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Think about career planning throughout grad school—not just at the very end

Jonathan sits at the conference hotel bar, desperate to return to his hotel room. But he can’t leave Rena as she sips a full glass of wine.

“Are you the kind of man who lives his life like a toddler waiting to be spoon-fed?” she asks with a grin.

“Of course not!” Jonathan responds—defending himself too quickly, too loudly, as if someone had just accused him of releasing a silent fart.

Jonathan—a biomedical Ph.D. student—spent the past 30 minutes telling Rena, a postdoc in his field, that his adviser had sabotaged his chance at a good job after graduation. His adviser had her heart set on a project, and initially Jonathan’s heart had been on it, too, but 18 months into his Ph.D. he found out that the project was too ambitious—too large for a single grad student.

After months of fruitless arguing with his adviser, he gave up on his dream of writing an intellectually dazzling thesis and pursuing an academic career. He will finish the thesis, yes. He may have a low impact publication or two. But that will be it. He didn’t think he’d produced enough to justify staying on the academic track. He’d also grown tired of academia and was ready for a change.

So, he had started to apply for jobs in industry, sending out 25 applications in the 2 months before the conference. But he hadn’t managed to land an interview. “This lack of good publications is really a problem,” he told Rena. “My resume isn’t stellar.”

Rena looked confused. “But, your publications won’t matter much outside of academia,” she blurted out. “Publications might show your productivity and your ability to complete a project, but the impact factor isn’t all that important. And, ultimately, for most jobs it is your network that counts. Plus, you can use your resume to highlight all of the other things you did, which give it character and make you more employable,” she added.

“What other things?” Jonathan asked.

“All you’ve done next to your research. Stuff like blog writing, participation in science festivals, business plan competitions, organizing a conference, an internship in industry, volunteering activities … you name it!”

Jonathan sighed in despair. He didn’t do anything like that. A few years earlier, he had represented his research group at an open house for prospective grad students. But it had lasted only an hour or two, and he had hid behind an advertisement board most of the time, swilling coffee and hoping no visitor would ask him anything. That didn’t deserve a line in his resume, he reasoned.

“I didn’t do anything else,” Jonathan said. “This is all very upsetting. No one in academia—my adviser included—ever encouraged me to do things other than research.”

This is the point at which Rena poked fun of him by comparing him to a toddler. “I am not blaming anyone,” he counters. “I’m just frustrated that this is the first time I’m hearing this advice. Someone should have told me.”

“I see what you mean,” says Rena. “Academia could do a better job training people for nonacademic careers. But the reality is that you are a grown man—drinking wine at a bar—and you shouldn’t need encouragement to find out what makes you employable. You are responsible for your own career.”

“I get it,” Jonathan sighs, feeling hopeless.

“It’s good that you’re thinking about this now, though. Better late than never,” responds Rena, trying to lift Jonathan’s spirits. “You can work on expanding your network right here at the conference. Then, when you get home, perhaps you could think about what transferable skills you learned in grad school—things like communication skills, project management, and mentorship—and add those to your resume.”

“Thanks Rena. I wish someone had told me all this years ago.”

The moral of the story

As a graduate student, your career development is your responsibility.

Your Ph.D. adviser is there to guide your research and help you to develop as a scientist. But in many cases, they will not be the best person to guide your future career planning—especially if you want to leave academia. Hopefully they will support you, but, ultimately, the task is yours—regardless of your career direction.

At many universities you can get advice from career counselors, workshops, and alumni panels. That advice can help you to develop an idea about what you want to do after grad school.

Then, once you have a career target in mind, you should get out and learn as much as you can about it. Informational interviews are an excellent way to do this. Find people who are doing what you want to do and ask them how they got there. What did they do to prepare? What do they wish they had done differently? This will help you build your network and figure out how to prepare yourself. You may also find that a particular job doesn’t sound appealing to you after all—and that can help you to adjust your career planning accordingly.

So, don’t wait around for career counselors to jolt you awake. If you don’t take care of your needs, no one else will.

Philipp Gramlich (NaturalScience.Careers) and David Giltner (TurningScience) contributed to this article. Philipp combines industry and academic experience in his workshops and talks for scientists. David teaches scientists how to design and build rewarding careers in industry.

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