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Career advice during COVID-19

As we anxiously await the termination of our current Stay Home, Stay Healthy order, the realities of a changed work environment and altered research expectations have clearly hit home. In recent weeks, we’ve heard of the dire predictions of budget shortfalls – within the School of Medicine, across the UW campus, and within our community. Unfortunately, the financial impact of our Stay Home, Stay Healthy won’t be fully realized for a number of months, if not years. More importantly, it will be quite a while before we return to an environment even remotely resembling our pre-COVID memories, especially as it relates to our research setting and UW in general.

Just as the full budget implications are currently unknown, the COVID-19-related impact upon future job prospects is also unclear. Recruitment for many positions, both inside and outside of academia, has been put on hold, at least temporarily. In fact, even what a ‘workplace’ constitutes (offices, shared spaces, flexible work-from-home policies, etc.), will likely be different in the coming months and years. However, while it’s not comforting at the moment, please trust that not far into the future, the draw for highly trained scientists and researchers will return. Your experience as a UW postdoctoral fellow will prepare you for these jobs. You need to make sure that when the time comes, you are ready to be successful.
We encourage you to acknowledge the uncertainty and stress associated with the current situation. However, if you’re able, temporarily place your negative feelings aside and consider the following steps in planning for your future.

  • Reflect: Take a moment to assess where you are and where you want to go. Review and update your Individualized Development Plan (IDP) – or create one if you don’t already have one (see myIDPImaginePhD, and OPA’s framing questions). Assess your current skill set and determine how you’re going to fill any gaps as you prepare for your next career stage. Once you’ve updated your IDP, be sure to have a discussion with your mentor team to get support, guidance, and advice.
  • Prepare: Whether you expect to pursue a non-academic or academic career, you’ll need to prepare a resume or curriculum vitae. In addition, you may be asked for additional application materials (e.g., a cover letter, writing samples, teaching & research statements, etc.). Take the time now to create or update these documents and ask your peers and mentors for constructive feedback. Also, consider polishing your supporting materials so you’re ready to simply tailor them for specific job opportunities in the future.
  • Network: Reach out to your mentors and peers to learn about different career options. Allocate some time to update your LinkedIn profile, and then connect with peers at different companies and employment sectors. Remember, all it takes is a shared experience to be virtually connected (e.g., connected to a common person, attended the same graduate institution, have a shared interest in a topic area, etc.) – then it’s up to you to make the first request to connect. Once virtually connected, start a conversation to learn more about their career path and their current job (e.g., an informational interview). This expanded network will be extremely helpful when you formally enter the job market.
  • Focus on your development: In addition to resources listed on the UW Office of Postdoctoral Affairs, many of our peers have made their career and professional development resources available to the broader postdoc community. We will be highlighting some of these in the coming months. In the meantime, feel free to explore:

We understand that now is an unprecedented and difficult time. But, if you do have the bandwidth (both emotionally and mentally), we encourage you to spend some time preparing for a prospective job opportunity. Invest in your future now, and your future self will thank you!

Staying Motivated

Graduate school can be one of the most challenging experiences of your life. Not only are you working on multiple projects, putting in lab hours, or completing research, you may also be juggling additional roles as parents or caregivers, employees, leaders, or community volunteers. With everything you have to do, it’s no wonder that it can be difficult at times to stay motivated and on track. Below are just a few strategies to help you cultivate—and recuperate—motivation while you are in grad school.

Focus on what you can change. Losing motivation in graduate school can be a result of feeling like you have no control over your life. While it’s true that you can’t change things like a professor’s feedback on your assignments or internship and funding application deadlines, you do have agency over how you spend your time during the week. 1) Prioritize only the most important tasks you need to do throughout the day. 2) Break down large projects into smaller, manageable tasks. 3) Block out times of the day (or night) that you are most alert; use these 15 or 30 min. to free write, in order to chip away at a final paper draft. 4) Finally, work where you work best. Is this at your desk at home, in the library, or at a café with a study peer or two?

Recognize that you are not a failure. You are in graduate school because you are brilliant, intelligent, and have much to offer to your discipline or profession. At the same time, one of the biggest hurdles you can face in graduate school is the fear of failure. For some folks, this can be emotionally and psychologically taxing and reduces motivation. But there’s hope. You can acknowledge that failure is a result, not who you are as a person. Practice reframing failures as learning moments. As our colleague Gino Aisenberg (Associate Dean of Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity in The Graduate School) asserts, “You wouldn’t yell at a toddler for stumbling as they learn how to walk. So be gentle with yourself, while you learn, make mistakes, and grow in graduate school.” Read this article for additional tips on learning from failure.

