If Only Choosing a Career Path Was This Easy


If Only Choosing a Career Path Was This Easy

a tape roll in different colors with different suggestions industry, teacher, grad/med school, sci-comm, editor, analyst
a tape roll in different colors with different suggestions industry, teacher, grad/med school, sci-comm, editor, analyst

—from the PI's desk

Not knowing exactly what you want to do with your life doesn't mean that you're doomed to fail in your career path.

If you're struggling to answer questions such as, "Should I choose medical school? Graduate School? Pursue an MD-PhD?" or "What I can use my undergrad degree to do if I don't want pursue another degree?" or "What if I'm already set on a path is it too late to change my mind?," know that you're not the only one.

Rest assured that for many who are undecided finding the right career path is a process that takes more effort and time than expected. And although we hope that you chose your major in part because you enjoy the subject matter and want to use that information in your career in some way, sometimes the broad scope of potential paths are overwhelming. For example, you might decide to use your undergrad STEMM degree as the foundation for additional degrees—such as an MD, MSC (master's of science degree), or PHD. Or you might decide on a career where your BS degree is all that is necessary to be successful.

Within this framework you might choose to pursue a career that involves conducting research but you might be surprised to learn that there are numerous options to consider. Some of your career options will be influenced by the type of STEMM degree you earn (a degree in microbiology might prepare you for different opportunities than a degree in civil engineering or information science). And where you might work can also vary such as in an industry, a non-profit, or an academic environment.

Granted, some people are lucky to find a guiding purpose early in life, but for most of us figuring out what career path to pursue requires a combination of effort and self-awareness. And it might not be a quick process. (You might even start on one path and change your mind and switch to another.) Add in that there isn't a single strategy that will work for everyone and it's easy to see how frustration can make it difficult to move in any direction.

So, take control of what you can. Invest fully in your undergrad research experience and every activity you choose. Show up on time and ready to contribute. In the lab, learn all the technical skills you can and make a point of learning why your research project is important. When you volunteer in clubs or take on leadership positions, strive to learn everything that anyone is willing to teach you. Do your best to avoid overcommitment in college (and prioritize rebalancing your life if it does happen). And always consider what you like about each activity and class (and if you have a job what you like or dislike about it) and use these moments of self-reflection to help guide you. Your undergrad research experience, degree, and work history can all contribute to building foundational and transferable skill sets!

Next, ask for opinions from your current college mentoring network. Start with those you interact with the most such as your research mentor, labmates, professors, and program directors from volunteer, shadowing, and internship experiences. Specifically ask, "Why did you choose to be a doctor, professor, research scientist, or choose another pursuit?" and "What did you do along the way that was crucial to your success?" and, most importantly, ask, "What do you wish you would have known before choosing that path?" And if you're not finding someone in your immediate bubble with the answers you seek, @ us on Twitter @YouInTheLab with "Hey, I'm interested in a career in X but I'm not sure about it. Can anyone answer some questions for me? #UndergradInTheLab" and we'll retweet it to our followers. (If you'd rather send us a DM, that's cool, too.)

The purpose of asking these questions isn't to evaluate their choices--after all their life is not your life. It's also not to make an immediate decision on what career to rule out or pursue (although that could happen). Your goals with these conversations is simple: gather data from many people in various careers (even those different from what you're currently considering), and to learn about the personal and professional development opportunities they needed to get there. Their responses might be positive or negative, but they will be enlightening.

Remember, figuring out your career path is a process that requires you to participate--it's unlikely that the answer will simply come to you. Ask questions. Evaluate the answers based on your own goals, desires, and dreams. Then ask more questions.

And while you work to figure out the right choice for you, know that there probably won't be a single, correct path. Most likely, you'll uncover several possibilities that have a few things in common with each other. Pay attention to those commonalities--they will give you the direction you need.