Career Advice

Broaden Your Experiences and Change Your World

Melissa McCartney

As you notice that yet another coffee cup ring has appeared on the printout that shows your research still doesn't add up, and you wonder how bad it would be for you, really, to order in pizza for the third night this week, the last thing you want to add to your To Do list is, “Broaden my experience.” But doing so might be just the thing that will get you out of your rut, refresh your enthusiasm for your field, inspire new approaches to your work, help direct your career, and enrich your life.

There’s an old saying, “Variety is the spice of life.” New experiences add value and interest to everything they touch, including your perspective on your day-to-day life. No matter what your level of scientific training, pursuing new experiences (academic or otherwise), or simply finding innovative ways to think about your ongoing experiences, can add value to everything you do. After all, an abundance of psychological research shows that it isn’t material possessions that bring people happiness, it’s experiences. What would happen if you applied this principle to your own life? How could new or different experiences add value to your scientific training?

OK, let’s start getting ideas for broadening your horizons by talking about what counts as a scientific experience. These are things we’ve all done or have within easy reach:

  • The new technique you learned from the lab next door
  • The new ideas or possibility of collaborating with someone that you gained from the networking event you attended
  • The new collaboration you started with a scientist you admire (perhaps also the result of the networking event)
  • Finally completing a statistics class

Take a minute to consider any new professional or scientific activities you’ve engaged in lately. What have you learned from them? How have they broadened your scientific training or perspective?

Whether you realize it or not, a multitude of varied experiences is providing additional value for your education already. Some of the benefits may be obvious immediately; others may only come to light after some time has passed. Furthermore, you can even use new experiences to help pull yourself out of a rut or reframe a situation you are struggling with. How does this work? Let’s walk through a few examples together.

First, understand that pursuing a broad array of experiences can introduce you to a whole new world. Truly! If you need a change of pace from your daily routine, look for something to do that will take you out of it. Think about spending time in a neighboring lab to learn a new technique, clearing an afternoon to sit in on a journal club hosted by another department, or looking into attending a conference for a field that is tangential to your own. Go beyond your own discipline and venture into the larger world by helping an ACS committee or division that is planning symposia for an ACS meeting. Volunteering in a community organization can be a rewarding and invaluable experience. Spending some time in any of these different communities might not only help you reengage with your own field but may also help you successfully expand into others. (New experiences beget new experiences!)

Second, recognize that most learning experiences are social. When you think about it, a huge amount of progress in science happens in collaboration. This gives scientists a unique opportunity to see academic relationships as learning experiences. Think about the close social nature of science:

  • A colleague teaches you a new technique
  • A collaborator assists you with troubleshooting a problem
  • A classmate studies with you
  • A PI helps you draft a manuscript

Furthermore, none of the above work in only one direction. All of these examples can also happen vice versa, benefiting the other person as much as they help you. Engaging in science with colleagues, classmates, or anyone else allows your network to grow, giving you more people willing to support and advocate for you. It helps you build a support system that reaches far beyond your own laboratory. Interacting with other scientists can also be a great way to reinvigorate your training, reconnect with your science, and move from a difficult situation into a more promising place.  

Third, appreciate the way pursuing a wide array of experiences can help you define your purpose and values. Doing both of these things are recurring themes in career development. According to a Deloitte survey, 84% of Generation Z and Millennials believe it is their duty to change the world. Because of this, young professionals aren't choosing jobs based on salary alone; they are choosing jobs based on whether particular companies share their personal values. Whether or not you follow that strategy, experiencing different environments, different projects, and different networks will all aid you in understanding more about your own purpose and values. Engaging in additional reflective experiences, such as completing the ChemIDP, can also give you insights that will better define what is important to you. Understanding what you value most can serve as a personal North Star to follow when you are striving to leave a difficult situation or wondering what direction you want to take next in your career.

Finally, value the benefits that having a wide range of experiences will bring you for your whole future career. Even if you haven’t fully understood the value of your past experiences until now, a look at your own CV will tell the story. Your previous education may only take up one, maybe two lines. But what happens when you spend some time thinking about the hundreds of varied experiences behind that one CV entry? Did you discover a new world? Did you enrich yourself socially and expand your network? Did you gain insight into defining your purpose and values? My guess is the answer to all of these questions is yes. 

To show you more specifically what pursuing new experiences can do for you, let me share an example from my own scientific career. I had hit a low point. After spending two years collecting data for a manuscript, I had just had it desk-rejected.  I felt dejected and needed to re-center myself. I did my best to take the same advice I am giving to you here: I worked on collecting some new experiences.

  • I presented the “desk rejected” data at an upcoming conference. (This involved the experience of changing my location for a bit.)
  • I spent time after the talk speaking to colleagues who were new to me. They had questions and, more importantly, they were excited and they encouraged me about the work I was doing. (This gave me the experience of building new connections and benefiting from them.)
  • All of this led me to double down on defining my sense of purpose for the work I do and understanding that there is value in it. (I gained an experience of defining my purpose and values.)

Collectively, changing my location, building new connections, and defining my sense of purpose allowed me to turn my low point around and grow as a scientist.

Finding yourself in a rut now and then is a part of being in science. There will always be an experiment that doesn’t work, a collaboration that doesn’t pan out, or a proposal that doesn’t get funded. However, we also create countless success stories all the time. We overlook them because we don’t naturally think about how we are collecting and using new experiences, and we don’t stop to celebrate the process. Don’t discount your experiences. Instead, think of them as a precious resource you can reflect on when you need a boost, and seek out new ones when you need to be rejuvenated.