Make time for you. Other times, lack of motivation can result from not getting your needs met as a whole person—because believe it or not—you are not just a graduate student. Also, it’s neither realistic nor healthy to be “constantly productive.” It’s important to invest time for wellness, hobbies, and connection. These may include a weekly chat with a friend or loved one, watching your favorite movie, making a nice meal for yourself, seeing your therapist, or individual time for self-reflection (e.g. journaling or practicing self-kindness and compassion). We do our best work, when we dedicate time in our lives to relax, recharge, and participate in non-work activities that engage our interests and bring us enjoyment.

See the bigger picture. Part of the challenge of completing a graduate degree is that incentives and rewards are delayed. This is why it’s especially important to stay focused on all the reasons you entered graduate school in the first place. Maybe you’re wanting to land that dream job in industry, interested in providing more financial stability for your family after completing your degree, or passionate about influencing policy that promotes social equity. All of these are valid reasons to stay motivated while working towards your degree. If you need to, jot down all the positive reasons why you are in graduate school. Revisit this list as a reminder of your bigger purpose, whenever you’re lacking motivation. 

We hope these strategies resonate with you, and feel free to share with us your tips for staying motivated!


Core Programs—Office of Graduate Student Affairs

UW Graduate School

Mastering Out — How and When?

“Mastering Out….What’s the best way to do this? Who do you tell first? Your advisor? An administrator in the program? When is the right time?” –Anonymous

The following people and online forums were invaluable in writing this blog post:
Elba Moise, Ph.D. candidate, College of Education
Jaye Sablan, assistant director, Core Programs
Rebecca Aanerud, former dean, the Graduate School
Reddit/r/GradSchool // GradCafe // YCombinator

Hi, there!

Thank you so much for writing in. I know this is a big decision that likely carries a lot of emotional weight. I hope this post will help you think through your options and make a decision that is best for you.

It seems there are two parts to your question: How do I know if I should master out? And, if I decide to master out, how should I go about it?

Let’s tackle the first part — when is the right time — first.

The truth is that there are no right or wrong reasons, or right or wrong times, to master out. But there are resources and strategies to help you figure out your motivations for mastering out, and whether you want to act on them.

1. Consider whether your frustrations with graduate school are temporary or fixable. Is your interest in mastering out due to frustrations about something that you might be able to change — for example, the projects you’re working on or the classes you’re If so, consider approaching your advisor to discuss some of these issues. If you think it might be a difficult conversation, the Office of the Ombud is a great place to help you prepare.

Making healthy changes for yourself in your program before deciding to master out will help you feel more confident down the road that you made a thoughtful decision. If possible, you might consider taking a leave of absence so you can take time away from graduate school to reflect.

2. Chat with trusted people in your circle (friends, family, mentors) about why you are considering mastering out. Reach out to individuals whom you know will listen without judgement and support decisions that work best for you and your needs. You might find it helpful to process this decision with a counselor in the Counseling Center, and/or a career coach in the Career & Internship Center (Jon Olivera has expertise specifically in grad student development). 

3. Read blogs and articles written by people who made the decision to leave their doctoral programs. See if their experiences resonate with you. In our own research, we found this post and this one (and many others) to be helpful. Hearing from these folks may help you think through your own motivations. One insightful post is even written by a UW alumni!

You might also consider the book Work Your Career: Get What You Want from your Social Sciences or Humanities Ph.D. by Loleen Berdahl and Jonathan Malloy. It presents information for making informed decisions about graduate education, including leaving graduate school prior to the Ph.D.

4. Reflect on your own definition of success. Is it a job title, a salary, the impact of your work, having work/life balance? Will getting a Ph.D. set you up for success in the ways YOU define it? Success can mean staying in your program despite challenges, and it can also mean knowing when it’s no longer the right path for you.

Remember: Getting varied perspectives on the pros and cons of this decision for your health and wellbeing, for your career, and other factors is important — but try not to let too much input cloud your own voice.

Say you’ve made up your mind to leave with your master’s. What should you do?

