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Many people will use the start of a new year to begin making plans to better their lives, including eating healthier, exercising more or reducing screen time. And while such plans are great, leaning into unplanned experiences can sometimes produce surprisingly positive results for your personal and professional life. That’s why I advise you to also consider cultivating serendipity as a goal for 2022.
Serendipity is defined as an unplanned fortunate discovery and is often cited as being influential in career choices and transitions. Past studies have shown that the majority of people think serendipitous events have played a role in their career decision making or influenced their careers.
More than luck is involved, however. In fact, an entire theory of career exploration and discovery centers on planned happenstance. The central notion of that theory is that an individual must acknowledge the value of unplanned events and be willing to act on them to realize potential upsides to their personal and professional development.
Five skills have been hypothesized to aid people in benefiting from chance events according to this theory:
- Curiosity—be open to and explore new learning opportunities
- Optimism—view new opportunities as possible and obtainable
- Persistence—exert effort despite setbacks
- Flexibility—adapt to changing attitudes and circumstances
- Risk taking—take action in the face of uncertain outcomes
I encourage you to exercise these skills and embrace the moment in 2022. That’s how you will cultivate serendipity and be able to take advantage of the unexpected opportunities you’ll surely encounter to enhance your professional life and career.
The past nearly two years of COVID have forced many of us to retreat inward, focus on more immediate personal and family concerns, and remain physically distant from others. As vaccines and new therapeutics arise to curtail the risk of COVID, spring 2022 will hopefully bring a return to more in-person interactions, including community events.
And your community is so much more than where you work or study. In fact, increasing your participation in a variety of communities, organizations or groups will undoubtedly expand your network, help you gain new skills and self-knowledge, and open the door to new and exciting opportunities you can’t yet imagine.
I will share my own serendipitous journey to my current position in postdoctoral affairs to illustrate how you can create unexpected opportunities for yourself that can lead to destinations that, while initially unplanned and unforeseen, are rewarding and fulfilling.
The Value of Volunteering
Getting involved in my local postdoctoral association changed the course of my professional career. I didn’t know it at the time, though.
When I decided to volunteer as an officer in the Vanderbilt University Postdoctoral Association five years ago, I didn’t really consider myself leadership material. I am pretty quiet and reserved but realized this group was doing important work, including building a community of support for postdocs and linking them to resources on campus. My curiosity and desire to give back and contribute to an important cause pushed me to take a leadership role in the association, and that introduced me to postdoctoral affairs as a potential career path.
I also met many awesome people doing amazing things, including some postdocs with whom I would never have interacted if I stayed in the lab or only attended departmental events. The leaders I worked with in the association have gone on to a variety of exciting careers in organizations like the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, leading pharmaceutical companies and numerous universities— demonstrating that potential employers value the leadership and teamwork experience you gain from working with a community organization. And having this expanded network has helped me in my current role, as I can connect current postdocs interested in pursuing these career paths with my former association colleagues.
You don’t have to get involved with your local postdoctoral association to find volunteer opportunities that can be useful for you both personally and professionally. Graduate student associations or professional societies are other options to explore. Through volunteering, you can also hone specific skills. Like communicating science? Why not volunteer at your local science museum or join a community like NPR Scicommers? Interested in a career in medical writing? The American Association of Medical Writers has local chapters across the United States.
Seeking out activities beyond your lab/research environment—or any workplace, really—is vital for your mental health. Volunteering in local organizations can provide you a broader community of social support and a sense of accomplishment in the work you do that is independent of how things are going in your graduate or postdoctoral research. You can also use volunteer opportunities to develop new skills outside your comfort zone and try bold things without your performance being tied to your current salary or stipend.
Prototyping potential alternative careers through volunteering or other experiential learning opportunities can also be helpful as you explore what to do after your graduate or postdoctoral training. Getting involved in a specific activity that allows you to pursue a line of work you might be interested in will help you test it out as a potential career path. By venturing outside your academic work, you will also meet a more diverse group of professionals and start to learn about the many career opportunities out there in the world.
