If you’re reading this blog post on career exploration, you might be stuck with your own process… 🙂
Not to worry- you are not alone! There are a wide range of career opportunities for students and postdoctoral fellows coming out of BE, and it can be overwhelming. Words like “biotech”, “industry”, “consulting”, and “VC” get thrown around, but in each of these areas, there are many types of roles that mix the technical, narrative, and business aspects of science.
There is no one correct path to take. Everyone’s journey is one of self-reflection and exploration.
This post is meant to help you think about what opportunities exist, what questions you could ask to figure out what you want to do, and what resources are out there to support your career exploration and professional development. In putting together this post, we interviewed BE PhD graduates, both recent and older, who have gone on to jobs in consulting, industry, non-profits, and start-ups. We asked them about how they approached their career search process and what they’ve learned since graduating. This article is based on common themes from these interviews, as well as data gathered by the BE REFS and other resources.
Note that while some of the language used in this post is specific to graduate students, most of the ideas generalize to any part of your career. And remember, the first step you take after you graduate is likely not your forever job nor is it binding. Finding your career path is an iterative and continuous process.
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When starting to think about career exploration, spending some time on self-reflection can be a good first step. The main goal here is to reflect on your experiences and use them to guide your thinking about the types of work and the day-to-day aspects that suit you.
For all the recent graduates that we interviewed, self-reflection was key in guiding them towards the career path that they are on. Some were looking for more team-based work, others were interested in getting more into the business side of things, and others were looking for greater responsibility with a more tangible impact on translating technology into products. Below are questions and strategies to start your own self-reflection process:
Questions to guide your self-reflection on past experiences
- What have you liked or not from grad school (and other work experiences)?: A frequent spot to start is in thinking about what you like and dislike about the current work that you are doing and any previous work experiences that you may have had. What topics have you found interesting? And what about the day-to-day work do you like and dislike?
- What have you liked and not liked outside of your day-to-day research?: Also consider other activities and experiences that you have done to explore different interests. Have you taken a class in a different department, done an informational interview, had an internship, participated in a student group, etc.? What have you learned from those experiences about what you like and dislike?
- What management style and working environment do you work best in?: Team-based or more independent? Small team or large team? Hands on or hands off mentorship?
- What are things you haven’t enjoyed doing? It can be just as valuable to rule out things you don’t want to be doing as deciding on things that you do want to do. What about these things have you not liked?
Questions to guide your self-reflection for deciding on future experiences
One framework that can be used for structuring your self-reflection is the 5 P’s:
- People: What are you looking for in your co-workers? How do you like the people that you would be working with? What other communities do you like working with–students, doctors, children?
- Purpose: What are you looking for the big picture impact of your work to be? What are your values when it comes to the impact that you want to have with your work?
- Place: Where do you want to work (for both personal and professional reasons)?
- Particulars: What day-to-day job tasks do you enjoy doing? What skills do you want to learn? What do you put off for as long as you can?
- Pay: What are you looking for when it comes to pay and benefits at your job?
It is important to remember that self-reflection is an iterative process. While you may start your career exploration process with self-reflection, it is important to update your thinking and strategy as you learn more about jobs and yourself. As a result, all the questions mentioned above are good questions to return to.
Finally, self-reflection is a good starting point, however, you don’t want to get stuck here. It is important to go out and test your ideas of what interests you, because ultimately that ‘real world’ experience of talking with people and gaining experience with different job skills will give you valuable information about what you enjoy the most. In the following sections, we have included a number of different strategies for testing your career search ideas.
Another common piece of advice from the recent graduates we interviewed was to talk to as many people as possible. Attend informational panels, alumni dinners, and networking events. Start talking to people early on in your graduate career, even if they are just casual meetings. The closer you get to graduation, the more formal these meetings can become. Before you invite someone to a meeting, do some background reading and come up with a few well thought out questions to guide the conversation. That way, you go into the meeting with a purpose; having a 5 minute conversation with someone who doesn’t have any questions is not beneficial for anyone. After the meeting, sending a short email thanking the person for their time is a great way to follow up and is a memorable gesture.
The concept of networking can be intimidating to some, but you can start by simply sharing your career interests with people you already know – your PI, labmates, classmates, and undergraduate connections. Chances are, they will have experience in or know someone from the field to put you in contact with. Even if you don’t have a particular career path in mind, you can get the ball rolling by sharing some of the results of your self-reflection and asking people what they think you’d be good at.
Moving beyond the group of people that you may already know well, MIT and the Biological Engineering Department have several resources to help further expand your professional network. Dan Darling works in the MIT BE Career Development Office and Sean Clarke works as a biotech liaison for the Department of Biological Engineering – both would be excellent people to contact to get in touch with BE alumni on different career paths. MIT also has several other useful resources such as the Career Advising and Professional Development office and professional clubs such as the MIT Biotech Group.
One of the best ways to learn about potential career paths is to attend a career fair. These events remove the barrier of finding someone at a company to talk to and allow you to talk face-to-face to representatives from several companies in a short period of time. Even if you don’t think you would be interested in a particular company, it can be a good idea to talk to the representative to both practice your pitch and learn about the different career paths out there because you may surprise yourself and learn about an entire new field that you didn’t know existed.
