Career adviser
Credit: University of Michigan School of Natural Resources & Environment / Flickr

Cold emails and hot coffee, part 4

This is the final part of 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).

Career development is often seen as vague and unapproachable, especially for those considering venturing outside academia. The typical methods—searching for information online or attending career panels—tend to be passive and may yield little or slow progress. The ACE plan provides concrete, active steps for you to actively engage in your own career development, which students and postdocs at UM have found effective.

The preceding three ACE articles provided a framework for you to start looking into a few potential careers, establish a first contact with professionals in those areas, and conduct informational interviews with your contacts.

In this next and final phase, you will:

  • Identify the skills and knowledge you need to transition into your career of interest.
  • Seek out opportunities to build those skills.
  • Create a supportive environment and broader network for your career development.

What skills do you need?

Rarely does earning a Ph.D. fully prepare you for jobs outside academia. And if you’ve already started your informational interviewing, you may have observed that career development—especially outside traditional academic paths—typically takes many twists and turns.

But the personal stories you gathered during your informational interviews have equipped you with an invaluable tool for your career journey: a compass. After learning from the experiences of others, you are now able to strategically decide what skills you need to reach your future career goals, forging your own path in the face of uncertainty.  

Expect the skills, and your skill-building program, to vary dramatically depending on your career of choice, your interests, and your stage of training, as you can see from the experiences of past ACE participants below.

“I asked my interviewees what sort of advice they would give [to] themselves 5 years ago. I learned that real-world experience was valued way more than only taking courses. They told me to attend local networking events for entrepreneurs and leverage [the] scientific and management skills I gained in the lab when asking for opportunities to get involved. I took their advice, and now I am working with a clinician-founded startup, where I am gaining real-world experience in entrepreneurship and health care [information technology] and innovation.”

 —a fifth-year Ph.D. student

“I needed to have an established history of interest in policy if I ever wanted my [job] applications to be competitive. While taking a couple courses in policy, I met a professor who noted my passion for this career, so he referred me to a policy interest group that was writing [informative] pieces for policy makers to consult. Now I’m part of this group.”

 —a fourth-year Ph.D. student

“I asked many people, ‘What is the biggest factor in transitioning from academia to industry?’ They said, ‘Being a good team player.’ Soft skills are important. If you lock yourself in [the] lab, you may be a master of PCR, but …  skills like teamwork and communication are always rated highly in industry. [Now] I am a board member of the postdoc association, and [I] helped found a nonprofit company where I can improve my ability to work with others that are not in my field.”

a second-year postdoc

How to develop your skill-building program

Now that you’ve considered the skills and knowledge you need to learn, seek out specialized coursework outside of your scientific training, if necessary. Such courses might focus on topics such as science policy, public health, medicine, business, management, or journalism. But don’t limit yourself to coursework. Look for opportunities to develop and refine your skills through participation in relevant events, workshops, and other programs like innovation challenges and writing competitions. Engage with organizations outside of the university, such as professional societies. Be active!

Figure 1: Framing your lab experiences as new marketable skills. Trainees can reframe their activities in the laboratory as a way to develop their transferrable skills.

Figure 1: Framing your lab experiences as new marketable skills. Trainees can reframe their activities in the laboratory as a way to develop their transferrable skills.

Make sure that you also recognize what may well be disguised opportunities in your backyard (Figure 1). Often, it is possible to reshape tasks in the lab into broader skill-building experiences. Request opportunities to lead small research projects and organize events to gain soft skills. Initiate a journal club to improve both your scientific knowledge and presentation skills. Hone your writing skills by securing small grants for the lab and volunteering to edit papers.

One advantage of reframing academic tasks is that it is less demanding on your time in the lab—a win-win situation for your career and research advancement. Importantly, the ACE approach is designed to promote career development in a time-efficient manner, so it does not interfere with research progress.

An ideal ACE experience

To give you a more vivid picture of what an ACE experience may look like, consider this composite profile drawn from several real-life examples.

Katherine is a second-year Ph.D. student who has a strong interest in learning about medical devices, biotech, and business. While she is considering pursuing a career in this space, she doesn't know where to start. Following the ACE strategy, through a simple Google search, Katherine finds contact information for business analysts at a few local venture capital firms that invest in biotech and pharma startups. She sends them cold emails, requesting 15 minutes of their time for career advice. From their phone conversations, she learns that several of the business analysts took business courses and did market research in tech transfer offices at their universities during their time as research trainees. The next semester, Katherine enrolls in a business course on biotech commercialization. She later reaches out to her university’s tech transfer office and learns of their internship program, which requires around 10 hours of work a week. Knowing that she needs to learn how to perform market research and write patent reports, Katherine applies for the internship, which she gets. Continuing to prioritize her research, she restricts her work on tech transfer projects to slow days in the lab, evenings, and weekends. By the time she earns her Ph.D., 3 years later, Katherine has acquired a lot of market research experience to put on her resume and personal connections in the sector. With this ACE preparation, she got a position as a health care and biotech research analyst upon graduating.

