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How Silicon Valley design principles can help you pick your post-Ph.D. path

The key to finding a fulfilling career lies in the principles that Silicon Valley innovators use to design products. That’s the premise of a best-selling book by Dave Evans and Bill Burnett, co-founders of the Life Design Lab at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, who have spent nearly a decade teaching students how to navigate life beyond graduation.

The pair—both former Apple Inc. employees—argue that successful career exploration hinges on an iterative process of idea generation and testing. Product designers don’t just think up one design and go with it; they generate multiple ideas and build prototypes to figure out whether they’re viable, tinkering with them along the way. The same principles can be applied to designing and building your career, they say.

This perspective may be particularly relevant for Ph.D. students, who frequently aren’t as proactive as they should be when it comes to career planning, Evans says. By graduation, Ph.D.s have a picture of what it means to be an academic, but they often lack “real-world” experiences to help them consider other career options. “Some Ph.D. candidates will go tenure track and stay there forever and become emeritus and die off-campus and be perfectly happy, but that’s a very dwindling story,” Evans says. So it’s important to explore an array of options, not just the academic track, he adds. Science Careers asked Evans to share his advice for Ph.D. students. This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: What’s the biggest mistake you see among Ph.D. students?

A: In general, Ph.D.s are not well-tooled to explore the world beyond their research field or frankly beyond the shadow of their adviser. They do not have any compelling urgent need because graduation is so far away. And then as it gets closer, students say, “Well, what will I do? I’ll get a postdoc and it will give me a tenure-track opportunity.” For some students, that’s the only path they see.

Q: What’s your advice for those students a year or two out from graduation?

A: Number one: Get curious. Imagine three completely different versions of the next 5 years of your life, what we call “odyssey plans.” They don’t have to be feasible; these are just ideas. Then look at those and ask, “What am I curious about?” Lean into curiosity, first and foremost. Not strategic priority, not risk, not expense; lean into curiosity because that’s where the energy is.

Number two: Talk to people. Get curious about each one of those ideas about your future and go out and start talking to people. Not asking for a job, not asking about pay and benefits, but something along the lines of, “Hey, the commercialization of nanotechnology is starting to really happen; that’s really interesting. Can I buy you a cup of coffee and hear more about what you’re doing with nanotubes?”

Number three: Try stuff. Try before you buy. We strongly encourage a whole portfolio of experiences, including lots of conversations, quick demonstrations, test drives, small projects, all the way up to major projects and maybe even a full internship. What we’re really talking about is getting in-person, hands-on experiences with different aspects of the outside world.

Number four: Tell your story. That’s the least obvious one. Rather than telling someone, “I watched another episode of Homeland last night,” say, “I had coffee with somebody who studies nanotubes the other day and found out things I never knew before. It was just so interesting.” Reflect on what you’re learning. Use these conversations to curate and catalyze further curiosity.

Q: How do you choose among your “odyssey plans”?

A: There is no such thing as one right answer to your life. Bill and I believe that all of us contain more aliveness than one lifetime will permit us to live. In other words, there’s more than one of you in there. There’s three, four, five, six, maybe 15 different Katie’s, all of which are noble, authentic, beautiful to the world, and interesting, and you aren’t going to get around to all of them. So you have to get out there and try these things. You have to test out these possible lives before you commit to them.

Q: What advice do you give to students whose principal investigators (PIs) aren’t supportive of “alternative” career paths?

A: The truth is that many advisers are highly supportive. But the rumor is that unless a student wants to be a tenure-track professional just like their PI, then the adviser will treat the student badly or not give good referrals. There’s enough of that actually going on that even mentioning a desire to explore alternate career paths can trigger a whole series of reactions that the Ph.D. candidate really can’t afford.

Here’s an extreme example: One student who was working with a very famous researcher told me that if you did something other than what the PI had in mind, they would proactively blackball you. So I said in that case we have two choices here. You either have to fake it ‘til you make it—until your dissertation is done and approved, you have to play her game by her rules—or you have to go back to the beginning of the line, find another PI, and start all over again with someone who’s supportive of a different path. You can’t have it both ways. Because you’re not going to change the PI’s mind.

Q: You may not be able to change that particular PI’s mind, but do you see the culture shifting in the long term?

A: Yes. I think reality wins every arm wrestle eventually. It’s a simple fact that there are nowhere near enough tenure-track positions available for all of the Ph.D. candidates we’ve got. So word’s going to get out: We can’t place everybody in the academy. And then there will be more and more students who will graduate and go to these other places, and they will tell their story, and the network of student-to-student communications will make it clear that other careers are out there. But it’s going to be slow. It’s going to be slow.

Q: But you feel optimistic?

A: Very optimistic. I think we’re seeing evolution where more and more PIs will be supportive of alternate pathways. That’s a rapidly rising trend, and it’s very encouraging. But the old guard will be around for a while. These cultures do not change overnight.

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