Wednesday, 15 November 2017 09:56

Your Common Career Questions Answered

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Published in Careers

With the new year around the corner, it’s never too late to think about the next steps in your career and set some resolutions. To help you get started, we highlight the top 5 career questions that ASM receives from students and postdocs and provide short answers.

  1. “What jobs are available with a BS, MS, or Ph.D. in microbiology?”

By far the most popular question that trainees ask is “What jobs are available with a BS, MS, or Ph.D. in microbiology?” We’ve heard many variations of this question including, “What are the other options available for grad students besides academia and industry?” For trainees that know research isn’t for them, they ask, “I am not meant for research, but I have a Ph.D. in microbiology. What can I do with that?” Occasionally, a student may be considering between two sectors and asked, “I'm deciding between academia and industry, how do I know which one to do?”

If you fall closer to the former group in understanding what jobs are available, the short answer is there are many options for people with a microbiology degree. To learn more, read the ASM’s career page that explores different professions. These pages cover what people do and the required education for the profession. Also, there are career profiles that delve deeper into what a person does at a specific organization. These get updated frequently so check back often. But, if you are like me and forgot to check, sign up for the career newsletter and get career profiles in your email. If you are leaning more towards the latter group in that you need help narrowing down options, conduct some informational interviews and ask yourself what kinds of skills and interests do you enjoy most.  

  1. “I want to do a postdoc, but I don't know who or where or in what microbiology specialty to do this in. How do I figure it out?”

After completing a Ph.D., many people do a postdoc. However, with that comes a lot of questions from trainees, including “I want to do a postdoc, but I don't know who or where or in what microbiology specialty to do this in. How do I figure it out?” or “Is it a good idea to switch fields for a postdoc?” For some trainees, they prefer not to do a postdoc because their career goals have changed, and they ask “How critical is a postdoc if I want to teach at a liberal arts college/pursue a career in science communication?

The short answer to what to do your postdoc in depends on your reasons for doing a postdoc. Most often people pick their postdocs depending on whether they want to gain new skills and experiences, further explore scientific topics, change fields, and/or increase their professional network. Speaking to your thesis advisor and thesis committee members is a good place to start. They may have suggestions for particular labs and may be able to introduce/recommend you to the principal investigators.   You may also need to consider existing commitments like family/spouse that can influence your postdoc choice, especially the location. Everyone has their unique situations/reasons to consider when picking a postdoc, so think about what’s important to you and use that to determine your postdoc choice. If you are having trouble figuring out what is important to you, start back at finding your career goals.

  1. “How do I make connections in a particular sector?”

You often hear that you need to network and that people find out about jobs through their network. So you might be asking, “How do I make connections in a particular sector?” or “What is something that every microbiologist should know about networking in the field?” Sometimes you may be attending a conference and ask, “How can I connect with people during a conference?”

The first step is to say hello, whether you are at a conference or sending an email. Make sure to introduce yourself - include who you are and what you do. If you are emailing a specific person, briefly explain why you are reaching out to that particular person.  Then depending on what your goal is, you can proceed to talk about your research or why you are interested in speaking with them about their career. This process is called giving an elevator pitch. Dr. Qualls, the founder of Entropia Consulting, recommends that you create a personal brand where you “differentiate yourself by promoting your unique value” and use that in your elevator pitch. The first step of doing your elevator pitch will naturally lead to networking and create your group of contacts.  

  1. “How should I prepare myself to be qualified for an industry career?”

It’s common for trainees to consider a career in industry, which leads students and postdocs to ask “How do I leave academia and get a job in industry?” For others, they want to know “How should I prepare myself to be qualified for an industry career?” While some have entered industry and are looking to transition to the business side and ask, “How much business experience or background do I need in order to do an industry management position?”

If you are looking to transition away from academia, we recommend that you start early to build necessary experiences and skills, network, and create a resume that is relevant and tailored to the job you are applying to. Additionally, what most of you don’t realize is that you gain a lot of skills, both technical and non-technical, while conducting research. At the foundation of every science industry position is science.  Thus, academic skills that easily translate into industry include not only your scientific knowledge, but also skills in project management, team management, and communication, to name a few. If you are looking to move more into management in industry, you can learn the business aspect of a company by attending task forces, all-staff meetings, and working on cross-functional projects. You don’t necessarily need an MBA, but you will need to have experience with managing budgets and forecasting needs of a group.     

  1. “How do I make myself stand out to be a good potential graduate student?”

Oftentimes, undergraduate students will ask us “What should I be doing to make my graduate school applications stand out?” Additional questions include “How do I make myself stand out to be a good potential graduate student? I want to go to graduate school for a Ph.D., but I don't know if I'm competitive enough.”

Common advice would be to acquire some research experiences, whether over the summer or during the school year with a faculty member at your university. Also, having leadership positions within a club or organization helps to show initiative and an ability to work as part of a team.  In addition to demonstrating maturity and other critical skills, active participation in science-based groups can help demonstrate other relevant interests you may have.  Even if a club or activity is not scientific in nature (for example, if you organized a campus food drive), this can showcase your personal interests and also the ability to coordinate complex tasks and see them through to fruition. These are all relevant experiences that can be put into your personal essays/statements for graduate school and can be used while interviewing.  


Last modified on Wednesday, 15 November 2017 13:45
Shilpa Gadwal

Shilpa Gadwal has been with ASM since March 2015 in her role as a Career Advancement Fellow. She took her passion of career development in trainees and created an online  hub for ASM’s career resources and articles. She received her B.S in the Biological Sciences from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunology from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.