Blog Post July 24, 2017

"What do I want from a job?"

What do I want from a job?

In my last article I emphasized that the first step in any job search, including that of the confused postdoc, is identifying your interests and talents. This self-analysis is referred to as self-reflection or self-assessment. Before we discuss how to link these interests to job categories, I want to explore other a few other steps in the self-assessment process.

So many postdocs, myself included, feel like we have no skills that could transfer to a profession outside the lab. Here is a simple activity that will help you recognize the expertise gained during graduate school and postdoctoral research.

Take a look at your CV. Make sure it’s up to date with all your publications, seminars, posters, teaching and mentoring responsibilities, and any other lab-related activities in which you participate. Start outlining what types of skills you developed as a result of these achievements.

No, I don’t mean pipetting! I’m referring to the transferable skills you have established as an academic scientist. For instance, you have likely developed superb presentation skills, are adept at researching and interpreting data from various fields of science, and can make important decisions in managing projects. Although these skills don’t sound like anything you have on your CV, they are all talents you have undoubtedly cultivated during your time in academia.

At this point you might be thinking you are ready for the job search. You know your passions, your skills. What else is there to worry about? At this point, I will ask you to stay with me on self-assessment just a little bit longer.

One of the most important aspects of the self-assessment process is considering your personal values and how you envision your work-life balance in the future.

This seems like a slightly superfluous conversation to necessitate. Most postdocs are in their late 20s to mid 30s; surely by this age, and with this level of education, you know what type of job and lifestyle you want.

But when you consider the graduate student-postdoc path, these topics are rarely discussed. For myself, I went from undergraduate, to graduate school, to postdoc, with little time in between to consider long-term career objectives. And, as I’ve discussed in previous posts, I had always assumed I would be a Principal Investigator.

I suppose that many of us go into graduate school and postdoctoral fellowships expecting to work long and sometime unconventional hours. Many postdocs thrive on this type of work environment, but just as many become burned out and exhausted. At some point, I forgot that I could make a choice — that there even was a choice — and this is where self-assessment can be incredibly useful.

In Next Gen PhD, Sinche presents an entire list of values to consider when thinking about your future occupation. And really, this list is applicable to anyone on the job market. Here are a few that I consider important:

Knowledge Building

This is an essential component of my future career, and I imagine of many other postdocs as well. I love biology; sometimes I read my Developmental Biology textbook for fun (who doesn’t?). I appreciate the problem-solving nature of academic science, which challenges us to constantly read and learn about new hypotheses and methods. In my next line of work I want to continue studying new areas of science, and stay current on the research trends in which I’m already invested. 


My husband is a medical resident with an ironclad schedule. As a result, if something needs to be done (animals taken to the vet, car repairs) it’s my responsibility. I’m extremely lucky that my current postdoc allows a great deal of flexibility, and that my PI understands that postdocs have lives outside the lab. In the future, especially if I have children, flexibility will become even more important.

There are a myriad of other items you might consider — location, for instance, or job security. All of these values can be weighted, which will help in deciding the type of job opportunities you pursue.

I readily acknowledge that making these lists is difficult — but as we discussed, self-assessment isn’t always comfortable or easy. And that’s okay! Talk about it with your peers, family members, mentors, or close friends, and try to be as honest with yourself as possible.

Ellen Elliott, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow at The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine in Farmington, Conn. Ellen works in the laboratory of Adam Williams, Ph.D., where she is studying the function of long non-coding RNAs in TH2 cells and asthma. Follow Ellen on Twitter at @EllenNichole.