Vocational Discernment

One of my main struggles in choosing not to do a postdoc right away is that I didn’t really know what all the alternative [this word is actually ridiculous since maximum 25% of biomedical grad students will end up as academic researchers with their own labs, the “traditional” path] career options are.  If you’re like me, you’ve basically had no mentorship/training/exposure to career options/fields that are out there, except what you’ve done on your own.  Why (starting in high school or even middle school) don’t we have some combination of personality testing/encouraged soul-searching/education about/exposure to the kinds of things that people are passionate about and the kinds of jobs that people do across sectors?

I went to college (because that’s seemingly what someone who can afford it does in the U.S.) knowing that I enjoyed biology and thinking that I would do an MD/PhD program post-college, and while I obviously left the MD part behind, I also had no idea 1) what grad school would actually be like and 2) what to do if I didn’t go to grad school.  So I went to grad school, and as you know if you’ve read any of this blog, it hasn’t exactly been a joy ride.  All along, I told myself that I wanted to teach college, which was why I stuck with grad school for so long.  And I did lots of preparation for teaching through my university’s teaching center and by TAing a WHOLE BUNCH. When I realized recently that I don’t want to play the tenure game or be away from my future kids for more that 40 hours a week at the absolute maximum, I felt totally lost again!

Why do we have to seek information about careers out ourselves in grad school?  Presumably, my education has been VERY expensive to the university and the government [taxpayers], so why wouldn’t they want me to find a job that fills me up, where I can use my education rather than “waste” it by leaving science all together?  Why wouldn’t they make it easier for me to learn how to pursue non-traditional careers from which I could still contribute scientifically/intellectually while mired in the long hours of grad school?  Why aren’t there more internships all along?  Why aren’t we encouraged to find/pursue our passions FROM THE BEGINNING?!

There’s an interesting concept floating around the graduate science education world called an IDP or individual development plan.  According to myipd.sciencecareers.org, “an … IDP helps you explore career possibilities and set goals to follow the career path that fits you best.”  I learned from this editorial in Science that the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology recommended in 2002 (10 effing years ago!) that all postdocs put together an IDP as part of their training.  Maybe soon as IDPs become more commonplace, graduate students will be required to make an IDP as part of their curriculum.  In fact the editorial itself recommends IDPs for grad students, “embedded in larger career-development efforts.”  What happened in my current department when the above editorial came out, though, was that our administrator emailed the text of the editorial to us.  No introductory sentence saying that the department chair wanted us to read it, that the IDP concept might be a good one to explore with our mentors, or acknowledgement of what’s said in the piece, that many of us will most likely pursue career paths outside of academia, just the text alone!  And it hasn’t been mentioned since, not in any other departmental communications nor by my mentor.

Granted, I’m playing a bit of a martyr here.  What’s to stop me from bringing up an IDP with my PI, perhaps making one myself and showing it to him and soliciting his support?  Why do I need someone to do this for me?  I suppose that really I don’t, and the vast majority of the career planning that I’ve done up to this point, I’ve done alone.  What I feel like gets ignored in virtually ALL the career advice I’ve come across, however, is the difficulty in discerning a career path, when your mentors neither know nor care what your options are.  As far as my PI is concerned, my career options are research or teaching, both of which are the occupations that make him look good (grants outcomes) and require a postdoc.  I’ve discussed my somewhat new change of direction away from a teaching position with my boss and he told me two memorable things 1) “You were born to teach” and 2) “Well you have to do a postdoc anyway.”  Additionally, he discouraged me from one potential vocation that I mentioned because he says it’s too unstable.  How different it would be to create an IDP and take it to my boss and be fully heard, maybe even given some constructive criticism?

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