Nature Chemistry | The Sceptical Chymist

Materials Girl: What now?

Editor’s note: This post was written in November 2014, near the start of the current school year.

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With graduation looming ahead (and a birthday this past Halloween), I have been pondering the great and terrible question of: What do I want to be when I grow up? Or, in more adult terms, what are my career aspirations? The short answer is that I have no clue. My younger self thought that I’d have everything figured out by the ripe old age of 27 — but alas, no.

Being a student has given me the luxury of relative stability and persistent short-term ‘career’ goals. Aside from research, grad student duties/hurdles have a distinct end: classes wrap up with finals every term, preliminary exams are a one-day ordeal (or two, for the unlucky; more, for the unworthy), and heaven help you if the 2 hour qualifying exam is failed. Once I step out of academia’s familiar bubble, life becomes significantly bigger and less defined. ‘Find a job’ is a simple instruction, but one that inevitably comes with countless questions and hours of searching (plus rejection and re-searching). It can even be daunting to choose between the broad categories of industry, academia, or government careers.

Before hyperventilation sets in, it helps to consider that I know several things. Literally, I’ve learned a handful of things about science and engineering. More figuratively, I have a few notions of what my future aspirations might be. My years as a student, TA, and graduate researcher have taught me much — in addition to pointing out the fact that I know just a miniscule iota of THINGS in general. I have an unshakable love for science, dabbling in the lab, and teaching/mentoring. Consolidating these into a clear path is the unfamiliar part, as is finding job postings that match the particular skill set I’ve acquired. (Not to worry, I’m told, just rely on networking and employer flexibility.) Status and wealth mean little to me. My drive is to do something scientifically interesting, and to do it well — provided there’s a good dash of challenge and relevance to the betterment of society. Good goals, I think, but still vague overall.

Owing to an unusually wide range of research projects and ensuing exposure to many experimental techniques, my CV might be summarized as ‘jack-of-all-trades and potential master-of-some’ or ‘not an idiot; eager to learn more’ (if you’ll excuse my traditionally morbid sense of humor). For now this is leading me to pursue jobs of various shape/form/size, while unsure of what I’d truly like to do.

Returning to the notion of having things figured out or not, I’ve lately been seeking out my ‘elders’ in various disciplines to discuss their career paths. Regardless of age, background, or position in life, there seems to be an underlying current of chance. Few individuals with STEM jobs have followed a predetermined path, or had specific goals for each step of their careers — they just pursued opportunities as they arose.

This gives me hope. Knowing my capabilities is groundwork for the future, even if the exact trajectory is in question. Major life changes are fast approaching, and all of us antsy doctoral candidates should revel in what’s ahead instead of dreading the unknown. Onwards, and upwards! (And now, back to writing things that aren’t blog posts.)


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