Check the Master’s Degree Requirements and dates and deadlines for submitting paperwork for the Graduate School to make sure you are on track to obtain your master’s. You also need to connect with your Graduate Program Advisor to discuss the details of your program requirements. If you have further questions about the requirements, please contact the Graduate Enrollment Management Services.

Who to approach first – your advisor or an administrator – depends on you, your situation and reasons for mastering out. If you think you may be met with pushback from your advisor, it might be helpful to speak with an administrator inside or outside your department and have a set plan for mastering out before approaching your advisor. That way it is not so much of a question – “Should I master out?” – as a statement, “I’m mastering out for these reasons and here is what I need.”

Start applying for jobs. This is an opportunity for you to explore workplaces where you can try new things and apply the skills you’ve built in your program. This blog details how a former graduate student (and UW alumni) used informational interviews to explore career options before mastering out – and may be a source of inspiration for your own job search. Handshake is a great resource for finding jobs and internships.

Please know that there is no shame in leaving a program with a master’s degree. This is your decision to make and you have every right to make it. Remember to take your time, show yourself compassion, and to trust your instincts.

Wishing you the best,

The Grad School Guide

Creativity: Maybe she’s born with it; maybe it’s something she learned?

Is it possible to learn creativity and originality? Why are some people more creative than others? I find it hard to generate original ideas and research questions. I learn things because they are interesting but I find it hard to take it one step further and develop a follow-up research project. Is this because I do not have the capacity to be a scientist? Or can it be related to having a very hands-off advisor and being isolated so I don’t have anyone from whom I can learn these thinking patterns? I am surrounded by very creative individuals who constantly spew out original content that I myself cannot do. I feel like an employee surrounded by entrepreneurs. Am I hopeless? 

— Anonymous 

Dear Anonymous,

This is a really interesting question! (Look, you’re developing great questions already!) I’ve pooled several resources that I hope, together, will give you the confidence, knowledge and motivation to kick-start your research.

To answer your question, I first turned to a couple experts right here at the University of Washington. I broke your question into two main ideas: “Is creativity malleable, and, if so, how do we build it?” And, “How can I develop a strong research question?” To answer the first question, I called upon Crystal Farh, associate professor of management at the Foster School of Business, who studies creativity. For the second question, I consulted Madeline Mundt, head of the Research Commons.

Since your question was so interesting, I also decided to consult another abundant (though occasionally unreliable) source of advice: Academic Twitter. I tweeted your question to Dr. Robert Epstein, a psychology researcher who studies creativity in business. Dr. Epstein replied and pointed us toward his 2015 article in Harvard Business Review on building creativity among your team.

I hope you’ll be relieved and excited to hear that yes, it is possible to develop creativity; creativity is a product of traits we can build in ourselves. However, these traits are not necessarily easy to develop. Please see the full answers from our experts, and a bit of advice directly from the Guide, below!

On creativity, and how to build it 

Crystal Farh, associate professor of management, Foster School of Business: 

“What an interesting question! First, let’s define creativity. Creativity is generating output that is both novel and useful. Research on creativity (at least in organizational settings) suggests that there are some individual differences that facilitate creativity — but interestingly, very few of those individual differences are “fixed” or “innate.”  One of the key factors, for example, is knowledge. Creativity often emerges from the combination of new and old ideas in uncommon ways. Having knowledge, thus, and access to new information is one of the key ways to enhance one’s creativity.

Another key factor is motivation, particularly intrinsic motivation. Compared to more conventional types of work, creative work is challenging, ambiguous and often discouraging. There is a great deal of uncertainty around whether one’s ideas are good or not, whether others will positively evaluate those ideas or whether anything will come of those ideas. Thus, it takes a great deal of effort and persistence to keep at creativity, and motivation and self-confidence that one can be creative is hugely influential in predicting actual creativity. To be fair, creativity has also been linked to innovative cognitive style, which captures innate differences across individuals in their propensity to think in novel ways.

However, it is worth pointing out that knowledge and motivation are both malleable factors that are within the control of the individual and can be improved over time. It is also worth pointing out that creativity often emerges from engaging in the creative process — in other words, going through structured steps of generating ideas, reflecting on problems, and scanning the environment for relevant information and solutions. Again, these steps are within the control of the individual and can be developed. Moreover, there are a number of environmental factors (e.g., the behaviors of your supervisor, your coworkers/fellow classmates, support for creativity in the context) that also matter a great deal.

