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URMC / Education / Graduate Education / URBest Blog / June 2019 / Why Your Career Path is a lot like a Game of Plinko

Why Your Career Path is a lot like a Game of Plinko

By Ashley Brady, Ph.D., Assistant Dean of Biomedical Career Engagement and Strategic Partnerships, BRET Office of Career Development, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine

I’ve been in graduate career development now for five years and should have all the answers to interview questions in my back pocket, but one question still gives me pause. 

“Where do you see yourself in five years?”

Just like you, I can Google all the right and wrong ways to answer this question, but I feel like it implies we should all have everything figured out at the very start, and this just isn’t how things actually work for the majority of people. Rather, I think career paths look a lot more like a game of Plinko. You take into account your passions and skills (pick a slot), set your sights on a particular target, and then let go of the disc. 

I chose to pursue a PhD in pharmacology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN, because I wanted to discover new therapeutics. My dissertation focused on G-protein coupled receptors (GPCRs), which are the largest family of proteins targeted by current therapeutic drugs on the market.  I received a Chateaubriand Fellowship from the French Embassy to pursue postdoctoral training in France for one year, where I continued research on GPCRs and fulfilled a life-long dream of living in France. I returned to Nashville the following year when my visa expired. My intention was to look for industry positions, but a new faculty member had joined the pharmacology department at Vanderbilt while I was in France and was building one of the first academic drug discovery centers in the nation, the Vanderbilt Center for Neuroscience Drug Discovery (VCNDD). The VCNDD was setting up industry collaborations to discover therapies for Alzheimer’s, Schizophrenia and Parkinson’s Diseases through targeting GPCRs. I saw this as an opportunity to gain exposure to industry from an academic standpoint, and to be involved in an entirely new model for drug discovery.  I was elated when I was invited to do a postdoc with this group, and ultimately worked with this team for four years. 

While I loved being at the bench and participating in the early discovery process, by the end of my postdoc I was no longer sure that working in industry was where I wanted to go. I recognized that I drew significant satisfaction from supporting others, and I have always excelled in both written and oral communication. As such, I was drawn to pursue a rather unconventional pathway as Associate Director for Development in Foundation Relations at Vanderbilt University. This was a new role created to support Vanderbilt faculty in identifying funding opportunities, developing proposals, and submitting grants to private scientific foundations. It was a unique opportunity to bring together my scientific expertise, communication skills, and desire to support others as a liaison between Vanderbilt’s scientists and the foundations that might fund their research initiatives.

After five years in Foundation Relations, where I gained insight and acumen into relationship building, project management and forming strategic partnerships, I had the opportunity to transition to the BRET Office of Career Development as Director of Career Engagement and Strategic Partnerships, where I remain today. In this role, I built upon my scientific training and Foundation Relations experience to create new career development and professionalism initiatives for Vanderbilt’s biomedical PhD students and postdoctoral fellows. In particular, I have leveraged my relationship-building expertise to launch multiple programs within our office, such as the ASPIRE Internship program, ASPIRE on the Road site visits, and a short course on Networking and Communication. I love the creative freedom I have in this role to explore new ideas and create programming to support our graduate students and postdocs and I am proud to be helping the next generation of our biomedical workforce discover where they can make the most significant contributions to the biomedical research enterprise.

Even at this point, I still would have no idea what to tell someone if they asked, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” Like most people, when I look back at my career trajectory, it makes sense in hindsight. I can see how the skills I have built have prepared me for each step of my career, but I won’t claim to have had this all worked out in my master plan. In fact, what amazes me most is that none of the positions I’ve had even existed before I took them! In other words, these Plinko targets weren’t even on the board when I started my post-PhD career. As a postdoc, I joined a new research program and one of the first academic drug discovery centers in the nation. In the Development and Alumni Relations office, I was hired by the only other PhD scientist on staff, and one of few PhDs nationally who are employed in this role.  My current position was created following the NIH investment in BEST Programs in 2012. When I was in my PhD program, a career development office supporting PhD trainees did not even exist, so I could not have imagined that today there would be offices across the nation doing this important work.

My advice to early career scientists is that you don’t have to know exactly what you want to do for the rest of your life. In fact, the position you move into next may not even exist right now, and may end up being tailor-made for you and your skill set. Just do your best work, remain open to opportunities, pay attention and talk to people. As you grow and are promoted or take on new roles, you will naturally move toward using the skills you enjoy, while moving away from aspects of jobs you don’t like- sometimes bouncing around a bit like a Plinko disc. You will learn and expand your opportunities with each new role or experience.

Ultimately, your career path may look a lot like a Plinko Board — you may start off aiming for one end point and find yourself in a completely different place. The key is to find a position that excites you where you will be valued for your depth of scientific knowledge, learn new skills, and meet good people; the rest will fall into place.

Tracey Baas | 5/31/2019

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