For example, my involvement in the Vanderbilt Postdoctoral Association and then the National Postdoctoral Association—as a volunteer writer for The POSTDOCket—unexpectedly opened my eyes to another career path beyond academic research and allowed me to better understand some of the major issues affecting postdoctoral scholars. I also realized I could make an impact working to improve the postdoctoral experience as a career and landed my current role as postdoctoral affairs program manager at North Carolina State University in early 2019. I wrote a separate piece about my decision to pursue a career in this area—one that has been both challenging and rewarding.
After starting my new position, I also got involved with the Graduate Career Consortium, which offers a variety of resources and opportunities to support professionals working in the graduate student and postdoc career and professional development space. I found the GCC has many exciting committees and initiatives to get involved in and offers trainee memberships if you are a graduate student or postdoc interested in exploring a career in this area. You can learn more about becoming a GCC member here.
The Benefits of Taking on More
A few months into my role at N.C. State, I also volunteered to assist a team I met through the Future PI Slack group in analyzing important data from a faculty career applicant survey. While contributing to this project resulted in significant after-hours work, we were able to publish our study in eLife in June 2020. And I continue working with some of my co-authors, developing more detailed surveys to understand factors that lead to a successful faculty job search. We are also exploring how COVID impacted the faculty job market in 2020 and 2021.
Engaging in this extra opportunity allowed me to develop additional knowledge of metrics associated with faculty job market success that enhance my ability to support postdocs in their career preparation. In addition, the experience allowed me to produce scholarly work in my new profession, despite it not being possible in my day job. It demonstrates that you can contribute meaningfully to creating new knowledge that has an impact despite not being a faculty or research staff member. It opened my eyes to the fact that doing impactful scholarly work in the area of education and outcomes research was possible for me in an administrative role.
While you should certainly not overextend yourself with too much extracurricular work, I believe taking on additional opportunities when you think they will help you learn and grow in a new area is definitely worth it.
The Advantages of Involvement
Over the past few years, I’ve taken on two key leadership opportunities in my new profession—one that was planned and another that was not. I actively chose to run for the NPA Board of Directors as a means of staying informed and contributing to new developments and initiatives to support postdocs. Another new position involved cultivating serendipity, however.
An administrator I worked with while a postdoc at Vanderbilt University nominated me to be communications chair at the Graduate Career Consortium in spring 2020, seeing something in me that I didn’t quite see in myself. I leaned into the opportunity, accepted the nomination and was elected by the membership. I have now been in the role for two years and have vastly expanded my network, communications knowledge and leadership skills as a result.
I believe my involvement in both organizations allowed me to excel in my job at N.C. State. Ultimately, those experiences also gave me the confidence to seek out new roles in the profession that offered more leadership opportunities and growth potential.
A Serendipitous Destination
Recently, I accepted a position to lead the newly formed Office of Postdoctoral Affairs at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. In retrospect, I believe perhaps all these extra experiences added up to this amazing opportunity. It certainly could not have been planned. But leaning into experiences that seem exciting and a bit of a stretch allows us to grow and discover new thing about ourselves—and ultimately prepares us to take on new unforeseen challenges.
I have developed a greater sense of confidence and competence through my volunteer and extracurricular efforts over the past several years. I also went beyond the bounds of my day job at N.C. State to demonstrate leadership and expertise in a new profession that will serve me well as I take on my new responsibilities. As a postdoc four years ago, I couldn’t even imagine this is where I would be in my career.
Your future path can be difficult to see at the outset, but in retrospect, you can often find a thread that connects your past self to your current situation: leaning into your curiosity, taking risks and having confidence that your skills, interests and values can yield amazing—and surprising—results that are essential to your professional growth.
The fact is that you never know where your choices, which at the time may seem outside your plans, can ultimately lead. Acknowledge the need to be open to new chances to build skills, try out new tasks and grow your network. You need to put yourself out there for serendipitous opportunities to find you—opportunities that could lead you to an exciting destination you can’t at all imagine today.