The Art of Actively Exploring Career Options

 In PhD/Postdoc Blog

You did it. You’re in graduate school! All of those caffeinated study sessions, most of the time to the detriment of your social life, have finally paid off…but now what? Obviously, the road to a Ph.D. will be long and grueling, but for what end? Why are you getting this degree, but, more importantly, what are you doing now to prepare yourself for life after?

In my experience, it is far too easy for students to get caught up in the “now” of graduate school. From classes to experiments, presentations to fellowship applications, there are many things that do require our undivided attention, yet, we did not get this far by excelling in the present at the detriment of preparing for our futures.  It is extremely important that graduate students make time for actively preparing for life after graduate school.

I knew early into my first year of graduate school that, post-graduation, I wished to pursue a career as a life science consultant, scientific communicator, or medical science liaison. Luckily, the skill set required of each position is similar, namely soft skills, a broad range of scientific knowledge, and the ability to effectively communicate scientific concepts to both specialized and diverse audiences.

Over the last year I have focused my efforts to improve my written and oral communication of science. I have edited two and written three articles for two different graduate blogs at UNC, attended a scientific communication conference, completed five separate AAAS Career Development Certificates (ranging from Proposal Writing to Science Communication), and have made an effort to leverage social media to disperse informative, yet accessible science-based content to the general public and “build my brand” as an approachable scientist. To further explore life science consulting, I completed a weekend-long “consulting boot camp” held by a local life science consulting firm and a course titled “An Introduction to Business for Life Science Ph.D.s.” I also intend on completing a UNC management consulting course in my third year.

I say this not to gloat, but to provide an example of how I, someone who is interested in a career path outside academia, have attempted to prepare myself for a career once I finally obtain that long sought-after degree. Although it may seem like a huge time commitment, it is simply a matter of setting aside a few hours per month to explore career options and prepare for them accordingly. It could be as simple as attending a seminar, meeting with a club once per month, or networking with professionals in your field of interest. Additionally, you could take up hobbies that allow you do refine skills that may benefit you later, like writing, public speaking, or reading about the current happenings within your anticipated field (For me, this means staying up-to-date on pharma and medical device companies). After a while, these experiences will begin to accumulate, and you’ll have a plethora of career-specific experiences to add to your CV.

Although I am only a second year graduate student, I feel that I’ve identified an often debilitating barrier that young graduate students face, and that is committing to actively exploring career options rather than passively exploring. To provide a real-world example, I would define actively exploring as committing some amount of time to a hobby, reading, or attending workshops aimed toward your career goals whereas passively exploring is spending a few minutes Google searching then thinking “Hmm. That’d be cool. Maybe I’ll do that when I graduate.” So many young students, including myself at times, are hesitant to dedicate precious time to an endeavor that they’re not wholeheartedly committed to. And that is understandable given free time is usually hard to come by in graduate school. But, perhaps a common misconception is that actively exploring is a waste of time, especially if the student finds out that a particular career isn’t for them. Yet, I would argue that actively exploring career options is absolutely essential for young graduate students to identify what careers interest them and, further, what skill sets they should continue to develop to be competitive coming out of graduate school.

So, here’s take home message: I know graduate school is a very busy time, but career development shouldn’t stop once you join a lab, rather, that’s where it should begin. You make time for what you prioritize, so replace a few Netflix sessions (after you binge the new season of GOT, of course) with some career exploration and I promise it will pay off in the long run.

Until next time,

Blaide

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