Career Paths

“What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?” Finding Your Career Path As a Scientist

Brittany Trang

When I graduated with my bachelor’s degree, I used to joke that I was going to grad school so that, unlike my friends who had to go out and get jobs, I wouldn’t have to figure out “what I want to be when I grow up” for another five years.

I’m in my fourth year of graduate school, and I still don’t know what I want to do. I recently asked myself where I wanted to be in 10 years, and all I could come up with was that I wanted “a fulfilling job.” If you are a graduate student or postdoc, or even a mid-career chemist who still struggles with this question, you are definitely not alone.

So, how do you figure out what you want to do? And after that, how do you get there? I talked to three STEM Ph.D. experts with a variety of life experiences to learn the essentials of choosing a career path and connecting with people who can help you achieve your goals.

Start With Self-Reflection

As Dr. Joerg Schlatterer, manager of the Student and Postdoctoral Scholars Office at ACS, began transitioning from a postdoc to a faculty position at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, the dean of the graduate school asked him to take a part-time role in the graduate and postdoctoral affairs program, which Schlatterer had volunteered with as a postdoc. As he spent more time organizing career and professional development programs, he realized that he might like administrative work more than research.

Schlatterer shared, “At some point, I woke up and I thought, ‘It’s weird; I just think about other students and the postdocs, and then after the second cup of coffee, I think about my research. What does that mean? Does it really mean that I should actually look more into that career direction?’”

Reflecting on your values, your interests, and your strengths can help guide your career direction. For example, if you realize you’re more passionate about helping people than doing lab work, an administrative role in higher education or a scientific society may better allow you to reach your goals of having a positive impact on other people.

Also, reflect upon tangible factors, such as what kind of work environment you need, your visa status, or other life circumstances, such as your partner or family. Dr. Arthee Jahangir, Assistant Director of Postdoctoral Affairs at NYU’s School of Medicine, says, “Don’t ignore things about your life that are unrelated to your science but that you need to make you happy.”

Resources for Self-Reflection and Career Exploration

  • ChemIDP: An Individual Development Planning tool can help you assess your skills and explore new careers. ACS has formulated this one specifically for chemists.
  • Professional societies: ACS offers career consulting for help with mock interviews, resume reviews, and more, and they now hold virtual open office hours. ACS also posts Chemist Profiles of chemists in many industries that may spark your imagination.
  • Academic or Chem Twitter: If you follow the right people and pay attention, you can learn a lot about different scientists’ paths, get support from other Ph.D. students, and even network. (I first found my Ph.D. adviser through Twitter, and I also found pitch calls for my first two published pieces there!)
  • Your department or grad and postdoc office: If you’re interested in something, organizations within your department may be able to arrange for experts to hold informational sessions and other events addressing that topic.
  • Science Alliance: Science Alliance offers many professional development events and workshops through the New York Academy of Sciences.
  • Next Gen Ph.D.: A Guide to Career Paths in Science: This book by Melanie Sinche is a manual for science Ph.D.s who haven’t had good career counseling or who want more mentorship in this area.

Conduct Informational Interviews

If you’re exploring new careers, informational interviews are gold. Talking with someone in a career you’re interested in can give you insights that you can’t find through a search engine.

Informational interviews let you ask knowledgeable people questions such as:

  • What are your day-to-day responsibilities?
  • How did you get where you are?
  • What are the job’s advantages and disadvantages?
  • What experience do I need to qualify for the position?
  • Do you have any advice for people who want to follow in your footsteps?

In particular, talking to people with whom you have some sort of connection may allow you to have more personal, honest interactions on topics like salary, liking or disliking a job or company, and personality fit.

Other people to interview may include speakers who’ve visited your department, people you’ve met through past research labs or internships, and people you’ve met at networking events. If you’d like to talk to someone you’ve never met before, a cold e-mail may work, but be sure to be courteous, and don’t be discouraged if the person fails to reply.

Dr. Corinne Allen, a technology-to-market Project Manager at the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, says the informational interview exercise that was most helpful to her was framing all the information she received through the lens of the question, “What’s your ideal job description?” She recommends trying to figure out every bullet point on that job posting. Allen asks, “If you had to put together something that would make the hair on the back of your neck stand up, what would that look like?”

Informational interviews can also help you decide what you don’t want to do. If there’s a job you’re sort of interested in, but you learn that it requires gaining experience you know you do not want to spend time getting, then you can cross that possibility off your list. On the other hand, Allen points out that if you realize you’re willing to do something for a given amount of time or for a certain amount of money, knowing that is also helpful and allows you to be open to opportunities when they arise.

