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Making Sense of Your Self-Assessment

This is the fifth article in a series designed to help you create an Individual Development Plan (IDP) using myIDP, a new Web-based career-planning tool created to help graduate students and postdocs in the sciences define and pursue their career goals. To learn more about myIDP and begin the career exploration and planning process, please visit:

By now, we hope you have worked through some of the myIDP tool, and you might be wondering, "I've compiled a lot of really interesting self-assessment information about my skills, my interests, and my values … but how will these data be useful to me?" The purpose of this article is to help you answer that important question by providing guidance about how to use your self-assessment information to begin the process of considering which of your many career options might provide the best fit.

When you decided to pursue a Ph.D., were you envisioning spending your days writing grants and papers, managing people and resources, driving scientific agendas for your team, and delivering presentations at journal clubs and international conferences?

This step of the myIDP process is intended to narrow your career options to the one or two choices that align best with your unique sets of skills and interests and that satisfy your career-related values. These options are likely to provide the most satisfying and rewarding careers for you over the long term. Subsequent articles in this series will discuss ways of positioning yourself for success in these careers.

Why spend time considering skills and interests?

It's almost certain that you've been using your skills and interests for years to make career decisions, even if you haven't done so consciously. It's likely that you decided to pursue a Ph.D., for example, because you found your science classes engaging and performed well in them. Probably, you tried research during college and learned that you liked it and were good at it. So, the pursuit of a research-based Ph.D. seemed like the logical next step for someone who enjoys research and excels at it. See? You've been through this process before, though perhaps not systematically.

Unfortunately, the process is about to get harder because you now need to make decisions about career paths you may not know much about. How much did those early experiences in science teach you about the daily work of an academic researcher? Not much, probably. When you decided to pursue a Ph.D., were you envisioning spending your days writing grants and papers, managing people and resources, driving scientific agendas for your team, and delivering presentations at journal clubs and international conferences? More likely, you were thinking of days spent in the lab pursuing important scientific questions. 

And what about all those other science-related jobs? What's it like to be a research administrator or to work in regulatory affairs?

These are important questions—and it's important to get the answers right. Dissatisfaction may arise if you perform tasks that don't interest you day after day, or if you don't have opportunities to do the things you most enjoy. And without the right complement of skills, you may not be able to land the job you want—and even if you do, you may not perform up to expectations, which could lead to conflict, unhappiness, and failure.

Values: Even more important than skills and interests?

In order to be satisfied, your values must be aligned with your career choice. Your skills and interests could be a perfect match—but if the job you have trained for does not provide the tangible outcomes you want the most (earnings level, time freedom, location, and so on) or the intrinsic rewards you seek (prestige, the satisfaction of being an expert, the rush of discovery, the feeling that you are making a difference, and so forth) then you will not be happy in your career.

Using skills, interests, and values to narrow your career options

Here, we offer a step-by-step process to help you identify career options that involve tasks that you are good at and enjoy doing while also providing the rewards and outcomes you need.

  1. We're assuming that you've already signed up for myIDP and carefully rated your skills, interests, and values. If you haven't, please do so now. (For guidance, read: Skills. Interests. Values. Take your time and do it carefully. We can wait.)
  2. The result of that assessment process is a list of the career options available to scientists with Ph.D.-level training (under the tab "My Career Path Matches," in the "Consider Career Fit" section), ranked according to your unique responses to the "skills" and "interests" inventories. (If you haven't completed those inventories, your choices won't be properly ranked.) Don't take the ranking too seriously. These are merely well-informed suggestions; just because the career path you're most interested in ranks 12th or 15th, that doesn't mean you shouldn't consider it. The whole point of this exercise—the steps you're going through right now—is to think this through for yourself and consider on your own—independent of our recommendations—which career paths seem most appropriate for you.
  3. Proceed by systematically reading through the list of resources provided for each career path (in myIDP's "Read About Careers" section), focusing first on either the career paths at the top of the list, or the ones you're most interested in. As you read, guard against preconceived ideas about the various career-path options, which might lead to an incorrect judgment. ("I heard that all management consultants travel 100% of the time"; "my principal investigator told me that industry scientists have no intellectual freedom.") Instead, keep an open mind and study each path before you decide if it would be a good fit for you.
  4. Interests: As you read, identify the options that involve a high proportion of tasks that you find engaging and enjoyable, and a low proportion of tasks you find boring and unpleasant. You may find it helpful to return to your lists of interests and review (and maybe even revise) your answers.
  5. Skills: After you've identified careers that seem like a good match for your interests, identify those that involve a high proportion of tasks that you are good at doing—your skills—and a low proportion of tasks where you need a lot of improvement, or that you may never be good at. But keep in mind: You've spent years acquiring new skills, and you're capable of doing it again—and again. So, while it's important to choose careers that match your (current) interests and values, it's up to you to decide how much additional time and effort to put in in order to acquire new skills. This means that you don't have to rule out a career just because you don't have the skills for it. You can probably learn the skills you need if you're willing to put in the effort.
  6. Values: Finally, learn as much as you can about your pared-down list of career options so that you can identify those that are a good match for your values.

You may wish to go beyond the resources we have provided, consulting books and other Web-based resources. For example, industry-specific salary tables might help you determine whether a path is likely to fulfill your income goals. Finally, go out and talk to people about the career paths you're most interested in. Network and conduct informational interviews with people in the field, or at a specific company of interest to you. One-on-one conversations can help you learn more about workplace climate and family friendly policies, for example.

Remind yourself why you're doing this!

The diagram to the right illustrates the overall goal of these exercises: To find that small subset of all the possible career options that will engage you in the most interesting tasks, take advantage of your best skills, and provide the rewards you most need from your career. Working through the six steps above may require a lot of time and effort, but we promise it will be worth it!


The authors wish to thank the people below for their input in the development of the career-matching component of myIDP. These professionals, who specialize in careers for Ph.D.-level scientists, completed extensive surveys regarding the required skills and common tasks of each career path in myIDP. These data formed the basis of the career matching calculation in the Career Exploration section of myIDP. 

Michael Alvarez, MD Anderson Cancer Center
Jim Austin, AAAS
Lisa Balbes, Author, Nontraditional Careers for Chemists
Lori Conlan, NIH Office of Intramural Training and Education
Teresa Dillinger, University of California, Davis
Stephanie Eberle, Stanford University
Toby Freedman, Author, Career Opportunities in Biotechnology and Drug Development
Dara Grant, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Briana Keller, University of Washington, Seattle
John Lombardo, Medical College of Wisconsin
Kim Petrie, Vanderbilt University
Melanie Sinche, Harvard University
Lydia Soleil, Georgia Gwinnett College
Molly Starback, Duke University
Joe Tringali, Tringali and Associates
Ryan Wheeler, The Scripps Research Institute

The authors also wish to thank H. Garrison, J. Boscardin, and M. Clifford for helpful discussions of statistical analyses required for the career matching calculation. J. Boscardin’s time was in part supported by the National Center for Research Resources and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, National Institutes of Health (NIH), through UCSF-CTSI Grant Number UL1 RR024131. The contents of this project are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of NIH.

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