Leaving the nest (MyIDP: career planning for graduate students and postdocs)

As I embark on the final quarter of my graduate career, I am often filled with a sense of uncertainty. Let me explain. My original goal was to return to graduate school in order to obtain a strong scientific foundation for a career in the pharmaceutical industry.

My plan was thus:

  1. Get a PhD
  2. Get a job in Pharma
  3. Work with other scientists to develop new drugs
  4. Save the world

However, I’ve had several bouts of doubt. I’m not sure this is what I want to do anymore. I’m not sure this plan aligns with what I really want to do for the rest of my life. As usual, I have decided to go about this by assessing my strengths, weaknesses, likes and dislikes.

So I said to myself: “Self, if only there was some cosmo type quiz I can take to determine what type of career I would be good at based on my likes, dislikes, strengths and weaknesses”…

Enter My Individual Development Plan,

History:

My IDP was modeled after the employee career development concept used in industry. It expands upon a structure proposed by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) for postdocs in 2003.

What it is:Individual Development Plan overview page

Did it help me?

Honestly, the first time I took it, I just breezed through it. I gave myself a lot of 5s: “highly proficient” on the skills assessment (self-love much?). Then I went back, and really thought through each question and answered truthfully.

The quiz is divided into 3 sections

Skills: here you rank your skills on a scale of 1(highly deficient) to 5(highly proficient)

Some things that rank for me at :

1,2 :Writing grant proposals and statistical analysis

4,5: Technical skills related to my specific research area, experimental design

Interests: Ranking from 1: (never do in my career) to 5(do often in my career)

For me:

1,2: Analyzing financial budgets and assessing business trends

4,5: Learning how to use new equipment and techniques and planning new scientific projects or developing new research directions

Values: Ranking from 1(unimportant) to 5 (essential)

For me:

1,2: Work alone and work in a low pressure environment

4,5: Help society, competition, job security and family friendly

Based on my answers, my top 3 career path matches were:

  • Product development scientist or engineer
  • Scientific/medical testing
  • Drug/device approval and production

Funny enough, “research in industry” ranks much lower on the list based on my skills and interests than i expected. Not surprisingly, principal investigator and research staff in a research-intensive institution rank even lower.

What I really like about this assessment:

  1. It gives you a framework to work with.
  2. It really does take into account your skills and interests.
  3. It links you to information about careers based on your answers.
  4. It  shows you your strengths and weaknesses and offers advice on how to improve on the weaknesses.
  5. You can download blank assessments and discuss them with your P.I (Ahmazing!).

Has anyone taken it? Did you find it helpful? I would especially love to hear from recent graduates who have gone on to careers in different fields.

PS: My opinions were not influenced by anyone directly associated with MyIDP. It was initially introduced to me by a friend and then again at a conference.

 

Russian Roulette…(aka Choosing a thesis lab)

DISCLAIMER: These opinions are strictly mine and not backed up by any scientific evidence.

 

As a 4th year graduate student, I don’t think I’m seasoned enough to be jaded/disillusioned. I also think I still remember my trepidation on choosing the lab I was going to spend the rest of my 20’s in.

So here we go…my top 5 things to consider when choosing a thesis lab

1. Do I like my prospective labmates?

I dig science too so I can talk about scientists. We can be awkward..socially awkward creatures focused only on our research and things that interest us. Perfectly content sitting at the microscope with headphones on and shutting out the world. However, if you are not this type of scientist and you are the more social type…do not convince yourself that you are in grad school strictly for the science and would do well in a lab full of the aforementioned scientists or people you do not get along with. Sure it might work..but it probably won’t.

You more than likely chose rotations based on science you were interested meaning that you could probably do “good science” in any of those labs. However, you are going to be spending a lot of time with these people, no point being unhappy.

 

2. Do I like my prospective P.I?

OK…like might be the wrong word here. Does anyone ever really LIKE their P.I (principal investigator)…(I actually do..great guy he is!). Depending on the school you attend, there will more than likely be a lot of big name, big time scientists (Nature/Science publishing types, Nobel Laureates, Demigods in theirfields even though no one in the real world knows them)….some with egos to boot. You want to have a healthy like/respect for your P.I. and not because of what they have published or what you think you will get out of being a member of the lab. P.I.s are people too..and if you wouldn’t like/respect your P.I in “real life”…what makes you think you’d be able to work for them for 5+ years…it’s a lose-lose situation.


3. Do I like the science?

I think rotations take care of this question. Unless you chose to attend grad school because your parents made you, you know you like science. You know you want to make some sort of contribution to the scientific community et al. You need to join a lab that even when you go through periods when your experiments don’t work (aka 3rd year), you are still excited enough about the field in general to stick around.

 

4. What type of worker am I?

I feel that the only people who successfully make it through grad school with their love for science intact are the ones that treat it like a regular job.

a. Set regular work hours and stick to it for the most part

b. Set goals (monthly, quarterly, annually) just like you would in your career and work to meet them

c. Do not be afraid to talk to your boss/challenge their ideas

d. Don’t let other people determine how far you go in your grad school career..take responsibility for every single aspect and take advantages inside and outside the lab to grow.

 

5. What do I want to accomplish during my time here? 

Set goals and timelines…talk about your goals with your P.I before you join to make sure they are on board. Be flexible…life happens. Be willing to reevaluate your project and determine if you are going in the right direction often! Don’t be afraid to ask questions…Don’t be that person who thought they knew everything until they woke up in year 9 realizing they just pissed away 9 years of their life and have nothing to show for it…ooooop! yep I said it!

 

Beyond The Bench

According to an article published in The Economist, Doctoral degrees: The disposable academic,we the current graduate students in universities around the world are pretty much screwed!

“Research at one American university found that those who finish are no cleverer than those who do not. Poor supervision, bad job prospects or lack of money cause them to run out of steam.”

After years and years….and years of “seven-day weeks, ten-hour days, low pay..”, our job prospects out in the real world are bleak.

“100,000 doctoral degrees produced between 2005 and 2009 and only 16,000 new professorships.”

We have a higher chance of being diagnosed with cancer than we do of landing that gig as an assistant professor we’ve been dreaming about since we were 5 years old. Not motivated enough to pour your blood, sweat and tears into that western blot? Well, how about this….

“Over all subjects, a PhD commands only a 3% premium over a master’s degree.”

or this…

“As this year’s new crop of graduate students bounce into their research, few will be willing to accept that the system they are  entering could be designed for the benefit of others, that even hard work and brilliance may well not be enough to succeed, and that they would be better off doing something else.”

After reading this article, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry…so I did both (making sure I included a control).

Upon further evaluation, I decided that the message of this article is not all bad. For current graduate students, we know that the system is not necessarily designed to work in our favor regardless of whether we want to remain in academia or go into industry. We also know the areas which need to be improved upon..

“…many PhDs find it tough to transfer their skills into the job market.”

“Some universities are now offering their PhD students training in soft skills such as communication and teamwork that may be useful in the labour market.”

The purpose of this blog is quite simple

      • Provide a central location for all the tools that might make us  more attractive to prospective employers (academic and non-academic)
      • Serve as an outlet for current graduate students to express their ideas, frustrations and solutions to problems we face
      • Promote networking among graduate students around the world
      • Reassure prospective graduate students that life as an indentured servant a grad student is not all bad

On the contrary, beyond the bench, graduate school is an adventure of a lifetime. Where else would we get paid to learn, do cool experiments that may or may not work, attend seminars by renowned experts for free, work with some of the greatest minds of our time while establishing long lasting connections? Nowhere I tell ya…absolutely nowhere.