Contemplating careers: stepping stones


Now that I’ve passed the final test of my Ph.D., the question I keep hearing is “what’s next?” Half of these come from friends and colleagues, but the other half comes from the persistent echoes of the question reverberating in my head, which after my defense seemed to empty itself of all substance. It’s a good question. An exciting question. Also a scary question. The wide open future alternately exhilarates and paralyzes me.

There are a couple of big decisions. Academia vs. Industry is the traditional one, but there is also Research vs. Not-research (e.g. education, policy, management), and perhaps Science vs. Not-science. I’ve thought about whether I want to to pursue something outside of science – graphic design, baking, educational games, organic farming – but I’ve since realized that science is definitely one thing that would motivate me in a full-time job. The big picture fascinates me, the intricate details amaze me, and the fact that we can gather and analyze data to make discoveries tickles me.

But I also know that science by itself will not do the trick. This rules out the typical academic and industry jobs. Straight research also doesn’t appeal to me. Ideally, I’d like to find something that combines aspects of science communication, outreach/education, art/design, discovery/analysis, and open science principles, despite my having very little formal experience in most of these things. But I also know that I have a long career ahead of me, and I can shape it as I go. I don’t need to arrive just yet.

So this is my plan to avoid getting overwhelmed. Focus on finishing the Ph.D., most of the time. Work on concrete career-oriented tasks (more on this later), some of the time. Relax, the rest of the time. All of the time, think about everything as a possible stepping stone – useful for getting somewhere, but on no predetermined path.

Obviously I don’t have everything figured out, so please chime in with advice or comments!


9 Responses to Contemplating careers: stepping stones

  1. rpg says:

    I think, if I can offer any advice at all, it would be to realize that what you do next isn’t the End.

    I did a postdoc, a stint in industry, back to academia, moved halfway round the world, and next year I’m heading back to the UK into science publishing.

    Scary, exhilarating, and I’m only just deciding what I want to be when I grow up.

  2. nsaunders says:

    The last think you want is advice from postdocs ;-) but agree with all Richard said, above. None of us work a single job (or even a single career path) our entire lives any more. You’ll never have as much freedom to be mobile and try a few things as you have at the beginning, so make the most of it.

    I guess my advice is: think in terms of skills, not specific jobs. As a bioinformatician you have some great transferable skills – programming, ability to handle large amounts of information efficiently and make decisions, math/stats skills. That opens up possibilities in any many fields, from basic IT employment to government departments to any organisation that processes data and acts upon the results.

    On top of that, you clearly have some great communication and outreach skills, as shown by your online activity (and as I know in person!), plenty of possibilities there.

    Really, it’s a balance between not worrying about it too much and not finding yourself adrift in 10 years time. The postdoc treadmill is a sure path to the latter destination if you’re not careful, so I’m glad you’re not interested in that route :-)

  3. Pingback: Thesis reflections « What You’re Doing Is Rather Desperate

  4. Deepak says:

    Go with your gut and don’t be too afraid. You will have ample opportunity to do that later in life. When I went for my first industry job, I went to a startup in an exciting new field, yet doing the kind of work that was somewhat familiar. Never thought at the time that my next job would be in product management/product marketing, or that 5 years later I would be a a cloud computing provider. Exploring is half, so when opportunities present themselves, take full advantage. You never know if that will happen again.

  5. One of the things I thought about some time ago was how to integrate different areas of interests into a coherent career – it’s pretty much what you wrote. From what I see we’re not the only ones who have this kind of aspirations, so if you have any more ideas, let us all know – I still haven’t figured it out. :)

  6. shwu says:

    Thanks, all! It’s funny how everyone keeps saying “you’re young! you have so much time to explore and enjoy yourself!” and yet I’m starting to feel *slightly* old, mostly because it’s taken me 10 years to get to the same point I was at 10 years ago. ;) But hopefully now I have a more powerful springboard. I think something I am really looking forward to is *being part of something*.

  7. rpg says:

    I’m 40 next year, and I’m changing career. You’ll be fine :)

  8. megan says:

    Did you think of someplace like the Exploratorium? That would be a good combo of your interests. I used to know a scientist who worked there, maybe I could hook you up, if hooking needs to happen.

  9. Steve Koch says:

    Great post and good advice from people. You said, “This rules out the typical academic and industry jobs…Ideally, I’d like to find something that combines aspects of science communication, outreach/education, art/design, discovery/analysis, and open science principles…” That statement struck me, because your desires seem to me to fit well with an academic career.

    Also, nsaunders talked about skills, which reminded me of a lecture I have been giving on the last day of class here. I talk about “talents” being the key to success and happiness in your career and I use the context of two trendy business books (“Good to Great,” Collins and “First Breat All the Rules” Buckingham). You could use this point in your career (finishing up the Ph.D.) to try a variation of the “Sunday Night Blues Test” to identify your strongest talents, and then assess which career steps will let you use those talents. (Wish I knew how to put hyperlinks in this comment so I could link to a page in that book.) Basically you can ask yourself which activities during your Ph.D. you are most sad to see ending…and then look for what talents you have which made you enjoy those activities…

    Maybe this link will work, it’s the last “homework” assignment I gave my conceptual physics students. Maybe you could tweak it for your own purposes :)

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