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Exploring Career Paths: Strategic Steps Postdocs Can Take

In late May 2016, we have had the opportunity to hear from some exceptional speakers on campus who offered their perspective and insights to postdocs regarding exploration and preparation for careers that will be the best fit for YOU.  We excerpted out the following top tips shared during these workshops from guests Kelly Sullivan of the Pacific Northwest National Labs, Linette Demers from Life Science Washington, Matt O’Donnell, Professor and Dean Emeritus in Engineering, Sumit Basu and Hrvoje Benko from Microsoft Research.

  1. Prepare: “Career planning isn’t so much about planning.  But it is about preparing.” Having a clear roadmap won’t always help you, as it may limit you to opportunities or serendipity when something unexpected arises. Instead, invest in preparing for a range of possibilities – diversify your skill sets, cultivate curiosity, and build your networks.
  2. Assess your skills: What is academic research training you for? In part, academic research training is about asking important research questions, developing and pursuing methods to answer those questions, and using results to define outcomes and your next questions.  You are also learning how to work in teams, how to deliver results, and a full range of transferable skills. Learn to talk about your skills and interests in broader more generalizable terms than perhaps your specific, immediate research project may suggest.
  3. Assess your strengths, passion, work style: Talk with your mentor team, or those who have worked with you and know you, and ask: “what do you think I am uniquely good at?” “What do you see as my top contribution(s) to a team or project?” Use free assessments like those offered by Doug’s Guides to get a better sense of what kind of work environment will be the best fit for you.
  4. Explore what is out there: Your research training alone is not career preparation, even for academic positions.  You have to do something more proactive. Develop your “story” about who you are, what your passions are, and how you want to contribute. What opportunities exist? Ask people: I think your job sounds really interesting. How did you get here? Cultivate an opening question “I’m new to this industry/sector, can you tell me what you do?” Get involved with more than just building technical skills in your laboratory.
  5. Understand impact: Learn what is valued and expected in each kind of organization and work setting. Ask: “what does success or impact look like here in this sector, in this organization”? And then ask yourself – is that metric of success and impact meaningful for me.  Is this how I want to contribute, and where my strengths lie.
  6. Gain experience: All the guests discussed the importance of getting out “there” and developing experience and exposure in other sectors, even for a short stint: giving a talk, participating in seminars/sessions that are open to others outside the organization, doing a short 4-12 week internship. These conversations and experiences will both help you decide what sector feels like a good fit for you, and will help distinguish you if you apply for a job in that sector.

Closing tips from speakers:

  • Do something you care about.
  • Summarize who you are without using your technical expertise as a crutch.
  • Let go of worrying about what you are going to “be” – focus more on problems you are passionate about. Follow your curiosity and passion.
  • Spend 5% of your time looking for a new job, even while happy in your current one.
  • Develop relationships. They will take you places and open doors, and make your career worthwhile.
  • Be kind, and humble.  Be realistic about your limitations and acknowledge the contributions of others.

Power Skill of the Month: Pivot. Popularized in the start-up culture, “pivot” describes the ability to drop an unproductive direction or assess signs that suggest that the direction you are pursuing is not going to bear fruit.  Having the ability to pivot to a new direction, release a direction that isn’t panning out, and move on with greater energy and opportunity is key regardless of what field or sector you may work in.

Originally posted on June 2, 2016.