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Making Evidence-Based Career Decisions

This is the sixth 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 planning process, please visit:

"My labmate said a friend of his from grad school went into  medical writing, and two years into it, that guy is sooo glad he made the move.  I like writing and I'm good at it, so medical writing seems like it might be interesting.  But—I've been looking for information about that career and there is nothing out there.  So I'm not really sure what medical writing is.  Also, my friend said writers tend to be freelancers, and I need a regular paycheck since I have a family.  That's why I've decided that medical writing is not right for me."

Gathering information about your career deserves at least as much effort as you would put into learning a new laboratory technique—and it can utilize some of the same skills.

This all-too-typical statement demonstrates two huge mistakes made by many graduate students and postdoctoral fellows as they try to gather information about their career options.

1. Graduate students and postdocs rely too heavily on uninformed advice from labmates or other friends when making career decisions.  That leads to misinformation and overgeneralization.  When trainees make career decisions based on generalized statements such as:  "Medical writers are freelancers," or "Management consulting is a bad fit for me because they have 80% travel," it's an indication that they have not done enough research. They are in danger of making important decisions about a potentially viable career path based on incorrect or incomplete information.  Are there medical-writing careers that do not require freelancing? Yes, most of them, probably. Is it possible to find consulting firms or subfields or niches that allow employees a chance to spend most of their time at home? Yes!

2. After a quick, unsuccessful search, graduate students and postdocs often assume that no information is available about career options. Actually, there is PLENTY of information to be found about medical writing careers, and other career paths. For each of the 20 career path categories represented on myIDP, we've provided links to several articles, books, and professional societies. (If you're already registered on myIDP, you'll need to sign in before you're taken to the right page; then, just click on the "read more" link next to the career path of your choice. If you're not already registered, now's a good time.)

But that's just a starting point: Don't limit yourself to the information we provide; much more can be found at Science Careers and other Web-based publications. Many career areas have an organization that promotes and represents the interests of the field—such as RAPS, the Regulatory Affairs Professionals Society. Such organizations often provide inexpensive membership rates for trainees. Even without membership access, their Web sites often provide excellent information about what it's like to work in the field.  And speaking of medical writers, another professional organization with a useful Web site is the American Medical Writers Association, which offers extensive information about the field, training programs for entering the field, and current job descriptions that might help those considering a medical-writing career gain a better understanding of the various job options available.

Finally, there are some excellent books about career options for scientists. Many are out there, but here are two examples:

  • At the Helm, by Kathy Barker (about academic careers)
  • Career Opportunities in Biotechnology and Drug Development, by Toby Freedman (features information about many career options for scientists in the industry sector)

As with the other phases of career exploration, myIDP allows you to structure this search by recording books or articles you read, and make notes about the most important lessons you learned.

And this may be the most important strategy of all for collecting information about careers: Don't forget about personal interactions. Attend career panels on your campus or at conferences for your scientific society, and, most importantly, set up one-on-one informational interviews with scientists who have transitioned into careers you find interesting; you'll end up better informed but also with a new member of your network. Conferences are a great place to do this—just don't be a wallflower.

Here, too, myIDP helps you keep a record of events you attend, along with notes about the experience. Why is this important? First, because it can help you distill what you learned and take another step toward clarity. Second, because it's great to have it all together in one place. Third, because when you write it down, it feels like a tangible step forward, and that can be great for morale.

It takes a lot of work to gather enough reliable information to make such an important decision in an informed way.  This is not something you should expect to accomplish in a day or a week.

Credit: Hal Mayforth

If you were asked by your principal investigator to learn a new laboratory technique, you would do an exhaustive literature search that turns up all the most relevant articles. You would study the articles for hours or days or weeks.  You might even e-mail some of the authors to ask questions about their work.  Before you tried it in the laboratory, you would know every detail about the proper protocol.

Gathering information about your career deserves at least as much effort as you would put into learning a new laboratory technique—and it can utilize some of the same skills.  As a scientist, you are trained to collect and analyze data. You learn to be critical of its quality and to maintain a high standard. Do that in your career search, too. Gather data from all of the available sources—as much as you can find. Organize and analyze it in a systematic way. Compare what you learn about a career path to what you've learned about yourself during your career explorations and self-assessments. Some might wish to employ some decision-making device: a decision matrix, or just a list of pros and cons. Others may prefer to just contemplate the information until an image of your future starts to gel. Whichever approach you prefer, don't hurry. Take the time you need to understand the information you've gathered before you commit to a new career.