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Doctoral and postdoctoral trainees often seek guidance on career clarity, with the ultimate goal of identifying their professional purpose or improving work performance. A career coach can work side by side with the Ph.D. or postdoc to articulate professional goals and lay out a road map for their next steps toward career satisfaction. As the trainee transitions into a new career phase, a coach serves as an accountability guide who listens, leads, encourages and mentors.
If you are pursuing your Ph.D. or are a postdoc, the career-development center at your academic institution typically has professionals with experience in career coaching. They can help you develop personalized approaches to future career paths by focusing on your skills, interests, values and goals.
One of us, Mabel, was introduced to career coaching in her first year of doctoral training, when she conducted biomedical research and served as an intern in an office of diversity, career development and alumni affairs. While working as an intern, she planned and carried out educational programs that directly supported the career success of graduate students.
Those experiential learning opportunities sparked her professional mission: to ensure that trainees have a supportive scientific community and access to resources to advance their educational and professional development.
She originally thought that becoming a tenure-track faculty member in a laboratory setting was the only way to directly support students’ careers in STEM. But an academic administrator with expertise in career coaching guided her in identifying the career paths that best fit her skills, interests and values. Through self-assessment, networking and identifying goals for the acquisition of new skills, Mabel worked with her career coach to develop an action plan to achieve career results.
How to Best Work With a Coach
The first step in working with a career coach at your institution is to evaluate your skills, interests and values. MyIDP for biomedical scientists, ChemIDP for chemical scientists and ImaginePhD for the humanities and social sciences are assessments that aim to help doctoral and postdoctoral trainees 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. Once you have gained clarity surrounding potential career pathways based on your strengths and personal goals, you will feel more confident making career decisions to explore further through networking, informational interviews and experiential learning opportunities.
Career coaches act not only as guides but also as connectors. When engaging a career coach, you should request introductions to at least five people working in the jobs and fields you would like to explore. In Mabel’s case, the career coach directed her to career seminars, professional memberships and courses, as well as referred her to LinkedIn contacts—all related to her chosen career. Through a professional organization, the Graduate Career Consortium (GCC), she also found a community of professionals, with similar skills, interests and values, who were willing to meet and share how to prepare for and pursue a career in academic administration.
During an informational interview with a GCC member, Mabel received a Higher Education Skill Assessment Excel sheet that she has been using for four years to identify goals for new skill acquisition and to measure how her knowledge in the field has evolved. If your field has no skills-assessment sheet, we suggest that you consider creating your own by asking your informational interviewers:
- How did you prepare for and pursue your current career path?
- Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?
- Describe a typical workday/workweek.
- What highly marketable and transferable skills do you recommend that will strengthen my application for this career path (or other related career paths)?
By conducting informational interviews and networking, you will realize that you have developed technical skills—in communication, problem-solving, time management, teamwork and so on—that are valuable to many careers. You have probably also gained the interpersonal skills required by your chosen career, while often not structurally integrated into your training, through internships, volunteer opportunities and job shadowing.
A career coach can help you articulate both technical and interpersonal skills and highlight them in your job application materials. A good start is to attend a seminar on writing application materials offered by your home institution or by other professional networks. Although career coaches may have different educational backgrounds, they know the application style that best suits your discipline and are the first source of guidance for trainees on job searches, interviewing and negotiations.
As Mabel approached the graduation phase of her Ph.D., she felt confident that she could make a successful career transition, thanks to the guidance she had received from her career coach and the various professional development opportunities she had completed. Currently, as a postdoctoral fellow in academic administration at MD Anderson Cancer Center, Mabel has also seen that trainees who invest their time and effort in finding a career coach and pursuing professional development experiences have a better success rate in their career transitions than their counterparts who don’t use such resources.
Those observations have motivated her to work to continue to expand resources for trainees who seek to be the next generation of experts in their chosen careers. To that end, she has completed a career coach certificate course that has provided her with in-depth training in career decisions and transitions.
Support From Career Center Coaches
The other co-author of this piece, Lindsey, runs a graduate and postgraduate career development center that offers a wide range of career coaching services for trainees, depending on their needs. The most popular include:
- MyIDP or additional assessment interpretations
- Career exploration, planning and goal setting
- CV/résumé and cover letter consultation (initial and nuanced guidance)
- Job search strategies
- Advice on building your network
- Mock interviews (strategies and preparation)
- Salary negotiation skills
Lindsey and others at the center work with trainees to understand their specific skills, interests, values and goals and integrate that information into personalized, strategic plans for each step of each graduate or postdoctoral trainee’s career-development journey. This process is one of self-discovery, and trainees often realize just how much they have to offer in terms of their technical and interpersonal skills—and how transferable those skills are to various settings, given the right approach and context. It is truly rewarding to see the confidence that develops in graduate students and postdocs who embrace the exploration and discovery process and invest in their professional and career development, not as an afterthought to their training but as a parallel pursuit.
Graduate and postdoctoral trainees are often overwhelmed by the sheer breadth of career path opportunities and so immersed in their training that they don’t focus on their career development until the end of their tenure. They frequently come to the career center full of anxiety and overwhelmed at the prospect of options and career fit. Individuals who are making a change to another career path often have the same concerns, but some are also greater equipped with a knowledge of who they are and what they offer— their skills, interests, values and goals—and what they do and do not want in a career.
In each situation, the center’s approach is the same, offering:
- Skills, interests and values assessment;
- Interpretation of that assessment;
- Filtration of potential career paths based on those interpretations;
- Focused exploration through informational interview and networking with relevant connections at institutions/companies of interest;
- Tailored application composition; and
- Interview preparation and negotiation skills.
This approach instills confidence, because the center and its career coaches employ strategy, personalized information and targeted action plans tailored to each individual’s career goals.
In conclusion, effective and intentional planning and preparation for future career paths will continue to be one of the most important decisions that all doctoral and postdoctoral trainees will make during their formative professional training and development. The career you choose will affect your finances, family decisions, well-being and work productivity. As technology evolves, job opportunities continue to diversify, presenting a greater challenge when attempting to filter these diverse options to match careers with personalized skills, interests, values and goals.
Career coaches continue to play a key role in guiding graduate and postdoctoral trainees in the process of articulating career goals and developing a personalized road map to achieving work-life satisfaction. Therefore, we strongly encourage trainees to seek the support of a career coach at their home institution. We also urge academic administrators to further hone their career coaching skills with the ultimate goal of helping trainees achieve their maximum potential during their training and throughout their future careers.