Career Advice

Q: What Do Experiments and Career Planning Have in Common?

Joerg Schlatterer, Ph.D.

Twenty years ago, I was asked how I imagined my life would be in 2017. My answer was short and sweet, “My life will be great!” However, if I had been asked to share details, I would have been completely off. I certainly would not have predicted that I would live in the United States, or that I would work in a job that is not aligned with “traditional” career trajectories for chemists. In 2017, I am a science administrator and I love it.

When I graduated from the University of Heidelberg (Germany), I knew that a successful Ph.D. chemist would have a brief postdoctoral experience in an English-speaking country. My expectation, like that of most of my fellow graduating chemists, was that after this postdoctoral experience, I would return to my home country to join the academic or industrial workforce. How could someone deviate from this well-defined path?

In the past, I questioned my abilities to make sound career decisions because they did not fit into anything traditional and they seemed to be risky. Today, I truly believe that my graduate education and my passion for science set me up for this. I love studying and analyzing data, crafting hypotheses, doing experiments, and learning from results. Ultimately, as chemists or STEM graduate students or postdocs, you become extremely proficient in data analysis, questioning traditional assumptions, and pushing the envelope.

Why shouldn’t these skills be applied to life planning? I did exactly that subconsciously. With a holistic approach, I dived into studying the “data,” came up with hypotheses, did research, planned for the next steps, went through the experience, looked at the results, and planned the next experiment. In fact, I am continuing to do that. Once a scientist, always a scientist.

A couple of weeks ago, I was asked to submit a title for a career seminar for graduate students and postdocs at the University of Louisville. I called the seminar “The most important experiment: Your career.” The audience appreciated this analogy. Scientists are indeed uniquely qualified to find satisfying and rewarding careers because they embrace the concept of hypothesis-driven research. Finding a satisfying career is nothing more than a very well-defined experiment. Your journey towards a satisfying career starts with a broad vision for your life. This vision is something very personal and feeds your overall motivation. This also suggests that only you are in charge of your career and life journey. Nobody else is as invested in this journey as you are. Feedback and recommendations from informal and formal mentors are essential, but ultimately you are responsible for all decisions you make.

Finding a satisfying career is nothing more than a very well-defined experiment.

Let me share with you my view of how you can leverage your research skills (please see figure) for planning your career. The steps written below correspond to the research steps shown in the graph.

Experiment flowchart
Experiment flowchart
Joerg C. Schlatterer

Step 1: Dive into career area research, conduct informational interviews, and talk to as many diverse professionals as possible to get a good idea where your career focus could be. Consider your values. Does this career area align with them?

Step 2: Come up with your personal career hypothesis.

Step 3: Take time to prepare thoroughly for your career choice (refine required skills).

Step 4: Get the job and work.

Step 5: Look at the results. Can you do it, and are you good at it? Do you like it? Regardless of your answers: Congratulations! You know more about yourself now. If you feel the job doesn’t live up to your expectations, think about the possible reasons for that and go back to either Step 2 or 3.

Step 6: The final step is to report the results of your career experiment. Discuss your results with trusted individuals such as family, friends, peers (in short, “mentors”). Listen to their thoughts, observations, and feedback.

Do not lose the data from your career experiment. Keep track of all you do for your career, including self-assessment, skill strengthening, goal setting, and career exploration activities. I recommend using any kind of Individual Development Plan (IDP) tool to keep track. There are many templates for Individual Development Plans available online. However, I recommend that you, as an undergraduate student, graduate student, or postdoctoral scholar in chemistry, check out ChemIDP.org, a free, online individual development planning tool developed by chemists for chemists.

Career and life planning is not an easy task and will take time. Start this process today, and believe in your research skills that you acquired during your time in graduate school. They will get you where you want to be.

With best wishes for your personal experiment,

Joerg

A: Everything