Finding Your Post-Ph.D. Path: Advice from Dr. Sharon Milgram

You are cruising down the highway at a nice pace thinking “great! I’m going to be there early”, and all of the sudden you encounter the ever-so-inconvenient DETOUR sign. You anxiously wind and twist through unfamiliar roads trying to follow the signs until finally you arrive at your destination…right on time. According to Sharon Milgram, Director of the Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), this is often what professionals face when exploring career options and considering a transition. Let’s break down my example a little so that you can understand my analogies better.Slide1

“…cruising down the highway at a nice pace thinking “great! I’m going to be there early”…”: All is well and you know your career path. (Why wouldn’t you shoot for an academic professor position? That is what everyone thinks you should do.)

“…encounter the ever-so-inconvenient DETOUR sign…”: Your career seems chaotic and things are not going well in your world now (e.g. experiments are getting you down, you start to question a future in academia, your personal life is not meshing with your professional life, etc.), and you are quite unsure of your career path.

“…anxiously wind and twist through unfamiliar roads…”: Researching and choosing a path is hard and stressful. Who knows if you will even like what you’ve chosen? Dr. Milgram emphasized that career transitions can be challenging to a person’s psyche, but with proper preparation, stress and anxiety can be reduced.

“…arrive at your destination…right on time.”: You found your perfect, cherry-on-top-of-your-sundae career despite the anguish you felt at the detour sign.

Dr. Milgram’s insights can help anyone navigate the above process when considering what direction to take one’s career. Not everyone will become an academic professor. The positions are too few for the number of trainees, and not everyone wants that position anyhow. You are born and bred academia, but what do you do if academia is not for you? Dr. Milgram’s presentation “Planning for Career Satisfaction and Success” at the Science Communication and Outreach Career Symposium at the University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio (UTHSCSA) covered exactly that. Notice, her title includes the word “satisfaction”, and with satisfaction comes an understanding of what you want out of your career and how it can meet your needs. Once this is pinned down, success will likely follow. Dr. Milgram’s advice is the following:

The first step in your career exploration is to get to know yourself. What skills do you have? What are your work values? What interests you? What leadership role(s) do you prefer (per Dr. Milgram: “the boss, a boss or no one’s boss”)? What are your actual credentials? Do you have any personal and/or geographic restrictions? Keep a “career notebook” to organize all your answers and any other pertinent career information.

Do your homework to study yourself. Use Dr. Milgram’s examples below. Do not over-think these! Write the first thing that comes to your mind.

“In my job I want to _____________ everyday.”

“And I do NOT want to do a lot of _______________.”

“A skill I need to continue to develop is ______________.”

“I am going to work on this by _______________.”

In addition, make a list of your 4 most important needs in your career notebook. For example, “I need a job in which I can (1) analyze data daily, (2) leave by 5:30 pm to prepare dinner for my family, (3) work in a team setting and (4) assume a managerial position.

The second step is to know your options. Do your research–you’re already good at that. Keep in mind Dr. Milgram’s advice: “sometimes our hobbies inform our career decisions, and sometimes they are just hobbies”. Take time to explore career options passively AND actively. Passive research includes reading and attending seminars and workshops. But by far, the best approach is to actively research careers. Discuss your options with a career counselor. Also, attend workshops to expand your network in order to gather career information and advice. Most importantly, perform informational interviews, which often yield the most useful information. According to Dr. Milgram, 1 out of 12 people performing informational interviews secure a job from that connection. Networking and informational interviews are not mutually exclusive; use networking to your advantage to schedule informational interviews. See http://www.training.nih.gov/assets/Informational_Interviews.pdf for more guidance.

Once you have determined your career path, gain credentials and test it out. Is it a good fit? Yes? Well then go out and get your dream job! And when you do, you will realize that the “inconvenient” detour was a mere bump in the road to propel you in a different direction to achieve career satisfaction and success.

For additional career guidance, see http://www.training.nih.gov, http://career-advice.monster.com/job-search/career-assessment/work-values-check-list/article.aspx, http://stemcareer.com and http://www.asbmb.org/careers/options/.

Editor: Cyndi Morales

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