data. Long-term, I needed to keep preparing myself for a career as a life science consultant, science writer/communicator, or medical science liaison.

Short-term: Plain and simple. To do more experiments, I needed to cut down on my extracurriculars. Long-term: I should continue science writing in some regard and streamline my professional development as far as business is concerned. I decided that I was going to finish out my commitments to all of my writing and editing engagements, but moving forward would focus only on my new position as a blogger for MindPump, an evidence-based health and fitness enterprise, and writing/editing for my new science communication website, Additionally, I decided to forgo writing pro-bono fitness and nutrition plans (except for my Dad #FamilyFirst). Lastly, I decided that instead of being engaged with two business clubs, I would pursue a certificate in business fundamentals, trading sporadic meetings and events for structured requirements and courses to build my experience with business.

Long story short, I took somewhat of a funnel approach. I got involved with a bunch of different things, then when push came to shove, I streamlined/traded in these engagements so they were complementing my graduate school experience, not hurting it. Hindsight is 20-20;

“the funnel” probably wasn’t the best approach. Although I had quite an enriching experience, a better approach would have been to do the streamlining on paper instead of trial by fire where I sacrificed the most precious of all scientific resources: time.

That said, if you have yet to engage with any career exploration of your own, I challenge you to enact the funnel on paper. Learn about the list all the possible career development opportunities you could get involved with, then choose a few that will allow you to achieve your short-term and long-term goals. Programs like TIBBS at UNC can help you come up with ideas, and if your university doesn’t have such a career development program but you’d still like some ideas on career development, you can follow TIBBS on twitter @UNC_TIBBS.

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