Before choosing a new career path, take the time to get to know yourself, and you may be surprised at how well things fall into place.
Naturejobs journalism competition winner Mary Gearing
Any career, scientific or otherwise, is the product of choices. In my own path in science, the first set of choices was clear: major in biology, conduct undergraduate research, enroll in a PhD program. This was a comforting, well-trodden path, but it left me unprepared to make the next big decision: my post-PhD direction. Now, as I near the end of my graduate studies, I’ve realized that this decision is much simpler than I thought. The most important tool for a career change is self-awareness – the willingness to analyze yourself as thoroughly as you would any key experiment.
When I filled out an individual development plan (IDP) in my third year of graduate school, I could feel impostor syndrome kick in quickly. Assessing my skills in key areas like “critical evaluation of scientific literature” or “creativity/innovative thinking” required a true, humbling honesty that I hadn’t learned in graduate school. Like an article picked apart in journal club, I started to see my many weaknesses. Though it wasn’t all bad news – I found a few bright spots of expertise, mostly in areas related to science presentation and communication.
Once I moved on to the interests and value assessments of the IDP, I recognized that my strongest skills aligned well with what I enjoy and value most. I had been so obsessed with being the perfect graduate student that I hadn’t realized I didn’t need to be an expert in everything. Completing an IDP showed me that I could pick and choose which aspects of science I found most appealing and then build my career around those elements. I didn’t need to try to check every box for an academic career that didn’t fit me. My IDP results suggested instead that I would enjoy a career in science communication.
Of course, true self-awareness requires more than just completing a survey – practical experience is key to making sure you’re on the right track. A nearby college was looking for adjuncts, so I signed up to teach a laboratory course for undergraduates. It went well, but I wasn’t hooked. Next, I found a part-time science writing internship at Addgene alongside my PhD, creating blog posts to help other scientists learn more about their resources. A year later, I’m still writing for them, and I think I’ve found my calling. I’ve realized that bench research isn’t the best way for me to contribute to science, and I now have a new plan to help me make an impact.
Since I’ve zeroed in on my new path, I’ve relied on self-awareness to keep pushing me to develop new skills during my studies. Reading popular science was once a hobby, but now I take it as seriously as my lab work, dissecting how others turn complicated ideas into clear, concise prose. I’ve started learning more about graphic design, a field well outside my comfort zone, to help me visually convey information. My weaknesses once seemed insurmountable, but when viewed in the context of my strengths, they’re simply areas for growth and improvement.
Scientific training has many pluses, but it doesn’t teach us to know what we really want in a career. It’s common to get stuck at the bench simply because it’s hard to imagine doing anything else. To chart a course for my new career, I needed to take a deep look inside myself to understand what I love about science. That self-analysis has helped me find my voice and set me on a new, exciting path.
Mary Gearing is a PhD student in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences program at Harvard University. Her research focus is lipid metabolism in diabetes. She currently writes for Addgene, the PLOS Early Career Research Community, and Harvard’s Science in the News. Follow her on Twitter @megearing.