Career exploration: how to build a network

How to build a network

It’s been a long time since I’ve written on the topic of career development. So much has happened in my own personal career path, and I can’t wait to share it with you!

But first, I want to return to the  What is the point of a postdoc?Postdoctoral associate Ellen Elliott shares her story to start a larger conversation about how scientists prepare for life after the Ph.D.four pillars of career development as outlined in Next Gen PhD:

  • Self reflection — I’ve covered this in a fair amount of detail, which you can find here, here and here.
  • Career exploration
  • Goal setting
  • Job search

I stopped posting after self-reflection, but I want to pick things back up where I left off.

Career exploration

After the sometime painful process of self-assessment, career exploration is a little more fun. You simply take the core values, skills, and interests you identified in step 1, and use those to guide your career search.

(This is why it is crucial to take your time with self-assessment, and to revisit your lists often. If you haven’t fully considered your passions and values, you might not find career exploration particularly helpful. In fact, it will probably just make the whole process more confusing!)

So, where do you start with career exploration? How do you build a network? I will use myself as an example, but I do want to make it clear that there isn’t a precise way to figure out what you want to do. This is what worked for me, and maybe it can be useful to someone else in a similarly difficult situation.

Part 1 — Research

Do some research online. MyIDP is a wealth of information, but so are websites like Science Careers, Nature Jobs Blog, and even LinkedIn and Twitter. Just reading about different types of industries and job sectors can give you immediate gut reactions that will guide your job search.

I knew that I was interested in writing and/or editing, which helped narrow down my search. I focused on jobs across several different sectors, including grant writing (academia), medical writing (pharma), and science communication (university and/or freelance writing). These jobs all sounded pretty interesting to me, and I wanted to know more!

Part 2 — Connect

Talk to people. This is the part where you need to form a network. Talking to people you don’t know can be awkward, and I don’t suggest you just cold call people. In addition, reach out to colleagues or academic advisors, people you may have met at conferences, and ask if they know anyone in your field of interest. Then inquire as to whether they’d be willing to introduce you, either in person or by email.

From there, ask if they have time for a brief phone call to learn more about their career path. This is how I met all of the science writers I spoke with, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much people wanted to help me. So many scientists have been in the exact position you are in right now, and they would love to make the transition easier for other people!

For the phone call, be sure to take notes, and ask about the types of qualities that a person would need to succeed in their field. I also like to learn about the experiences they had that helped them transition into a science writing career.

Over time, it should (hopefully) become clear which jobs and environments are a good fit for you. In my case, I realized that I wanted to work at a company where I could collaborate with other people and constantly learn new skills. Many science writing jobs are freelance or work-from-home, but I really prefer to work in an office with steady hours. I also found myself more inclined towards jobs that included some aspect of medical writing, because I love learning and explaining the biology underlying human disease.

In my next post, I’ll cover goal setting.

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.