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Cold emails and hot coffee: Take action on your career

This is the first in a four-article series on the Active Career Exploration (ACE) plan for career development, created by and for Ph.D. students and postdocs at the University of Michigan (UM).

As graduate students and postdocs, you likely know that the majority of Ph.D. scientists enter rewarding careers outside the traditional academic track. But how can you make time to discover the possibilities? How can you learn about these careers and prepare for them while juggling life, lab work, and Ph.D. training?

Here is the answer: Meet people in those careers and learn from them. Cultivate relationships that put you on the path to job opportunities. Those people are all around you, and they are willing to help.

At UM, students and postdocs fit this into their busy training by using a fast-track method for building professional networks called ACE. Here are some insights from trainees who have used the ACE plan to learn about careers:

“The vice president of a major company came to campus to give a talk, so I tracked down her contact info. Within 1 hour of finding out she existed, I was on her itinerary. She took my friends and me out for drinks to talk science and careers in publishing.”

—a fourth-year Ph.D. student

“I had not previously thought about contacting people to get information about their jobs. I used ACE to explore clinical chemistry. I emailed the director at the UM core facility and he was more than happy to meet me.”

—a first-year Ph.D. student

“I called someone at a digital health company in diabetes management. We chatted for an hour about how her background as a Ph.D. got her to where she is. She was impressed with my interest, and asked for my CV to forward to [the human resources department]. She made it clear that knowing people was the best way to break into this space. She offered to connect me with others.”

—a fifth-year Ph.D. student

“I tracked down alumni of the university. Because of my husband, I needed to find a job in North Carolina. My husband’s acquaintance knew someone who graduated 4 years ago and now worked in industry in [North Carolina]. He told me that if you know mass spec, you can get lots of jobs. … [I]t solidified my decision to apply to a postdoc in [North Carolina] where I’d gain experience in mass spec for cancer proteomics.”

—a first-year postdoc

Look in your own backyard. Academic institutions employ a wide range of science professionals, run dozens of specialized core facilities, and collaborate with industry. Companies spring up around them. University alumni hold jobs in every sector of society. Personalized advice is just one to three degrees of separation away. People are willing to help—but it’s up to you to find them and develop authentic relationships with them.

Take action now

You may say, “Can I really do this? It may work for others, but it won’t work for me. I’m too busy. I’m introverted. It won’t work at my university. I don’t want to bother people. I don’t know where to start.” The ACE plan helps you take action and conquer these concerns.

Trainees at UM created this method to engage in career exploration on their own initiative. In the beginning, we had the same self-doubts that you may have. But we realized there’s no point in waiting for “someday.” In the future, you will have less time, not more. So do not think, “I should figure out my career at some point,” or “It’s too late for me.” Instead, take action—now. Action will change what you think is possible.

“You have to realize everybody [is] busy. I still found the time to work on my career.”

   —a  second-year postdoc

“My co-worker said … scientists do a poor job at networking due to our social skills. Admittedly, I thought this at one point too. I thought networking was a skill that only the extroverted could master. After taking the plunge, I discovered that it is truly a skill that is practiced. … I am honing my skill with every email I send, every conversation I have, and every networking event I attend. Why is it so important? About 80% of available jobs are part of this hidden job market that will only be open to you through networking. Don’t limit yourself to that remaining 20%.”

  —a fifth-year Ph.D. student

Where to start?

This Science Careers series covers the four steps of ACE in four articles. The ACE method is explained at greater length in the Cold E-mails and Hot Coffee guidebook,  which contains details on how to execute each step.

ACE is your protocol for career experimentation, a logical progression of steps designed to overcome common barriers and give visible results after just 10 hours.

The ACE steps are

1) Read and reflect (2 hours).

2) Send cold emails to people you do not know (3 hours).

3) Meet people through informational interviews (3 hours).

4) Form a career plan (2 hours).

ACE is efficient precisely because there are time limits for each step. This avoids “plateaus” where you could get stuck and waste a lot of time without making progress toward your career (Figure 1).

Figure 1. The steps of the ACE plan. Because each step is a potential plateau, time limits are critical. A hundred hours of reading are no better than 2 hours of reading, if you don’t take the next step.

