Get Out of the Lab for Career Exploration

oyce sits at the lab bench, restlessly scribbling in a notebook. Last week, she successfully defended her thesis. She should feel relieved and proud, but she doesn’t. It feels like her body just replaced defense stress with not-knowing-what-to-do-next stress. For now, she is staying on in the lab for a 6-month postdoc position to finish a project from her Ph.D., not because she likes the work—she doesn’t—but to postpone decisions about her next move.

“I wish I were you,” Joyce says wistfully to her colleague Babette, who is working at a bench nearby, feverishly trying to finish her experiments while also preparing for her own defense.

Babette pauses her work for a moment and looks at Joyce, puzzled. “You want to be … me?” she asks. “I don’t think so! I am so stressed out about my exam. I just won’t be fully prepared, as I have—stupidly, stupidly!—signed up to work on this outreach project that will eat up my time for the next few weeks. I wish I were in your shoes and had already defended my thesis and finished my degree!”

“I would still prefer to be you,” Joyce responds quietly, slightly ashamed to admit that she is jealous of Babette despite her stress, which Joyce is all too familiar with from her own recent weeks and months of writing and editing her thesis, studying for her viva, and preparing her talk.

“But why?” Babette exclaims, baffled.

“I’m not jealous of your next few weeks. But you have this inner compass, Babs. You seem to know what you want to do. You’ll sail into a nice job, one that really fits you, while I’m sitting here feeling like ‘Postdoc Dr. Clueless.’”

During her Ph.D., Joyce did pretty much exactly what her boss demanded from her: 100% focus on her research, 100% of the time. And from her supervisor’s perspective, it paid off. She finished about a year faster than most others in her lab, with three first-author papers in good journals.

Babette, on the other hand, annoyed their boss with her nonresearch activities. She started her Ph.D. before Joyce did and will finish after. She wasn’t the best at saying no when she was invited to participate in extracurricular projects, but she also couldn’t see herself spending all her time in the lab; research was just one part of her life. She somehow had her fingers in the organization of events across the city. A townhall discussion about animal testing, the annual conference of the local chapter of Young Molecular Biologists, gifted schoolchildren being invited to campus—Babette always seemed to be the person everybody looked for and who was more than happy to be found. She was great, engaging, and resourceful in these activities, which gave her a sense of energy and fulfilment. As she built up a network through these activities, there were always new ideas floating around for her to take on. Being involved also exposed her to potential employers, which gave her an early shot at getting invited to interviews.

Joyce sees all these benefits that she missed out on. “You found out what you do and don’t like,” Joyce laments. “All I found out is that lab work is not for me. What does it matter how many papers I have if I don’t know where to go next?”

Babette sighs, grateful for the new perspective on her experience but also distressed for her friend, who she didn’t realize was having such a hard time.

“It’s never too late to get started,” Babette counsels. “Look for something that isn’t a huge time eater and you’ll get something out of it in the time you have.”

Joyce still looks unconvinced, but Babette remembers an interesting opportunity she came across. It wasn’t a good fit for her, but she thought it might be good for Joyce. “I’ve heard the university magazine is looking for a story about career options for Ph.D.s. Wouldn’t the interviews for that be a great way to orient yourself?”

Joyce’s face brightens. “I think I know where you’re heading,” she replies. “I need a break from writing right now. But yesterday I saw an invitation to be a panel member for a student science competition; that might be a better fit. When I first saw the flier I thought it looked fun, but I didn’t really consider doing it because I was still stuck in my ‘100% focus on the lab’ mindset. Stupid Dr. Clueless! Let me look for the information, maybe I should reconsider.”

“You’d be great at it,” Babette affirms. “And you never know where it might lead you.”

The moral of the story

Extracurricular activities can be real time eaters and distract you from your research, and they may not earn you brownie points from your academic supervisor. But they are much more than a sprinkle of color on your resume. Such activities allow you to learn skills that are often complementary to your lab-based ones, such as organizing events or communicating with nonscientists. By accessing a broader skill set, you’ll learn about which skills you enjoy using and developing and how you want to work.

Scheduling and prioritizing such extra activities into the typically quite full schedule of a Ph.D. student or postdoc is not trivial. But knowing it is worthwhile and potentially fulfilling can help you make some space for it.

Lastly, relax. It’s not about doing as much as possible. It’s an exercise of educated cherry-picking—the art of informing yourself about what’s possible and then choosing what best fits your interests and schedule, in that order.

By Philipp Gramlich
Philipp Gramlich