Developing Your Story

Engage mentors to figure out the best career path, even if that path is outside academe or isn't what a mentor may have initially expected, writes Stephanie K. Eberle.

April 20, 2015

Does the following story sound familiar? It goes something like this: a trainee comes into the career center and looks around suspiciously, as though she were doing something illicit or illegal. (I want to start keeping trench coats and nose-and-glasses sets outside my office for just this occasion.) She sits down and, after being reassured of my vow of confidentiality, she tells me, almost whispers, “I think I might not pursue an academic career.” She searches my brow for signs of scowling and continues, “I’m thinking of, of, well, consulting.”

I’m not scowling, of course. I’m not shocked at all. What surprises me, however, is that so many trainees think they are alone in the quest to find their career of choice or the only ones to consider that said choice may very well be found outside the ivory tower. If you are among the trainees who believe this, I am happy to let you know you are not alone. What may be more surprising is that many of the faculty members I have met do not think that all trainees will end up in academe, either.

The story of graduate trainee career development ebbs and flows. When I suggest that trainees have academic and career interest conversations with their advisers, I am often told that their advisers won’t understand or, worse, will reject them. When they actually follow through with these conversations, however daunting they may be, the conversation usually ends up better than planned. It’s been rare, over my 20 years in the field, to hear anything different. Still, fears from the tales of bad incidents that do circulate almost paralyze trainees from having important, honest conversations with their advisers.

The themes in adviser stories often center around the following statements: “I don’t care if she does something else, I just can’t help with that”; “he would be great in academe, so I just want to be sure he is not giving up”; “regardless of what she does later, I want to help her become the best researcher she can be now.” I even had one faculty member express relief when one of her students announced he was going into public policy because she couldn’t find the right way to tell him that academia might not be the best career choice for him. Anxiety or concern, it seems, exists on both sides.

Herein lies the most significant value of individual development plans (IDPs): they help trainees and their advisers openly discuss their mutual academic and professional development anxieties, concerns, and goals. At their most basic level, IDPs are meant to help trainees first understand their own interests, values and skills, then set SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely) goals and develop strategies for achieving them. The myIDP tool from Science Careers follows this approach and even offers ideas for potential career options that align with the taker’s interests and skills.

Self-knowledge certainly guides trainee goals and can help them define next steps. As with any aspiration, however, feedback and support are essential to achievement. Instead of keeping your goals to yourself and navigating the path to your career of choice alone, make your adviser a partner along the way. Engage them in questions about what he thinks your greatest strengths are, where you need improvement and what activities seem to energize you most. These are good questions to ask of your committee members and other mentors as well. Often, external perspectives help us see ourselves more clearly. The Stanford Biosciences training offers year-specific IDP forms for graduate students that outline questions to help with this process.

Partnership entails asking many questions to understand the other’s perspective as well. Instead of assuming your adviser will not allow you to pursue an internship, for example, first ask what her overall goals for you are, how she rates your performance -- establish confidence in your work and align your goals with hers. When making a case for something like an internship, think first about how the project will be managed in your absence, what your project’s new timeline will be and what skills you might learn while on internship and what you will bring back upon your return. Think from your adviser's perspective -- how does what you want to do help, or at least not harm, your research and the progress of your department?

National Institutes of Health IDP requirements are tied largely to the results of the Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group report, which also encouraged new opportunities for exploring all career options, not just academia. It is also useful, however, for those simply wanting feedback and help with goal setting within their academic training. Especially with academic careers -- but in many others as well -- you will want to be able to tell a story of success in graduate research. Using your IDP meeting with your adviser to clarify expectations, assess progress and ask for advice/resources is very productive and will go a long way toward alleviating stress.

The IDP process is not just about you. It is, or should be, about your relationship with your advisers and mentors as well. One of our students recently complained that his adviser was “not helpful” when he told her he is considering careers in government research. When I asked what kind of help he expected, however, he could not say. Further, he admitted that he had not even asked for help in the first place, he just thought she would do so. Your IDP meeting is an opportunity to take ownership of your training and professional development. There are simply some things with which your adviser cannot help; they are not career counselors, after all. Sometimes they simply will not help. You never know until you ask.

Finally, this is your chance for feedback. Unfortunately, you may not like it. There are times when you are being kept from doing an internship or taking a class because you truly are not ready. Maybe if you are going into finance after graduation, academic conferences are best saved for those pursuing academia. These are negotiable issues in some cases and, in many cases, not. Spend IDP meeting time listening and learning from your adviser, as much as you do explaining and talking about your interests. 

Above all else, this is your individual development plan. It is your story and it shapes the story you want to tell in the future. You can keep it to yourself and follow your own path. As with all good stories, however, yours will be made much more interesting by those you meet and include along the way. If you have tried and know that you cannot have honest conversations about goals and progress with your adviser, then at least seek this out with other trusted confidants. You have a right to feedback and support during your training. I invite you to use the IDP opportunity to make your advisers, all of your mentors, colleagues and even your career advisers/counselors a part of the amazing journey you are carving out for yourself at this time.

Good luck!


Stephanie K. Eberle is director of the Stanford University School of Medicine Career Center, which serves Ph.D.s, postdocs and M.D.s in the medical and biosciences. She is also an adjunct faculty member at the University of San Francisco.


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