Create your own ACE group at your university

Consider implementing ACE and similar workgroups at your institution to help foster your own career development community. While helping others, creating such a group will also connect you with like-minded, motivated students and faculty members who can support you in the arduous work of preparing for your career. Not least, taking initiative to organize a group and lead others is an invaluable skill in itself.

“ACE fosters the collaborative rather than competitive side of science. We need to serve as resources for each other. … When others in my accountability group reported that they already sent their emails, I was motivated to send my own.

—a first-year Ph.D. student

We recommend that you develop your ACE group in the following ways:

  1. Identify a peer leader willing to advocate, organize meetings, and recruit other participants. Ideally, this is a trainee who has completed all phases of ACE career exploration, taking this four-article series as a basis or looking at our Cold E-mails and Hot Coffee guidebook for more details.
  2. Engage campus administrators. Your graduate school, office of postdoctoral studies, and other departments running in-house training programs can add momentum to your peer-led efforts by providing space and resources for the ACE group meetings, along with career panel and networking events.
  3. Pilot the ACE method by starting with a small group. At the first meeting, the peer leader familiarizes everyone with the Hot Coffee and Cold Email process. Then, arrange participants into smaller accountability groups, where a particularly motivated person is charged to encourage all the others to take career action. At subsequent meetings, participants share their ACE experiences, including results from their informational interviews and updates on their career development plans. Members should be encouraged to ask each other for help, feedback, and personal connections, which creates a strong sense of community, peer-to-peer mentoring, collective skill building, and personal growth.
  4. Promote active participation by encouraging participants to demonstrate leadership and establish career development interest groups of their own or tailor the ACE plan to meet the unique career interests of participants.

Advisers and mentors can help support ACE participation–so engage them!

Securing the participation of a faculty or staff member in the ACE group is important for its success and long-term sustainability. Although many faculty members do not have the requisite knowledge to advise mentees on the broad range of career options outside academia, the self-directed approach of the ACE plan offers the advantage of taking the pressure off them alone.

One faculty member at UM put it this way:

“As an assistant professor who just ran the gauntlet of the academic job search, I felt an enormous responsibility to help prepare my trainees for their future careers. As such, I decided to dedicate one lab meeting per semester to exploration and discussion of careers. This conveyed to the trainees that I felt career development was important, creating a supportive culture. We implemented the ACE plan as it provided a framework for career exploration by making contacts and conducting informational interviews. Importantly, the students freely shared ideas and experiences, learning as a team, [which proved] rewarding. Some of the trainees took further action by seeking additional opportunities for skill development, including internships, workshops, and national meetings. In my experience, the sooner the students identify their career goals, [even away from academia,] the more motivated they are in their Ph.D. research and studies.”

an assistant professor

Even if the initiative doesn’t come from your principal investigator (PI), make sure to secure support for your career development in your own lab. Understandably, mentors are focused on research productivity, so you can emphasize that career planning motivates you to take greater initiative. You can also try to apply whatever skills you have learned in your specialized courses or internships to your work in the lab, as it will help you show your mentor and colleagues the value of your outside efforts.

Consider this example:

“Many of my contacts mentioned that data science skills and programming in R and Python are valuable in many different fields. I decided to learn programming using online courses during my Ph.D., despite my lack of background knowledge. My PI was unfamiliar with the material, but I took the initiative to use these skills in a research project. Even if that project went nowhere, I would still have the skills, I reckoned. But those skills went on to produce a unique result that would not have been otherwise possible. My PI was thrilled, and my committee approved my thesis defense date after seeing the result.”

—a fourth-year Ph.D. student

If there are other ACE participants in your lab, propose spending some lab meeting time sharing active career exploration outcomes, and seek your mentor’s advice and help finding opportunities on campus that fit your interests. Such opportunities for open discussions will also help you feel supported and encouraged by your adviser.

Your future is bright

We believe that initiatives like the ACE plan have great potential because they empower trainees to take control of their careers and develop the skills and professional relationships they need to be successful. A sense of individual agency and motivation is at the heart of the ACE plan, and in keeping with this spirit, we hope that you will adopt this framework, adapt it to your needs and institution, and share your improvements to the program with the larger community. Importantly, we believe that the ACE plan should never be mandated by institutions; instead, it must continue to be driven by students and postdocs.

As we draw this series to an end, remember that you always have the option to act—or not—on your own career development. And while ideally you should engage in career planning as early as possible, be assured that it’s never too late. UM participants, from first-year grad students to senior postdocs, have found that the ACE plan has empowered them to take action on their careers, with good results, at any stage of their training. By embracing the ACE method, you will discover that you have not only the initiative but also the ability to identify a career that is right for you, develop the necessary transferable skills, foster a broader professional network, and ultimately design your own career trajectory.

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