Darcie Cook: Say yes, but know when to say no

The PhD/Postdoc blog series features scientists at different stages of career development as they explore and plan for their next steps. Over the course of six months, Edward van Opstal, Ruchi Masand, Corina White, and Darcie Cook will give monthly updates on their progress. Check back every Wednesday for new blog posts!


Current Position: 6th year PhD candidate in Immunology and Molecular Pathogenesis

Program Start Date: 2011

Institution: Emory University

Finding a career that is a good fit for you can sometimes seem like an impossible task. Most of us want to cultivate a balance between life and work that leaves us fulfilled at the end of each week. While there is no such thing as a “perfect” job, getting into a position that you can turn into a “best fit for you” is certainly possible. Figuring out your best fit is a simple matter of saying yes to many different opportunities.

Graduate school is a great time to explore different options because you have more flexibility in your schedule than you would with a standard 9-5 job. Whether you want to stay in academic research, go into consulting, or pursue a career barely tangentially related to your PhD, saying yes will get you the exposure you need to make informed decisions about your future. In addition, finding extra activities that you enjoy doing will show employers that you have an interest in that career path. It is very hard to convince a potential employer that you want to work in science policy when you have nothing that shows an interest in government or policy.

What exactly do I mean by “say yes”? Let’s say your PI asks you to work on a collaboration with a lab. This one is pretty cut and dry. Someone directly asks you a yes or no question; say yes! Even if it is something you might not have that much experience with, enthusiastically saying yes will not only make your boss happy, but will also give you the chance to learn a new skill. You see a flyer or an email for a professional development course that piques your interest; say yes! If you have the time to take the course, do it. You will learn new things (mostly about professional development, but probably something new about yourself as well) and you can grow your network by talking to the other people at the course.

Saying yes to opportunities allows you to figure out whether you’re interested in something in a very low stakes way. You may go into a seminar on working in industry thinking you have very little interest, but leave thinking that it is absolutely where you want to pursue a career. Volunteer with an organization that does the kind of you work you think you want to do. There are very few places that will turn down an offer of free help and it will help you decide if it’s something you want to pursue further.

It’s important to note that you shouldn’t say yes to everything. Overbooking yourself is not going to fly with your advisor and will likely lead to exhaustion. If you know you have a big deadline coming up and need to push hard to get everything done, skip the event that looks interesting that week. If you don’t have the skills to participate in a collaboration and it would take too much time to develop them, kindly decline the offer. It is better to do a few things really well than do a lot of things poorly.

I sometimes have a tendency to say yes too often and end up with a very full plate. As I’ve gotten further into graduate school, I now have a better sense of what I have time for and what I don’t. I frequently come across events or internships that I’d love to participate in, but know I just don’t have the time to commit to. The things I have said yes to throughout graduate school have definitely shaped my current career trajectory. I have volunteered in elementary schools teaching science, interned with the Atlanta Science Festival, enrolled in the Atlanta BEST program, worked at two museums, and written for multiple online websites and blogs. I know that I want a career in science education and I have a resume that supports it.

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