Figure 1. The steps of the ACE plan. Because each step is a potential plateau, time limits are critical. A hundred hours of reading are no better than 2 hours of reading, if you don’t take the next step.

An example plateau: You could spend months reading about all the different careers available. This is tempting because reading about biotech is far more comfortable than cold emailing and meeting the president of a biotech company. However, just reading accomplishes little. If you don’t take action, you won’t have any concrete results to show for your effort.

Here’s an analogy: If you have a scientific hypothesis, you can’t test it just by reading the literature all day. To get results, you have to do an experiment. Similarly, real career results only come when you establish relationships and build job-worthy skills.

Offer value and build skills

“Networking” is sometimes considered a dirty word, with the connotation of being awkward or overly assertive. Remember, networking is about meeting new people, learning from them, and sharing ideas. It’s not about trying to sell yourself or asking for favors. If you focus on offering value and building relationship and communication skills, you won’t feel uncomfortable. In fact, you will likely learn to enjoy the process; it can be fun and rewarding.

“The person I called actually thanked me for giving him the opportunity to practice networking. He told me 75% of jobs are gotten through networking.”

 —a  first-year postdoc

“The ACE approach was successful because it gave me the tools I needed to get started talking to people. Not only did it help me to start to learn more about careers, it also made me feel empowered to take control over my own future in science.”

—a second-year Ph.D. student

Thus, ACE is driven by two principles: offering value and building skills. To offer value, focus on giving instead of taking. Do you think you have nothing to offer? Don’t worry; even a first-year student has something to offer to the president of a biotech company.

To offer value, just act in a way that takes into account others’ goals and motivations. A basic example: Remember that people want to help and love talking about their careers. Offer them that opportunity by listening with genuine interest and curiosity.

The more skills you have, the more you can offer. This is why networking leads to 80% of job offers. Networking helps you understand what skills an employer is seeking, so you can obtain those skills before submitting a job application. It is not about currying favor to gain an unfair advantage. Many job postings ask for excellent communication and collaboration skills. It is critical to get comfortable meeting and working with new people long before needing that skill for a high-pressure job interview. Skills accrue over time through practice, so invest now in your skills.

Each article of this series will delve into specific ways to offer value. Through active career exploration, you will discover new career possibilities and learn what skills you must build for those careers.

Take the first step: Read and reflect

The first step of ACE is also the easiest. Spend 2 hours (maximum) doing the following:

  • Write down the three most important things that you want from your career.
  • Choose a career to explore, and read about it.
  • Brainstorm people to contact.

Identifying career values

“I decided that learning new things every day, sharing what I’ve learned, and autonomy are important to me. Note that work-life balance would also be nice, but I didn’t write it down. I will try to earn the first three career elements first.”

—a fourth-year grad student

“I was too inexperienced to accurately do a self-assessment. myIDP only provides a framework to start thinking about careers, and I did realize that managing a team and inspiring others are important to me. But to clarify my values, it was far more helpful to just start talking to people.”

—a  first-year grad student

The first part of Science Careers’s myIDP can guide you in these steps. It includes a self-assessment of your interests, values, and skills. Based on this information, myIDP identifies relevant careers and recommends further reading. For more resources, see the Cold E-mails and Hot Coffee guidebook.

Use the information you gain from myIDP to hypothesize what you want from your career and which careers are good fits. Then, test that hypothesis by taking action and talking to people. But don’t overthink your myIDP results! They’re only a starting point. If you are still unsure, don’t worry. Move on after 2 hours anyway.

You are responsible for your own career trajectory. But you are not alone. Your university, your city, and the Internet are full of people who are willing to help. Use ACE to meet them so you know what skills to build for a rewarding career.

Here’s a challenge to you—a little homework—before the next article: Spend just 2 hours this week envisioning your career goals. Then email someone at your university, asking for alumni lists or other people you can contact. In 2 hours, you will be ready for next week’s article on cold-contacting potential role models and mentors. It’s time to take control of your future through active career exploration.

Download the ACE plan here.

In subsequent ACE articles, we will guide you through the next steps.

Article 2. Offer value to build your network from zero

Article 3. Build skills with informational interviews

Article 4. Next steps: Cultivate a supportive environment