This weekend in the UK we had our first Monday holiday of the summer season, festively named ‘Early May Bank Holiday’. Being the travel-loving person I am, I decided to head out of town for the weekend. My husband and I greatly enjoyed the weekend hiking along the Pembrokeshire coast in southern Wales. In true Bank Holiday fashion, it was an equal mix of splendid, sunny days and miserably windy and rainy ones. It was a great break after a busy week and a chance to celebrate my contract extension and new UK work permit, which finally just came through about a week ago.
As exciting and relaxing as the weekend was, I knew that after heading home from the holiday weekend, I had a lot of work on my plate, and only 11 months more to get it all done. While having a job is always a reason to celebrate, the fact that my job was still a temporary one made the reality of my career sink in: I got my post-doc contract extension, finally! So…now what? What comes after April 2017?
There are numerous parts of research and graduate school that are stressful, but the uncertainty, transitions, and transient status that define the early stages of a career most definitely add to the stress. There is always uncertainty in the sense that you have ideas of what you want to do, but can’t ever be 100% sure you’ll get there until you do. Your career transitions include going from student to trainee to expert, all in a relatively short yet intense period of time. And the transient status is part of the process, since once you graduate or your contract ends, you need to move on to the next stage.
In grad school you likely oftentimes feel like you just can’t wait to get to the next stage, since no one wants to be in school forever. You might find yourself intensely focused on the goals at hand, such as finishing crucial experiments or writing before you get close to the submission deadline. You might also spend time daydreaming of how great it will be to graduate, to be Dr. So-And-So, and to propel yourself off into the real world. But then, oftentimes, as you get closer to becoming Dr. So-And-So, you realize the reality of the situation: graduation is not an end-all to your journey, and things are only going to become a different type of complex at the next stage, whether it’s an uncertain job market or just feeling like you’re not cut out to do what you initially dreamed of doing.
For those of you with goals of staying in academia, a post-doc is obviously a logical option, but here the waters certainly feel choppy at their best. With only temporary roles and positions to get more training and write good papers, it can leave even the calmest of people feeling stressed when getting close to the end of your funding. Then once you get your dream job, you’re still in a similar boat, with a different set of waves: there are more grants you need to get to keep your lab running, a tenure review board to keep you on your toes, and don’t forget that your primary job title is to still actually do research!
An industry job can offer some solace in terms of more job security and less abrupt transitions, but in return you may jump from project/department/boss more often than you want. And the path up the career ladder might not look the same as you might expect—it could even differ from company to company, and office politics will come more into play than just your work alone. And while job security is certainly not an issue in the regulatory/government sectors, getting one of these jobs is definitely half, or even 3/4th, of the battle.
It can be a difficult thing to feel like you can relax regardless of where you end up, but that’s not to say that relaxing isn’t possible, or that whatever position you end up in will have some doom-and-gloom aspect of it. All it means is that while you’re in the transitional parts of your career, you should think about where you want to go next and how you can get there. It’s a tempting question to try to avoid, or to try to delay making a decision by taking endless odd jobs and temporary roles, but if you use these transitions to your advantage, you can end up exactly where you want to be:
Don’t avoid thinking about the question of ‘what next?’
Maybe the #1 reason that this question is scary to think about is because there’s always some fear or some chance that you won’t be able to get there. While that may or may not be the case, simply not talking about it won’t solve the problem. Even if you tell yourself that you’re just leaving your options open, going blindly down a path to something that you don’t actually want can make things more difficult when you do get to that transition point. Figuring out what you want to do and where you want to go next is a difficult question, but the bright side is that there’s always a way forward, regardless of what stage you’re at now. The key is to really, really know what you want to do, and once you do then identify a mentor or set of people in your professional network that can help you understand what it will take to get there.
Think about what’s driving your career choice.
Many of us will walk into graduate school with different expectations of what we want from a career. Science is attractive to all of us when we begin school, and a research professor job can seem like the ideal career choice for someone in the sciences. But there aren’t enough professor jobs out there for all of us, and oftentimes the things we value can be met in other positions outside of academia. As you think about what comes next, focus on what’s fundamentally driving your career forward and what you value from a vocation. Is it independence of ideas? Doing impactful work? Being actively involved in lab work and experiments? Working with students?
There are a lot of ways to make an impactful career in research, and you don’t have to be a university professor to make a big impact. When looking at what you value, think about what excites you or drives you the most about science. If you like solving real-world problems and working in a fast-paced environment, then industry could be a good fit. If you like what you do being connected to national policies, then a government role could be a glimpse into doing work that can get that done. If you’re a creative type, then there are jobs in writing, communication, and outreach that can keep you working alongside science from a different angle than research. If you think about what you want the most and it’s the scientific method and research that drives you, then you should certainly go for it-just be ready and willing to give the time and energy to get there, because there are other researchers out there with a lot of drive to get to the same place as you want to be.
Do what you can with where you are right now.
It’s one thing to daydream of graduating or thinking about how easy things will be when you get a permanent job and quite another to get out and do the work that can get you there. On the flip side, there’s a tendency for us to think back on our work or decisions that led to a certain point in our careers. To see the positive of both sides of these two opposing perspectives, focus your thoughts instead about what you can do now in order to set yourself up for something better. This can include networking, identifying a mentor or someone with your dream job, getting some specific technical training, seeing if a short-term internship at a company is right for you, and a myriad of other things that you as a scientist-in-training should see as valuable uses of your time. Whatever it is that you think can help you at the next stage of your career, go for it! Remember to do the best with whatever place you end up in and at whatever stage you find yourself. Even if you don’t like your current post, give yourself some time and energy to invest in your own professional development that can help you get somewhere else.
Remember to make time for yourself.
It’s good to have time for some personal professional development, but remember too that we all need a break in the day or a bit of a holiday to step back from work and stress. Recognize when you feel like you’ve hit a wall in terms of a day’s productivity or are dragging after a busy few weeks or months of hard work. It may feel counter-intuitive to take a break when you feel like you’re not quite there yet, but these breaks can help re-inspire and unwind your mind, making your thoughts and goals more clear for the next push ahead.
It’s not just about where you make it but also in how you get there.
I’ve been to a few career panels and seminars, usually of researchers who talk about their career from the beginning, how they ended up in their current role, and what working for their organization/institution is like. My favorite career talks have been from people whose path to where they are now was anything but pre-planned, smooth, and without some unexpected twists and turns. One of the themes I take home from these types of talks is that often times we end up where we are not just because of our career plans, but from all sorts of other factors known as life and luck: being married, having a family, knowing someone who knew someone who had a job, and a lot of times just chance or luck come into where we end up in life. In these career talks, it’s clear that while the person may not have ended up where they thought they would originally, they loved where they ended up nonetheless, bumps along the road and all.
Life certainly won’t always be a smooth journey, especially when you’re in a research-oriented career. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t make the absolute best of it or that you can’t enjoy the turns and face the trials that come. As for me, I’ll continue to enjoy the weekend breaks and summer holidays as they come, knowing that when I’m home I have a lot of work to do both in the lab and a lot of mental musings on where I go after April 2017. Thankfully I already have some ideas for both!