So, to address your question: you are not hopeless. There are lots of factors affecting creativity that you can nurture and practice over time. With sufficient knowledge and motivation, dedicated engagement in the creative process, and a favorable environment for creativity, I am confident that you will come up with your own exciting, creative research ideas.

Developing a research question 

Madeline Mundt, head of the Research Commons:

“A good place to start is to identify your subject liaison librarian and pay them a visit. Subject liaison librarians can help you generate and refine research questions, and they have in-depth expertise in research and developing research questions that will be applicable to the way things are done your field of study. Subject librarians help many students develop research questions, as it’s a very common question — definitely nothing that indicates you’re not cut out to be a scientist!

Subject librarians are also great people for students to connect with throughout their time here at UW, since they can help with much more than just generating research questions. They can help with research strategies, focusing topics, tracking down research, comprehensive literature searching, and more.

Being gentle with yourself

I wanted to give you one more piece of advice, Anonymous, directly from the Guide. The way you talk about your peers and compare yourself to others in your lab makes me wonder if you may be experiencing a kind of imposter syndrome. I’d sum it up as “feeling inadequate or hopeless, specifically in your work, despite being quite adequate.” Please read the mentor memo and decide for yourself if you relate to these sentiments.

So, Anonymous, be patient with, and confident in, yourself. Remember that you were selected for your program and asked by your P.I. to join your lab for a reason. You are not hopeless — on the contrary — the fact you’ve made it this far is strong evidence that you are indeed cut out to be a scientist!

Wishing you the best of luck in your research and in your program! If you have any follow-up questions, or want to ask a different question, please do not hesitate to reach out. The Guide will be here!

— The Grad School Guide

Ask the Grad School Guide is an advice column for all y’all graduate and professional students. Real questions from real students, answered by real people. If the Guide doesn’t know the answer, the Guide will seek out experts all across campus to address the issue. (Please note: The Guide is not a medical doctor, therapist, lawyer or academic advisor, and all advice offered here is for informational purposes only.) Submit a question for the column →

Self-assessment: Phase one of three in the job search

The academic year has flown by, and some grad students are graduating and approaching an exciting new phase in the working world: others are continuing their education and looking for summer work in-between. But what if you don’t have a job lined up, and are unsure of how to get started?

Lucky for you, Your Guide attended a workshop detailing an approach to the job search, taught by Caitlin Goldbaum, career coach at the Career & Internship Center. The following is an outline of the strategies Caitlin recommends for a successful job search. It is being published in three parts, corresponding to the three phases of the job hunt: (1) self-assess; (2) identify the work you are looking for; (3) assess the three core strategies for job hunting.

This week’s phase is self-assessment of your job search materials. Feel free to email your Guide with any questions, or comment below about any self-assessment tools or strategies that have worked for you. Happy hunting, grad students!

Phase One: Self-assess your job materials.

Consider each component of your application – resume, cover letter, LinkedIn, and possibly a portfolio – and ask yourself if you they are comprehensive, free of typos and formatting errors and updated for your next job search. Before you start the job search, you should:

  1. Have a strong resume that can be tailored to any job
  • A resume will be necessary for any job application
  • Create a new resume for every job. Highlight your experiences that prepare you for this position
  • Pull out keywords from the job description and try to capture your experiences through the lens of those keywords.
  • Use a variety of action verbs to describe what you did in each experience. Include information about the task, the actions you took, and the result of your work.
  • If your resume isn’t ready, here are a couple good places to start:
    • 15 minute drop-in appointments with the Career Center for resume (or cover letter!) consultation
    • The Career Guide (written by the Career Center) includes templates to help you with layout of your resume. Pro-tip: Don’t download a template from online (they’re dated), create your own in Word.
  1. Be confident that you can write a compelling cover letter
  • Most jobs require a cover letter. If it’s optional, do it.
  • The cover letter gives the employer a “more complete” story of who you are and what experiences have prepared you for the position .
  • A cover letter is a persuasive document. The first paragraph will include a thesis statement on why you are the best candidate for the position
  • The middle paragraph is where you tell a complete story about a past experience connected to the keywords in the job description.
  • The concluding paragraph is where you reiterate your interest, highlight why you are well qualified, and invite the employer to bring you in for an interview to discuss your qualifications further.
  • You’ll create a new cover letter for each job you apply for with different stories from your experience.
  • To answer on the question how to write my essay, just go and buy it, and you will save the time
  1. Regularly utilize LinkedIn for networking
  • LinkedIn is not required, but is highly encouraged: many jobs and industries look for this.
  • Having a LinkedIn allows you to control your online presence.
  • It allows an employer to see the full trajectory of your career.
  1. Have a portfolio that clearly showcases your best work, if-needed. Industries where you may need a portfolio are the arts, journalism, design, architecture, engineering.
  2. Feel comfortable interviewing. Need to practice some interview questions? You can set up a mock interview with the Career Center!

