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Finding your way to satisfying work

How can young scientists find their way to suitable and satisfying work? According to National Science Foundation data, only 7% of life science Ph.D.s now attain, within 5 years of finishing their degree, the tenure or tenure-track jobs that many so want. And their professors, having spent entire careers in academe, often lack the knowledge and experience needed to advise them on finding nonacademic jobs. Career counselor Melanie Sinche, however, has spent 2 decades helping scientists at institutions including the University of North Carolina, Harvard University, and the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine navigate the job market. In her recently published book, Next Gen PhD: A Guide to Career Paths in Science, she distills what she has learned, presenting clear-eyed guidance so that motivated individuals can make their own way.

Job satisfaction, she makes clear, is a highly realistic goal, even if the classic faculty career generally is not. This heartening conclusion comes from a survey that Sinche conducted of 4028 scientists who received their Ph.D.s between 2004 and 2014 and have done a postdoc. The study’s single most revealing data point is that the respondents likeliest to be “very satisfied” with their current positions are those “not employed in a faculty position,” 41% of whom reported that highest degree of satisfaction. Another 40% called themselves “satisfied.” These satisfaction levels are quite close to those of tenured and tenure-track faculty, 38% of whom reported they are “very satisfied” and 47% “satisfied.”

And there’s more good news: The key to succeeding in the quest for satisfying work, Sinche says, is gathering and interpreting information, which Ph.D.s and postdocs are already very good at. But, she warns, finding one’s way to a satisfying job takes a good deal of systematic work, and without proper guidance, people often go about it wrong, leading to frustration and failure. Many plunge directly into a job search, sending off resumes or answering ads without doing the groundwork that can greatly increase the chances that potential employers will notice them, decide to hire them, and offer them jobs that suit their particular needs.

Getting the right start

Basic to mastering the job market, Sinche believes, is self-knowledge, which she calls the “key to success, satisfaction and long-term stability in a job.” In fact, “[s]elf-assessment is the first, and arguably the most critical, step in the career planning process,” she writes. Satisfying work should feed one’s interests and use one’s skills, but even more basically, “individuals typically thrive in careers that are also a match with their personal values.” Among the most fundamental things an individual needs to understand, therefore, are his or her own basic values.

As we have repeatedly reported, research finds that graduate students’ and postdocs’ values vary widely across a range of issues. Some believe their work’s most important goal is advancing knowledge for its own sake, while others prioritize societal concerns such as contributing to social justice, helping fight climate change, seeking to cure disease, or educating the next generation. Some are willing to sacrifice personal or family life to scientific progress or career advancement; others are not. Some seek high income, while others give little thought to financial rewards. Taking the time to clarify what is important in one’s own life—and will be important in making a career satisfying and sustainable—clarifies the decision-making process that leads to finding and accepting a compatible job.

Yet, Sinche notes, “[i]n American culture we rarely slow down enough to do the kind of introspective work required to identify our most salient values.” Furthermore, “exploring your personality, your interests, your skills, and your values … can be a daunting task for some, perhaps even more so for scientists, [who] are committed to logic and assessing data objectively.” To help counter that tendency, the book provides straightforward paper-and-pencil exercises that ease the tasks of self-examination and developing and organizing the information needed for each stage of the career development plan.

When done well, self-examination forms a solid foundation for the next three stages in the career development program that Sinche recommends, and has seen work many times over. The subsequent stages—career exploration, goal setting, and job search—“are vastly more concrete” than self-assessment and, gratifyingly, involve the Ph.D.’s “well-honed research skills (to explore or apply for jobs) and … organizational skills (mapping out your goals and documenting your progress).”

Moving forward

After completing the self-assessment stage, including evaluating relevant interests and skills, the program moves on to career exploration, during which job seekers identify occupations that align with the particular combination of interests, skills, and values that the self-assessment has revealed. After identifying potentially compatible careers, attention turns to learning about and acquiring the qualifications needed to become a plausible job candidate—which for jobs outside academe generally do not include a postdoc but may include knowledge and experience gained through courses, volunteering, internships, or other means. The program’s final stage, the job search, includes seeking out specific employers and openings and, ideally, ends with an appropriate offer.

For each step, Sinche provides detailed guidance on how to find the necessary information, make the needed contacts, create suitable and convincing documents, succeed at interviews and negotiations, and make the transition to the new position. She gives detailed answers to a broad variety of questions: What, exactly, is the difference between a CV and a resume, and when should you use each? What do you write in a cover letter? How do you contact strangers to get information about careers? How can you decipher a job advertisement, and what should go into the resulting application letter? How do you tailor a resume to a particular opening? What should you wear to an interview? What questions should you be ready to answer?

Then—when the right offer arrives and has been negotiated and accepted and the scientist actually embarks on a new, post-academic career—comes the final, important but sometimes difficult task of adopting a new identity to fit the new activities and surroundings. Leaving academe may bring “an acute sense of loss for abandoning” a dream that did not come true, Sinche writes. She offers no exercises to help ease this shift, but rather sympathetic advice: “Take the time you need to grieve the loss of this identity. … Whether you had the time of your life during your graduate work and postdoctoral training or found it arduous and could not wait for it to be finished, you need to take some mental time and space to recognize that this change is a substantial one.” Keeping in touch with old friends; spending free time on endeavors that you enjoy; and, if necessary, “see[ing] a therapist if you are no longer enjoying your time at work or outside of work” will help, she adds.

If you “[i]dentify and focus on those parts of your new job that bring you joy … the transition will be easier.” No one has ever arrived at a new place without leaving behind an old one. And, Sinche assures the reader, “[f]inding a career that fits who you are and what you enjoy” is not only possible, but ultimately “worth the effort.”

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