As the title spells out, that’s exactly what every acquaintance, loved one, and colleague (who wished they could ship me off in a sealed box to a remote lab) did ask at every opportunity towards the end of my Ph.D. studies—and more often than not after I had passed my defense! I did have a plan, as I usually do, and knew what I wanted to do and to where I was heading. The naïveté I had then: I actually thought that the scientific community would surely welcome the enthusiastic, perseverant, young scientist bubbling with new ideas! Let me tell you, I was wrong. That isn’t how careers start for many scientists! However, in the end it all turned out in my favor, and having condensed months of trying several routes to kick-start my own career in science, I’m here now to share some major lessons and tips to help you figure out what you want to do after getting your Ph.D.
Take Time Off…Soul Search!
Whoever tells you that there shouldn’t be a gap between your Ph.D. and first postdoc or staff scientist position has NEVER left their primary institution. Don’t rush into the first postdoc that is offered to you, unless you know it is the position! The paycheck may be tempting, but in the long run, the stress of the job and the want for a better job can cause you to burn out. To make ends meet, you may want to count on family support during this period or get a job that just pays the bills while giving you the time to think. I had months of soul-searching time, when none of my initial plans and attempts materialized. However, it all was a tremendous blessing in disguise, as it helped me to find out what I really did want out of a career in science, not what everyone in the field expected from me! It has been one of the best times of my life!
During a career break, time off, or soul-searching period, you’ll actually get the time to reflect on your life and future goals, find out what can make you happy, and—for a short period—get to live in the present moment! Between education and career goals, many scientists tend to rush from one position to another, achieving one goal and then setting the next. While you’re taking a break from climbing the hierarchical ladder, connect with what matters to you and enjoy the present moment!
“Don’t be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your own myth.” – Rumi
Expand Your Horizons
Take time to walk by the lake, read a book, or bask in the sun! Connect and re-connect with your friends and family. Talk to those who have been through different career paths. There isn’t any rulebook to what the perfect position is or what can make you happy—it is for you to discover! Join a book club, volunteer at a charity, or even start blogging. The experiences you have gained through your Ph.D. will immensely help you, no matter what avenue you decide to embark on. Disconnecting yourself from your Ph.D. research might even be a good thing; something that you have lived with for a few years can rest in peace on your bookshelf, as you get the time to enjoy daily life.
Find a Mentor
During your Ph.D. years, you have an assigned project supervisor, whom—if you are fortunate—will act as a career mentor. Yet, someone external, with enough experience to give sound and unbiased advice, can also help you to find the right career path. This individual needs to have a few key attributes, for example someone who has the ability to deliver an honest opinion on the careers you are considering; someone who is well-connected within their own field and can initiate further contacts from whom you can seek advice; and most importantly, someone who would listen to what you find fascinating, where you find encouragement, and what your ambitions are, as it is up to you to select your path. Your mentor is there to guide you along your path, not to tailor it for you. One good thing about a career in science is that “one size” doesn’t have to fit all!
Finally, be intuitive, and don’t ignore your gut feeling! If you’ve been offered a position, go and see your next place of work, make sure your personality is a fit with your future colleagues, and check and crosscheck the ethos of your coworkers! A STEM career is demanding, regardless of the field and sector you choose; hence, it should be inspiring and motivational for you to take those extra steps to make it a success!
Having a fulfilling and successful career isn’t something that can be achieved by just signing a contract—you must achieve your goals and feed your soul to succeed!
Sadaf Atarod is a Postdoctoral Associate at the Oikonomou Lab, in the Center for Regenerative Medicine (CReM), Boston University. She is enjoying her current research, investigating the biomechanical determinants of lung cell fate in pluripotent stem cells. Her research involves using stem cell biology for tissue engineering applications. Above all, she is delighted to have kick-started her career in science as a postdoc at the CReM where she is supported by experts in the field of induced pluripotent stem cells, who are true advocates of the open science movement with a strong mission in “advancing science to heal the world.”