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Finding What's Next


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After spending years on a PhD and post-doctoral research, it can be difficult to transition to a non-academic job. This slide deck discusses some of the "pre-work" that you can and should do to smooth the transition before you even write a resume,

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Finding What's Next

  2. 2. About Me  PhD from Scripps Research Institute, in protein structure/function  15 years in industry, more than 10 of them as a hiring manager  Author of recent book “Navigating the Path to Industry: A Hiring Manager’s Advice for Academics Looking for a Job in Industry”  Now split my time between consulting on management and scientific informatics and bootstrapping a company- I am on Plan C or D at least!
  3. 3. Overview of Talk  Mental preparation and the job search mindset  Exploring options  Building a network
  4. 4. Mental Preparation
  5. 5. Why You Need to Prepare  Your first post-academic job search is completely unlike previous career steps  You need a different mindset, and it is a mindset that is not native to academia  You’re likely to have to deal with a lot of rejection, and that is less soul-destroying if you’re prepared for it  Your job search will be more successful if you prepare
  6. 6. Change Your Mindset
  7. 7. Change Your Mindset
  8. 8. Accept Some Angst  Career change is hard and angst- inducing.  You’re likely to feel lost and overwhelmed at times, and like you’ll never figure out what to do next.  That’s normal.
  9. 9. Banish Bitterness  You are changing to a new direction that you may not have anticipated. Be OK with that before you do anything else.  You may have some anger about how things have evolved. It may be justifiable. Work through that before you do anything else.  Bitterness is a poison that kills job prospects… and it lingers! The only acceptable type of bitter during a job search
  10. 10. PhD Prestige – Let it Go  Your new path may not require a PhD. That’s OK.  Don’t get hung up on the idea that you have to “use” your PhD  Stop thinking of the PhD only as job training  Start thinking of it as a valuable life experience that can benefit you in a variety of careers
  11. 11. Get Comfortable With Uncertainty  Ditch the “forever job” expectations  Stop looking for job security and start building career and financial security  Career security: ◦ Always networking ◦ Always building skills  Financial security: ◦ Build a buffer
  12. 12. Figure Out How to Handle Rejection  Keep a folder with positive feedback and other evidence of past success- review it when you’re feeling down  Develop a closure routine to “say goodbye” to jobs you do not get  Cultivate a hobby or other interest  “Fake it until you make it”  Never stop searching until you have a signed offer Image from slgkgc on Flickr, used under Creative Commons license One of my closure rituals
  13. 13. Overcome Your Internal Obstacles  “I’m too old to make such a big change” ◦ The time passes anyway ◦ Calculate the years you think you have left in your career. Observe the size of that number. You have plenty of time.  “I need more training to do that” ◦ Maybe, maybe not ◦ Academic culture emphasizes credentials. Not all work cultures do.  “If I don’t [stay at the bench | stay in science | get a tenure track job] I’ve failed” ◦ Success comes in many different guises ◦ All you really have to do with you career is support yourself and any dependents.
  14. 14. Interactive: Other Internal Obstacles  Anyone have other comments from the mean person inside your head? Let’s debunk them as a group.
  15. 15. Internal Obstacles
  16. 16. Construct a Supportive Environment  Some people you know may not support your decision to leave academia ◦ Advisors, peers, people who view you as a mentor  Don’t accept their negative views at face value ◦ They often come from the other person’s own fears and insecurities  Your choice is not a judgment on anyone else’s choice, and vice versa  Try to discuss your decision in terms of what is right for you, not general concerns about academia  Build a group of people who do support your career change
  17. 17. If a Bridge Gets Burned…  Sometimes advisors just cannot accept your new direction  This will be most problematic in your first job search  If you suspect your advisor will undermine you with a bad reference: ◦ Get out in front- explain the situation. Without bitterness and with as little criticism of your advisor as possible ◦ Find a neutral third party who can provide a reference and/or support your version of events
  18. 18. Explore the Options
  19. 19. Identifying Options  Two complementary approaches ◦ List your transferrable skills, and look for jobs that use them ◦ List possible jobs, and identify aspects of your experience that are relevant  Starting from jobs is more likely to succeed… but starting with skills is usually easier  Do both, and iterate
  20. 20. Transferrable Skills  Your PhD and postdoctoral experiences have taught you more than specific lab skills  Let’s list some!  Some starting ideas: ◦ Analyzing a problem and identifying potential solutions ◦ Teaching yourself about a new topic ◦ Teaching others about a topic ◦ Breaking a large project down into discrete tasks ◦ Collaborating productively with others ◦ Writing clearly
  21. 21. Transferrable Skills
