When I graduated with my bachelor’s degree, I used to joke that I was going to grad school so that, unlike my friends who had to go out and get jobs, I wouldn’t have to figure out “what I want to be when I grow up” for another five years.
I’m in my fourth year of graduate school, and I still don’t know what I want to do. I recently asked myself where I wanted to be in 10 years, and all I could come up with was that I wanted “a fulfilling job.” If you are a graduate student or postdoc, or even a mid-career chemist who still struggles with this question, you are definitely not alone.
So, how do you figure out what you want to do? And after that, how do you get there? I talked to three STEM Ph.D. experts with a variety of life experiences to learn the essentials of choosing a career path and connecting with people who can help you achieve your goals.
Start With Self-Reflection
As Dr. Joerg Schlatterer, manager of the Student and Postdoctoral Scholars Office at ACS, began transitioning from a postdoc to a faculty position at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, the dean of the graduate school asked him to take a part-time role in the graduate and postdoctoral affairs program, which Schlatterer had volunteered with as a postdoc. As he spent more time organizing career and professional development programs, he realized that he might like administrative work more than research.
Schlatterer shared, “At some point, I woke up and I thought, ‘It’s weird; I just think about other students and the postdocs, and then after the second cup of coffee, I think about my research. What does that mean? Does it really mean that I should actually look more into that career direction?’”
Reflecting on your values, your interests, and your strengths can help guide your career direction. For example, if you realize you’re more passionate about helping people than doing lab work, an administrative role in higher education or a scientific society may better allow you to reach your goals of having a positive impact on other people.
Also, reflect upon tangible factors, such as what kind of work environment you need, your visa status, or other life circumstances, such as your partner or family. Dr. Arthee Jahangir, Assistant Director of Postdoctoral Affairs at NYU’s School of Medicine, says, “Don’t ignore things about your life that are unrelated to your science but that you need to make you happy.”