Plan your career path- but not too much

 In career exploration, PhD/Postdoc Blog

“Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” (Soren Kierkegaard)

Change is an inevitable part of life- but it can be particularly difficult for scientists to embrace change as they typically organize and plan everything in detail. Plans not working out is sometimes difficult to see as a positive thing, but it could turn out to be a blessing in disguise. I like to plan everything, but my plans often don’t come to fruition. However, I learned to be grateful for this outcome because I wouldn’t be where I am today if my original plans had worked out.

Through these failed plans, I have been exposed to new opportunities which have taken my career in new directions. Therefore, it is important to be flexible when your plans don’t work out and be open to new avenues in your career.

Make initial plans. For a long time, I wanted to become a physician, as I thought that would be a great way for me to use my science knowledge to do something good in the world. I didn’t realize at the time why I was so attracted to this particular profession. It turns out that I didn’t get into medical school, which was, of course, disappointing but this marked the beginning of my introspection. It became apparent that there were certain elements of the profession that I liked but that I could still choose another path and be happy as long as my career still contained those elements. There are many career paths you can take that you will probably enjoy if you take time to reflect on what is important to you.

Lesson #1: Identify specific elements that you enjoy about a particular path in order to make the right career choice.

Forget the initial plans. To beef up my pre-med CV (yes, I was one of those pre-med students!) I decided to do summer research at the bench during college. I liked it so much I engaged in more research projects during my last year of college, leading me to apply for graduate school without hesitation.

I got accepted into multiple graduate schools and decided to stay at Emory, which was not my initial plan. However, if I hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t have had the same mentors, and I wouldn’t have discovered the wonders of skeletal muscle biology. Both my Ph.D. advisor and the research field I worked in turned out to be a great fit for me, so retrospectively it was the right choice. But as the beginning of the post points out, this can only be understood looking backwards.

Lesson #2: Commit to a career direction and pursue it, even if it leads to a different path than your original plan. 

Make new plans. As a consequence of my graduate research, I ended up working in a lab in Louisville for my postdoc. I was very persistent in my decision to go there but regretted it soon after because I wish I picked a place that was more prestigious (I did have another offer from a more prestigious place that I turned down). It was also a big change moving from Atlanta to living in Louisville- but, again this turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

Being at the University of Louisville, I began creating programs for postdocs – a career seminar and a regional symposium – which fulfilled fairly basic training needs for them. Those programs would have likely already existed in more prestigious universities, and therefore the opportunities to design them wouldn’t have been there for me. Creating these programs for postdocs is how I began to discover my real career passion, while also gaining experience in this area.

Lesson #3: Embrace new opportunities with an open mind as they might lead you down the right path. 

Live it backwards. My volunteer work in improving the environment for graduate students and postdocs at the University of Louisville eventually grew into a national interest in this topic. I became involved in various organizations – such as American Society for Cell BiologyNational Postdoctoral AssociationGraduate Career Consortium, and Future of Research – where I learned more about the gaps that needed to be filled in training early career scientists, and the policies affecting them both at the university and nationally. I also gained valuable leadership skills that were instrumental to my career development and grew my professional network beyond just local universities.

To my surprise, since I left the bench, people have reached out to interview me in various ways about my career path or current work. Although I now found my career passion, I still consider myself pretty early in my non-academic career path and not necessarily an expert on this topic. But I appreciate it when others ask for my help. Over time I have built up several experiences that put me in a position to provide advice to other early-career scientists through my career transition.

Lesson #4: Step back and try to see yourself as others do – your collective experiences can lead to a reputable brand.

Be flexible. The theme of my life has pretty much been that I plan things, but then those plans fall apart for whatever reason. I don’t know if this is because my plans are not thorough enough, or whether I am really meant to do something different and I just don’t realize it at the time. But while I am always very disappointed when my plans don’t work out, I’ve come to accept this reality and embrace the idea that failed plans can have a positive outcome. This was definitely the case for my career exploration, as it led my current position, which is not something I was trained for, but I enjoy it and it fits my personality very well.

Lesson #5: Reassure yourself that failed plans can lead to unexpected paths with great outcomes.

Live life forward. Much of my career journey depended on mentors and peers who supported me and guided me in some general direction. Sometimes this was the direction that I took, other times I did the complete opposite. But nevertheless, trusting that others had good intentions was reassuring in that I could ask for advice if needed. I was lucky enough to surround myself with people who genuinely had my best interest at heart, and I appreciated their advice especially when they told me that my ideas were completely wrong. They also often provided different perspectives, in particular, if they were completely outside of my field of work. Nevertheless, I still made my own decisions in the end because I knew where I wanted to go. 

Lesson #6: Find a supportive group of people to advise you, but decide for yourself, own your decisions and move forward.  

There are many valuable lessons to be learned from the honest exploration of your needs, goals, and passions, as well as being open-minded about potential career options that you may not have considered originally. It is important to know what your values are, and to recognize that failed plans and unexpected changes can have positive outcomes for your career.

In a society that is always moving forward very quickly, it is easy to lose sight of the big picture, but we must stop and evaluate our life and career periodically, to make sure that we are happy with the current situation, and take the necessary steps to change things if that is not the case. And while it is unfortunate that we can only view the results of these choices retrospectively, introspective analyses can help us make better-informed decisions for our future.


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