  22. 22. Identifying Potential Careers  Cast a wide net in your initial survey of possibilities ◦ Academia filters your perspective of the options. Try to take that filter off.  Read job descriptions ◦ Look at websites of companies that interest you ◦ Run some general searches on job aggregator sites (e.g., Biospace, Monster)  Look for professional societies that include people with your background  Search LinkedIn using keywords that describe your skills  Talk to lots of people about their work, with an open mind
  23. 23. Identify and Research Options by Networking  Networking events ◦ SDBN, AWIS, professional societies… ◦ Great opportunities to talk to wide range of people  Informational interviews ◦ Meetings in which you ask someone about their career ◦ Best used once you have some ideas about what you might want to do ◦ More on Informational Interviews in a minute….
  24. 24. Evaluating Ideas  Figure out what is important to YOU ◦ Academia is a culture, and like all cultures, it has a set of values ◦ You have absorbed those values ◦ Need to determine what YOUR values are  Use career counseling tools ◦ Career values inventory, e.g. ◦ Writing a “career story,” identifying favorite and least favorite things in each position, what made you feel successful, what made you feel bad ◦ Consider using a career counselor/coach  This is hard- be gentle with yourself!
  25. 25. Chart the Path  Your survey may have turned up ideas that you can’t reach right away. That’s OK.  You may have multiple possible paths. That’s OK, too.  Look for the positions that will get you on the right path  Use networking to fill in details  Remember, your first job is not your forever job!
  26. 26. Be Open to Serendipity and Change  Don’t get too attached to any one path ◦ You may start on a path and determine it isn’t actually right… and change again. That’s OK. ◦ Once you’re out of academia, new paths may become apparent. ◦ There is always an element of luck.  Find the balance between planning ahead and living in the present that works for you.  Don’t be miserable short term in hope of long term rewards.
  27. 27. Build a Network
  28. 28. Principles of Networking (I)  Build your network before you need it  99% of networking contacts should be about gathering (or sharing) information, not about specific jobs  Make sure you are ready to communicate effectively ◦ Be ready to say where you’ve been and where you’re going ◦ No bitterness or snark ◦ Avoid badmouthing anyone – it is a small world ◦ You’re making business contacts, not bosom buddies
  29. 29. Principles of Networking (II)  People are more likely to risk their own reputation and recommend you for a specific job if they have had multiple contacts with you  The most useful recommendations come from people who can speak to your skills ◦ Keep in touch with former colleagues ◦ Volunteer on committees
  30. 30. Ways to Build a Network  Networking groups  Conferences  Informational Interviews  Online tools
  31. 31. Effective Networking (I)  Help your new contact help you by having a good “elevator speech”  The elevator speech: ◦ Summarizes what you’ve done ◦ “I am finishing my postdoc in Dr. Jones’ lab at UCSD, studying optimal reed selection for underwater basketweaving…” ◦ Explains where you want to go ◦ “…I am interested in applying my knowledge of reed selection and weave techniques to industrial basket development, and am particularly interested in basket trials.” ◦ Is concise. This isn’t your life story.  Let’s practice!
  32. 32. Effective Networking (II)  Have a goal or direction for the discussion to help you overcome the inevitable awkwardness  Examples ◦ Looking to hear about a new career path ◦ What is a typical day like for you at work? ◦ How did you get from graduate school to where you are now? ◦ Looking for career development advice ◦ I’m interested in industrial basketweaving, but don’t have much experience in reed selection. Do you have any suggestions for how I can learn the basics?
  33. 33. Informational Interviews  Useful for expanding your network and exploring new career possibilities  Most people will be happy to help- but always give people a graceful “out”  Look for potential interviewees: ◦ Via your career center ◦ Via your alumni office(s) ◦ LinkedIn: search your second level network ◦ Local networking events
  34. 34. Effective Informational Interviewing  Come with ~5 questions ready  Let the conversation evolve- and listen carefully to what your contact tells you  Always follow up with a thank you email  Consider sending a LinkedIn request, too, but send it promptly and don’t be offended if it is declined
  35. 35. Online Methods  Best as supplements  LinkedIn ◦ Keep your contacts organized ◦ Search for “friends of friends” who are great sources for informational interviews  Twitter and blogs ◦ Real relationships take time to develop  Be respectful of people’s time and your friends’ social capital  The internet IS real life. Behave accordingly.
  36. 36. Additional Resources (I)  My book: Navigating the Path to Industry ◦  Other Books ◦ The classic: What Color is Your Parachute ◦ For people with a lot of interests: Refuse to Choose, by Barbara Sher and The Renaissance Soul by Margaret Lobenstine ◦ Many more… don’t assume general career books won’t help
  37. 37. Additional Resources (II)  Online resources ◦ BiochemBelle’s posts on her career change: answering-the-tough-questions/ ◦ List of resources from BiochemBelle: career-path ◦ List of resources from Jen Polk, a career/life coach focusing on people with PhDs: ◦ myIDP from AAAS:  Career counselors/coaches
  38. 38. Keep in Touch  Find me on Twitter at @melanie_nelson  I blog at  I write a newsletter about bootstrapping a company: