LettersNextGen Voices: Ask a Peer Mentor

Seeking career clarity

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Science  03 Apr 2020:
Vol. 368, Issue 6486, pp. 26-28
DOI: 10.1126/science.abb6859

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We asked young scientists to serve as peer mentors for “Seeking Career Clarity,” the author of the question below. By asking reflective questions, sharing relevant personal experiences, and offering advice, these scientists provide support and perspective. Follow NextGen Voices on Twitter with hashtag #NextGenSci. Read previous NextGen Voices survey results at https://science.sciencemag.org/collection/nextgen-voices. —Jennifer Sills

Dear NextGen VOICES peer mentors,

I am the first of my family to go to graduate school, and I'm about to defend my Ph.D. It has been a really tough few years, but I've finally completed all the requirements in my program. I published two papers and was a coauthor on several more. I was even given an “outstanding student” grant to attend a conference this year! Even so, this all feels quite average for a Ph.D. student, and I feel like I can attribute most of my achievements to luck. The support of my peers and adviser also helped me a lot. As I apply for jobs, I can often think of a colleague who seems more qualified for the position than I am. I fail to meet many of the requirements listed for jobs outside of academia, but the jobs I do qualify for seem like they're all for people with less education than I have. I want a job commensurate with my experience, but I don't want to oversell myself in applications or interviews. How can I realistically assess my own potential and avoid wasting time applying to jobs I could never get?


Seeking Career Clarity

Prioritize, then go for it!

How can you win the lottery (i.e., get the job) if you haven't even bought a ticket (applied)? I was also the first in my family to go to college, let alone pursue a Ph.D. When my Ph.D. adviser sent me a postdoc ad for a position at one of the best universities in the United States, I asked her if such positions are worth applying to given that I didn't think I would be selected. She told me, “I think you can! I wouldn't have sent you the ad if I thought you couldn't do it.” I thought, if someone believes in me so much, the least I can do is give it a shot! I ended up getting interviews for the first two applications I submitted and receiving offers for both positions. Make sure to set priorities; there are several factors to consider, including field of work, type of position, salary, location, and benefits. Once you have established your goals, start testing the waters. Be motivated, positive, and determined, and treat failures as opportunities for growth.

Chloe Antoniou

Department of Basic and Clinical Sciences, University of Nicosia Medical School, Nicosia, Cyprus. Email: antoniou.c{at}unic.ac.cy

Why are you worried that others are more qualified when you don't even know if they have applied for the job? List the types of jobs you want (such as academia, industry, and government), the geographic areas where you'd like to go, and your skills. Apply for any jobs that fit at least two of those. No applicant is perfect. Apply for jobs you want, and don't worry about finding a “perfect” job. You might be surprised at where you find yourself in 5 years.

Katie Burnette

Department of Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology, University of California, Riverside, Riverside, CA 92521, USA. Email: Katiec{at}ucr.edu

What are the parts about science and research that you most enjoy? For example, you might like troubleshooting tricky assays or explaining science to junior researchers. The answer to this question can help guide your career search. Ph.D. training has been described as intellectual hazing, and it can take some time to accept that you are our future's best hope. I've enjoyed the gradual realization that I am on the front lines of solving the world's most difficult and pressing questions.

Aaron Christensen-Quick

Inovio Pharmaceuticals, San Diego, CA 92121, USA. Email: AaronCQ85{at}gmail.com

Make connections

Have you considered using your network to find direct points of contact in the companies you apply to? Once you have a personal connection, you can point out that completing your Ph.D. highlights your research, analytical, organizational, and time management skills, which you can apply to any job. Demonstrating to potential employers that you are keen to learn and invest time into personal development (such as online courses) will show that you can soon fulfill their requirements and are a good investment. If you find a position that you are interested in and enthusiastic about, apply for it, even if you don't fulfill all the requirements.

Monika Lewinska

Biotech Research and Innovation Centre, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, 2200, Denmark. Twitter: @LewinskaMonika

Have you considered the conference you will attend this year as a career opportunity? I got my job after I did a presentation at a conference. If you are giving an oral presentation at the conference, prepare it and practice it at journal club. Highlight your scientific findings and emphasize your future research interests. If you participate in a poster session, describe your study logically and clearly and actively discuss it with others. Confidently presenting your work and making your career aspirations clear will increase the likelihood of a potential employer taking interest in you.

