Abandoning the Search for the “Perfect” Career
News Article By Julianne Feola
In doing some recent “career soul-searching”, I stumbled upon a document that I wrote in my second year of graduate school as part of a pre-doctoral fellowship application to the NIH. Here, you can find a confident proclamation of my desire to continue on the academic route, first acquiring a postdoctoral fellowship and eventually rising to faculty member at an esteemed university. While I don’t doubt that this option sounded attractive to me- aspects of scientific research will always excite me- I can say with certainty that my confidence in this decision was not there, and these goals changed almost as quickly as I had written them.
This was certainly not the first time that I had been asked the question “what are your future career goals?” This is often something we are asked before we even begin our first graduate course. Of course, nobody really expects us to know exactly what our long-term career goals are during interviews or orientation, but I was often compelled to pick one thing to give a more definitive answer and to convince myself that I had honed in on that “perfect” career choice.
As I was asked this question throughout graduate school, I began to notice that the answer that I would give would change depending on the audience and the setting. In chatting with a faculty member, I would quickly assert my interest in teaching at a small liberal arts college. Upon running into a former professor at the Rochester Museum and Science Center during one of my volunteering shifts, I was sure to inform him that I was definitely interested in pursuing a career in science outreach. After all, if I am spending my Sunday afternoons working museum exhibits, this must be the type of career that I want, right?
When I finally became conscious of this pattern, I realized two things: 1) My interests are actually quite broad and 2) I was nowhere near being able to identify that one “perfect” career that was to be my obvious chosen path.
At first, this realization was jarring. How would I ever figure out my “perfect” career fit? When the focus was placed on identifying a single career path, I felt a bit desperate about my search, as I was filled with the constant hope that a “light bulb” moment would suddenly make everything clear. Over time, however, I have realized that career exploration does not necessarily have to be guided by a single goal. Abandoning the perfect career search has made me realize that, for a number of reasons, broad interests and exploration can be beneficial at all stages of graduate school.
First and foremost, being open to a variety of careers has left me open to a variety of useful experiences. This has led to a willingness to become involved in a number of activities, groups and programs, with each one teaching me a little bit more about the skills that I have and the work that I enjoy.
Second, a willingness to learn about a variety of careers has expanded my professional network. I’ve maintained a policy to follow-up with contacts that I’ve been given from other people and to stay open to the types of careers I’m willing to learn about. Hearing other people’s perspectives on what has worked and hasn’t worked for them has led to some interesting realizations about career fit for myself. In many cases, the most valuable conversations haven’t even necessarily stayed on topic, and I have often left these informal interviews with new knowledge, new connections to make and, above all, new directions to take my career search.
A third and important reason that broad career exploration can be beneficial has to do with the buzzword that we’ve all been hearing: “transferrable skills”. These are the skills that we don’t often realize that we’ve acquired as graduate students, such as leadership, project management, organizational and interpersonal skills. Getting involved in different career exploration opportunities can serve to hone these transferrable skills in ways that meaningfully supplement the graduate training that we receive.
Finally, broad career exploration has led me in unexpected directions that I would not necessarily have previously explored. When my initial interest in teaching motivated me to get involved in our graduate program’s first ever Brain Awareness Outreach program, I didn’t imagine that for the next few years, I would take on more of a leadership and organizational role. Unexpectedly, I enjoyed the planning and management aspects, which then led me to seek out a URBEST internship in clinical trials project management at the University of Rochester’s Center for Human Experimental Therapeutics. Here, I was able to observe and participate in a host of management duties that are required for smooth execution of a multi-site clinical trial. With this experience, I was able to combine my enthusiasm for management and organization with my ardent interest in translational medicine, all while exploring a career option that I may not have considered if it wasn’t for other opportunities that served as stepping-stones.
Now that I am nearing the end of my graduate training, I have been able to look across all that I’ve been involved in- running an outreach program, doing an internship in clinical trials project management, serving on our program’s admissions committee, volunteering at the museum, tutoring students on writing across different disciplines- and realize that I have built skills that will allow me to pursue a variety of careers. Though my graduate student life has been busy, I feel confident that I have amassed appropriate skills and knowledge that will take me into a gratifying career.
The message that I am hoping has come across here echoes, to some extent, a talk given by Dr. Sarah Peyre last fall. In it, she discussed the problem with seeking the career that we are “passionate” about. This really hit home with me, as switching my focus away from the “perfect” career has allowed me to recognize the benefit of broad career exploration. This is not at all to say that it is problematic to have a perfect career in mind. Some people do know exactly what they want and can focus on developing skills related to that field. In the end, each person’s career exploration is different and unique, and being comfortable with your approach is the key to taking advantage of everything it has to offer.