Last month I wrote to you about my crisis of purpose- as I explained then, I’m getting ready to wrap up my PhD and have been struggling to figure out what I should do when I’m done. Should I stay in academia or should I try something else? Is something else really an option? I mean after all this work and preparation? I was worried that the post would be overly negative (and perhaps whiney?) deterring readers from finishing it… making it completely useless. Instead, I had people open up to me with the exact same worries and feelings that I had. So this time I want to share with you what I’ve learnt with the hopes that it might help you too. And these tips aren’t just for PhD grads, there’s a little something for everyone who’s searching for a job or career.
I’ve spent much of the past 4 years learning many technical skills essential to my research but beyond that environment it’s hard to see how I might use them. Also, keep in mind that my work experience outside of the lab has been rather limited- basically part-time jobs during my undergrad. I know I’ve picked up some soft skills but since I’ve spent most of my time in a research lab, I haven’t really thought about them too much – have definitely not thought about developing them further, and do not know how to market them to non-academic employers. Honestly, I’m not even sure that I know which soft skills I should highlight.
Being the good scientist that I am, I decided to do what I know I do well- research. I’ve been reading articles and personal blogs that might help me work through this. In fact, one of the first articles that I found is called Five Transferable Skills All Ph.D. Holders Have That Others Don’t (catchy title eh?). Although not every article that I’ve read has resonated with me, this one really seems to have struck a chord. What really hit me about this article was that it pointed out how something I had always just accepted as a normal part of my life was actually a super valuable soft skill- resilience to failure. How many experiments or new techniques have “failed” for me? More than I would like to count. But looking back at those experiences, especially now that I’m almost done, I’m beginning to realize that they have allowed me to develop a very real, very useful, and very unique soft skill: I am not a quitter. As graduate students we learn how to solve problems. Some take longer than others but we always keep trying, and each time we try again, we further develop our critical thinking skills and become problem solvers. And let’s not forget to mention record keeping! When it comes to tracking progress and recalling information good record keeping is key and is incredibly valuable in many different types of work.
Obviously those aren’t the only skill that matter but they are the ones that I hadn’t thought about before. I would encourage you to go out and read articles written by former grad students who are now ready to pass on what they’ve learnt too. It’s not the same as talking to someone but it’s a good place to start. I would also suggest checking out Alternative Careers in Science: Leaving the Ivory Tower by Cynthia Robbins-Roth. Each chapter is written by a former grad student who left academia and ended up somewhere pretty different. It’s a great way to get a glimpse of some of the less traditional paths that others have taken.
In my previous post, I alluded to working with a mentor through the CAPS Career Mentoring Program. I’m pleased to say that the program has had a big impact on my life over the past 7 months. I most definitely suggest checking them out and perhaps attending one of their information sessions in September. Do keep in mind that they have a limited number of spots available though, and know that even if you can’t get into their formal mentorship program, you can still have a mentor- you’ll just need to find them on your own. (After all, you probably possess the resilience to failure skill too, so if you want a mentor, you’ll definitely find one). One piece of advice regardless or where you find your mentor- make sure you have the time to invest in a mentorship relationship otherwise you’re setting yourself up to wasting both your time and theirs.
My mentor has been an incredible support and an amazing source of advice – plus he’s followed a path that’s similar to my own which means that. at one point in time he was in the same figurative boat that I am in now. And even more importantly, he has since gone on to have a variety of different jobs since completing his PhD. The people running the mentorship program really outdid themselves when they paired me with him.
As mentors go, he has been easy to relate to, but he’s also been someone who has been willing to challenge me to step beyond my comfort zone. Actually, he’s been pretty good at that. See, I am that stereotypical scientist who is reserved, quiet, and a bit socially awkward, and I am terrified of making conversation. How do you get over that? By practising. During one of our meetings (usually held at a Starbucks), he had a brilliant idea (and I mean that, I’m not being sarcastic) on how I could practice my small talk skills. While in the safety of the coffee shop, he encouraged me to walk up to a young woman to introduce myself and make short conversation. Although I may not have been excited by the idea at first (actually I was terrified), I did it, it was awkward, but I did it. During the experience, I was able to converse with and learn her name (although I admit that in my nerves state, I promptly forgot her name). Now I try to do this at least a couple times a week and it has really helped me. I still get anxious but not every time and it feels a lot more natural. Even in my day to day life I notice that I’ve become more talkative. When you’re comfortable talking with strangers it makes it a lot easier to network. And that’s the end goal of this particular exercise.
Networking! It’s important. The more you network, the more you’ll learn- it’s one of the best ways to find out about new career options. Ever hear of a pathologist’s assistant? Neither had I but through talking to people looking at alternative careers I’ve learnt about it. Networking can also help you buildout your resume, since it can connect you with helpful volunteer and workshop opportunities… and if you’re lucky potential jobs. Another exercise I have been doing to build my network is interviewing others who have finished graduate school and moved on to other careers. These are called informational interviews. Originally, my mentor would set these up for me by connecting me with people that he knows, but now I am at the point where I can set these meetings up myself. (After my last post, some of you even reached out to participate in these kinds of interactions, which is awesome!)
The Job Search
Now that I’m starting to handle my own skill development and networking, we have begun to focus on the dreaded job search. We’ve been working on cover letter writing, and next month, we’ll be trying out mock interviews. Here, the biggest piece of advice I’ve gotten is to let go and don’t worry so much. Don’t let all the qualifications and years of experience listed on a job ad intimidate you. If you think the job is interesting but you lack a degree in marketing… well apply anyways. If that’s a deal breaker for them then that’s that. And sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t, you just never know. You could give them a call or email to see whether they would consider hiring someone who lacks experience in ______. They may not talk to you and you’ll be embarrassed for 5 seconds… and then it’s done and forgotten. Or they will talk to you and you’ll gain some insight. I did and it worked out well. However, I did make it clear that I wasn’t applying to the position itself but wanted the info for future reference to similar jobs. This helps avoid any annoyance the hiring committee may feel that you had to ask in the first place. To get around that issue, your call or email could focus on learning more about the employer’s environment so that you can better tailor your application to them.
If you want to learn more about a certain type of work environment or job, my mentor also suggested calling companies that do similar work to the area that you're interested in. Doing so will allow you to collect info about the areas of their work that you’re unfamiliar with. This will allow you to think about what kinds of words you should be using and which experiences you should be highlighting in you cover letter (since it will show off your understanding of the work environment while also demonstrating that you know you can fit within that work environment Bottom line: be innovative and learn to recognize the applicable components of your existing skill set.
Of course the U of A hasn’t left us high and dry; there have been numerous opportunities available through FGSR, the GSA, departments, faculty and groups like CAPS that invite us to attend meetings, seminars, and mixers that are dedicated to alternative career paths for graduate students. I’ve been to a couple and have picked up some good ideas in the process. So take advantage of what’s available to you. Don’t stay in the dark fretting away.
I hope that some of this has been helpful to you and if you have your own suggestions or pieces of advice please share in the comments below! I’ll end this mini-series in about a month by summarizing the mentorship program and everything I’ve learnt.
Shannon is a fourth year graduate student in Neuroscience hoping to someday soon spread her wings and finally graduate from school. She loves learning about science and how it makes our world a better place but when not in the lab she can be found hiking mountains and playing some volleyball with friends! She loves sharing the awesomeness that's always happening at the U of A!