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Alyssa is a doctoral student in neuroscience at the University of Rhode Island. Follow them @yes_thattoo or check out their personal blog.
"Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham
Most of us aren't going to be full-time, tenured university professors. We just aren't. I think there have been enough articles explaining that fact (and sometimes calling it a crisis in academia that more people are getting PhDs than could possibly become professors.) And sure, some of us probably go into grad school thinking we're going to be the one who beats the odds, whatever the odds may be in our particular field. Maybe we had no idea what we wanted to do with our degrees. I wasn’t certain-- I knew a few things I liked to do, and that was about it. Regardless, I don't want to count on getting a job I'm unlikely to get. You probably shouldn't count on it either.
The question becomes: what do you want to do after grad school (besides become a university professor)? How do you decide?
One resource my program suggested is the Science Careers myIDP site. This particular site is meant for scientists, as the name suggests, but the idea is a bit broader. There are assessments meant to help us figure out career "fit" all over the place, along with assessments that can help you discern the skills that will best transfer to careers outside the ivory tower. Are you good at writing? Do you like to write? How about teaching? Grant writing? Talking about policy? To be fair, it can be hard to assess our own skills because we're often our harshest critics. It can also prove tricky to rate on a scale of 1-5 how much we enjoy something if we only like it under certain circumstances. For example, one question asks how often do I want to teach in a classroom setting, where 1 is never and 5 is often. That depends on several factors. What's the classroom like? I’m not always capable of speech, related to being Autistic, and I need to be prepared for speech giving out on me. Is the classroom set up so that at least one of my alternative communication methods will work? What (almost certainly incorrect) assumptions are my colleagues (and my students) going to make when they first see me need to type or write instead of speak? Do the students actually want to be in the class? All those things are relevant to how much classroom teaching I want to do, and none of them are reflected by a 1-5 rating.
Therefore, your mileage on this type of questionnaire may vary. In order to apply to a wide range of people (science is pretty broad!), a lot of the skill and interest questions must be vague. If you can manage to give useful answers to them anyways, myIDP will match career paths with your stated skills and interests, ranking them approximately by overall fit. Interests matches and skills matches are shown separately, and the ranking seems to be by the sum of the two categories - tie goes to interests, since you can learn new skills. That’s part of what graduate school is about!
If those surveys aren't for you, think about why they aren't for you. Sometimes the problem will open up a different way for you to think about career options. From the results of my getting stuck, I could figure out that I like to write and teach, and that workplace culture is going to be super important to me even though I generally prefer to work alone. How people react when they find out I can't always speak (and will absolutely still give my scheduled presentation or teach class while speech isn't working) varies, and it's going to matter just as much as anything else about the job.
Long story short: take a look at the career paths that are out there. The Society for Neuroscience lists over a dozen types of career path outside academia. A professional organization for your field will probably have a list too. Think about what you enjoy doing. Think about what you hate doing. Think about what jobs have more of the first and less of the second. What do you want to do after graduate school? What are your options?
[Comic by Jorge Cham used in accordance with permissions found in the comic’s about page]