Career Advice

Where Do I Go From Here?

Lisa M. Balbes

One of the hardest parts of being a graduate student or postdoctoral researcher is knowing that your position is temporary. No matter how good you are at your job (and “graduate student” is a job!), you are always worried about where you are going to go next. However, in order to find your next job, you have to determine what you want to do, and that’s not always easy.

As a grad student or postdoc researcher, you spend your days (and maybe some nights and weekends) doing a wide va­riety of tasks. Over the course of a day, week, or month, you do many different things—some you enjoy, some you’re really good at, and some you dread. So, is there a way you can use what you’re already doing to inform your decision about to where to go next? It turns out there is. Thinking about how you spend your time and how you feel about your various tasks can point you toward your next career.

One great way to start making sense of your time and tasks is by collecting the data. For a few weeks, write down everything you do, how long you spend doing it, how it turns out, and how you feel about it. You can create a spreadsheet, download a time tracking app for your smartphone, or use an old-fashioned pen­cil and paper—just find a system that you will use.

Once you have a substantial list of tasks, start ranking them by what you enjoy most. Which tasks can you not wait to get to, and which ones do you put off? Which ones do you spend lots of extra time on, and which ones do you try to get done as quickly as possible? Which ones do others tell you that you’re good at, and what kinds of things do they ask you for help with? The idea is to get to the root of what you really enjoy, and then find a career path that will let you do that.

Suppose you find that your top-rated tasks include:

  • Review progress reports from students you supervise or mentor
  • Provide advice about possible next career steps to undergrads or graduate students
  • Run problem-solving sessions
  • Develop teaching aids (worksheets, study guides)
  • Plan and conduct science outreach activity for a local elementary school
  • Give tours and meet with potential grad­uate students on visitation weekends

What do all the above tasks have in common? They all involve working with students, guiding and mentoring them. Is this your true passion? Do you find you drop whatever you are doing when one of your students shows up with a question? Are you just as proud of your students’ successes as you are of your own? Do you get your deepest satisfaction when a struggling student grasps a difficult concept? Do you think of them as “your” students and miss them in those semesters when you don’t teach? If so, you need to find a career path that lets you work with students. Possibly this would be as a professor or an instructor, most likely at a primarily undergraduate university or community college, where you would work closely with students), but have you considered a position as a career counselor or direc­tor of outreach at a science museum or nonprofit organization or teaching at the K-12 level? Even some for-profit companies have staff to coordinate their community involvement programs, sometimes as a piece of a more tradi­tional position.

In order to find your next job, you have to determine what you want to do, and that’s not always easy.

What if your list of favorite tasks looks like this?

  • Peruse peer-reviewed literature for the latest research in your and related fields
  • Identify potential scientific collaborators
  • Attend departmental seminars with
  • Set goals and follow through on long-term projects
  • Attend professional conferences and listen to cutting-edge science talks
  • Check the university calendar for interesting events

If these are the kinds of things you enjoy doing, a career in scien­tific publishing may be right for you. Publishing companies hire acquisitions editors to keep up on new trends and topics in particular areas, to know who is working in those areas, to develop relationships with potential authors or editors, and to guide books and authors through the publication process. This is not proofreading for typographical er­rors or copyediting to address grammar, form, and clarity. Rather, it’s watching the frontiers of scientific knowledge and working with subject matter experts to make the published landscape match the scientific one.

However, if you enjoy doing the types of things in the list above, but only for a very narrowly defined sub­ject area, you may want to be a subject matter expert, instead of working with many areas. If your passion is know­ing everything that is going on relating to a particular disease, from academic research to clinical trials to translational medicine, then medical science liaison may be the career for you.

How about the person who enjoys these tasks?

  • Perform regular and routine mainte­nance on laboratory equipment
  • Troubleshoot issues with specific instrumentation
  • Develop new methods to extend a par­ticular technology to new applications
  • Train others to use a specific device

Are you the department’s “go to” person for a specific instrument? Do you enjoy pushing the equipment to the edge of its capabilities and applying it in new ways? Although early on you were mainly concerned about getting your results, you may realize that now you are more interested how a particular technology can be extended or applied in a practical setting. If so, you could investigate a career involving design­ing, building, servicing, or selling in­strumentation.

Or finally, what about the person, whose list looks like this?

  • Update current collaborators about your progress
  • Negotiate with your adviser for time off and financing to attend a conference
  • Negotiate time on the departmental NMR with your co-worker
  • Attend local meetings of professional organizations and network
  • Point co-workers to appropriate resources

Do you spend a lot of time connect­ing people with other people? Maybe you don’t know the answers to their questions, but you always know where to send them to find out. The role of a technology transfer strategist would let you use those abilities: knowing the landscape of a particular field, and con­necting those inventing new technolo­gies with those who have the desire and resources to commercialize them.

There are a huge number of ac­tivities that chemists might engage in professionally, and a smaller subset that they actually enjoy. Once you have as­sembled the list of your tasks, rank them according to how much you enjoy them, and then start thinking about what is it about that grouping that speaks to you. How might they all fit together into a career path that will let you do more of the things you enjoy, and less of the ones you do not? Seek out professional organizations and local experts to learn more about what a particular career re­ally entails, and find out about related fields of which you may be unaware. Just as important, find out what ad­ditional knowledge or skills you would need to be competitive in that area. If those are also things you feel excited and energized about learning, you just may have found your career path.

 

Your list will probably include things like these

  • Check status of reaction, instrument, or simulation that ran overnight
  • Work up or purify reaction products
  • Run analytical tests on products to characterize them
  • Analyze results and compare results to expectations
  • Create graphs and calculate the margin of error
  • Determine why the results didn’t come out as expected
  • Repeat the experiment to confirm results
  • Review your lab notebook and standard operating proce­dures (SOPs) for procedural errors
  • Study and prepare for qualifying exams
  • Prepare the research proposal and presentation for your entranc
  • Plan your next experiment and the next steps in your project
  • Review your plan with your adviser and convince him or her of its validity
  • Order reagents
  • Clean glassware and dispose of waste
  • Attend safety training
  • Collect required materials and supplies
  • Set up the next experiment
  • Write the next draft of a paper for submission to a journal
  • Check the deadline and specifications, then edit a poster for an upcoming conference
  • Make transportation and hotel reservations for the conference
  • Meet with the university’s technology transfer office to talk about possible commercial applications of your work
  • Review the patent application for technical accuracy
  • Review a section of a grant proposal for your adviser
  • Guide your direct reports regarding appropriate next steps in their work
  • Give tours or meet with potential graduate students on visitation weekends
  • Write letters of recommendation
  • Attend a group meeting and present your progress
  • Discuss (negotiate?) your proposed graduation date with you
  • Attend professor’s lectures for class you are TA-ing
  • Prepare undergraduate labs you are teaching, including creating unknowns
  • Maintain laboratory instrumentation
  • Troubleshoot equipment
  • Prepare introductory lecture and problem sets for a course you are TA-ing
  • Proctor exams
  • Grade quizzes, tests, problem sets, exams, and lab reports
  • Explain your research to your nonscientific friends
  • Plan logistics for an upcoming graduate student associa­tion event
  • Contact potential speakers for an upcoming seminar series