Jessica the Graduate Student
From the moment that I first entered graduate school, I feel like I’ve been struggling for an intelligent answer to this question. It seems like whenever you enter another stage of higher learning, everyone wants to know what the point of it all will be. What career will come out of your elected major in college? How will that Master’s degree you slaved away at count for anything in the future? And what career will you pursue once you can put those fancy letters behind your name?
I had entered a PhD program in Physiology because I loved my previous experiences in research, and wanted to continue investigating unanswered questions about the inner workings of the human body. Pursuing a PhD seemed like a logical step in the pursuit of a scientific career. During my first year in graduate school, when asked what my goals were, vague answers were usually enough to get me by. I could joke that it was my first year, and all I wanted to do was do well in my coursework. As my second year approached, I could say that I just wanted to get through qualifiers. And into my third year, the focus was on thesis proposals, conferences, and trying to get my first paper finished.
However, when advisors, instructors, and peers would discuss the future, all roads seemed to point to a career in academia. We discussed how to prepare ourselves for “When you have your own lab” or “When you’re applying for grants.” As I watched faculty members stress over funding issues and compete amongst themselves, I wasn’t entirely convinced that that was the route I wanted take. I started searching online, signing up for workshops, and attending seminars on career options outside of academia. Fascinating prospects presented themselves, in scientific writing, industry, consulting, and working for the government. There seem to be countless applications of a PhD outside of the traditional route from graduate student to professor.
I know that I want to be involved in scientific outreach programs in one way or another. I have worked with elementary schools to bring students to the college on field trips, have judged middle school science fairs, and have found it tremendously rewarding to see kids getting excited about science. I have worked with fundraisers and committees to spread the word about the amazing work being done on our campus to the general public, and have been cultivating my ability to speak about ground-breaking scientific research in layman’s terms. A career in scientific writing or with an organization like AAAS may offer the type of outreach that I am looking for, but I have to admit that I am still exploring my options.
However, regardless of the ultimate career goal, I do know that the next step in my path will be to acquire 2-5 years of valuable postdoc experience. Occasionally, I encounter successful young professionals who have leaped from the ranks of lowly graduate student up to prestigious positions like Medical Science Liaisons, business consultants, or faculty positions at universities, but most will admit that they “got lucky” or “knew the right people.” And, honestly, after twenty-two years in the education system, I figure that I can work up the stamina to be “in training” for another two.
So, as far as the immediate future goes, I plan to savor the postdoc experience. Many of my mentors refer to their postdoctoral training as the best time of their careers. They weren’t bogged down by graduate student coursework and exams, but they also weren’t stressed about grant applications or administrative issues. They were able to focus solely on research, mass produce publications, and set themselves up for success as professionals.
As I enter my fourth year in graduate school, my qualifiers are behind me, my thesis proposal is turned in, and my first publication is submitted. In my program, most graduate students matriculate after five years, so I am starting to see the faintest glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. I am now focused on how to prepare myself for the next step in my career. In both formal and informal settings, I have learned from the experiences of the graduate students who have gone before me, and have tried to take the bits and pieces of advice that I have been given and form a cohesive plan.
Collectively, that advice has encouraged me to start searching for a postdoc early, to ensure that I find a lab that has research that I am interested in, an environment where I can grow, a mentor that I can learn from, and a work/life balance that fits my needs. One postdoc told me that “the longer you wait, the more of those things you will have to compromise.” So I have my list of priorities made out, my business cards on hand, and am building a network that I will be able to send inquiries to when the time comes to move on. I am optimistic that an early start will allow me to find a lab with an excellent publication record, new skills to learn, and the opportunity to cultivate an informed decision on the career path that I ultimately want to take.
Jessica is a fourth year PhD candidate in the Department of Physiology at the Medical College of Wisconsin. Before coming to the Medical College of Wisconsin she had experience as an instructor Kishwaukee College and served as a teaching assistant at Northern Illinois University where she received her BS and MS degrees in Biology and Virology, respectively.