If you’re anything like me, the start of the fall semester called for a fresh Moleskine planner penned with renewed productivity and ambitious goals. While your goals for the 2019-20 academic year likely include research publications and conference proceedings, this year we challenge you to add some new topics to the list: career exploration and professional development. 

Whether you are entering your first or fifth year, the best time to start thinking about your career is now. I know, it’s a daunting task. Cue seminars, classes, and volunteer activities, and suddenly devising a 5-year career plan is not at the top of your priority list. So, to seek advice on how to get started with career exploration and set professional development goals that you can actually stick to, I sat down with graduate professional development expert, Dr. Nana Lee.

Career Exploration

An academic career is no longer presumed for graduate students in the life sciences, with less than 20% of PhD graduates from 2000-2015 landing tenure-track professorships (Reithmeier, R. et al. 2019). Increasingly, graduates are flocking to industry careers in the public, private, and non-profit sectors. Ranging from medical writing to science policy and regulatory affairs, there are seemingly endless career paths to consider. Below, Dr. Lee shares some tips for all graduate students embarking on their career exploration journeys.

  1. Start early.

When is the best time to start exploring career options? “First week,” recommends Dr. Lee. “You have to establish your research, of course, but starting to think about it that first year is really important.” She advises using the early years of your graduate term to attend networking events and hold informational interviews to find career options that excite you. “Once you have [found some], you can kind of focus on where you want to develop a more strategic network and do more research on how to get to those careers.”

  1. Meet people, and ask strategic questions.

“This is my golden rule,” Lee emphasizes, “the number one thing is to go meet people.” As research trainees, it’s no surprise that we approach career exploration with the same fervor as a literature search on PubMed. But Dr. Lee points out that the internet and books lack one crucial element – personal stories. “You have to go talk to the people who are actually doing these jobs, or you aren’t going to know the stories behind what is written. If you have these informational interviews, you’re going to hear ‘well actually, my wife was about to give birth, so I had to move away, and I met a friend to get coffee and heard about this job…etc.’ You have to meet the people behind the stories.”

So, do your research…but go and meet people too, and have strategic informational interview questions prepared. Avoid asking general questions about their job descriptions. “If you’ve already researched what their job is, then you should already know the answers to that,” Lee points out. Instead, ask them about their challenges, their transitions, their failures and growth insights. “You learn a lot from people’s failures and growth insights, and those are not printed anywhere. They are really telling of what you might do differently.”

  1. Remember that career development is a personal journey.   

Career exploration can become stressful if you compare yourself to others. There is no one path or checklist to follow that is guaranteed to land you the perfect job after graduate school. “Where you are in both your degree and personal growth will change what you should be working on in your career development,” Lee explains. And if you haven’t figured it out yet, don’t stress! “I don’t think anyone knows exactly what they want to do in that first, second, third…even fifth year! It’s ok if you don’t have this set title that you want to be, it’s just all part of the process,” she reassures.

Professional Development

Equally important to career exploration is professional development. To succeed in today’s competitive job market, graduate students must be equipped with a toolbox of professional skills that are often developed outside the laboratory. Below, Dr. Lee shares some advice on how to design and achieve your own professional development goals.

  1. Use the Individual Development Plan (IDP) tool to figure out what soft skills you want       to improve.

The first step to setting professional development goals is self-reflection and assessment. “Use the smart goals section on the IDP. There you can really look at your skills, values, and interests and assess what [you] really want to work on this year,” Dr. Lee advises. Trying to work on everything at once is a common pitfall. “There is no way you can work on all of your core competencies in one year,” she warns. Instead, choose one or two skills to focus on and create specific, quantifiable goals to help you strengthen these skills.

  1. Hold yourself accountable.

“Accountability is a big thing,” Lee tells, “otherwise you’ll just say ‘well, I don’t have time,’ and the next thing you’re back in the lab.” Many of us are guilty of creating an IDP goal only to forget about it with a mounting to-do list. To counter this, leverage peer support to stay on-track. Ask a friend to join you and track your progress together to make sure that you follow through on your goals. For example, if you both want to work on networking, find an LSCDS event to attend together and then debrief afterwards.

  1. Get help.

From departmental alumni to supervisors and industry mentors, as graduate students we are surrounded by people that can help us achieve our goals. Once you have completed your self-assessment and chosen something to focus on improving, Dr. Lee suggests bringing that assessment to a mentor. “If it’s a scientific skills assessment, bring it to your supervisor or committee and say, ‘I’ve assessed myself low on broad scientific knowledge, do you have any advice on how to improve that?’” advises Dr. Lee. “If it’s more career exploration and you feel that your supervisor doesn’t have much more to add outside of the academic route, then take it to your industry mentor, or [Nana], somebody who can help you formulate a plan on how to improve.” The key is to be specific. “If you just go to a mentor and say, ‘I need help,’ it’s too broad. But, if you take your top skills that need improvement to a mentor, they can help you, because you’re really channeling what you want to work on.”

Career exploration and professional development goals should be included in every graduate student’s planner this year. Luckily, the University of Toronto has many resources to help you. Get started with those listed below:  

Check out LSCDS’s upcoming events

Take a look at SGS’s graduate professional development programme

Get started on your IDP

Read Dr. Lee and Dr. Reithmeier’s book, ‘Success After Graduate School’

Book a consultation with Dr. Nana Lee





Dr. Nana Lee is the director of the Graduate Professional Development Program at the University of Toronto.