Blog Post May 31, 2018

Career exploration: goal setting

Career exploration, setting goals, phd careers, jackson laboratory

We have arrived at the third step of career development!

  1. Self-Reflection (I’ve covered this in a fair amount of detail, which you can find here, here and here.)
  2. Career Exploration (I discussed this in my last post.)
  3. Goal Setting
  4. Job search

Setting career goals. When I got to this step, I was incredulous. I’ve been in some form of school for more than half my life! A career is something I can figure out once I’ve finished my postdoc.

And goals? What goals, other than getting my paper out? I don’t have time to make goals!

Here is the truth, as I have come to see it. As postdocs, many of us are in a willful state of ignorance and denial when it comes to how hard it is to actually leave academia. Up to this point, training has been set along neatly laid railroad tracks: undergrad, graduate school, defense, postdoc, then... who knows?

This is exactly where self-reflection and career exploration can help you. But these first two steps of career development are ineffective without some action to bolster them. If you’ve decided to pursue a non-academic career, the first goals you should formulate are how and when you will leave the bench.

In addition, the most useful goals are ones that have a tangible result. I know if I’ve applied for ten jobs, or spoken to five new contacts about their career path. If your goals are indefinite, such as “grow my network,” you’ve essentially set yourself up to fail. Actionable items are necessary for successful goal setting. 

Once I decided to pursue a career in medical writing, I needed a plan for leaving the lab and transitioning to a new work environment. I was fortunate that my spouse matched for a fellowship in a new state, and we needed to relocate 10+ hours away in less than a year. This provided the motivation to start exploring career options and set a firm end to my time in the lab.

I first made the goal of having a job lined up in advance of my move. In order to make this goal a reality, I had to start applying for jobs and looking for companies that would hire 4 to 6 months out from a start date. This primary ambition definitely restricted my options, as most companies want to hire people that can start immediately. As a result, I made a secondary goal to find a job that incorporated some type of medical writing or editing. It didn’t need to be the perfect position, but as long as the job involved writing, I knew that it would help me make progress toward my long-term objectives.

Long-term goals can seem daunting, but they are important to your future success. You don’t have to make a detailed plan, or create goals that extend decades into the future. The point of long-term aims is the same as short-term ones: they keep you focused on what you actually want.

Furthermore, long-term goals come in many varieties. Maybe you want to eventually move back to your home state, work for a specific company, or find a job that allows you to spend more time with your kids. The routes you take may differ, and it is hard to make a solid plan. And that’s okay! Six- or even one-month goals can be valuable.

My long-term goal is to establish a career in medical writing, but it is difficult for me to envision how that may happen. One of my current objectives is to find a mentor(s) at my new job that is willing to discuss long and short-term goals related to my career aspirations. Finding a mentor is a sensible goal for every type of job, but it is especially important for women in science.

So, to provide a bit of conclusion, here is my short take on goal setting:

  • Once you have a career in mind, start making transition plans. Don’t wait.
  • Make your goals something specific, with a defined outcome.
  • Find mentors, talk to other people in your desired field, and learn how they became successful.

But the first goal most people have is finding a job! I’ll review the fourth and final step of career development, the job search, in my next post.


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.