Feeling confident in your job search materials? Move on to the second phase of the job application process — self-assessment of your interests and skills! 

Ask Your Grad School Guide is an advice column for all y’all graduate and professional students. Real questions from real students, answered by real people. If the Guide doesn’t know the answer, the Guide will seek out experts all across campus to address the issue. (Please note: The Guide is not a medical doctor, therapist, lawyer or academic advisor, and all advice offered here is for informational purposes only.) Submit a question for the column →

When You’re Feeling Doubts About Graduate School

Feeling self-doubt about whether or not you belong in graduate school is actually a normal experience for many Master’s and doctoral Students. These doubts and anxieties can arise for any number of reasons. Below are just a few that we’ve heard about from your peers, and maybe they will resonate with you as well. Included are tips and strategies on how to move through these feelings.

Feeling like an imposter. Ever feel like you’re not intelligent enough to be in graduate school: like somehow your peers or department will “find out that you’re just not cut out” to be at the UW? Also known as imposter syndrome, these nagging, negative feelings and self-talk are actually quite common for most graduate students, and can make you question your talents, strengths, and resilience. Remember that you do belong in graduate school because you are passionate about your research project, enhancing your professional development, or wanting to make a positive contribution to your communities by earning a graduate degree.

Accessing resources. Your life is busy: balancing your degree requirements, a job or two, and family or community responsibilities is quite a task even when all those areas of your life are important to you. During the thick of it all, anxiety can creep up and make you feel like you aren’t capable of fulfilling your goals and commitments. It’s in those moments, that you can pause and ask yourself: Am I getting my needs met? Maybe there’s a campus or community resource you need to access to make sure you are getting what you need on an individual level, whether that be your campus recreation center, alone or quiet time with a good book or a walk, quality time with friends off campus, mental health support, or even a good meal.

Feeling exhausted. We know you’re all working hard as graduate students, and hard work can get the best of us. Given the rigors of graduate school, this can lead to feelings of exhaustion or possibly even burnout. Again, take pause. Can you ask for an extension on a project? Do you need to take an academic leave of absence? Even better, is there someone you can check in with to help you make a plan for getting much-needed rest, along with ways to move forward after your break? The length of your break is particular to you and your circumstances. Recognizing that you need some time away doesn’t mean you’re a failure, it means you are invested in your success as a whole person.

Remembering your purpose. It’s good to reflect back on why you decided to be a graduate student. Once you are in graduate school, your reasons may actually change over time, especially as you continue to explore how your degree may get you where you want to be in the future. Sometimes your interests and needs really do change, and the path you are on may no longer serve you. This is also a normal experience for many graduate students, and you can talk about it with people you trust on your mentoring team, with close friends, or you can schedule an appointment to talk with us at Core Programs. Talking it over with people you trust can help make sure that your judgment isn’t being clouded by any of the reasons we discussed above. And making an informed decision to take what you have learned thus far, and bringing it into your next phase of life, can be just what you need to do.

We hope you find these strategies useful and let us know what has worked for you!

Best Regards,

Core Programs Team

Quick Tips for Fitting in Career Planning

Welcome back to all graduate students at Bothell, Seattle, and Tacoma campuses! We at Core Programs hope you created intentional space for yourself to relax and enjoy the holiday break. The start of a new calendar year is often a time to look ahead and set intentions that help you do well personally, academically and in your work life (current and future).

It can feel like a lot, but we know from experience that doing a little at a time can make a big project more manageable. Below are a few strategies you can incorporate into your weekly routine, so that intentional career planning becomes part of your graduate student experience.

