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In a previous piece, we discussed the importance of carving out time, establishing goals and using a variety of methods and tools to explore different careers. A key aspect of career exploration is also developing a plan and executing that plan.

Albert Higgins-Chen, who designed the ACE (Active Career Exploration) plan during his graduate student experience at the University of Michigan, recently shared his experience with us. He mentioned that he and his colleagues created the plan to bring action and accountability into the career exploration process. They also wanted to address common challenges graduate students and postdocs face, including information overload and a tendency to think that simply reading online information is sufficient to understand a career.

Specifically, the ACE plan helps graduate students and postdocs expand their exploration of various careers beyond just reading and attending career panels, encouraging them to go from being passive to active in the process. Higgins-Chen shared with us that the ACE plan was designed to help force graduate students out of their comfort zone, encouraging them to engage with others and build momentum in the process. It serves as a road map to help grad students and postdocs take the necessary steps to explore various careers and to apply what they have learned to make wise decisions about which ones to pursue. Those steps include broadening your networks through cold emailing people who work in careers of interest, as well as learning more about different professional roles and paths to employment through informational interviews.

One of us, Eric Vaughn, not only uses the ACE plan at the University of Rochester as a framework but also created the Personalized Career Exploration Program plan through myHub to assist trainees in developing individual development plans to help in strategic career exploration. The Personalized Career Exploration plan provides each trainee a template that they can modify and use to organize their own career planning goals, ideas and methods. People explore careers in their own distinct ways, and developing a plan tailored to each individual’s specific needs and goals is vital for ensuring they are invested and engaged throughout a process that can take months, if not years.

Alex McMullen, a Ph.D. student in biomedical engineering at the University of Rochester, told us that the Personalized Career Exploration Program plan has given him structure and guidance in exploring his career options. Before being introduced to it, McMullen said, he only had some general thoughts and ideas about career exploration. But the tool has helped him formulate a plan with structure and boundaries that will help him stay focused on the goals that will be most beneficial as he moves toward completing his Ph.D. and pursues his postgraduation plans.

Implementing Your Plan

Once you develop your plan, you will need to execute it. In the rest of this piece, we’ll describe a few ways to do that effectively.

  • Conduct informational interviews. Informational interviewing is one of the most valuable tools for gaining knowledge about a career. ImaginePhD has an information interviewing guide that you can reference. An informational interview can help answer any specific, personal questions you may have about a certain career and workplace from those who are employed there. Higgins-Chen said that the conversations he had with those with whom he conducted informational interviews provided him valuable information on emerging bioinformatics skills he might want to build in order to be competitive for positions he hoped to seek out after completing his M.D. and Ph.D.

Use the information that you collect during the informational interview to determine your next steps in the career exploration process. Were you able to get enough clarification on the specific career to want to investigate it further through a job-shadowing period or internship? Did the person you interviewed emphasize a particular area that you want to ask others within the same field about? Did the conversation answer key questions that led you to not be interested in exploring this career further? Learning what is not a good career fit is also useful in the exploration process.

  • Engage in job shadowing and internships. You should also strive to gain practical hands-on experience through job shadowing and internships. Such hands-on experiential learning opportunities will allow you to see firsthand what a position, field and work environment you may be interested in actually looks like. During such experiences, you will also have a greater opportunity to ask questions of knowledgeable people and broaden your professional network.
  • Evaluate. You should also build an evaluation component into your career exploration process. Evaluating the questions you want answered and the answers you receive about a particular career based on your particular interests and values can help you determine whether you want to pursue it or not. It is also good to actually measure whether a career or career path will allow you to apply the skills you want to apply and have the experiences you are seeking. For example, if you enjoy writing and want that to be a major component of your career but discover through an informational interview that you will spend only 5 percent of your time writing in a particular position, it may not be a good career match for you.
  • Share reflections. Also, we can’t stress enough that you should share your reflections with trusted mentors throughout your career exploration process. These individuals do not necessarily need to be your primary adviser or supervisor, though certainly that is best. They could also be other people across your network, including peer mentors. Sharing your plan with your mentors and others around you can help you gain valuable feedback, suggestions and new networking connections.

Provide your mentors with a focused and digestible overview of your plan to help them better guide you in achieving your goals. McMullen, for instance, created a streamlined form of his plan, which helped him to better communicate his career goals and to focus conversations with his mentors on the specific areas where he needed feedback, assistance and guidance.

In closing, make sure to focus time and energy on your career exploration early in your academic career. Starting early will allow for possible delays and roadblocks. Also, enlist a career coach and or mentor for guidance and assistance in keeping you accountable to your career-exploration plan. While it may be intimidating and daunting to you at first, we hope that we’ve convinced you that having a process, plan and people to support you is crucial to getting started.

You might be surprised by the traction you’ll gain from engaging in career exploration and beginning to execute on it early. In fact, Higgins-Chen now works as an assistant professor at Yale University in the area of computational biology, a research choice that was highly influenced by an early informational interview he had in graduate school. Clearly, the earlier you learn about trends in employment areas of interest, the more effectively you can prepare for and ultimately be on your way to entering the career field of your choice.

Eric Vaughn is director of career services at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. Chris Smith is the postdoctoral affairs program administrator at Virginia Tech and serves on the National Postdoctoral Association’s Board of Directors. They are both members of the Graduate Career Consortium—an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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