Planning Your Path through
How to Start Planning Your Future Career— Now!
BY AMY M. HAMLIN
The beginning of graduate school can be both exciting and stressful. It is the start of a new chapter of your life, filled with many new opportunities and experi- ences. There may be many things to consider, such as where to live, which group to join, what research project to tackle, how to survive your first-year classes, and how to
prepare for those qualifying exams, just to name a few. But while
you are figuring out how you are going to balance all of these
decisions and goals, you should also begin considering your life
after graduate school.
It may seem like graduation is far away and that you have
plenty of time to figure out what you are going to do afterward.
You may also feel that it will be easier to just put off preparing
for your future career until after you pass your qualifying exam,
finish your teaching requirement, or make some progress on your
However, there are many reasons why you should start preparing now for life after graduate school, including but not limited to
Most importantly, having a plan will help you stay motivated
(which is often the most difficult part of the graduate school
experience). It is easy to lose the excitement you feel at the beginning; once classes and exams are over, the weeks can easily get
lost among endless experiments and long nights in the lab. At
times it may seem that your thesis work or research project will
never be complete. But if you have a plan and clear milestones to
meet throughout your graduate career, it is a lot easier to remain
motivated and positive.
Hearing opportunity knock
Having a plan can help you make the most of every opportunity.
If you know where you want to go when you graduate, then you
can evaluate which skills, both inside and outside of the lab, you
need to acquire, and you’ll have sufficient time to do so.
Articulating your career goals
Lastly, planning your future career now will prepare you for future
discussions regarding your career goals, especially during employment interviews when you eventually start applying for jobs. Being
prepared will help reduce the stress and allow you to walk into
each interview with more confidence.
So, now that you know why you should
start planning your path through graduate
school (and your life afterward) as early in
your graduate career as possible, you may
be asking, “Where do I start?”
First, you must reflect on your career goals.
Why did you decide to attend graduate
school, and what do you want to do with
the knowledge you will obtain? It is not
necessary to decide on your exact answer
now, but it is good to at least have in mind
a general direction (academia, industry, or
government) and to be open to other possibilities. It is also okay to change your mind
later; as you grow as a scientist throughout
your graduate career, you may realize that
your interests and skills are better suited
for a different path than you originally
Planning your graduate career
Next, you need to develop your graduate career plan. This often
starts with your choice of research advisor and thesis project.
Before you even join a research group, you should have a discussion with the advisor about your career goals and how the group
can assist you in meeting them. Ask about where group alumni
are now and what careers members are considering. Also ask current group members what the group does to help grad students
and postdocs develop skills outside of the lab, such as presentation
and communication skills. Last but not least, inquire about what
resources will be available as you begin the job or postdoc application process.
Once you join a group, make sure to sit down with your advisor and have an open and honest conversation about what will
be expected from you, along with what your advisor can do to
help you become a better scientist. You should outline a plan that
includes departmental requirements (classes, teaching, seminars,
qualifying exams, etc.) as well as other expectations, such as mentoring undergrads/younger students, publishing, attending confer-