Engage in self-exploration.  Across the UW, grad programs provide students with varying degrees (and breadth) of career guidance. Regardless of your discipline, career planning is an important life-long skill to learn and hone throughout your graduate school journey and beyond. To start get you started, consider doing assessments of your skills, interests, values, and strengths. These assessments can help you identify sectors, jobs and work environments that are a good match for you.

Break down each task. We see—and hear you—that you are busy fulfilling requirements for your degree, working a part-time or full-time job, and/or taking care of loved ones. Yet it’s also still true that only you can invest time in your career development before you graduate. Consider carving out 15 minutes in your schedule once a week to (1) make a list of careers you’re interested and the skills they require, (2) search and make note of professionals on LinkedIn who work in those careers, then soon after, (3) explore company or organization websites to get a feel for what they offer, and (4) set up a 30-min. informational interview with one of the individuals on your list, and so many more leads once you get started.

Utilize a range of resources that fits your availability.  Schedule an appointment with a career counselor at your UW campus for in-person guidance on developing concrete strategies for your career exploration. Come talk to any of us at Core Programs (Skype appointments available too). If it’s difficult for you to schedule an in-person appointment, get acquainted with free online career planning tools such as ImaginePhD or myIDP—each with their own assessments as well. Attend a graduate student career development event offered by a career center at Bothell or Seattle—and be on the lookout for upcoming events sponsored or co-organized by Core Programs!

Getting stuck—or did you discover an awesome career exploration tool? Let us know! And happy launch into 2018!


Core Programs Team

Working with mentors to support your career goals!

We all have different mentors in our life. These people have our best interest in mind and are able to guide and support our professional and personal development. In your personal life, look for advisors who are compassionate, enthusiastic, generous, honest, insightful, selfless and wise. In your professional life, it is imperative to find mentors who are collaborative, intellectual, knowledgeable, accessible, and visionary. In both, it is important to have mentors who will challenge and support you in doing your best work and being your best self. For additional desirable mentor traits, see Cho et al. (2011) in which mentor nomination letters were analyzed for traits among those who supported the careers of junior faculty. And remember, look for multiple mentors — a single person cannot provide all of the support and encouragement you need! See Graduate School Mentor Memos on Building Your Mentoring Team and What a Good Mentor Does.

Once you identify your champions, build a thoughtful relationship to ensure that it is productive and continues to prioritize your long-term goals. In Mapping a Mentoring Roadmap and Developing a Supportive Network for Strategic Career Advancement, Montgomery (2017) outlines the steps necessary to support a productive mentor-mentee relationship. In addition, in Making the most of mentors: A guide for mentees, Zerzan et al. (2009) provide a very clear checklist to consider as you identify mentors and build your relationships. Briefly:

  1. Self Reflection: Before setting up a meeting with your mentor, figure out what you need in a mentor. What unique skills and experiences do they have that will benefit your career or personal goals? Do you need a team of mentors (hint: the answer is yes!)?
  2. Getting Started: Set an agenda with your interests in mind. How often should you formally meet? Be sure to set goals and follow-up with an emailed list of action items so that expectations are clear to both you an your mentor. For additional tips, see Managing Up.
  3. Maintenance: Be sure to sustain regular contact with your mentor. If you’ve agreed to future milestones, be sure to meet them or discuss more realistic goals if necessary.
  4. Moving Ahead: Your life will evolve. At some point, you will be less reliant on your current mentors and will need to identify more relevant advisors. Be open with you mentor, re-evaluate your relationship, and gracefully transition to your next phase. However, be sure to maintain a positive relationship, as your mentor already invested a great deal of effort in you. They will want to see you continue to be successful and you may find yourself relying on them in the future.

Above all else, keep all lines of communication open. You may have a great plan for your personal and professional development. However, if you and your mentor don’t communicate, then you won’t be working towards the same finish line.



  • Cho, C. S. (2011). Defining the ideal qualities of mentorship: A qualitative analysis of the characteristics of outstanding mentors. The American Journal of Medicine, 124 (5), 453–458.
  • Montgomery, B. L. (2017). Mapping a mentoring roadmap and developing a supportive network for strategic career advancement. SAGE Open. 1–13.
  • Zerzan, J. T. (2009). Making the most of mentors: a guide for mentees. Academic Medicine, 84 (1), 140–144.

