Pursuing Professional Development for Career Clarity

Ph.D.s can identify appropriate career paths by conducting a self-assessment, networking and identifying their skills gaps and how to fill them, writes Mabel Perez-Oquendo.

September 6, 2022
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When graduate students begin to consider transitioning beyond their specialized education to what might be a future career, engaging in professional development experiences seems to be one of the best ways to gain clarity. Learning about the different paths available to Ph.D. students after graduation was invaluable to me as I explored which career to pursue and defined what professional development experiences would prepare me for it.

My interest in academic administration began during my undergraduate training, when I had the opportunity to conduct scientific research and serve in a student association working to ensure students had a supportive scientific community and access to resources to help them achieve their educational goals. I actively spoke with Hispanic students about undergraduate internship requirements and benefits, as well as my own scientific training experiences. I worked to make certain that linguistic and cultural differences did not discourage those students from pursuing high-quality education and career opportunities. That motivated me to use my scientific training to understand the needs of various students and give them the resources required to obtain their desired careers after graduation.

I originally thought that the only way for me to directly support students’ careers in STEM was to secure a position as a tenure-track faculty member so I could mentor trainees in a laboratory environment. But after engaging in some professional development activities, including active experiential learning, I realized that Ph.D. students can identify appropriate career paths by conducting a self-assessment, networking and identifying their skills gaps and how to fill them.

Self-Assessment

Early in my Ph.D. training, I asked myself, “What would be the career that would best allow me to pursue my interests in professional development? How can I prepare for that career that I have not yet defined? How can I manage the time that I need to progress in both my career and scientific training?”

To answer those questions, I applied for and was admitted into a research administrative program as a first-year Ph.D. student. I initially expected to learn strategies to successfully be awarded grants from the National Institutes of Health, which was in line with my goal of pursuing a tenure-track academic faculty position.

The experience opened my eyes, however, to career options outside my original goal. Through that program, I learned the intricacies of research administration policies by attending lectures and securing internships at the office of diversity, career development and alumni affairs. Guided by my mentor, Raquel Salinas, I was introduced to the possibility of a career in academic administration in ways that motivated me to search and network with other administrators in and outside my institution. As a second-year Ph.D. student, I organized an alumni career symposium that brought together graduate students, alumni and career professionals to discuss careers across research, health care, business and education. Then, as a third-year Ph.D. student applying doctrines I learned by serving on my institution’s curriculum committee, I helped develop a graduate course aimed at further supporting students in achieving their postgraduation career goals. Those experiential learning experiences in my Ph.D. training gave me the career clarity I needed to validate my interest in becoming the dean of a research teaching institution.

Professional development is a progressive process in which Ph.D. students make a series of efforts to expand their knowledge and improve their skills. MyIDP for biomedical scientists, ChemIDP for chemical scientists and ImaginePh.D. for the humanities and social sciences focus on helping graduate students determine their strengths and weaknesses, create a road map of their goals, and then understand the specific actions they should take to achieve those goals. Such tools can help you mold your professional identity by evaluating your interests, values ​​and skills.

For example, interest assessments help you define not only the tasks you would enjoy doing and want to include as integral elements of your career but also those you’d like to avoid. Values ​​assessments guide you in answering questions like “What is most important to me? What rewards or outcomes do I want from my work?” Your distinct values can help define the environment where you are likely to function best as well as the qualities of a job that will keep you motivated. Skills assessments help measure the competencies you possess and are typically associated with a wide variety of jobs.

A careers advisory team on a campus can also guide you on how to use your time most efficiently to pursue your scientific training and simultaneously begin identifying your career interests. Personally, I strongly suggest selecting three different careers to further explore via formal networking events and informational interviews.

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Networking and Informational Interviews

Networking is a frequently discussed topic in graduate school. But while all graduate students know they need to network, they rarely have an idea of ​​where to start and ​​how to use networking strategically to gain career clarity. Graduate students should view networking as an investment with results in the short and long term; the more strategic you are with that investment, the better the results you will achieve.

Once you have chosen three different careers, focus your networking on people who have experience and/or connections in them. Conduct informational interviews with them and ask how to prepare and pursue such careers, what their workdays look like, and how they see the career field evolving in the next five years.

One tactic I find helpful is to create a table of contacts in Excel or Word with categories for each person’s name, position or title, company affiliation, and contact information (email and/or LinkedIn). Include space to make notes to document meeting dates, reflections on the conversation, any critical feedback or advice you received, and suggestions for skills you need to develop and new contacts you should make to continue growing your network. Work to expand and strengthen your networking through referrals from your primary circle.

For any networking relationship to work, however, you should deliver value before asking for it. Some ways to do that are to recommend an event or a contact that facilitates the other person’s work or a book that aligns with their interests. Only then should you ask for something in return. That does not necessarily mean asking for a job, but rather explaining your goals and whom you want to connect with so that your new contacts can better understand how to help.

Many Ph.D. students think that they don’t have enough contacts to reap the benefits of networking. But starting with five people (i.e., the number of members on most Ph.D. committees) is usually more than enough to start growing your network.

Identifying Skills Gaps

Transferable skills are those we have learned in our training that we can adapt for use throughout our chosen career. As Ph.D. students, we develop expertise in written and spoken communication, problem-solving, organization, time management, setting and meeting goals, curiosity, information gathering, analytical skills, and teamwork. Such skills are valuable in a variety of jobs. As a scientist and career/professional development intern, for instance, I honed my project management and program development skills. Those skills are relevant not only to my chosen career in academic administrational but also to industry, entrepreneurship and educational research, among other fields.

You should identify the transferable skills you’ve learned during your scientific training, as well as educate yourself on what additional skills you need to pursue your chosen career. Through networking and informational interviews, you can determine the skills that you lack or need to improve, as well as seek recommendations for how to begin to acquire them. Remember that any skill gaps are opportunities for professional development and growth to help you become the most highly qualified applicant possible when you hit the job market. Identifying your skill gaps early allows you time to look for ways to develop those skills through experiential learning experiences—internships, fellowships, volunteer opportunities, job shadowing and so on—with mentors who are currently in your chosen career.

In conclusion, career clarity is within your reach as a Ph.D. student. With self-assessment and internal reflection, networking, and the identification of skills gaps, you will find you are highly likely to find success and satisfaction in several different career paths. And once you’ve obtained that clarity, you can actively explore relevant professional development experiences. This is your call to go from the waiting phase to the determination phase and take action to pursue your ideal career now.

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Logo of the Graduate Career ConsortiumMabel Perez-Oquendo is a Ph.D. candidate and intern at the Office of Career Development at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and UTHealth Houston Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. She is a member of the Graduate Career Consortium—an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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