Career Development

How to work out what you want to be when you grow up – An intro to Individual Development Plans

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What are you going to be when you grow up?

We are already adults, yet the majority of postdocs and PhD students are likely plagued with this simple question that we have been asked since we could talk.

As scientists, we have a large number of scientific, analytical and managerial skills that benefit a wide array of jobs. You possess many transferable skills (such as project and time management, risk analysis and conflict resolution) that you may not even be aware of. In the haze of all the possibility – how do you know what is the best career for you?

One strategy is to create a list of must haves and deal breakers and try to identify career paths that fit what you are looking for. Do you want to work 9-5? Perhaps consulting is not for you. Do you need financial stability? An academic career may make this more difficult (although definitely not impossible, and once you gain tenure, faculty positions are arguably one of the most stable jobs).

Another very useful tool is to use an Independent Development Plan. Science Careers has a fantastic one that is free to use upon registration. It is a three part assessment tool that analyzes your skills, interests and values to identify career paths that align with all of these areas. The hardest part of the process is being completely honest with yourself about your responses – the tool does a better job if you range your responses from 1 to 5, rather than answering everything as a 5 or “strongly agree”.

These are my top 10 results from the Science Careers IDP tool:

One thing you will notice is that my percentage skills match for all paths was between 93% and 87%, pretty high! This means I have the skills to do all of these jobs, however – would I like doing them? Thats where the Interests match comes in. It tries to align what you enjoy doing and your requirements for a content life with what jobs require of you and can also give you. My percentage match based on my interests varied much more than my skills match (I did pull out the spreadsheets and crunch the numbers!). This means you shouldn’t necessarily be looking at jobs just because your skills matches what they require. You have a much better chance being successful in a career if you are happy doing it!

Tools like an independent development plan are just the first step to your dream career. Once you have identified where you could be looking, you then need to head out into the world, network, do informational interviews and really find out what the job is about. Does it really match your interests? If not, head back and try researching a different career path. By doing these informational interviews and networking you are also expanding your own network of people, one of whom may know of a job that might be perfect fit for you.

It is definitely a long road, but as seasoned researchers, our major skill is to find information and critically evaluate all options. Why only research your lab work? Why not apply your research skills to finding the best career that aligns with your goals and interests?

Good luck!

Cover Image By Afirsichbaum (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

First published on Adage of Ania

The secret to an effective job search for PhDs

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Have you been sending out hundreds of job applications?

Do you apply to any job that you are remotely qualified for?

You are doing the job search wrong.

The key to an effective job search is to know what you want!

This is not an easy task – you have probably spent the vast majority of your life training yourself, however very little (if any) of that training was aimed at what career you should pursue and would be happy in.

As an individual with a PhD, you are uniquely suited to a myriad of careers for both humanities and STEM scientists, from consulting, tech transfer, science communication, publishing and research & development. You possess many transferable skills, from project management to the ability to perform critical and analytical analysis. Given that there is such a large amount of choices out there for you – it can be very difficult to identify which career you actually want.

Your post-PhD job search is like dating, although in many ways dating may be easier! 

When you are on the dating market, you likely have already had a few partners in your life, you know what you don’t like and perhaps what you are really looking for. The hard work is in finding someone who has more good qualities that you desire then bad (obviously no-one is perfect!). A job search requires both these steps: you need to identify what you want to do and then find a job that fits those parameters.

Know thyself.

What do you want out of life?

Do you want a steady 9-5 job?

Are you really interested in translational research?

Do you hate working with other people?

To identify the best career path for you, you need to do an in depth, personal evaluation of yourself. What are you really good at? What do you absolutely hate? What inspires and excites you? Regardless of the career path, if you love what you do, you will likely be happier with your job and life and may be more successful in your career. To help you identify your personal likes and dislikes, there are many online tools geared specifically to PhDs! Tufts University has its own version of an Independent Development Plan but many others exist, such as the Science Careers IDP. These programs survey you on what you love and hate and the Science Careers IDP can also suggest potential career paths that you may enjoy based on your answers.

Don’t get me wrong – this is a difficult process. The more honest you are about yourself, the better the matches will be. Do you really like being at the bench? Do you enjoy managing people? Writing? You need to really evaluate yourself – no-one else can answer these questions.

Test the waters

 Once you have a list of several career paths, you should identify if that is really what you want to do.  The best way to do this is by talking to people in those career paths through informational interviews. This is a type of interview where you ask a person in the career you want what their job is like, how they got there and identify how best to position yourself to be in their shoes (some great questions are tips can be found here). This is NOT an opportunity to ask for a job. NEVER do this. If a job happens

to be available and the person thinks you are a good fit, they may suggest you apply, but never mention it prior to this. You don’t want to give your interviewee the impression that the only reason you wanted to talk to them is because you wanted to beg for a job.

