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  • Tracy Costello, PhD

Into the Wild Blue Yonder: How Self-Analysis will Help in Finding Your Ideal Next Career

Updated: Sep 25, 2019

The National Postdoctoral Association’s overarching mission is to improve the postdoctoral experience and many of the NPA’s Recommended Policies and Practices have been widely adopted by institutions in the public and private sectors. Different reports and studies investigating the postdoc experience highlight the importance of it being a temporary, mentored experience that provides additional technical and professional training that sets the individual up for success in their next career step. However, the transition out of a postdoc into a career is in itself a process that deserves time and attention.

Ultimately, it is imperative that postdocs and graduate students take the time early on to explore potential career options and develop a variety of professional skills.

I have coached postdoctoral fellows for almost a decade as they have navigated their training and entry into careers. There are ten distinct steps of career exploration that every postdoc should be aware of, but it all begins with self-analysis.

Postdocs frequently approach the postdoc office or seek a career coach when there is urgency in leaving their postdoc and securing a new position. This is the least ideal situation that does not allow for the full breadth of career exploration, and the self-analysis through reflection and awareness is often skipped in favor of jumping straight into writing resumes, cover letters, LinkedIn profiles, and diving into interviews and hoping for the best. I cannot overstate the importance of starting early and beginning with the self-analysis step.

Individuals with PhDs have been trained to value and stress their technical skills and experience over professional skills. However, understanding one’s interests and skills, coupled with one’s values and lifestyle, is critical to being able to identify the career path(s) that are ideal for them.

The most recent article by McConnell et al., surveyed over seven thousand postdocs in 2016 and found that the number of postdocs seeking academic careers (57.7 percent) is still out of step with NSF’s Survey of Earned Doctorates report that reveals 43 percent of PhDs currently have careers at academic institutions. For the first time, this is roughly equivalent to the number with careers in the private sector (42 percent). McConnell et al. identified several factors positively correlated with seeking academic careers, but when they examined the subset of individuals who were actively seeking positions, their data shows significant evidence of a shift in career focus and a reduction in interest in academic careers. Ultimately, it is imperative that postdocs and graduate students take the time early on to explore potential career options and develop a variety of professional skills.

It takes time to assess what is most meaningful and explore the insight that is revealed. It’s never too late to get started by asking yourself questions to understand your interests such as:

  • What do you love (or hate)?

  • What motivates or inspires you?

  • Next, critically assess your skills, including but not limited to your technical skills.

  • What are your current strengths?

  • What always seems to work out well for you?

  • What have you taught others?

  • How have your skills aided your collaborations?

  • What new skills are you really passionate about learning now?

Self-analysis also involves exploring how you collaborate, manage, lead, and communicate. These are all essential to being able to find the right match for your next career step. You will frequently need to explain how you will work on or manage a team, how you handle conflict, and so much more. While self-analysis is a personal thing, it helps to have direction and guidance. There are a variety of personality assessments and interest inventories that will help with the exploration and provide insight into the questions posed here.

Being self-aware is an opportunity for continuous personal growth. It also opens up the path to the other nine career exploration steps:

  • develop your network,

  • identify potential career paths,

  • engage in informational interviews,

  • identify skill gaps,

  • actively improve professional skills,

  • identify potential career opportunities,

  • develop application materials (CV, resume, cover letter, etc),

  • interview, and

  • negotiate.

I hope you’re inspired to take a look at yourself and begin your career exploration journey. I encourage you to reach out to postdoc or career offices at your institutions and welcome you to reach out to me as you seek your next career step.

Book your appointment today using the link on this website.

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