Just do it! The Value of On-The-Job Experience

 In jobs: preparation and placement, PhD/Postdoc Blog

How can you know which careers will be a good personal fit for you? Certainly, reflecting on past experiences, missteps, and successes is important for understanding who you are and what you want. You could track this by keeping a diary, blog, or just talking to friends. You could also take a quiz! But according to one of my favorite online career guides, 80,000 Hours, the only way to really know is to do the job.

80000 Hours has reviewed the scientific literature on productivity, positive impact, and job satisfaction, and highlights these three takeaways:

  1. So personal fit increases your job satisfaction, employment longevity, impact, and career capital.
  2. Self-reflection and career placement quizzes don’t produce reliable results. The best way to find out which jobs are good a personal fit for you is to try out different jobs. That’s not to say that self-reflection and tools like AAAS’s myIDP are useless – they are definitely helpful for getting you to think about where to start – but the most reliable indicator of personal fit is first-hand experience.
  3. You can minimize the costs of exploring different options by 1)Talking: You can learn about different careers, industries, positions, and work environments through networking and informational interviews (if done wisely) 2) Doing: You can also seek out opportunities that actually let you have ‘hands-on’ experiences such as internships and fellowships.

I’ll reflect on my own experiences in a later post. In this post, I want to share some things I’ve learned about getting low-cost low-riskon-the-job-experience. If you’re still uncertain about what jobs you might want to try out, take Blaide’s advice and go actively explore the myriad options!

Networking and Informational Interviews

Admittedly, we graduate students are in a privileged situation. I am being paid, a pittance, but paid nonetheless. And my schedule is very flexible. No one is checking to make sure that I’m at my desk working 9 am – 5 pm Monday – Friday; ultimately, it’s on me to get my work done in a timely manner. So, I have been making metaphoric hay with all that flexible time and trying to be as strategic as possible!

I started out on this journey knowing I needed to build a network and hear what other people thought about their jobs. I started by having coffee with people that I knew personally, or that a friend or acquaintance knew. For example, people that had come from my program and disappeared into … *cue mysterious Twilight Zone music* … industry! For me, the hardest part about these informational interviews was learning how to ask questions that would get me the information I need. For example, asking “do you like your job,” is a terrible strategy. Instead, ask about the tasks and projects they are working on, or talk about the culture and structure at their work. Both strategies have been far more informative for me as I decide which professions would be a good personal fit for me. People can love or hate their job for reasons that will be completely different from the reasons that I might love or hate that job. So, asking the questions that allow me to imagine myself doing their job are the ones that I have found most useful. But that is also why getting hands-on experience can be invaluable. You’re the only one that can really know what fits you, and sometimes you might not know what fits you until you try it!


Again, we graduate students are in a privileged position. We work on college campuses brimming with opportunities to get stuck into all kinds of new and different experiences.

You may also be lucky enough to be in a field or program that is open to, or encouraging of, or maybe even requires you to complete an internship in industry. Unfortunately, I am not. But I’ve done the next best thing. First, I connected with the Center for Social Concern on my campus and started volunteering at after-school ESOL programs for recently settled refugee children. Then, I ran for and was elected to be the Professional Development Chair for our Graduate Representative Organization (GRO). These activities only required 3-4 hours a week of my time and didn’t cost me any money – the university provided vans to get us to and from the school, and I actually got a small monetary reimbursement for my service to the GRO! More importantly, these activities gave me an opportunity to see what it was like to work with children, university administrators, and a diverse body of graduate students with a wide range of skills and goals. These positions also helped me further expand my professional network. Thanks in large part to the connections I made as Professional Development Chair, I now have another small but significant role at the Career Center, helping to develop resources for undergraduate students who are considering applying for graduate school and graduate students who are considering looking for jobs outside academia after their graduation. These projects have helped me hone my interpersonal skills, by collaborating with people from different student services offices each with different outcome goals, expertise, and resources. I learned how to balance diverse, often competing, interests to enact meaningful change and complete projects. I have also learned a lot about careers in advising, and about different work cultures beyond academia. These have been invaluable experiences that I could not have gained from informational interviews and networking alone.

Cost Efficiency

All the things that I have done have been relatively ‘cheap’: I have not had to sacrifice my stipend, my time to commute, or my personal relationships to move or travel extensively. Admittedly, I have had to sacrifice a lot of my free time because 2-3 hours of each workday (which in grad school includes Saturday, amiright!?) has been devoted to either career exploration or dissertation work. But in the grand scheme of things, this is a pretty small price to pay for knowing that I will be able to make a well-informed decision about the next step I take

I want to close this post by sharing one of the coolest, cheapest resources that I’ve discovered so far. It costs $0, and you can spend as much time as you want, at your own pace! InterSECT Job Simulations has a range of example tasks/projects from an ever-expanding range of industries and positions. These simulations usually give you some background on the job and the industry, and gives you a task that is representative of the kinds of projects and responsibilities you would be expected to perform in that job. The simulations do a great job of explaining the steps that you should follow to complete the task and often provide relevant resources or examples from that industry.

So as the sports clothing company eponymous with the Greek goddess of speed, strength, and victory urges: Just do it!

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