More Tips For Requests for Informational Interviews

  • Get a name drop from someone you know. If you can say “Dr. So-And-So told me I should speak with you about [topic],” the chances of someone you don’t know replying to you are much higher. Another personal connection, such as, “We met last year at X event,” or, “I’m a student at [university the person also graduated from]” also helps. 
  • Make it easy for the person to read your e-mail. Don’t write a five-paragraph e-mail to a busy person. Quickly explain who you are, why you’re writing, and what you want. If you would like to arrange a call, be specific, but flexible: “Would you be interested in setting up a time to chat in the next week or two?” 
  • Follow up. If you haven’t received a reply in a week, it is appropriate to resend the e-mail as a nudge in case the original got lost in the individual’s in-box.
  • Realize that some people might prefer an old-fashioned phone call. “Zooms that could have been a phone call” are the new “meetings that could have been an e-mail.” People are Zoomed-out. Give the person the option of a phone call, especially if this would have been a phone call before video meetings became the norm during the pandemic. 

Find Opportunities That Will Advance Your Career Goals

“Well, Joerg, is that really what you want to do?” Schlatterer’s second postdoc adviser asked him.

Schlatterer was about to take a faculty position at a primarily undergraduate institution (PUI). He was excited about the prospect of a faculty salary and the opportunity to do research with his own students. But one of his goals was to return to his home country of Germany at some point in his life. His adviser pointed out that he would gain a lot of teaching experience at a PUI and asked if that was a skill that was valued in his home country and would help him transition back.

“Nope,” Schlatterer said, and he decided not to take the job.

Being very clear about your long-term goals lets you make the best of unexpected opportunities, which are especially prevalent in the uncertain job market. If you run into an opportunity that differs from what you originally envisioned for your path, ask yourself, “If I do this for a couple of years, which other doors open through this experience?” Being adaptable, flexible, and resilient are key, says Schlatterer.

Find Your Networking Confidence

As much as scientists love to hate networking, it is an important part of finding a job.

“Business loves saying ‘your network is your net worth,’ and, uh, that **** is real,” says Allen. “I didn’t interview for the job I currently have, and I’m hoping I will never have to interview again. All of my last jobs all came out of random connections that I had.”

Even though networking seems like a business term for business people, it’s important for scientists, too. Keep in mind that networking’s purpose is to meet people and get to know each other well enough that when someone has an opportunity, you will be remembered as a good fit for their needs. Networking doesn’t have to be scary. 

Allen points out that, “If you do your networking right and make it clear what you’re open to or don’t want, people are generally willing to help out and very much want to help fit you with an organization that needs your skill set.”

On the other hand, if you are applying for jobs and regret that you don’t know anyone at the organization you’re applying to, do not despair. Schlatterer says he always thought that most job postings were already earmarked for someone the employer knew, but that’s a misconception. He got two positions by applying to job announcements without knowing anyone involved, and he encourages people to try the regular application process.

Advice for Networking

Editor’s Note: As we publish this article, face-to-face networking is still not taking place because of the pandemic. However, as vaccines become more widely available, there is hope of in-person events resuming in the foreseeable future. We decided to include this list to help you prepare for that time, and we have noted ways to adapt some of these strategies for virtual meetings.

  • Don’t force yourself to interact with everybody at a networking event if that’s not your style. Go for 10 minutes, canvas the room, and reassess whether you want to stay there. 
  • If you know that people you want to talk to will be there, be sure to make your way over to them and introduce yourself.
  • If you have a request, make that clear up front. However, it’s generally not good to start a conversation this way. People tend to be much more receptive if you only want to learn from them or say hi. This is equally true for in-person and virtual meetings. 
  • When finding people to talk to, look for a group of at least three people. You will feel less like you’re forcing yourself in because at least one of the three people will not be talking.
  • Think of a storyline or marketing angle to help the people you meet recall you. A memorable business card, a fact people will remember about you, or a good handshake will work. (If the pandemic doesn’t kill the handshake!) A unique virtual business card will also make a good impression.
  • At the end of conversations, ask, “Is there anybody else you think I should talk to?” or “Is there anything I haven’t asked that you think I should know?”
  • If you get someone’s contact information, foster a relationship. Send an e-mail stating your name, where you met, and what you discussed at the networking event (in case the person doesn’t remember you). Send an article you talked about or ask to meet over coffee (or over the phone) to talk about the individual’s position, company, and experience in the field. 

You’re Always a Scientist

Finding a job as you are finishing your Ph.D. or postdoc can be exhausting; don’t worry or think your perfect or imperfect first job will determine the course of your life. “Getting your first job is the hardest because somebody really has to take a leap of faith in you,” Jahangir says. “I'm speaking to these highly functional perfectionist scientists: Don't think that you need to get the best job ever as your first job. You need somebody to take that leap of faith and [let] you get your foot in the door. That's when you'll see a lot of the barriers start to fall.”

Jahangir also has some words of wisdom for scientists considering leaving the lab. “If you're worried about leaving the bench, you should be more worried about whether or not you're doing something that brings you happiness and satisfaction in your life. You're always a scientist, no matter what you do; because it's a way of thinking, and it's a way of life. Don’t let that trip you up.”