Mixed impressions about your ‘dream job’ should not let you down when they do not match your initial expectations, says Gaia Donati.
Guest contributor Gaia Donati.
Planning a career path is a bit like committing to a relationship – you go through phases. First comes the infatuation, leading you to enthusiastically catch any opportunity to establish contacts and gain experience in your chosen sector. As you discover previously unsuspected facets of your ‘dream job’, a few doubts arise: you may find out that the competition is fiercer than you expected, that permanent positions are scarce or that it will take years for you to earn a decent salary. All of a sudden you question your choice altogether, and you are left with a menacingly dark cloud over your head.
Having defended my PhD thesis in experimental quantum optics at the end of July, the idea of my ‘dream career path’ must now become real – it’s time to find that job. I decided I would look into a career in science publishing and journalism, but as I moved the first steps in this direction I found myself surrounded by doubts and unknowns: do I wish to leave academia? What if I keep hopping from one internship to another?
After a few years in the laboratory and a stint at cutting-edge research for my PhD project, I ruled out the postdoc option. My future occupation should combine my love for science with my passion for communicating scientific advances to wider audiences; as a journalist, I may stand a better chance to find a rewarding balance. Following this decision, I have gradually put myself to the test: I collaborated with student-run science magazines and set up my own blog. I expanded my network of contacts by joining Twitter (very much in use among the media community) and attending events aimed at aspiring science writers and communicators.
Getting out there, as they say, brought in the first cold showers. It soon became clear that journalism is a tough profession: tight deadlines, limited earnings and a somewhat bumpy career progression. Some advised that I should enroll on a science communication masters programme. Others affirmed that this wasn’t the only route into the sector. Listening to different opinions is insightful, but it hasn’t prevented me from questioning my choice: in a crowd of professional and to-be journalists, there are times when I feel closer to the scientists who taught me so much than to those who could become my colleagues.
I may not have been prepared for my first contact with the job market, but I now know that to be successful in finding my future occupation I must rely on some general principles – just like in experimental physics.
Should you stay or should you go? If you tried your hand at research throughout your degree and enjoyed it, leaving academia may not be an easy decision. Consider all aspects that matter to you, from work-life balance to job security; imagine yourself in different working environments.
Look out for alternative perspectives. Talk to people who have already made up their mind either way: you can learn from their experience, and you get to enjoy a break from your personal conundrum.
If you conclude that academia is not your first choice…
Expect the unexpected. Mixed impressions about your ‘dream job’ should not let you down when they do not match your initial expectations: this precious information allows you to continuously update the picture of your future profession and adjust your strategy when searching for a job.
Be prepared for change. The attitude to work and the professional codes of conduct can be quite different out there, so give yourself some time to acclimatize.
Keep your options open. If a job opening looks promising although it doesn’t exactly match your ideal, send off your application! If you narrow down your options too early you will miss the chance to gain useful work experience… Or discover a career path which didn’t feature in your initial plans.
Doubts probably won’t stop as you land your first real job: you will re-evaluate your choices and the criteria that determined them. However, as with all relationships – if your choice can still spark your interest and stand the test of the daily routine, then I guess you’re on the right path.
Gaia Donati is a winner of the 2015 London Naturejobs Career Expo journalism competition, and has studied physics in Rome, Italy. She is now about to complete her PhD in quantum optics and quantum information at the University of Oxford, UK. She enjoys learning languages and the names of trees (but she suspects that the latter are much more challenging than the former), and she publishes science-related posts on her blog, A quantum of science.