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,


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!


The problem with big Pharma

The recent economic crises hit hard across the board taking no prisoners. Funding for academic research has dropped significantly and in industry there have been massive layoffs.

“According to recruitment specialists Challenger, Gray & Christmas (Chicago, IL, USA), the number of pharmaceutical industry jobs eliminated in the first ten months of 2010 was 45,263 (in 2009, it was 58,696 jobs). “

So what does this mean for fresh faced young PhDs and postdocs ready to begin their careers? Honestly, I don’t know…I’m not going to pretend to know how to fix the problem but I think I know what some of the problems are.

This article in Nature Biotechnology does a pretty good job of outlining the issues and presenting proposed solutions.

OK..that’s the good stuff backed by lots of background and research…here’s my opinion backed by 3 wonderful years working as a scientist in a pharmaceutical company. There are 3 main issues that I feel need to be addressed:

1. Too many chiefs not enough Indians:

There are too many layers of management and not enough people doing the work. Brilliant scientists are rewarded by being promoted as it should be, but each promotion takes them further away from the bench. While scientists left at the bench are good at what they do and have years of experience under their belt, they often lack the motivation to step outside their comfort zone.

Definitely not the best breeding ground for ground breaking science = not enough compounds in the pipeline = not enough new drugs on the market = not profit for pharma = layoffs and hiring freeze

2. Not enough educated risk taking:

“It’s a business”…the most overused phrase regarding drug companies. Often times, promising projects get killed way too early because it would take a more time and money to get the project off the ground. Rather than investing in a risky but promising project, a safer target is chosen which may or may not end up making it all the way to the market.

3. Failure to promote career development:

This kind of goes hand in hand with the number one problem. Getting a good, secure job is like a marriage. People get into a comfortable routine…come in at 9am…leave at 5pm…lunch at 11:30am, 2- hour long meeting and whatever work you can get done in between the meetings and all the compliance training modules/ faux team building exercises…sheesh..no wonder no new discoveries are being made.

I digress…

If career development is made a priority, employees can be pushed (gently at first..and the progressively less gently) to expand their horizons and explore other areas that they might find interesting…even if it means stepping away from the bench and exploring other avenues. This way, employees that want to be at the bench and develop their career in that direction and the employees that want to grow in another direction can do so with renewed zest thereby increasing company productivity. It’s a win-win situation for both employee and company.

Happy wife..happy life!

I guess my bottom line is this…to make it in industry, we have to stay flexible and be willing to expand our knowledge base to include learning new skills and techniques while retaining the ability to get down and dirty at the bench when the need arises..corner office, company car and personal assistant be damned!