The first career question many graduate students and postdocs ask is about the kinds of jobs available to them with a certain degree. That’s a great question, and in fact there are hundreds (maybe thousands) of potential Ph.D. career paths and a multitude of resources to help you explore occupations and pathways.
But I encourage Ph.D.s to take a step back from the direct action of sending out applications and instead ask for reflection, if only for a few minutes. A better question to kick off career thinking is “What do I know about myself?”
Determining what your skills are, what you enjoy doing and what is important to you in your work (and life) is part of the process of self-assessment, which is fundamental to career development. Knowing what matters to you makes it so much easier to make your way to a great job.
What Color Is Your Parachute?, a book published more than 40 years ago, is still a best seller because it offers a distinct way to search for a job. Through its many self-reflection exercises, it guides job seekers beyond the tasks of simply creating résumés and applying for positions. Instead, it asks them to think about these things: What do you most love to do, described in terms of the basic transferable skills you most love to use? And to do your most effective work, where would you most love to use those skills, geographically, and with what knowledge, for what purpose, with what target audiences, in what kind of an organization?’
Every Ph.D. should be asking such questions when embarking on a career transition. Identifying personal values, skills and strengths requires introspection, which can be a new or uncomfortable experience for many people. But being self-aware can significantly advance your career search.
Many exercises and activities can help people frame reflective thinking and make sense of career options. However, not all of them are suitable or relevant for graduate students and postdocs, and some (like What Color Is Your Parachute?) require a significant time commitment. In my graduate career advising work, I have found a few career assessments that resonate with the graduate population. These are successful assessment activities for Ph.D.s because they don’t take too much effort and provide something tangible for you to begin thinking about as you move forward.
The following are some of my favorite career-assessment tools for graduate students, postdocs and alumni. They may be helpful if you would like to delve deeper into determining your skills and strengths. Some have a cost, so check with any college or university that you’re affiliated with to see if you can access the tools with a cost for free or a reduced rate.
Myers-Briggs Type Indicator
The MBTI is an assessment of personality preferences, resulting in classification as one of 16 different types, which assists in understanding how you see, interpret and act in the world. Several free online versions of MBTI are available. However, they are knock-offs of the authentic MBTI assessment, which is administered and interpreted by a certified individual. I recommend taking the official MBTI whenever possible. College and university career centers often provide access to the MBTI for students and alumni for free or at a discount, and career centers are the best place to start looking for someone MBTI-certified to administer and discuss the MBTI with you.
You might also look to counseling centers, local community colleges and continuing education programs -- sometimes they offer short courses on the MBTI. Many churches, temples or other religious organizations also use the MBTI instrument.
StrengthsFinder 2.0 is the most extensive strengths evaluation tool available, with a comprehensive guide that outlines your dominant talents and how they influence the way you live life, including how you work. Cost for StrengthsFinder is $15 for learning your top five talents and how to maximize them. You can take this assessment online via the Gallup website or buy the book, which includes a code to take the assessment online.
Many career centers offer skills-based workshops or opportunities for individual skills assessment exercises, including use of a transferable-skills card-sorting activity called SkillScan that helps identify and map professional skills. Alternatively, the SkillScan website offers an online version of the card-sort activity called Career Driver that allows you to self-assess basic skills and obtain a report. Cost is $15.
This online assessment tool helps you create an individual development plan (IDP). Scientists developed it for graduate students and postdocs, and it considers skills, interests and values to help you set goals and identify possible science career paths. Many universities offer myIDP workshops and resources (including recorded sessions accessible to alumni and other people no longer on the campus).
Other assessment tools that my graduate career-development colleges use regularly with Ph.D.s and postdocs across the country include the Birkman Personality Assessment, the Campbell Interest and Skill Survey, and the DiSC Personality Test.
In addition to assessment tools, consider the activities you most enjoy doing (i.e., your personal interests) to help clarify any possible career directions. Sometimes your interests will intersect with your career path, but it is also likely that many of your interests may remain separate from your work. Still, if you love the outdoors, you could look for work that will allow you to live near nature or provides enough income to allow you to take great camping vacations.
If nothing else, thinking about your interests is a great exercise that few people take the time to do. Use the following questions as a jumping-off point for conversations with people whom you trust or simply as topics to ponder on your own.
Your General Interests:
- What do you most like to do when you have free time?
- What subjects do you most enjoy discussing with your friends?
The Things You Like Learning About:
- In your formal education, what subject areas have always been your favorites?
- Do you have any subject interests outside formal educational training?
- What issues in the world intrigue you?
- If you could teach courses on any subject, what would you teach, and to whom?
Career Areas You Have Considered:
- When you were young, what did you think you would be when you grew up?
- What careers have you considered throughout your lifetime, and what continues to interest you?
- If you could run a parallel life to the one you live now, what would it look like?
- If you could switch jobs with someone else in the world, whom would you choose, and why?
- What accomplishments are you most proud of? Why?
- What goals and dreams do you have? Are they both long term and short term?
- What would you do if you knew there were no risk, no negative outcome and no chance of failure?
Along with activities and topics that interest you most, a consideration of your personal traits and qualities can help shape your thinking about the kinds of people with whom you want to work and how you are perceived. This also affects your preferences for a work environment.
Taking the time to think about what you value, what you are interested in and what you are good at doing will allow you to identify the best kinds of job roles and environments -- and make the application process so much easier. You will find this self-knowledge helpful for both informational and regular interviewing, and you can continue to adjust your reflections over the course of your career. Once you evaluate and understand your skills and strengths, and throw in some thinking about your personal and work values, you are better equipped to determine which career paths will be the best fit for you and where you will find the greatest success.