What Should I Do with My Life: Steps to Identify Career Paths, Positions Yourself for Success and Enjoy the Ride

There is quite a bit of information, ideas and guidance out there concerning what you should do with your life: go to this grad school, take that fellowship, pursue this and only this path if you want to be a scientist. You can listen to all of that counseling, digest it, distill it, and see where and you can apply it to your life personally.

But the most important thing you should realize as you get started in your career planning is that it is your life, you and only you should decide when, where, how and what to do. You are in charge. You have the power and the choices you make are up to you. Although, there will always be other factors that influence your decision-making, such as your family’s needs and economic forces, you still have to remember that at the end of the day, you are still the only person in the driver’s seat deciding your fate.

So what follows is not an essay about what I should do with your life. It is a set of guidelines to assist you in identifying how to choose the path you want and how to move yourself toward your own goals.

Let’s begin by looking at the career planning process not as an insurmountable task but rather as a problem that you need to solve. This can help you considerably, because as someone who is science-educated, you already have excellent problem-solving skills! You naturally have the ability to identify problems, break them into even smaller problems, and tackle them one by one.

You also have to be patient. Your dream jobs and careers are possible and probable to pursue. They might not exist yet- you might have to create them yourself. You might not necessarily know what those jobs or career paths are yet or how to access them. And that’s what this process is about. But please be tolerant of the time it might take to achieve professional bliss. I know you are excited and raring to go, and that energy is very important. Yet, what you need to consider is that you don’t want to be frenetic and make the wrong decision because you were too impatient to wait for the brass ring.

Finally, remember that every step you take, every experience you have, and every person you engage, is one step closer to the career that you truly desire.

So here’s your recipe for success in figuring out what you should do with your life:

  • Explore
  • Taste
  • Experiment
  • Plan
  • Do

Step 1: Explore

Look around - what tasks do you enjoy doing right now? What skills do you enjoy using? What instruments and toys do you enjoy playing with? It is incredibly valuable to glance around you and take a snapshot of what you are doing at this moment that you like to do and then to see what you can do to do more of it.

I think back to when I was an undergraduate in mathematics at the University of Arizona. I always enjoyed being active in student clubs. By the time I was senior, I was President of the Society of Physics Students. I loved being in this leadership role. I organized events, negotiated and arranged for industry sponsorship, developed programs that attracted members, and increased our cash flow that gave other students the chance to do outreach and fundraising. I also did media relations. So here I was doing all of these tasks, having a blast, and I didn’t realize that these activities are all part of the field of science communications. I was writing my own career, preparing myself for the profession of science communications right in front of my eyes, and I didn’t even recognize it. If I had, I might have taken strategic action to move myself into this career more quickly, such as reaching out to other science communications pros to ask about their career paths, researching job opportunities and entry points, or looking into classes I could take to further advance my skills in this arena.

Make an effort to be self-aware and focus on what brings you pleasure today, because this will give you a significant advantage in your career planning tomorrow.

Once you have identified what tasks or projects you like to do (or skills you like to use), do what you can to explore pursuing them. What can you do now to engage in these activities more often, in different ways, and in different ecosystems with different teams? Our goal is to do these tasks on a higher level, with more responsibility, in a higher stake and more challenging environment.

We are also endeavoring to determine whether this fun can be duplicated in another setting/time/place, and who can give me information about how this fun can be transitioned into a career/job.

Our objective of exploration is launched in the ecosystem you are currently in, so look for opportunities in your current institution to do more of what you already like. If you have already graduated or are between jobs – no problem! Leverage your geography- see what opportunities you can pursue locally. For example, if you realize that you greatly enjoy planning events, perhaps you can volunteer with a local non-profit to assist them in organizing a gala. Or if you like writing, approach your local newspaper about penning an article or even a column about scientific research.

Step 2: Taste

This phase is closely aligned and even intertwines with Step 1. Here we are looking to expand our knowledge of areas, subjects, and fields which we might consider making part of our career. One of our aims here is to diversify the work, and taste or try out different methods of being a professional doing the tasks you enjoy.

This is where you can kick your networking into high gear and start having informational interviews with different professionals. You should also seek opportunities to demonstrate your brand (your promise of value) to the community, through appropriate self-promotion activities such as giving talks, writing op-eds, or applying for awards. Take on more projects to see what it is like to actually pursue a career in this subject.

