Narrowing the Choices: What Career Path is Right for You?


This is the ninth article in a series designed to help you create an individual development plan (IDP) using myIDP, a new Web-based career-planning tool created to help graduate students and postdocs in the sciences define and pursue their career goals. To learn more about myIDP and begin the career exploration and planning process, please visit:

“What are you going to do when you finish your Ph.D.?”

“What are you going to do when you finish your postdoc?”

For many young scientists, these are two of the most dreaded questions. Your peers, colleagues, advisers, and even family ask them. The problem is that choosing a career path can feel daunting. Perhaps you know you want to go the tenure-track route but are unsure whether you will be able to succeed. Perhaps you have decided against academia but are having trouble narrowing down the options.

The good news is that many exciting career paths are available to scientists. The bad news is that essentially all of them are highly competitive. There is no “fall back” job. To get a job in any career, you will need to have a demonstrated interest in that path, requisite skills, relevant experience, and a strong professional network within the field. To achieve those interim objectives as a trainee, you need to know where you plan to head in the future.

With so many career options, how do you choose?

After you complete the skills, values, and interests self-assessments in , you are presented with a list of 20 categories of careers pursued by Ph.D.-level scientists. Within each category there are multiple career options. Hopefully, you have spent some time learning about many of these career options. Even so, if you are like most trainees at this point, you may not know which career path is best for you.

Here are some tips to help you with career decision-making:

Identify a “plan A” and “plan B.”

The job search is very competitive, and luck is a strong element in any search. Therefore, it is always wise to have two long-term career goals: a “plan A” and a “plan B.” You should prepare for each. For example, if Andrew’s plan A is to become an assistant professor at a research-focused academic institution, and his plan B is to pursue research and teaching at a teaching-focused institution, then he will need to plan for two fairly distinct career paths.

The good news is that many exciting career paths are available to scientists. The bad news is that essentially all of them are highly competitive.

In this case (as in most), Andrew’s plan B is not a job that is easier to get. Strong researchers aren’t necessarily seen as stronger candidates at teaching-focused academic institutions. To succeed along this plan B path, he will need to acquire significant teaching experience, and have a research plan that fits the needs and resources of an undergraduate-centered institution. He will need to demonstrate a genuine interest in his plan B path, by, for example, mentoring undergraduates and becoming an active member of the Council on Undergraduate Research. Because both careers require preparation and a demonstrated commitment over time, we advise that you select both a plan A and plan B now and prepare diligently for both throughout your years as a graduate or postdoctoral trainee.

Beware of “option paralysis.”

No career decision is forever. This is just the first step!

So, no matter what your career ambitions may be, try not to stall your career decisions because you hope to choose the perfect career the first time. Just make a decision, pursue it energetically, and see where it takes you.

Your first career step will lead to unforeseen opportunities.

Ideally, your first job would be a great fit to your skills, interests, and values. In reality, the fit is likely to be imperfect. That’s okay: This first job will give you valuable job experience while also giving you a stronger sense of what you are looking for in your career long-term. Especially because it is not exactly what you were envisioning, this experience will introduce you to possibilities you did not foresee.

Do you need a transition experience?

Identifying a long-term career goal can be a major challenge. The options are many and option paralysis is common. To optimize your chances of success, select a plan A and a plan B, and tailor your IDP to these two long-term goals.

In the next article of this series, we will suggest strategies for how to start preparing yourself for success along your career trajectory. Whether you are years or months from your first job, this IDP will launch you along a path to success.

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T. Freedman. Career Opportunities in Biotechnology and Drug Development (Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, New York, 2008), chap 17.

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