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One of the many interesting quirks of the academic job market is that the first job you get can actually be the only job you might ever have. Oh, yes, you might turn from an assistant professor into an associate professor into a professor. And faculty members along the tenure track may take on different responsibilities within a college or university (e.g., committee and service work) and in their professional associations. But the job itself remains much the same.

In contrast, outside of faculty positions, the first job you get after being a Ph.D. or a postdoc can be very different from the last one you will have. And these differences might reflect a change in responsibilities (such as from scientific research to the business of science), departments, and even whole career fields and industries. The career paths that people follow can be curvy -- sometimes by choice, other times by necessity.

Whether linear or curvy, intentional or not, thinking of the different parts of the path as stepping-stones can be a good analogy -- not because each step has the potential to throw you into an icy-cold stream (even if it can feel this way), but because sometimes the steps are small, easy transitions, and sometimes they take a bit of a jump to make. Those steps that require a big jump are often harder because the experience and knowledge gained in a previous role may not be a perfect match for the requirements for the new role.

If you are a Ph.D. student or postdoc, you are probably very familiar with this feeling. The experience of a Ph.D. and postdoc by itself doesn’t prepare people for the entry-level positions they may be seeking -- especially those outside of a research or academic setting.

Graduate students and postdocs who are seeking nonfaculty positions often state that they feel they haven't had the opportunity to gain any hands-on experience in nonresearch positions. That can be especially true when the positions in which they’re interested involve managing people and not just projects, since leadership and managerial skills are not necessarily prioritized in graduate school. Beyond experiences and skills, graduate students and postdocs can also lack a nuanced understanding of the day-to-day roles, challenges and functions of different career fields.

I often hear STEM students talking about wanting a job in “industry.” However, industry is not just one job -- it is a multitude of jobs along a spectrum of departments, roles and more. Telling someone who works in this so-called industry that you want a job in industry is a surefire way of showing this person that you probably don’t understand the career field very well.

Even without practical, hands-on experience in different career fields -- of the sort that internships or externships might provide -- you can demonstrate an interest in a certain career field, and an understanding of the skills and knowledge that are valued in it, by developing networks of contacts who can help you fill in your knowledge gaps. This is a step-by-step process that you can best start by doing all of the online research you can into the organizations in the field, including their goals, projects, clients, types of positions and more.

The next step has to be connecting with real people -- those who are doing the job that you might one day want to do. The stepping-stone analogy works well here, too, in terms of how to do this type of in-person connecting effectively and constructively.

The key to the stepping-stone approach is that if you follow the trail you will sound smarter and smarter as you progress. And smart in this context translates directly to the idea of you demonstrating a fit with a particular role or organization.

So, let’s say you are interested in careers in science communication. Through a close friend of yours, you set up an informational interview with someone (contact No. 1) who works at a medical communications company. Before you meet, you read up all you can about the field of medical communications, you jot down some of the questions you have, and you practice talking about yourself and why you are potentially interested in this field.

Here are some good informational interviewing questions you might use:

  • “I know that your position title is XXX, and I have been reading up about your role, but I would love to hear more about what you do on a day-to-day basis.”
  • “Can you tell me a little about your career path and how it led you here?”
  • “What skills would you say are most valuable in your role, and which one do you rely on the most?”
  • “This position sounds really interesting, and from what I have heard, people really enjoy the process of translating complex science to the different audiences you mentioned. What are some of the most challenging aspects of your role?”

These questions give you insights into the position that are hard to find on a website. What’s more, you get to hear the language contact No. 1 uses to describe their role -- language that you might one day need to use to describe your experiences if you apply for this type of position.

You also get to hear what skills are most valuable. These should be the skills you focus on in your application materials and in the answers to interview questions that you might be asked.

The “challenges” question can be a useful one, as you’ll see below. You don’t want to spend too much time focusing on negative experiences because the more your contact talks about negative experiences, the greater the chance that they begin to associate the negative feelings they are having talking about these negative experiences with you in their mind. Challenges don’t have to be negative, though, and so this is certainly a much better way to phrase the question than asking, “What don’t you like about your job?”

The final question you should ask can be a variation of this one:

  • “This has been a very helpful meeting -- thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me. I was particularly interested in hearing about the XXX position you mentioned. Do you know anyone that I might reach out to for more information on it?”

The answer is usually yes. You can ask contact No. 1 if they could introduce you or if you could use their name when you reach out to their suggested contact. Using this approach, you should be able to set up a time to meet with the new contact (contact No. 2). In this meeting, one of the questions you might ask is something like:

  • “I know that some of the challenges that people face in roles similar to yours are X, Y and Z [information you are parroting back from your previous informational interview]. Are these the same challenges that you face in your role?”

As contact No. 2 is listening to you, she is thinking to herself, “Oh, my, this person knows what he is talking about. He has done his homework here.” That’s not a bad thing to have circulating in her brain while you are talking.

Of course, when you eventually ask contact No. 2 for the names of people to whom they think you should talk in order to gain additional insight into something they mentioned, you can take the information shared by contact No. 1 and contact No. 2 and integrate it into your questions for contact No. 3 -- who will also think to him or herself that you sound awfully smart.

And you know what? At this point, you won’t just sound smarter -- you will be smarter!

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