Yongsheng Ji

Department of Human Parasitology, Anhui Medical University, Hefei, Anhui, 230032, China. Email: jiyongshengkey{at}hotmail.com

Can you articulate specific differences between generic impostor syndrome and your assessment of your skills versus the job requirements? If yes, you may have identified an area to pursue some growth and development. If not, it may be time to give yourself a little more credit and tune out the inner naysayer. Before getting job offers, I constantly wondered whether I could make it into industry. Even after accepting an offer, I noticed how much better qualified my incoming cohort of colleagues seemed to be. Impostor syndrome never goes away, but I found that soliciting feedback helps to allay my fears and identify areas for growth. Seek out people who are already on the path(s) you wish to take, try to understand their journey, and solicit their feedback on your current skill set and experiences to identify areas you should work on to prepare for your own.

Muhammad M. Khalifa

Pharmaceutical Sciences Division, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI 53703, USA. Email: mkhalifa503{at}gmail.com

Scientifically analyze self-doubt

When considering colleagues who seem better qualified for a position, ask yourself: “But did they apply for it?” No, you did. The competition is steep enough; do not add imaginary competition in your head. The attribution of achievements to luck is common in academia. Indeed, luck is part of life. If your luck corresponds only to positive achievements, it deviates from the gaussian distribution of randomness. Ask yourself how to explain that. You will find that your argument for luck does not stand statistical scrutiny. Meanwhile, keep in mind that a single universal CV will not be appropriate for all positions. Write a different application for each job, highlighting only what is relevant. Keep applying for positions that you find interesting, and think of an interview as a two-way process. You want to see what they provide as much as they want to see what you can do.

Athanasia Nikolaou

Department of Physics, Sapienza University of Rome, Rome, 185, Italy. Email: athanasia.nikolaou{at}uniroma1.it

You are asking many questions, but most of them seem to be about external factors. What are your interests? What is it that you would really like to do? Prioritize your career interests based on your passion, resources, and constraints such as time, training required to fill in the skill gaps, geography, and finances. If you are able to argue against yourself, you should also be able to argue for yourself. As a scientist, consider which argument is more evidence-based. Since you seem to have a good support network of advisers and peers, it is also worth relying on their assessment of you (keeping in mind that you don't want to become overly dependent on others' opinions and validation). Once you have made your personal profile, align it to the job market. Identify the skill gaps and actively seek the resources and networks to fill them in. Balance your internal profile by considering your past achievements and also what you strive to do and learn in the future.

Pragya Srivastava

Department of Bioengineering, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA. Twitter: @pragya_srivas

Remember that you are unique

Congratulations on defending your Ph.D.! What a huge accomplishment! To help me give you better advice, what types of work or experiences did you enjoy during graduate school and what aspects did you not like? Are there any types of work or fields that you tangentially experienced but would like to explore more? Trust that you know yourself better than anyone. No job is a life sentence. If you don't like it, find another one. Regarding the feeling that you're just an average Ph.D., remember that getting a Ph.D. is very difficult and equivalent to 4 to 5 years of work experience plus project management and possibly supervisory experience. Your skeptical mind-set is beneficial for experiment planning and data analysis but not for assessing your own self-worth. Write out all of your accomplishments, lab responsibilities, and skills, no matter how obscure or common. You are the only person with that specific set of work experience in the whole world! Sell that!

Brynn Anne Hollingsworth

American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology Policy Fellow, Rockville, MD 20850, USA. Email: bahsynchro{at}gmail.com

Have you thought about where you were at the start of your Ph.D. and what you have achieved now? I have found that comparing myself to others leads to imposter syndrome. Others tend to share their successes while being less open about failures. It might help to make a list with your strengths and achievements and use it to build your application for the job you desire. A Ph.D. program gives you many marketable skills that are not obvious, such as project management and managerial skills.

Norman van Rhijn

Manchester Fungal Infection Group, University of Manchester, Manchester, Lancashire, M13 9XX, UK. Twitter: @NormanRhijn

Have you tried focusing on the processes that led to your achievements? By doing such an exercise, you may discover what you enjoy most about science. Next, look for positions where you will experience challenges that force you to refine the processes you enjoy. This way, you will keep doing what you love and loving what you do.

Saumya Saurabh

Department of Developmental Biology, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305, USA. Twitter: @saumya_s

Have you considered the possibility that you are not overselling but underselling yourself? I have encountered many situations where I thought I was not qualified for a position or workshop, but when I attended, I realized that I could fit right in. I suggest that you apply for the positions that you feel you are not qualified for, and you will be surprised by how many times you will hear back and be invited for interviews. Eventually, you will realize that your experience and knowledge are unique, and there will be places where you are the perfect fit and much more qualified than any other candidate. Remember that the safest way not to get a job is not to apply for it.

