Collect data on yourself before choosing a career.
Contributor Thi Nguyen
In working with graduate students and postdocs who are choosing between two possible career paths, one ironic challenge we discuss is how their rigorous training has prepared them to perform well in a wide range of fields. PhDs problem solve, think critically, synthesize and present information, analyze data, write technically and creatively, and work independently and in teams. But I remind them using a baseball analogy, that just because they can throw and catch a ball doesn’t mean that they will be as happy, or skilled at, playing the team’s pitcher as they would be playing second base.
To choose the career path that’s a better fit, it’s essential to spend time making an informed decision. They often need to reframe their “I could do anything” attitude, and ask themselves what they want to do. That means figuring out what daily interactions and activities energize and motivate them. Then use this self-knowledge to critically assess whether Career A (or B) more closely fits those details. To help them get started, I share three tactics to frame the decision making process.
Get into the details
Someone once told me, “a job is just another name for 20 tasks you do daily.” Career satisfaction is correlated with making sure you enjoy, or are good at, a majority of those tasks. (Online tools are available to help you assess your skills, values and interests such as myIDP by ScienceCareers.org). Identifying tasks you enjoy generally, such as communicating your science, is a good start. Now get into the details: will your audience comprise scientists or health and business professionals? Are you primarily at the bench, in meetings, or out on the road? Are the teams you want to work with groups of two or three, or larger? These job details will provide colour, and give you a fuller picture of the career. So find out about the most frequent daily tasks you’d perform on the job. Sometimes the ultimate decision may come down to one key detail.
Once you’ve determined the workplace values and skills important to you, gather information to determine whether you will enjoy and be good at the job. Use the scientific method. Make your hypothesis: Career A will not give me job satisfaction. Then set out to reject the null hypothesis. Don’t rely on information from a single person; increase your N until you start hearing the same information from multiple people. Create a list of questions that reflect your biggest concerns, and gaps in knowledge, and talk to alumni, field-specific professionals, colleagues and career center staff (if your institution has one). I often encourage students and postdocs to use social networking sites to connect with professionals, and recommend the following resources for using Twitter and LinkedIn, and tips for setting up a LinkedIn profile.
Get comfortable with your decision
In Put Your Science to Work Peter Fiske talks about how the decision-making process and impending professional change can be disorienting and provoke a number of emotions. The anxiety that scientists experience as they decide on the next ‘right’ career is often rooted in the Sunk Cost Fallacy–an economic term that explains how an unrecoverable investment (of time, finances, and/or emotion) influences future decision-making. In the career world, this thinking leads people to stay in jobs longer. Having spent so much time and energy (sunk cost) in academic training or career exploration, grad students and postdocs I’ve talked to often struggle with the question, what if I make the wrong choice? The fear of making the wrong decision causes them to delay making a decision at all.
At this point, I often share that in my experience, moving on may be a good first step as long as they first evaluate if the career allows them to perform tasks they enjoy, and in an environment that rewards their work values. Both Career A and B will present opportunities to develop professional skills, find mentors and build their network. I encourage them to focus on the skills they’ll gain and the people they will connect with in the new field or organization.