An informational interview also has the added bonus of acting as a networking opportunity. Unlike a networking event where you may chat to someone for a few minutes in a distracting setting, you have the persons’ undivided attention. This gives you a great opportunity for them to get to know you and vice versa. This has the potential to expand your networking circle and improve your success in actually getting a job interview.

Did you know that ~90% of jobs in the USA are given to candidates you are known to someone within the company? In other words, if your application to a particular job is referred to the hiring manager or HR by an internal employee, your chances of being asked for an interview increase exponentially! The informational interview can help give you that in. In addition, at the end of your informational interview, you should ask them for other people you can talk to, thus giving you another person to do an interview with and further expanding your potential network. Also, always remember to send a Thank you note by old-fashioned snail mail in addition to an email. It’s a nice touch and will ensure you are remembered.

How do I find someone to talk to?

This is where networking events are useful. I have previously written about my tips and tricks on how to effectively network but there are many other articles about this online. The key at networking events is: if you are interested in a person you meet, whether it be at a seminar, a networking event or a career development event, feel free to ask them for an informational interview and remember to follow up with them within a day to schedule one! If you don’t get a chance to talk to them during the event, don’t be afraid to email them and ask them anyway!

If you are struggling to find people to interview in your field, use LinkedIn! I suggest first finding people that you have secondary or tertiary connections with and ask your “connector” to introduce you (this is actually a built in LinkedIn feature!). This has the added bonus of letting your LinkedIn friend know that you are interested in talking to people within that career path and they may suggest others you should also contact! If you don’t have any connectors that link to people you want to contact, you can cold LinkedIn email people. I have had very good success with this method but don’t be disappointed if you don’t get a ton of responses. Just be aware that a basic LI profile only allows you to send 5 messages a month!

Although it does take time to identify your dream career and build a network, it will drastically improve your chances of securing a position you actually love and will succeed in. Hiring managers are very wary of people who apply to every position available because that is a sign that you don’t know what you want and may not be happy in the job, suggesting you may not be the most productive employee. Take the time to do some soul searching and land your dream job!


Career Exploration for Ph.D.s in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Disciplines [Columbia University Center for Career Education]

Non-Academic Career Options for PhDs in the Humanities and Social Sciences
[Columbia University Center for Career Education]

Discover the 20+ transferable skills that make PhDs totally employable
[Jobs on Toast]

Tufts University Independent Development Plan (IDP)

Science Careers Independent Development Plan (IDP)

Networking and Informational Interviewing (pdf)
[Tufts University]

How to do the Networking Dance
[Adage of Ania]

This article was originally published on Adage of Ania on the 23rd of July 2015

Highlights of the week – 07/24/15

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How to do the networking dance

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At every science career development event you go to and every person you speak to, it is likely that the resounding theme to their ability to land their dream job is networking. This is unsurprising given that the US Bureau of Labor estimates approximately 70% of all new hires landed their job due to networking (with 40% of these jobs not even advertised!). Unfortunately to many people, “networking” is going to events, shaking lots of hands and throwing out your business card like it was confetti. Productive networking is not at all this!

No-one is going to offer you a job on the basis of a 5 minute conversation whilst trying to eat cold appetizers and trying to avoid the semi-drunk guy pestering everyone. Networking is utilizing your network to meet people strategically for your career goal. You should use this as a tool to identify the best position and company for you and make yourself known to people in positions of hiring power, so that when a job does come up, they think of you. Even if you don’t know someone in a position of power, intra-company referrals are a very powerful way of putting your resume at the top of a hiring manager’s pile.

So, how to best network?

1. Identify & expand your network:

Your network does not strictly have to be limited to professional colleagues! Your neighbours, the parents at the park or your friends’ friends could all be valuable sources to your network. They know you quite well and can be great advocates for you. Even if they don’t work in your profession, they could have other friends and connections that you could use! Do not be afraid to talk about your career and what you want as people tend to speak up if they know you are looking for people in a certain area! I actually just met someone while waiting for a conference bus, they were going to a completely different conference but knew a biotech recruiter in my area that they were happy to connect me with! No-one else at the table was talking to each other and I was able to talk to some really interesting people AND make a connection in the space of 30 minutes!

Another way to expand your networks is to join a group or society that meets regularly and go to their events. I have listed the few that I know in the Career Resources section, but there are a ton more depending on your area! If you become a regular face at these events, you will meet a lot of people and get fairly well acquainted with them. This then opens your connections to their connections and expand your network further. Do not discount the value of your institutional organizations and events! Postdoctoral Association and student clubs at most Universities regularly run great networking and career events where you can not only meet and network with your fellow students and postdocs (who are in themselves valuable) but you can also network with career professionals!