Lastly, create an online presence. While having an online presence might not land you a job, the lack of one could slow your efforts. Update your LinkedIn profile with your current research experiences and interests, and connect with influencers in your field. Another way to stay up to date with current job postings is to set up an alert on Google Jobs for keywords that you are interested in. Finally, you can also follow and engage with companies and researchers of interest on Twitter.
As you start to identify personal priorities and learn about more jobs, thinking more about what the day-to-day of a job looks like can help you take more concrete steps. Below are a few general considerations for how your next job might be different from grad school. Use these as a guide to get a feel for what positions you would be happy with day-to-day.
- Benchwork time: Some jobs (research scientist, postdoc, start-ups) likely will still involve a lot of time in the lab, but others (consultant, data analyst, policy/non-profit, scientific journalist) probably will not. Even in many jobs that are heavily lab-based, your day-to-day work may be different. In industry, lab work may be on a tighter timeline, with more emphasis on collaborating to get results quickly and outsourcing when necessary rather than on scientific novelty.
- Management structure: Depending on the job, you might find yourself in a position where you have to make a lot of the decisions, in a hierarchy that sets the objectives for you, or in a flat organizational structure where you and all of your teammates contribute equally. These might all be different from the PI-student relationship you experienced in grad school.
- Project timescales: Some jobs (consulting, policy, journalism) operate on much faster time-scales than grad school, where you will quickly change from one project to another. Others (start-ups) might be long-term endeavors before you start to see progress.
- Interpersonal relationships: Managing collaborations and communicating effectively with co-workers will be essential no matter where you go, and likely will be a substantial part of your day-to-day in most jobs.
- Scientific scope: Your next job may or may not overlap with the exact subfield that you did your thesis in, and there may be various amounts of learning new material involved. Identifying which technical skills you can pick up on the job and which you should already have experience in will be important.
- Incentives and project directions: Understanding what drives a company or institution – whether financial interests, scientific novelty, or societal impact – will help you compare with what motivates you.
Once you’ve narrowed down the type of job you would be interested in, think about what activities the job entails and how you can start honing the skill sets that will make you best qualified for the job you want. A lot of the career search process is about finding a match between your skills and interests and your (future) employer’s needs and mission. The good news is that you probably already have a lot of very valuable skills! However, identifying particular skills and how to match them to a company can still be challenging.
Broadly speaking, the skill set you need for a job falls into two categories: technical skills (things like molecular cloning, omics, spectroscopy, tissue culture, etc.) and transferable skills (things like project management, following the literature, collaboration, scientific communication, etc.).
Your technical skill set will come largely from the research you do in grad school. When thinking about trying to build up a desired skill set, start from where you are at. For some technical skills, it may be possible to find ways to incorporate them into your current project(s), though this may be difficult to do while juggling all of the tasks in grad school. Seeking out particular extracurriculars or internships could also be a good way to add more technical skills.
If there are skills that you know you want to master but can’t find ways to at the moment, consider adding “opportunity to learn X” to the criteria for jobs you’re looking at. While some jobs may call for highly specific technical skill sets, many ask for broad experience in a field and include opportunities to learn more technical skills on the job. Regardless of your specific situation, practice learning new skills, as demonstrating that you can efficiently pick up new techniques is highly valuable.
Transferable skills are just as important as technical skills for determining your fit for a job. In both interviews with alumni and exit survey data compiled by the BE REFS, people often cited things like “project management”, “problem solving”, and “teamwork” as the most applicable skills from grad school for their new job. These are probably all skills that you demonstrate throughout your PhD, whether in troubleshooting a difficult experiment, working with collaborators, “managing up” in your relationship to your PI, or presenting your work in an organized way. Actively reflecting on your strengths and weaknesses throughout graduate school will help you further hone this skill set. Additionally, consider finding an internship, whether through the class offered by BE (20.930) or self-organized, for a chance to develop more tailored interpersonal and organizational skills for industry, consulting, venture capital, or wherever your interests lie.
Once you’ve gone through this process of self-reflection and outreach – congratulations! – you’re now ready to apply. As general advice for successful applications, get to know the organization and what’s important to them, and demonstrate how you would be a good match. At this point, you’ve put a lot of thought into why you want this job, so let that come across. Be curious and enthusiastic in your interactions and be prepared to explain why you’re interested in this job. If possible, use your network- but it’s also good to apply to jobs without connections who work there. Even if you aren’t entirely sure if a particular job is for you, consider going through the application process for the practice; it is a great way to learn more about a field/company and if you get an offer, it can be used as leverage against other offers.
For specific tips on how to clearly communicate why you’re a good fit in your application, see the CommKit for advice on cover letters, resumes, interviews, and more and other resources linked below.
Relevant CommKit Articles and Blog Posts
MIT Career Advising & Professional Development – pages on Self-Assessment and Exploring Careers
Active Career Exploration – 10 hours in one month to get high-yield career information
UCSF Career Exploration Road Map – Useful structure for career explorations
Designing Your Life – A book that can you help you think about using a design mindset for career exploration and life planning
myIDP – science-specific career exploration and planning
Amanda Chen, Alex Triassi, George Sun, Scott Olesen, Aaron Dy
Post published on 03/11/2022