The 4th Annual Plant Biotechnology for Health & Sustainability Symposium.
This was the third year the Symposium included a Career Development component, including two morning speakers—Melissa Ho and Marcelo Vinces—and four round table discussion groups. There was a lot of good advice and discussion, and I thought it would be useful to try to summarize the main points for those who could not participate. There is no way I could incorporate everything into one post, so for those of you who were there (especially in a different round table group), please feel free to add your comments or submit your own post.
1) Identify your passion
“Find your passion and follow it.” – Melissa Ho
This is pretty simple and self-explanatory, but avoiding this step could make all the difference down the road. Take some time to do some deep personal reflection.
What am I good at?
What makes me happy?
What do you find yourself starting and then completely losing track of time because you are enjoying it so much? What type of activities and/or interactions do you find most rewarding?
Use this information to identify careers that best match your passion areas. This does NOT mean narrowing down your career options to one or two job titles and then hoping you can somehow manage to get one of those! “Broaden your gaze.” Don’t limit yourself with the options you currently see or that you perceive others value. Own your path. You might not even be aware right now of some of the options you may have down the road that will be a “perfect match.”
So what are some ways to identify your passion?
Melissa Ho – Explore. Be proactive. Engage in informational interviews. Apply and participate in Internships and Fellowship programs (See AAAS fellowships here: http://www.aaas.org/page/fellowships).
2) Be prepared
“Chance favors the minds that are prepared” – Louis Pasteur
This quote was used by both Marcelo Vinces and Richard Trethewey at this year’s symposium. And it makes sense. Say you have taken the time to do “step 1” and successfully identify your passion. Then, one day, the perfect opportunity presents itself. Unfortunately, you do not have the appropriate qualifications. You are unprepared. Instead of happily embarking on the adventure of a lifetime you get to sadly wave at the opportunity as it passes you by! You have your “passion” but not a “plan.”
So how do we avoid this from happening to us? How do we get prepared? The consistent answer to this question throughout the talks was: Cultivate your skills & networks. Let’s take those one at a time.
What skills do you need to be successful? While some skills may be specific to your chosen career many are not. Let’s focus on those. What do we find at the top of the list? Communication! Specifically emphasized was the ability to “translate scientific ideas and concepts to a wide range of people.” Here are some paraphrased quotes (I did not bring my digital recorder!) from the talks/round tables:
Melissa Ho – An important aspect of being a good leader is having good communication skills, both verbal and written.
Marcelo Vinces – No matter what career path you choose, communication and outreach are ALWAYS important.
Sheril Kirshenbaum – Practice writing “non-scientifically”. Read broadly to learn new writing styles.
Melissa Ho – Once you finish your PhD and enter the “real world” it is no longer about you. It is about taking what you know and translating it in a usable fashion for others.
Marcelo Vinces – Are you ready to talk to the media? You might not think you ever will, but you are probably wrong. (Remember the shrimp on a treadmill fiasco?)
Marcelo Vinces & Sheril Kirshenbaum – Use social media (Twitter, LinkedIn, blogging, etc)! These give you space to define yourselves as well as being great sources of information.
Sheril Kirshenbaum – Cultivate your writing skills. Scientific American allows guest blogging. (contact Sheril if you are interested!)
Some other skills mentioned throughout the talks/discussions were problem-solving, conflict resolution, grit (perserverence), potential (for technical expertise or people management), Personality/enthusiasm, technical competence, and ability to learn. Obviously these are not the types of things you write down on your CV. However, if you are actively finding ways to develop these skills, they will be reflected both in your CV and, more importantly, in the Interview.
Melissa Ho – Many of these things you won’t get in your PhD, but don’t worry. Look for opportunities to develop them.
What did our panel have to say about this? I’m sure more than I managed to jot down, but here are two comments that stood out to me:
Melissa Ho – People are key to your long term success. When things get hard, it is the people in your life who will get you through.
Marcelo Vinces – Cultivate your networks. You never know what impact they will have in the future. (Applies to skills as well!)
Some tips for doing this? Similar to identifying your passion!
Informational interviews are a great way to build your network. These can also help you identify what jobs you will actually enjoy and which ones you might want to avoid.
Internships and fellowships are another great opportunity to explore your options, acquire and develop skills and establish and cultivate your networks. Several people (Melissa, Marcelo and Sheril) highly recommended the Science and Technology Fellowships. If anyone has a good list of these, please let me know and we will add it to our Resource page.
Get involved! Participating in the scientific community (even locally) will also help you build your skills and network. Another tip was to find opportunities to connect with the peer review system in some way. This can be by volunteering to review papers (see Brad Day if interested) or by participating in grant review panels.
To Melissa’s point of long-term success, a key element in all of this is balance. There is an endless list of skills to develop and activities in which we can participate and relationships we can cultivate. It is important to also take time to find and nurture relationships that help us maintain perspective and balance. At the end of the day, what is most important to you? How do you define success? Since we cannot do everything, it is essential that we are strategic and prioritize the things that have the greatest impact on our personal definition of success.
3) Put yourself out there!
So you have identified your passion. You are constantly looking for ways to strategically acquire and develop new skills. You have built and are carefully managing your network. Now what? Even if you are the perfect candidate in the world for your job of choice, chances are you won’t get it if you 1) don’t know it exists and/or 2) they don’t know you exist! This ties in nicely with some of our previous posts (and our panel’s advice) about social media. We are fortunate to live in a time when the world is literally at our fingertips. It only makes sense that we take advantage of the tools we have to make it easy for us to be found. Of course, we also want to be sure that when we are found the picture is a positive one (da Vinci vs Picasso).
4) Don’t give up
You can prepare yourself all day long, but if you give up before opportunity knocks it will all be for nothing. Another theme from our panel was challenging the myth that there is “one right path” to success. Their advice? Don’t worry about taking the “traditional” path. Many “successful” people have taken paths that in retrospect may have led right to where they ended up, but it was not usually evident until they got there.
To summarize, mind your P’s (from Melissa & Marcelo)! Passion, People, Preparation & Perseverance
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