2. Prepare yourself when you go to an event!

Here are a few tips for when you actually go to an event:

Have a good elevator pitch/spiel.

The most common question you will get asked at ANY event will be “So, what do you do?” You should be prepared to answer this question in a quick and concise way. Although this seems easy – it can be quite difficult. You want to give an answer based on the audience you are in. Are you at a general biotech networking event? You could be talking to a non-scientist or someone not in your field so you need a jargon free, simple yet relatable sentence. If you are at a conference in your field, where most people will be very familiar with the terminology you can then launch into a more “expert” explanation. Either way, it should always be short, under 1 minute. If they are interested in what you said, they will ASK you questions. The key is to keep it conversational and light. You are not lecturing them, you are prompting a discussion.

One common method is the And But Therefore method by Randy Olsen (his Ted talk explains it very well), where you set the scene with the AND, establish the problem you are trying to solve with the BUT and give how you are fixing the problem with the THEREFORE. Mine is something like this:

“Breast cancer affects 1 in 8 women in the USA AND we do not have great tools to diagnose and treat it. We know that when disrupted, normal mammary cells give rise to breast cancer BUT we do not know how this happens. THEREFORE, my work is trying to identify which cells give risk to particular types of breast cancers and how they do so”.

Easy, exciting and relatable. I have heard some great ones comparing how a protein aggregates to train platforms during commute delays and once used the Incredible Hulk as an example as to how tumorigenesis progresses!

Dress and play the part.

After attending many events, I realized one key secret that not many people discuss. If you come to an event looking like a student or postdoc – in jeans and a t-shirt whereas other people may be in business casual, the magnetic powers of like are fairly strong. All of the business people migrate to each other whereas all the students and postdocs are stuck together. If you dress a little more business casual, you will find it much easier to break into conversations with other business people and feel more comfortable doing so!

The other biggest thing is your energy. People don’t want to talk to a Debbie downer. I get it, you’ve spent the whole day in the lab/at work and you are exhausted and not very social. Try to break out of it, have a quiet drink beforehand to get yourself in the zone and alleviate your nervousness a little. The vast majority of people at the event would have also come from work and are tired, but they are there! Take the effort to talk to people and it will reap dividends!

Have business cards!!!

It is very important that once you have made a connection, you can easily give your contact information so you can connect again. The easiest way to do this is through your business card. If your school or workplace doesn’t print them for you – design your own and print it with a service like Vistaprint. They are relatively cheap and will come in handy all the time. I always have a handful of cards on hand (and have even run out at an event!). Try to keep it simple yet informative. One cool tip is to use the back of the card, which many people keep blank so people can write notes, to have an image relating to your work that you can use as a talking point. Some people do or don’t like this, so it is very much a personal preference.

When you leave the event, try to jot down some notes about each of the people you met so that you can use that information to follow up with them and remind you of what you found interesting in them.

e.g. Sarah works on assay development and has 2 dogs which she is doing agility training with.

The little personal reminders are important in keeping a pleasant repertoire with a person and if they were happy to talk about it, they will appreciate that you remembered it.

3. Follow up and Keep up

Once you have made your connection, the most important thing to do is follow up. If you can schedule a lunch or a drink right there and then – that is the most ideal situation as you then you already have plans. I suggest sending a quick email the next day, just to thank them for the great conversation and if you want to, you can ask them for a coffee or lunch.

The best way to keep in touch with someone is to check in regularly, once a month or two. One tactic for this would be to follow some of the biotech news sites like Fierce Biotech or BioSpace and shoot them a quick congratulatory email or LinkedIn message when something happens at the company they work for – like they get crucial FDA approval or secure capital funding. That shows them that you are keeping track of the industry and are interested in their work! You should also invite them out for coffee every once in a while to catch up and touch base. What do you talk about? Ask them about their career, their industry, get advice for your own career and companies you are interested in. People are usually happy to give advice!

4. Rome wasn’t built in a day!

Building a meaningful relationship and a great network takes time and effort! This is why it is suggested that finding a job could take over a year as you need to build up the critical networks and contacts to be able to land the job you deserve and should be in!

Understand that you won’t necessarily make connections with most people that you meet – there are many factors that will prevent you: lack of interest, differences in personalities and busy schedules are just some of many. The goal is to make hopefully a few connections that you can use for meaningful advice and information, which is no easy feat. However there will be a handful people that you will make GREAT connections with that could vastly help you in your professional journey. You just need to go out and network and try to make connections to begin with!!!

Good luck and Keep Calm and Network!!!

This article was first published on Adage of Ania on the 7th of June 2015