Cold emails and hot coffee, part 4

This is the final part of a four-article series on the Active Career Exploration (ACE) plan for career development created by and for Ph.D. students and postdocs at the University of Michigan (UM).

Career development is often seen as vague and unapproachable, especially for those considering venturing outside academia. The typical methods—searching for information online or attending career panels—tend to be passive and may yield little or slow progress. The ACE plan provides concrete, active steps for you to actively engage in your own career development, which students and postdocs at UM have found effective.

The preceding three ACE articles provided a framework for you to start looking into a few potential careers, establish a first contact with professionals in those areas, and conduct informational interviews with your contacts.

In this next and final phase, you will:

  1. Create a supportive environment and broader network for your career development.

What skills do you need?

Rarely does earning a Ph.D. fully prepare you for jobs outside academia. And if you’ve already started your informational interviewing, you may have observed that career development—especially outside traditional academic paths—typically takes many twists and turns.

But the personal stories you gathered during your informational interviews have equipped you with an invaluable tool for your career journey: a compass. After learning from the experiences of others, you are now able to strategically decide what skills you need to reach your future career goals, forging your own path in the face of uncertainty.  

Expect the skills, and your skill-building program, to vary dramatically depending on your career of choice, your interests, and your stage of training, as you can see from the experiences of past ACE participants below.


How to develop your skill-building program

Now that you’ve considered the skills and knowledge you need to learn, seek out specialized coursework outside of your scientific training, if necessary. Such courses might focus on topics such as science policy, public health, medicine, business, management, or journalism. But don’t limit yourself to coursework. Look for opportunities to develop and refine your skills through participation in relevant events, workshops, and other programs like innovation challenges and writing competitions. Engage with organizations outside of the university, such as professional societies. Be active!

Make sure that you also recognize what may well be disguised opportunities in your backyard (Figure 1). Often, it is possible to reshape tasks in the lab into broader skill-building experiences. Request opportunities to lead small research projects and organize events to gain soft skills. Initiate a journal club to improve both your scientific knowledge and presentation skills. Hone your writing skills by securing small grants for the lab and volunteering to edit papers.

One advantage of reframing academic tasks is that it is less demanding on your time in the lab—a win-win situation for your career and research advancement. Importantly, the ACE approach is designed to promote career development in a time-efficient manner, so it does not interfere with research progress.

An ideal ACE experience

To give you a more vivid picture of what an ACE experience may look like, consider this composite profile drawn from several real-life examples.

Create your own ACE group at your university

Consider implementing ACE and similar workgroups at your institution to help foster your own career development community. While helping others, creating such a group will also connect you with like-minded, motivated students and faculty members who can support you in the arduous work of preparing for your career. Not least, taking initiative to organize a group and lead others is an invaluable skill in itself.

We recommend that you develop your ACE group in the following ways:

  1. Promote active participation by encouraging participants to demonstrate leadership and establish career development interest groups of their own or tailor the ACE plan to meet the unique career interests of participants.

Advisers and mentors can help support ACE participation–so engage them!

Securing the participation of a faculty or staff member in the ACE group is important for its success and long-term sustainability. Although many faculty members do not have the requisite knowledge to advise mentees on the broad range of career options outside academia, the self-directed approach of the ACE plan offers the advantage of taking the pressure off them alone.

One faculty member at UM put it this way:

Even if the initiative doesn’t come from your principal investigator (PI), make sure to secure support for your career development in your own lab. Understandably, mentors are focused on research productivity, so you can emphasize that career planning motivates you to take greater initiative. You can also try to apply whatever skills you have learned in your specialized courses or internships to your work in the lab, as it will help you show your mentor and colleagues the value of your outside efforts.

Consider this example:

If there are other ACE participants in your lab, propose spending some lab meeting time sharing active career exploration outcomes, and seek your mentor’s advice and help finding opportunities on campus that fit your interests. Such opportunities for open discussions will also help you feel supported and encouraged by your adviser.

Your future is bright

As we draw this series to an end, remember that you always have the option to act—or not—on your own career development. And while ideally you should engage in career planning as early as possible, be assured that it’s never too late. UM participants, from first-year grad students to senior postdocs, have found that the ACE plan has empowered them to take action on their careers, with good results, at any stage of their training. By embracing the ACE method, you will discover that you have not only the initiative but also the ability to identify a career that is right for you, develop the necessary transferable skills, foster a broader professional network, and ultimately design your own career trajectory.

Balancing career and family

The space roboticist