Career decisions

The further one gets into their career, the more intentional they have to be about every decision. The number of factors that impact every step seems to go from a few to ‘too many to consider all at once.’

I didn’t struggle choosing my career path. Things seemed to just work themselves out. Of course there were decision points, but things felt right one way. After some thought, but not agonizing thought, it felt like I knew what to do. I didn’t necessarily make the best choices. Maybe if I had picked a different postdoc lab with a more supportive and directed environment I would currently be a confident, productive, late career postdoc on the search for a tenure-track position. But just as babyattachmode explained in her recent post, the academic track, while not easy or simple, at least has a predetermined path to follow. When you consider options outside of academia, it gets less clear.

Now, regardless of my past decisions, I am at a decision point but this time no direction feels natural. There is no automatic decision even after years of considering the options. The decision is not easy and I need to really think about what I want out of career, which goes hand in hand with what I want out of life.

I try to think about what I want, but not everything is compatible. A well-paid, interesting, world-enhancing career that leaves plenty of time for my family would be lovely, but not obviously attainable. So how do I choose?

I recently read an article that suggested that instead of thinking about what you want you should think about what negatives you’re willing to work through. I think that is really smart advice. Based just on what I want, there is no answer for my future. However, if I focus on what downsides I can handle (there are downsides to every job) I can balance the bad and the good in a way that suits my needs.

The number one thing I want is time. Time with my family, time so that we’re not always rushing, time so that I’m living my life purposefully instead of rushing from one thing to the next, time so that I’m not cranky with those I love. This is a positive thing that I want but it is also indicative of what I won’t put up with. I wouldn’t take a job that takes all of my time.

Having that constraint limits my options. I then have to decide what trade-offs I am willing to take to have that time.

I’m not willing to take a mindless job. I want some kind of challenge, some kind of thought or analysis or novelty. At the same time it doesn’t have to be the most novel or the most challenging. Would a job as a medical writer be interesting enough? Would a job in science outreach be enough of a challenge? Doctor PMS never imagined herself in sales but has found a fulfilling job in science sales. Is that something I should consider?

Am I willing to have a job that doesn’t have a positive impact on the world? I don’t think I’ve ever discovered anything that has truly changed our understanding of biology, even on a small scale, but at least in basic biological research that is the goal. If I move away from that, what will be my role in the larger scheme of things? Clearly there are other obviously impactful careers but some jobs are less clear. A step away from bench science into user experience research, a career suggested by a friend, might be interesting, but may not fit any lofty ideals. Am I ok with that?

Other factors include money, location, pressure, subject matter, and respect. I am still debating many of those. Have you made a major career decision that didn’t feel natural? Did you have any strategies that helped you decide?



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1 Response to Career decisions

  1. Rose says:

    Hi, I’m a PhD in psychology who did make a similar, “non-natural” choice. I was halfway through the first year of my postdoc when I realized that I didn’t want to go into academia anymore. My area was social/health psychology, and I investigated public health problems with a psychological approach. I left my postdoc after a year and went into user experience research, so I work for a large tech company doing user research in video games. Big shift content-wise, not so much research-wise.

    My strategies were making lists (both mental and on-paper) of what was important to me – and, more importantly, in what order they came. I had a vague idea of the kinds of things about work I valued simply from identifying what I didn’t like or wanted to avoid about academia. My goal was to organize it in terms of most to least importance and figure out what were absolute must-haves (or must-not-haves) and what I was willing to flex on. Visualizations helped me rank. Like, close your eyes and imagine you’re in a job that pays X much and makes you work Y hours and is in Z city. Think about it. How does that make you feel inside?

    It turned out that money, respect, pressure, location were actually pretty important to me – I didn’t have a specific geographic area I wanted, but I did have preferences, and I absolutely wanted to be in the suburbs of a relatively large urban area. I also didn’t want a job in which I felt like I had to work more than 50-60 hours a week routinely in order to get everything done. I wanted a job I could be proud to tell people I was doing. That meant a lot to me. And money had become of increasingly more importance after 7 years of grad school and postdoc’ing, so I set a lower limit that I wanted and realistically thought I could get.

    I think you hit the nail on the head – deciding what you want out of a career goes hand in hand with deciding what you want out of life. One of the things I always hated about academia is that I feel the field completely ignores that; you’re expected to make career decisions that are completely divorced from what you feel is best for you and your family. I really thought about what I wanted my lifestyle to look like, and the career I selected was picked to make that lifestyle possible.

    As far as positive impact on the world – well, I think it depends on how you define that and how big your scope is. There’s large-scale, definitively positive impact like curing AIDS or sequencing the genome. Then there’s smaller-scale positive impact that’s a little more ambiguous, and you have to decide whether you’re okay with that. I love video games and I’m a huge gamer, so for me the positive impact here is making a really important hobby/part of my personality/identity more fun to play. That’s awesome! But there’s also the more definitively positive aspects, like the work I do to make games and tech more diverse and inclusive and the work I do in my company to introduce girls and underrepresented minorities to careers in tech. I’ve been here less than 6 months and I’ve already been pegged as the Person Who Likes That Stuff (and has expertise in it) so I’ve been brought onto larger-scale, high-visibility projects in there.

    And also remember that UX is large and vast…so as a UX researcher you could be improving the UI for a medical records keeping system for nurses (that decreases accidentally switched medications or procedures in hospitals!) or a piece of tech targeted at consumers with disabilities or a productivity software targeted at students. There are biotech and educational tech firms that need UX, too.

    I love UX, and I’m super passionate about it. Feel free to send me an email if you want to know more.


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