News Article by Dillon Schrock, PhD
The journey through graduate school is full of difficult lessons and uncomfortable realizations. One of the most challenging aspects to face is the inherent uncertainty of science. Upon entering a graduate program, new students often come to realize just how little they know of their chosen field, seeing our mentors and surrounding faculty as consummate experts. An important step in maturing as a scientist is to realize that those same experts deal intimately with their own uncertainties all the time. Tolerating and even embracing this vagueness is necessary for the scientific process. Finding and testing gaps in knowledge is, after all, what science is all about. In fact, some of the most exciting times in scientific discovery come from observations that challenge what we thought we knew. This perspective on the known and unknown is a critical component of graduate education.
Dealing with this sort of ambiguity in our career paths, on the other hand, is something few graduate students are taught to cope with. A very difficult realization for many is that not every student will be able to run their own lab, or that not every student will want to. In addition to dealing with scientific uncertainty, learning to embrace the unknown in our careers is necessary for success in science. Without openly exploring the unknown, we can never move closer to the truth. For this reason, I’ve tried to approach my own career uncertainty the same way I approach it in the lab: research and empirical testing.
The antidote to both scientific and career uncertainty is to accumulate more information. As with entering a new field, the first step in confronting career ambiguity is background research. Without knowing the breadth of possibilities, it is impossible to accurately ask the appropriate questions. The URBEST website is an excellent resource for this, listing and describing a number of careers in science that I never knew existed. I’ve also found it very useful to explore the career paths taken by others that have previously graduated from my lab or program. I learned a great deal by listening to the career stories and panels that are hosted on campus.
Once you’re more aware of the various career opportunities available, you can start to find out what those jobs are like to the people doing them. When I have the opportunity to speak with people in later stages of their careers, I like to ask questions such as “what do you like/dislike about what you do?” and “what decisions led you to that path?” This gives me the opportunity to understand what others value about their careers and how those values fit with my own.
Using these strategies, I’ve acquired a much more complete idea of the career possibilities available to me. I also began to appreciate the day-to-day realities of working in those fields and what things to consider when making my own career choices. The last and perhaps most crucial step in this process is, of course, experimentation. Once you’ve identified careers that might appeal to you, the best thing you can do is to try them on. Finding internships, freelance work, and volunteer opportunities will allow you to really spend time immersed in the work. The most important thing at this stage is to listen to yourself and be honest. Really, the goal of all of this has been to understand what YOU value and are passionate about. When you know that and can identify a career that best aligns, you’ll be well positioned to succeed in science, bench research or not.
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