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The world of work continues to change rapidly, owing to evolving societal challenges, complex global and local ecosystems, technology and AI, among other factors. In such a changing landscape, a career trajectory is typically nonlinear, or what Helen Tupper and Sarah Ellis would call “the squiggly career”—full of both uncertainties and possibilities. In squiggly careers, they say, we need to change our perception and expectation of what it means to make progress.
The uncertainty at the center of research and our career paths often runs counter to our rigid expectations of professional advancement and can lead to stress, anxiety and resentment. That holds true for doctoral students and postdocs, who solve complex problems and make discoveries and inventions with ingenuity yet tend to define progression rigidly in their careers. As a result, we risk missing out on the possibilities embedded in the squiggly paths, which are open to experimentation and favor the curious and creative. In this article, I advise doctoral students and postdocs how to lead with curiosity and creativity in ways that can unlock opportunities in their current and future professional life.
When advising graduate students and postdocs on professional development and career planning, I often repeat, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” Researchers are inherently curious; you keep up with literature for updated understanding of your field and related ones. You observe patterns and identify research directions. You question assumptions and strive to be objective.
You should treat your career with the same curiosity that you bring to your research. Be curious about the current employment landscape and observe trends and future projections to visualize possibilities. With more knowledge, you can question assumptions and prevailing narratives about available career paths and explore unknown domains.
How can you best apply curiosity in your professional development? Curiosity inspires systems thinking, a holistic way to investigate factors and interactions that could contribute to trends. Systems thinking is important in research and career planning. Focusing primarily on the micro level and missing out on macro trends is an error-prone strategy for both research design and future career planning.
Therefore, take a bird’s-eye view, not a disjointed bottoms-up view, and observe connections. In a recent “Carpe Careers” article, Anne Meyer-Miner introduces a framework for such big-picture thinking: collect, observe, reflect and execute, or CORE.
A practical example highlighting curiosity-driven systems thinking is career planning. The common pitfall is to focus on available jobs today without looking out for issues and trends that will impact the future. You can avoid this trap by being problem focused or issue focused instead of job focused.
Ask yourself, what are the societal issues that are contributing to jobs growth in specific fields? For example, due to climate change, both public and private sectors are focused on sustainability, resulting in jobs growth in that domain. Also, by being problem or issue focused, you are more likely to match professional pursuits with your values and interests. In a previous article, I outlined how to gain self-knowledge and awareness of your values and interests.
Systems thinkers are better positioned to consider the socioeconomic, political and environmental factors that can lead to innovation or disruptions in a field. For example, if you are a scientist motivated to mitigate the climate crisis, ask the following questions:
- What factors will influence innovation and progress in a renewable energy field?
- Which institutions and organizations across public and private sectors are doing the most innovative research, designing resilient systems and advocating for supporting policies?
- How are these innovative initiatives funded?
- Where are the gaps?
- What kinds of collective action or collaboration could address those gaps?
- Where can you make the most impact?
As you do to stay updated on your research field, you should regularly broaden knowledge of influencing factors and trends to apply curiosity-driven systems thinking. First, get in the habit of reading outside your field; for example, follow business and economic news and policy reports related to the problem or issue of interest. For the example of climate change, you may want to follow the World Economic Forum or the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to gauge global trends.
Second, talk to professionals involved in diverse roles within the field and attend talks by experts. You have wide and open access to knowledge and expertise on a university campus, and in this article, James Van Wyck and I summarize ways to leverage that social and intellectual capital. For instance, if you are a scientist interested in climate change, you should also attend talks in the policy department to stay updated on climate policy and funding that will impact research directions.
Creativity, or the ability to generate new ideas or multiple possibilities expands our imagination and not be limited by restrictions. Creativity is key in problem-solving, especially in designing parallel viable approaches when traditional path to destination is obstructed. This is akin to availing a different route on Google Maps if the traditional route is closed or mired with traffic.
You often design creative routes in research. When experiments fail, you troubleshoot or adapt parallel approaches or techniques to achieve your aim. Similarly, when designing career paths, think of other ways to reach your desired goal. An interesting exercise is to define your ideal job by identifying three specific functions that make it ideal. Then reverse engineer three parallel paths, where each path is a job that combines two of your favorite functions, with a third mundane or suboptimal duty.
How can you best apply creativity in your professional development? Curiosity-driven systems thinking will expand your awareness of multidisciplinary factors that contribute to a problem or issue. Creativity will help you map ways of problem-solving by looking at connections between those factors. That’s especially helpful when expanding your purview of desirable jobs. While applying curiosity in career exploration begins with being issues focused, you can be most creative by focusing on job functions. Job functions will typically align with your interests and skills.
By centering your interests and focusing on job functions, you can map creative professional paths in different sectors or industries. Let’s revisit the example of dealing with climate change, which has elicited a myriad of jobs across the public and private sectors. Start with the job function that matches your interest and skills—say, data analytics. Now look for examples in different sectors: What are the characteristics of jobs using analytics for climate insight in academe, business and the policy world? Those are three potential paths to scope out. In addition to the questions I suggested in the section on systems thinking, also reflect on the following:
- What are short-term and long-term positive directions of—or barriers to—each path?
- What is the typical organizational culture?
- Which paths connect better with each other and enable switching from one to other?
- Can you design your own route by mixing components of each path?
Creativity is particularly important for international scientists and scholars in the United States who face barriers during job searches due to difficulties with visa sponsorship. The above exercise will help you design paths and explore industries where you can continue to apply your desired job function and solve problems that you care about in a sector that is open to visa sponsorship. You can create a career pit stop—a practical, short-term strategy—while you work on your immigration portfolio toward permanent residency, which will open access to a wide variety of jobs in the long term. Alternatively, you can explore other countries with better immigration systems, providing access to similar jobs. For each path, consider short-term versus long-term strengths, as well as the viability and cost of switching paths.
It’s prudent to apply curiosity and creativity early in your professional life, not a few months before a job search. A common refrain for long-term planning is lack of time given the busy nature of academic life. However, the key to embedding these approaches isn’t investing a lot of time but consistently doing so. Make time in your weekly schedule for professional development, whether it’s listening to a podcast on your commute, scheduling one informational interview every weekend or attending talks outside your departments on Fridays. Even one hour per week dedicated to gaining broad knowledge of various fields can pay dividends, if done consistently. Like exercise, cultivate a routine such that these adaptive behaviors become lifelong learning habits. You owe it to yourself.