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Career Choices: Keeping That New Year's Resolution

It's that time of year--New Year's resolutions are already being broken. Our self-improvement goals are either falling by the wayside or losing momentum. My resolution, for instance, was to write this column on weekdays and not spend my weekends working on it. Although I've already broken my resolution (it's the weekend), I'm hoping I can help you get back on track if your resolution for 2003 was to reassess your career goals or make progress toward them.

To this end, I wanted to review some of my favorite career-oriented self-help books. This list isn't intended to be all inclusive; there are many other well-written career books out there. But the ones listed below are just a few that I've found useful. I've put them into two categories: those designed specifically for scientists and those intended for everyone.

Career Books for Scientists

Put Your Science to Work: The Take-Charge Career Guide for Scientists, by Peter S. Fiske (American Geophysical Union, 2001). Hands down, if you are looking for a career guide specifically for young scientists, this entertaining, easy-to-read book by a former Next Wave Tooling Up columnist is the ONE to read. It's a complete guide, covering everything from employment trends to self-assessment to interviewing tips. Even the illustrations make important points.

A Ph.D. Is Not Enough: A Guide to Survival in Science, by Peter J. Feibelman (Perseus Books, Reading, MA, 1993). As the title suggests, this book is for those planning to pursue careers in research science. It's a no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is manual. Some of the advice you'll already know, but Feibelman has a way of reminding you to take that advice and use it. For instance, in addition to stressing the importance of good seminar- presentation skills, he provides tips for developing these skills. If you feel that you need a kick to keep you motivated or want to make sure you are doing the "right things," it may be time to pick up this book.

Guide to Nontraditional Careers in Science, by Karen Young Kreeger (Taylor & Francis, Philadelphia, PA, 1998). This guide's strength is its collection of interviews with scientists who have moved away from the bench into careers in education, policy, law, and business, to name a few. This book offers insight into how people ended up in particular jobs.

General Career Books

What Color Is Your Parachute?, by Richard Nelson Bolles (Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, CA, 2001). This is one of the classic career guides--the book was first published in 1970. It's updated annually, and I suggest you find a recent copy because the book does change some with each edition. My favorite feature is the book's guidance about how to find the job you want. Not only does it provide exercises to help you identify your transferable skills, but it also offers strategies for discovering the particular job you desire.

Do What You Are, by Paul D. Tieger and Barbara Barron-Tieger (Little, Brown, and Company, Boston, MA, 1995). This book is awesome for those who what to learn how to match their personalities to their career goals. Tieger and Barron-Tieger do a nice job of explaining personality typing and what kind of careers may be well suited for a particular personality type. Their case studies later in the book really help you identify with real-life examples of how your personality can influence your happiness in a career.

The Pathfinder, by Nicholas Lore (Simon & Schuster, New York, NY, 1998). I must admit that this book helped me finally take action and make a career change myself. Lore writes as if he is serving as your personal coach. He helps you learn about yourself and about the occupations that might interest you.

Tips for Using Self-Help Books

One thing I've learned over the past few years is not to buy books based on someone else's recommendation. Browse through career books before buying one. That also means skipping the online book seller and going to your local bookstore--or stopping by your university career center--before sinking too much money into career self-help books.

And don't expect a book to give you answers to all your career dilemmas. A book can offer guidance, exercises to complete, and new ideas. But to gain something from a self-help book, you need to do more than just read it. Complete some of the exercises in the book, do a suggested activity, seek other assistance/advice, or conduct informational interviews, for example. Just as you didn't learn math by reading the book--you learned it by doing math problems--you have to do something to learn about yourself or about the world of work.

Finally, don't get overwhelmed by the amount of hard work that many career guides imply it takes to find the perfect job. Don't get me wrong--it's not easy to find a job, particularly if you're changing direction. So, break it down into steps. Do you need to start with a self-assessment to learn more about yourself and your interests? Or do you need to find out about the range of opportunities that are out there? Or do you need practical assistance with revisions on your CV or teaching statement? I know from experience that if you make the time and do the work, you can find yourself in a career that you love!

Other Books

As I've said, the list above is not intended to be exhaustive. Here are a few more books that you might find helpful:

  • Alternative Careers in Science: Leaving the Ivory Tower, by Cynthia Robbins-Roth (ed.), Academic Press, San Diego, CA, 1998

  • Outside the Ivory Tower: A Guide for Academics Considering Alternative Careers, by Margaret Newhouse, Office of Career Services, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, 1993

  • Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers: A Guide for Postdoctoral Scholars, Advisers, Institutions, Funding Organizations, and Disciplinary Societies, by the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 2000

  • On the Market: Surviving the Academic Job Search, by Christina Boufis and Victoria C. Olson (eds.), Riverhead Books, New York City, 1997

  • Careers in Science and Engineering: A student planning guide to grad school and beyond, by the Committee of Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 1996 (targeted to undergraduate students)

You can send e-mail to Kathie at

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