A Step-by-Step Guide to Finding Your Career Goals

Sept. 20, 2016

Every year at the family gathering, you get asked, "What are you going to do with your degree?" It can be a challenging answer, especially if you haven't given any thought to what you want to do, or if you don't even know how to approach the process of setting career goals. To tackle this question, you must go through the career planning process first.

The career planning process can start at any time, but the overall rule is the sooner the better. The rule applies to anyone -  whether you're a junior undergraduate, 1st year graduate student, postdoctoral fellow or somewhere in between. The career planning process includes four steps:
  1. Understanding You - What are your interests, values, and skills?
  2. Exploration - What are the current career paths in the workforce and which do you find most interesting?
  3. Building Yourself and Your Network - What skills, experiences, and people do you need to get to career X, Y, or Z?
  4. Job Search - How do you put together a job application and execute the interview successfully
‚ÄčThis process is important because it will help you shape your career aspirations and make you more marketable for a particular career. In return, these steps will make it easier for you to put your application materials together, including: cover letters, resumes, CVs, teaching philosophies, etc.

Step 1: Understanding You   

The goal of step 1 is to identify the factors that are important to you when you think about a career and your life outside of your career. These can range from scientific interests to management styles and even geographical preferences. In this step you assess the skills you've developed through your experiences and education, your values of what feels fulfilling to you and motivates you, and your interests in particular topics, issues, and tasks. If you find a career path that has a good balance of all three, or close to it, that leads to career fulfillment. Certain self-assessments tools can assist with this step, such as: ScienceCareers myIDP, StrengthsFinder 2.0, Strong Interest Inventory, and Life Values Inventory. The last three are best done through your affiliated institution's career center with a career counselor that serves alumni and current students. Also, see if your institution offers a course such as the one Dr. Kozlowski developed and teaches at Thomas Jefferson University, "Principles of Career Management: Diverse Biomedical Careers". There are also opportunities to explore these questions at ASM's national and regional meetings.  

Alternatively, take a reflective approach by analyzing your hobbies, determining what factors led you to certain paths in life, and what things or experiences you feel close to. Think back to your three favorite moments while in school or working and ask yourself what factors were present that made those moments so memorable. Also take this time to think about geographical locations and financial responsibilities. For example, if you love to mountain bike every weekend, a job in a huge city that is hours away from any bike trails may not be a good fit. Also, think about how your career plans will fit into those of your spouse\significant other and how it may affect other family members. For couples, one person may be the leading partner/spouse, while the other may be the trailing partner/spouse. The leading partner/spouse is the one who receives a job offer first, and the trailing partner/spouse is the one that tags along. In an academic setting, many universities will try to accommodate the trailing partner/spouse, but this will vary between institutions. Other sectors may not follow this trend, but it is something to discuss once the interview process progresses. Alternatively, you may have to undergo temporary separation to reach your combined, long-term goals. For this step, it's important to understand what each other's career goals are, and what each person is willing to compromise on, and to come up with a plan together.    

Step 2: Exploration

In step 2, the purpose is to find a career path(s) that fits closely with your skills, values, and interests. To identify your potential career paths, explore different careers in the forms of career seminars, online career profiles, networking, informational interviewing, and job shadowing. To do informational interviews, set up meetings (either in person or on the phone) with people in different career paths to learn about what they do, how they got into their field, and what the future looks like in that profession. Also ask questions about the types of skills used, and what values and interests are included in that profession. It helps to keep a journal and document the career paths that you learned about and ask yourself, what did I like and not like about this career path? This can help you learn more about yourself and if you see similarities of what you like, it may highlight factors that are important to you. MyIDP has a section to enter this information and keep track of it. If you already identified 2-3 career paths of interests, during your informational interviews, ask for other people to contact, get feedback on application materials, including having the person review your resume, and inquire about where to look for job postings. It's important to not ask for a job while doing informational interviews, but asking for ways to volunteer and gain more experience is acceptable.

Step 3: Building Yourself and Your Network

Step 3 is designed to gain more experience and build up your resume, as well as, your network. Once you've decided on a career path or two, it may take time to build up your experiences in this sector and to create your network. If you plan on staying in the same scientific discipline where the majority of your activity is research, you may not need this time. However, if you are switching to a different field that requires other tasks besides research, you may need about two years of constant pursuing to gain experiences and learn skills of that profession. This also includes gaining more teaching experience for a faculty position, whether by adjuncting or guest lecturing in place of your advisor. To get more experiences outside of the lab, look to your local community, other offices at your university, and professional societies. Also, during this time, continue to build your network by attending networking events, joining professional societies, and going to conferences, as well as, turning those informational interviews into your network. Your network will be some of the first ones to know about a job opening and will tell you about it.   

Step 4: Job Search

After you complete steps 1-3, you have now set yourself up for step 4, the job search process, which requires putting your application materials together, applying, and completing the interview phase. Because you've taken the time to get more experience, you can highlight this on your resume. And since you've discovered what your values, skills, and professional interests are, you can be more strategic with your job search and appropriately incorporate them into cover letters and during your interviews, especially for the common "Tell me about yourself" interview question.          

The best way to learn about job openings at specific organizations is to ask during the informational interviews. Since the person you are speaking with already works there, they have more insight into what opportunities might open up. Tell them the types of jobs you will be looking for and ask how job openings work in that organization to get a clear idea.

Whether you are an undergraduate student, graduate student, or postdoc, and whether you have a set end date or not, it is best to continually work on steps 1-3, which include adding contacts to your network and new skill sets to your CV or resume. For those with an end date, six months before the defined end date is a good rule of thumb for job hunting. For those without a defined end date, by completing steps 1-3, you will be prepared to move into the job search process relatively quickly when that step arises.

Happy career planning!

Author: Lisa Kozlowski

Lisa Kozlowski
Lisa Kozlowski is Director of the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs at Thomas Jefferson University.

Author: Shilpa Gadwal

Shilpa Gadwal
Shilpa Gadwal is the Career Resources Specialist at ASM.