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Being Active in Your Career Exploration
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Volume 15, Issue 3 (March 2017)

Adriana Bankston


While a few of us have always known which career path to choose, most of us probably changed our minds several times. Finding out which career path to follow depends on your ability to actively seek out information and resources to help you answer this question for yourself. Below I provide advice on being active in your own career exploration while in your current position.


Utilize your research mentor. If you are a graduate student or postdoctoral scholar, your mentor is the most immediate contact and helpful resource for you. They will be able to guide you in terms of performing research and other responsibilities and showcasing your work via poster and oral presentations. Your mentor can also teach you other skills—such as managing projects, handling staff, and creating budgets—that will help you be successful in your future career.


Seek additional mentors. Oftentimes research mentors are not well suited for giving advice to trainees choosing to pursue careers different from their own. Seek out additional mentors who are unrelated to your research. Other faculty members and course instructors can be helpful, as well as people in academic or research administration. Your local contacts may be able to help point you in the right direction or provide you with additional contacts or resources.


Approach your peers. As a graduate student, your peers have probably gotten to know you well personally over a fairly long period of time. They can be a valuable resource for discussing the fears, hopes, and goals that you may have in both your research projects and career exploration. Senior graduate students and university alumni can also offer useful advice for accomplishing your goals.


Effectively communicate via social media and email. Social media is a great way to connect with successful people in your desired career path. LinkedIn is a good way to initially contact someone. Often a conversation started via LinkedIn may be followed up by an email or a phone call. Reviewing “your contacts’ contacts” and asking for introductions can also further grow your network. In addition to LinkedIn, Twitter is a very useful platform for learning what the “hot topics” are in your field of interest. Following and responding in real-time to discussions on Twitter from the experts in the field can be a very rewarding way to network with them.


Don’t be discouraged by a lack of response. Most individuals you are reaching out to receive an overwhelming amount of electronic communication every day, so they may need some time to respond. Don’t be disheartened if you don’t hear back from them immediately. Reach out to them again. Most people will eventually respond and will likely be very willing to help you with career advice when they have time.


Participate in informational interviews. Talking on the phone with someone you’ve never met can be daunting at first. However, remember that these people have likely at one time or another been in your shoes. Briefly explain to them your situation and detail exactly what you need from them. From my experience, people will generally be very happy to talk to you about their current positions and how they got there. Just make sure to keep the calls brief and to the point, and follow up with a “thank you” email.


Meet people in person. The most effective way to learn about potential job or volunteer opportunities is to introduce yourself to people at a conference. Receptions, round tables, and small gathering discussions are great ways to network in person. Emailing them ahead of time and setting up a meeting during the conference is also a good idea, and may make your personal encounter with them a little less intimidating. Asking your mentor or peers to introduce you may also help make the interaction smoother.


Get involved in activities outside of your work. Gaining skills outside of research—such communication, networking, leadership, collaboration, and teamwork—is very important for advancing in your career. You can build these skills by reaching out to others in various settings. Introduce yourself others on your floor, attend social events on your campus, or volunteer to help out with campus events. On a larger scale, you can also volunteer to co-lead an event on campus, or apply for a talk instead of a poster at a local or national conference to increase your exposure to larger audiences.


Find professional and career development resources. While exploring your career options, there are many resources you can use both locally and nationally. Attend career development seminars on your campus and at scientific meetings to get an idea of potential career paths. Seek out a career counselor, and explore additional resources offered by your career center, postdoc office, or professional organizations. Also look into whether internship or volunteering opportunities in your field of interest exist on your campus or in your local area.


Volunteer with organizations of interest. Looking for opportunities to volunteer with organizations of interest is a great way to learn about the most important issues in your chosen field. This will also help you make connections and learn about various points of view on a particular topic in the field. These experiences will not only make you a more well-rounded person but may also help you find your next position.


Create your own opportunities. Sometimes the opportunity you need in order to advance doesn’t exist. In that case, create it for yourself! While doing so, you are likely fulfilling a more general need and therefore helping others at the same time. Taking this initiative will teach you many important skills and may also get you noticed by the people you want to work for.


Taking a proactive approach to improving your career preparedness is essential to success in any career path. Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone. Be open to new opportunities. Learn and try things you’ve never done before. Meet a new person every day! These may not seem like easy tasks, but once you take that first step, a whole world of opportunity and promise will be open to you in your career exploration.


Adriana Bankston, PhD, is a policy activist at Future of Research (FoR), and a member of the Meetings and Advocacy Committees of the NPA.


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