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What happens when your career does not turn out how you expected?

Perhaps you spent many hours researching careers, interviewing various experts for information, and matching your strengths and skills to a career path before you landed your first permanent job. Perhaps you found a job ad that sounded interesting one day and landed the position the next. Perhaps you entered graduate school or a postdoctoral fellowship with a plan for your future. But you now find yourself unhappy, unsatisfied or just uncertain in your chosen path. Now what?

That happened to me, and it happens to many people. I entered a microbiology Ph.D. program with the goal of becoming a faculty member at an institution where I could teach and have a small lab. In my third year, I realized that was no longer my dream for a variety of reasons. I dedicated many hours to completing the myIDP program, informational interviewing professionals in several career paths and building my résumé through leadership roles outside the lab. I decided to pursue a career in science policy upon graduation, and with the help and advice from my newly established network, I landed a coveted science policy fellowship and headed to Washington.

I enjoyed the work and was fortunate to have wonderful colleagues and mentors. However, I hated living in D.C. All of my research and interviews focused on the science policy field, and I gave minimal consideration to other factors. Turns out, those things are important.

In many ways, my story is similar to a science experiment. You develop a hypothesis that you want to test. In my case, my hypothesis was that I desired a career in science policy. Before you develop your hypothesis, you might consult the literature or experts in the field to learn more about the topic and then refine it as necessary. Eventually, you do an experiment to test the hypothesis. In this analogy, my experiment was doing a science policy fellowship. But despite all your carefully laid plans, the experiment’s results are not always what you expect.

Indeed, I advise you to approach any such career conundrums you encounter as you might an experiment. When an experiment does not work as expected, you first need to identify the problem. Did you add the wrong reagent? Should you have used a different technique? Applying this approach to your career, are you unfulfilled with specific roles or responsibilities in your position? Are you dissatisfied with your work environment or your boss? Is another work-related problem the issue? Are you unhappy due to factors in your personal life?

If you struggle to pinpoint what is driving your discontent, enlist the help of a trusted friend, mentor or colleague -- or seek the expertise of a career counselor. And think about the aspects of your position that you do enjoy.

Next, consider what factors you can change. Can you change your role or responsibilities to better fit your interests while still serving the needs of your employer? Can you work toward a better relationship with your boss? Do not assume that it is impossible to negotiate a solution to the issue(s) within your current role. While it can be difficult to do when you are not feeling positive or certain, be proactive. If your challenge involves another person, do not assume they are unwilling to work with you. In fact, they may be just as reticent to approach you. Many, if not most, people struggle to initiate and effectively navigate difficult conversations. Learning this skill, however, will serve you well throughout your career. Here is an article to get you started.

All that said, I do have two caveats. First, if it is unhealthy or unsafe to stay in your position, then your options for resolution within that role unfortunately may be limited. Second, the first six months of your first permanent position can be an uncomfortable and challenging transition time -- which is perfectly normal in many situations. Adjusting to your position -- especially if you moved from academe to a different sector -- means many new elements: new responsibilities, schedules, colleagues, reward structures, politics and work cultures, to name a few.

So if you are not in an unsafe or unhealthy situation, consider sticking with it for a year before making any big decisions. Try to make the most of your position. Some examples of how to do that include learning more about your colleagues’ roles and backgrounds through informal meetings over coffee, seeking out professional development for yourself through work or online courses and joining a professional working group.

You may come to a point where you decide that the experience is not going to work. You tried different reagents, conditions and methods. You talked to others in the field to seek their advice. Now, it is time to determine whether you want a new experiment (job) or a new hypothesis (career path). Are you well informed about the different types of jobs available in your field? If not, informational interviews are a great way to learn and network within your field.

It is common for people to change jobs and careers. But I know from personal experience that it still can be challenging to accept that the career path you researched and chose is not the one you wish to continue. Similarly, choosing to move on from one hypothesis to another can be difficult. Stay positive and consider what you have learned about yourself, then use this knowledge to jump-start your career exploration and develop a new plan.

While I cannot provide a comprehensive list of resources, start by revisiting your strengths, interests and values using a tool like myIDP, chemIDP or Imagine PhD. Your campus career center or an experienced career counselor can be invaluable resources as well. One book that has helped thousands of people through career transitions is What Color Is Your Parachute? by Richard N. Bolles, which will push you to think about what specific elements you are seeking in your career.

Many people think there is one right career for them. Perhaps this is true for some, but most have interests that can lead down a variety of paths. Do not be discouraged just because your initial choice did not turn out as you expected.

In my case, a pivot and reboot resulted in fulfilling, challenging and exciting positions in a field where I see long-term opportunities but that I never would have considered in graduate school. My current position allows me to use my strengths, learn new skills such as career advising and live in my desired location, while still staying active in science policy issues of interest to me on the national level.

As with science, do not give up on your hypothesis or experiment prematurely. But if your position is not giving you what you need, do not be afraid to move on after thoughtful consideration and research.

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