Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Narrowing the Choices: What Career Path is Right for You?

This is the ninth 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:

"What are you going to do when you finish your Ph.D.?"

"What are you going to do when you finish your postdoc?"

For many young scientists, these are two of the most dreaded questions. Your peers, colleagues, advisers, and even family ask them. The problem is that choosing a career path can feel daunting. Perhaps you know you want to go the tenure-track route but are unsure whether you will be able to succeed. Perhaps you have decided against academia but are having trouble narrowing down the options.

The good news is that many exciting career paths are available to scientists. The bad news is that essentially all of them are highly competitive. There is no "fall back" job. To get a job in any career, you will need to have a demonstrated interest in that path, requisite skills, relevant experience, and a strong professional network within the field. To achieve those interim objectives as a trainee, you need to know where you plan to head in the future.

With so many career options, how do you choose?

After you complete the skills, values, and interests self-assessments in myIDP, you are presented with a list of 20 categories of careers pursued by Ph.D.-level scientists. Within each category there are multiple career options. Hopefully, you have spent some time learning about many of these career options. Even so, if you are like most trainees at this point, you may not know which career path is best for you.

Here are some tips to help you with career decision-making:

Identify a "plan A" and "plan B."

The job search is very competitive, and luck is a strong element in any search. Therefore, it is always wise to have two long-term career goals: a "plan A" and a "plan B." You should prepare for each. For example, if Andrew's plan A is to become an assistant professor at a research-focused academic institution, and his plan B is to pursue research and teaching at a teaching-focused institution, then he will need to plan for two fairly distinct career paths.

The good news is that many exciting career paths are available to scientists. The bad news is that essentially all of them are highly competitive.

In this case (as in most), Andrew's plan B is not a job that is easier to get. Strong researchers aren't necessarily seen as stronger candidates at teaching-focused academic institutions. To succeed along this plan B path, he will need to acquire significant teaching experience, and have a research plan that fits the needs and resources of an undergraduate-centered institution. He will need to demonstrate a genuine interest in his plan B path, by, for example, mentoring undergraduates and becoming an active member of the Council on Undergraduate Research. Because both careers require preparation and a demonstrated commitment over time, we advise that you select both a plan A and plan B now and prepare diligently for both throughout your years as a graduate or postdoctoral trainee.

Beware of "option paralysis."

In his book Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, Douglas Coupland discusses what he termed "option paralysis." Having a variety of career options available may seem helpful, but it can also cause you to freeze when trying to make a decision. How do you overcome option paralysis? Don't freeze; instead, move forward. Do your research and narrow down the choices to career paths that fit your skills, interests, and values (see the fifth article in this series). Then, choose a plan A and plan B and move forward. This decision is not irreversible; you can come back later to make a change if you find out something that makes your top career choices less attractive. In fact, that's a key to the IDP idea: Your commitments are real, but your course can change (and probably will). Still, committing to something now will help you focus the rest of your training, and optimize your chances of success later.

No career decision is forever. This is just the first step!

In academia, the standard expectation is to select a job and stick with it forever. However, this is rare in the wider world; tenure-track academe is one of the few career options where this is a cultural standard. Most people change jobs—and even career paths—a number of times during their working lifetimes. A report published by the U.S. Department of Labor showed that, nationally, citizens tend to change jobs 11 times between the ages of 18 and 44.1 Science careers are no exception. In industry, it is common to gain promotions by moving from company to company. Even professors change jobs; some move into administrative roles, others into industry or other settings, and still others are recruited to new academic institutions.

So, no matter what your career ambitions may be, try not to stall your career decisions because you hope to choose the perfect career the first time. Just make a decision, pursue it energetically, and see where it takes you.

Your first career step will lead to unforeseen opportunities.

Ideally, your first job would be a great fit to your skills, interests, and values. In reality, the fit is likely to be imperfect. That's okay: This first job will give you valuable job experience while also giving you a stronger sense of what you are looking for in your career long-term. Especially because it is not exactly what you were envisioning, this experience will introduce you to possibilities you did not foresee.

For example, Arnaz wasn't sure what she wanted to do in the future and, after finishing her Ph.D., ended up taking a market research analyst position at a pharmaceutical consulting firm. After she had been in the position for 2 years, another company offered her a position as a medical science liaison (MSL) at a large pharmaceutical company, a very different role. She was a desirable candidate for this second job for two reasons: (1) her Ph.D. research had a disease focus that was especially useful for the MSL position; and (2) her first job had proven her abilities in a business-oriented setting. A year earlier she did not even know what an MSL was; now, she has discovered her ideal job. Remember, your first job is just that: a first step that may open key opportunities for the future.

Do you need a transition experience?

Some career paths require significant additional training or experience beyond graduate or postdoctoral training. For example, few research trainees are able to transition directly into business development, a career involving "researching and analyzing new business opportunities" for science-related companies.2 Therefore, if you are interested in business development, it would be strategic to target a transitional experience. Three potential transitional experiences are: (a) becoming a management consultant; (b) pursuing a research position at a small company, where you can seek opportunities to become involved in business decisions; and (c) doing an internship or seeking a full-time position in your university's technology transfer office. There are other possibilities. As you learn more about your plan A and plan B career goals, figure out whether you will need a transition experience. This transition experience will become the target you aim for as you develop the short-term goals within your IDP.

Identifying a long-term career goal can be a major challenge. The options are many and option paralysis is common. To optimize your chances of success, select a plan A and a plan B, and tailor your IDP to these two long-term goals.

In the next article of this series, we will suggest strategies for how to start preparing yourself for success along your career trajectory. Whether you are years or months from your first job, this IDP will launch you along a path to success.


1 Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. Number of Jobs Held, Labor Market Activity, and Earnings Growth Among the Youngest Baby Boomers: Results From a Longitudinal Survey, (2012;

2 T. Freedman. Career Opportunities in Biotechnology and Drug Development (Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, New York, 2008), chap 17.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers