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Making the Leap: Planning for Career Satisfaction and Success

Making the Leap: Planning for Career Satisfaction and Success
Reported by
Jennifer L. DeLeon

Posted February 25, 2013

Presented By

Presented by Science Alliance


PhDs in science, technology, engineering, and math are increasingly considering careers outside a traditional professorship. Career options are diversifying and now exist in many areas, such as industry research, writing, policy, public health, and startups. However, attaining a position in any of these fields requires experience and specific skills. The job search begins with an exploration of career opportunities; the challenge is then to narrow down the choices to find the best career path. On November 30, 2012, Melanie Sinche of Harvard University offered her strategy for career planning at the Making the Leap: A Non-Academic Career Planning& Job Search Boot Camp, presented at the Academy by Science Alliance to prepare students and job seekers for a variety of science careers.

Sinche's talk highlighted a four-step career development process, including self-assessment, career exploration, goal setting, and the job search itself. This model is intended to help you to understand your skills, values, and interests and to make informed career decisions that will lead to increased job satisfaction. The process can help to focus your job search on careers that will utilize your strengths and provide a work environment that compliments your personality. Sinche discussed the first two steps: self-assessment to identify skills, interests, and core work values; and career exploration, drawing on the results of the self-assessment to identify career fields that match your personality.

The self-assessment profile is a tool to evaluate your strengths in your current work environment, clarify your skill set and interests, and identify gaps in your experiences in preparation for your next career move. Many PhD students and post-docs, who spend a majority of their time at the research bench, mistakenly think that skills acquired in research positions are overly specialized for most careers; many skills are in fact transferable and applicable to other occupations. For example, developing and organizing several complex experiments simultaneously demonstrates project- and time-management skills. Sinche recommended focusing on positive feedback from specific points in your career (professional or academic) when you felt confident and drew encouragement from your accomplishments. Reflecting on these moments can not only reveal skills you already use but also, more importantly, identify activities you find rewarding.

Identifying your interests is often the easiest of the self-assessment exercises, requiring simply that you reflect on your work to identify personal and work-related preferences to look for in your next position. It is equally important to recognize aspects that you dislike; this can help reframe and guide your career choices to avoid environments that would detract from success. Sinche recommended considering potential employers with this assessment in mind, conducting information interviews with current or past employees to gain a sense of the work environment.

Sinche advised students whose interests may not yet match their experience to remain focused on their interests: "if an interest exists, skills can be built," she said. Students should look for opportunities to build skills during PhD and post-doctoral training through academic and professional committees and through collaboration with peers who have similar professional interests. For example, if you are interested in teaching, consider tutoring, mentoring, or teaching assistant opportunities; if you are interested in business or management, look for courses in these disciplines.

When thinking about what you value in a work environment, consider features of corporate culture like work–life balance, advancement potential, leadership opportunities, and autonomy vs. team or group work, as well as aspects that influence day-to-day motivation, like creativity and discovery. Rate these values, then narrow down and prioritize your top three. Remember that there are no "right" or "wrong" work values; the objective is to recognize what matters to you as an individual. Finding a job that meets your personal values will greatly increase happiness in your professional life.

After discussing skills, interests, and work values, Sinche outlined the next step in the career development process: career exploration. She explained how to build on the self-assessment profile and brainstorm career possibilities. She presented an occupation guide that cross-references career fields with particular skill sets, which can be used to evaluate your options and find matches based on the self-assessment.

Many career paths are open to STEM PhDs. Career fields listed here represent responses to the question "What career field(s) are you currently considering?" (Image courtesy of Melanie Sinche)

After determining career options, the next step is to research opportunities. Sinche presented tools and resources for finding opportunities and planning a career development strategy. Online resources are particularly useful and accessible, offering career information, employer-education programs, job-search advice, salary information, and job listings; Sinche recommended the U.S. Department of Labor's Career Guide to Industries and Vault Career Intelligence. For PhDs looking for science-related careers, she suggested Science Careers and the National Institutes of Heath: Office of Intramural Training and Education, which provide career advice and academic and science-related job listings for positions in health care, education, government, and nonprofits. Professional and industry companies have detailed websites with recruitment information.

Sinche emphasized that networking is essential. Begin talking to people in your field of interest and create contacts through information interviews, one-on-one conversations with people at a specific company or in a similar or parallel position. These interviews provide an opportunity to gather information, visit a work site, and identify skills needed for a particular position. Some useful questions to ask include: What do you do in a typical day? What kinds of skills are important to your job? And, who would you suggest I talk to about careers in your field? This process will expand your contacts and build your professional network. You can also network by attending meetings, contacting professional associations, and contacting the Board of Directors to find out about a particular company. Conferences are an excellent place for networking and many professions now have professional societies that hold annual meetings.

Sinche also recommended gaining experience through internships or volunteering. This can identify gaps in your education and skills and help you to make an informed plan and set goals. Internships and volunteering are good opportunities for networking, connecting you to professionals who may be able to provide references and advice.

Use the tab above to find multimedia from this event.

Presentations available from:
Melanie Sinche, MA, MEd, NCC (Harvard University)

Planning for Career Satisfaction and Success: Part 1

Melanie Sinche (Harvard University)

Planning for Career Satisfaction and Success: Part 2

Melanie Sinche (Harvard University)



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Robbins-Roth C, ed. Alternative Careers in Science. Leaving the Ivory Tower. 2nd ed. San Diego, Ca: Academic Press; 2006.

Sher B. I Can Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was. New York, NY: Dell Publishing; 1994.


The Chronicle of Higher Education

National Institutes of Heath: Office of Intramural Training and Education

Science Careers

United States Department of Labor: Career Guide To Inudstries

United States Department of Labor: Occupational Outlook Handbook

Vault Career Intelligence


Melanie Sinche, MA, MEd, NCC

Harvard University
e-mail | website

Melanie Sinche is the director of the FAS Office of Postdoctoral Affairs at Harvard University. She assists students with career and professional development and advises university administrators on issues pertaining to postdoctoral scholars. She also works with the National Postdoctoral Association to improve data collection on postdoctoral services across the U.S. She also offers career development presentations and training sessions for universities, government agencies, professional associations, and non-profit organizations across the country. Sinche previously worked at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as a consultant and career counselor and at the Office of Postdoctoral Services at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as its founding director. Sinche holds a Master's degree from the University of Michigan and a second Master's degree in counseling from North Carolina State University.

Jennifer L. DeLeon

Jennifer L. DeLeon is a PhD student in the department of molecular and cellular biology at Stony Brook University. Her research focuses on understanding the cellular mechanisms of kinase signaling pathways in cell death, metabolism, and cancer biology.