Imagine yourself at a buffet. There is a multitude of options from which to choose. So feel free and try and taste as many as you want. This is your chance. And it won’t add any calories, so indulge away!

Step 3: Experiment

Think of this step as a rehearsal for you. You are going to experiment with the different ways in which you can design a fulfilling career path. This step in particular is something you can achieve because you definitely know how to design and execute experiments. Aim to answer the following questions relating to the tasks you have explored and tasted:

 

  • What can you try now?
  • Are there opportunities you can apply for?
  • Are there local leadership programs you can join?
  • Are there projects you can ask to join?
  • Do you see a job you like that is advertised? Can you apply for it now?

Since this is a rehearsal for your life, don’t be afraid to take a chance and pursue a short term project, such as an internship, or a longer term position like a volunteer job.

Moreover, as you experiment, you can also be on the lookout for unique ways to monetize your passion and turn it into a job. This is where people will actually pay you for your contributions. Doing this by experiment is critical because you have to know that you can make a living if you plan to pursue this as a career. For example, let’s say you were interested in a career in science writing. Before you actually apply for jobs at magazines, you’ll need to experiment- come up with ideas, find sources, interview those sources, write some pieces, edit them, have them read by experts, edit them again, and then submit them to publications. The more you do this, the better you get as a writer. But more importantly, the more you do this, the better you get at being a professional writer.

Step 4: Plan

So now you know what you like to do, you know where you can do it, and you know you will be able to be paid to do it. So now we put into place a number of plans to get you into this profession. You will need several plans because you have to allow for contingencies in case Plan A doesn’t succeed, in the way you envisioned it.

I generally like to have three plans going at any given time. Plan A is my dream job plan. This is what I imagine myself doing for the rest of my life (or until I get bored and choose to do something else!). Pursue this plan with passion, and great attention to detail. Identify the what, why, how, when, where and who of the profession – how you can get the job, what you have to do to prepare – now, tomorrow, next month, in one year – and so on. You will give this plan the majority of your time and energy, you also will be realistic and make additional plans in case Plan A doesn’t work out for whatever reason.

Each plan has three specific components:

  • Networking sub-plan: Determine who the gatekeepers and information holders are in the profession and how you can access them. You will develop a strategy as to whom you will contact, and what you’ll discuss to craft a mutually beneficial partnership in which you are both providing value. This is the essence of networking, which I have discussed in other columns.
  • Research sub-plan: Find out the different aspects of the jobs and how positions are advertised, accessed, and assessed.
  • Entry sub-plan: Akin to a detailed self-promotion strategy, in which you showcase yourself to the decision makers so they get to know who you are and how you would be an asset to their organizations and teams. The goal here is to facilitate your entry into the profession.

Note that each plan should include a careful analysis of any risks associated with pursuing this career path, or the risks associated with you not getting the job you want at any given time. In other words, if you don’t achieve your goal by X date, what will you do instead?

Step 5: Do

Just do it!

It’s time to dive in. But don’t fear, because you are ready. You have put plans in place, researched the avenues for employment, connected and networked with the decision-makers and thought leaders, and calculated the consequences and risks. Here is your final opportunity to take note of what you like and don’t like. Continue networking, developing new skills, promoting yourself, and identifying opportunities for success and employment. Also leverage opportunities that exist in time now and space near you, such as joining regional organizations or having a coffee appointment with a visitor to your department.

Remember that careers are not always linear and they are not set in stone. They evolve over time. You are never locked in to one career. The more you move up the ladder and gain insight into your profession, the more you will gain insight into yourself. So expect to change jobs and careers in your life and know this is ok. The future is not yet determined. But you can make it easier on yourself from the start if you do what brings you joy and look for ways to turn that into a career, rather than the opposite approach in which you pick a career and hope to make it a happy one.

Career planning takes time, energy and spirit. It takes guts and boldness. It takes courage to be articulate to yourself (and possibly others around you) that you love to do X or want to do Y with your life. Most people are afraid to make any decision and they therefore let life make the decisions for them, realize they are unhappy, and wonder how this came to be. But if you look at career planning like a problem you need to solve and can solve, follow the process laid out here, you can find and land or even create your dream career. This is absolutely possible because this is in your power.

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