Nikos Konstantinides

Department of Biology, New York University, New York, NY 10003, USA. Twitter: @nkonst4

Value your own hard work

Have you considered why you think your scholarly achievements have been attributed to luck rather than your dedication, hard work, and good support system? I am a first-generation student, and despite recognition for my achievements, I still sometimes feel imposter syndrome creeping up, forcing me to question myself. However, my advice to you is: Just go for it! If you find your dream job and are lacking in some of the necessary skills or content areas, be honest with the employer. Discuss both your strengths and weaknesses and how you would be willing to improve those weaknesses if offered the position. For example, I am not an expert in some of the statistical analyses I will be conducting during my postdoc research, but I emphasized in my interview and application materials how I would be willing to participate in professional development opportunities to gain the relevant skills. Be confident that your Ph.D. is proof of your perseverance, knowledge, and skills.

Ashley Barbara Heim

School of Biological Sciences, University of Northern Colorado, Greeley, CO 80631, USA. Email: ashley.heim{at}unco.edu

Why do you attribute most of your achievements to luck rather than work ethic and talent? My first semester of graduate school was punctuated with feelings of being an impostor. I felt as though sheer luck had been the only thing that brought me as far as I had come, and I feared that others too would see me as an impostor. However, I soon discovered that I was not alone, and that I had overexaggerated the accomplishments of my peers while undervaluing my own accomplishments and intellect. Work ethic and dedication are the primary determinants of success. You have boundless potential to have a successful career as long as you remember that hard work and diligence will propel you forward.

Eric Britt Moore

Department of Agronomy, Iowa State University, Ames, IA 50011, USA. Email: ebm256{at}iastate.edu

Why do you attribute your Ph.D. accomplishments to luck? There is a reason why Pasteur's quote, “Chance favors the prepared mind,” has stood the test of time. I have found it's helpful not to measure yourself against others. Instead, I measure myself by asking whether I am doing the best that I can and whether there are things I can improve. I would suggest applying first for the jobs you want the most. If new skills are needed, learn them. If you don't succeed in the first round, assess the feedback and broaden your search. What may look like a suboptimal job posting may in fact turn out to be your life passion, so steer the wheel, mind the rudder, and chart your own path that will bring you fulfillment and satisfaction.

Michael Strong

Center for Genes, Environment, and Health, National Jewish Health and University of Colorado, Anschutz Medical Campus, Denver, CO 80206, USA. Email: strongm{at}njhealth.org

Trust your support network

Have you asked your adviser and peers to list your strengths in researching, presenting your work, and as a person? I do not believe that finishing your Ph.D. has anything to do with luck. It is a result of hard work and perseverance. The only luck I could see in your case is a positive and supportive working environment. I would trust the people who believe in you to boost your self-esteem and not be afraid that you will oversell yourself.

Aleksandra Kosanic

Zukunftskolleg, University of Konstanz, Konstanz, D 78457, Germany. Twitter: @SashaKosanic

Have you asked your colleagues (peers and professors) about the role that serendipitous circumstances played in helping them to get their first postdoctoral job? While publications and awards are important for the screening process, your personal traits and organizational fit will determine whether you get the position. My doctoral colleagues who had more advanced technical skills and publications served as a poor benchmark for assessing whether I had a realistic opportunity of being considered for a job. The recent hires in the company or department were a better indicator: If they had eclectic backgrounds and achievements as well as skills similar to my own, then I would often be interviewed and shortlisted.

Samuel Nathan Kirshner

School of Information Systems and Technology Management, University of New South Wales, Sydney, NSW 2052, Australia. Email: s.kirshner{at}unsw.edu.au

Have you talked to your contemporaries to find out whether they are feeling the same way? Many of them are probably equally doubtful about the novelty of their achievements and may consider you to be more qualified for jobs, just as you perceive them to be more deserving. You can also contact your seniors who are already pursuing the career of your choice. They can help you reshape your profile according to the requirements of a specific job.

Antarip Halder

Solid State and Structural Chemistry Unit, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, Karnataka, 560012, India. Email: antarip.halder{at}gmail.com

Have you reached out to someone more experienced and well-respected in your field? Seek opinions and feedback from senior researchers you trust and respect, such as your Ph.D. supervisor or other faculty members. Ask them to evaluate your achievements and identify your potential with complete honesty and objectivity. The confirmations you receive will fuel your self-confidence.

Khor Waiho

Institute of Tropical Aquaculture and Fisheries, Universiti Malaysia Terengganu, Kuala Nerus, Terengganu, 21030, Malaysia. Email: waiho{at}umt.edu.my

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