Exploration and Action: Keys to identifying your next steps

We often talk with postdocs about steps you can take to plan for your future. Before jumping into goal setting, investing time in assessment, reflection, and exploration can help assure your goals are aiming you in the right direction. We have promoted a few self-assessment tools in the past (myIDP and Doug’s Guides). A new tool from the Graduate Career Consortium (ImaginePhD) has enhanced capabilities and expanded “job families” that help you match your skills, values, and interests with a wider set of options.

Take time to invest in your future: Roughly five to 25 percent of your time (one to 10 hours) should be focused on your future. Whether you spend that time in self-assessment, sector exploration, informational interviews, grant writing, writing YOUR publications, or on your independent research, it is critical to your future success that you take a few hours each week to build and plan your career. This goes for brand new postdocs as well as those of you in your fifth year — it is never too late or too early to start.

Assess where you are: Set short term (three-month) and long term (three-year) goals. The new ImaginePhD website has a very helpful planning tool called “My Plan”. They have listed numerous potential goals for career, skills, funding, and personal development directions. You can drag and drop to give yourself actions to take each week,  month or year. It can be modified and updated. The best goals are SMART: specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic, and time-sensitive. This means you have to revisit them regularly — ideally with a conversation partner, who can be a peer, your faculty advisor or a member of your mentoring team.

Make a plan: The tools mentioned above can help you take stock of where you are now, and this includes not only your skill sets and experiences, but also the nature of the work you enjoy and work environments where you find yourself thriving. Choose one or all of the tools to help you think about where you are — it can change from day to day — and then use this feedback to help you make an informed plan. You should consider additional skills or experiences you should gain during your postdoc and which sectors or kinds of roles you should be exploring for your next career phase.

While designed for people from humanities and social science backgrounds, the improved interface, expanded options, and tailored planning that is available through ImaginePhD makes it worthwhile for postdocs from all disciplines. Give it a try and then give us feedback. Let us know if it is working for you.

Career Advice for Beyond the End of The Road

If the path before you is clear, you’re probably on someone else’s.
– Joseph Campbell


Dr. Keith Micoli visited UW from NYU where he directs the postdoc office and has worked for a decade to support postdoc professional development. Dr. Micoli shared advice with UW postdocs at a workshop on October 16, and we share highlights with you here.  For anyone who has done any kind of endurance activity, you will recognize a theme within these tips, drawn from Dr. Micoli’s own science training career and long-distance hiking activities:

Lesson 1 – Commit to Your Goal

  • Knowing your goals will help you get through the inevitable tough moments, when you want to give up. You can’t hike 130 miles all at one shot. 
  • When something’s obviously not working, try something else.
  • If you don’t know your goal, it’s a lot harder to accomplish anything.

Lesson 2 – Know the Difference Between Need and Want

  • Rather than imagine what your faculty advisor is thinking about your path, talk about it; you may be surprised!
  • Set a date that you are NOT going to be a postdoc anymore; start working on your end goals NOW.
  • When identifying where you want to go next, think not just about the position or job title, but also your values and how they fit the organization’s culturemyIDP and Doug’s Guides can give you some insights to explore further.

Lesson 3 – Know What Success Will Require of You

  • What does it take to be a successful tenure-track faculty member? What does success look like in an alternative career?
  • Are you willing to pay the price to pursue a certain career? If you are not, you shouldn’t be doing it.
  • Use your postdoc time to develop your many transferable skills, such as writing, teaching, counseling, organization, situation analysis, independence, meeting deadlines, negotiations, enlisting help, communication skills, course development, setting goals, supervising, coordinate, editing, research design, listening, networking, time management, selling ideas, resourcefulness, attention to details, collaborating, giving feedback, data analysis, presentations, take risks, budgeting, decision-making, artistic/creative, conflict management delegating, facilitating discussion, interpersonal skills, prioritizing, giving feedback…and more.

Lesson 4 – Do Your Best with What You Have

  • Focus on things and places where you can have an impact, not on the things you can’t do.
  • Visualize the completion of a goal, and then go backwards to plan for a timeline and achievable sub-goals.
  • Sometimes you need to put in more resources to finish on time; sometimes you need to extend the deadline and to be realistic.

Lesson 5 – Be Realistic and Opportunistic

  • Why is your goal important, and why hasn’t it already been achieved?
  • What is the most direct way to achieve it?
  • What resources do you have, and what resources do you need?

Lesson 6 – Never Give Up

  • You don’t have the benefit of knowing where the finishing line is. Just keep going and never give up.