What is the best way to know if a career path is right for you? Well, of course, you might want to first read about it, study job descriptions, and ask people who have followed this path about their experiences. But, in the end, how will you know what you haven’t tried? Life design experts like Bill Burnett and Dave Evans of Stanford University call the process of trying things out models, borrow a term used in engineering.
In my case, my first career was in the US Army, where I prototyped a potential career path as a military police officer and paratrooper. While I enjoyed many aspects of this career path—such as leadership experience, focus on camaraderie and teamwork, and the importance of developing your employees as your most important resource—I also realized that some aspects of this path were not well suited to my long-term lifestyle. This realization led me to consider another career plan that might be more satisfactory and a better fit for my skills and interests – my A-prime plan, an alternative I was genuinely excited about, as opposed to a backup or less attractive plan B. Go back to graduate school to get your Ph.D. Pursue an academic career.
Later, after prototyping an academic research career while serving as a postdoctoral researcher, I discovered a new A-prime in academic management: career and professional development, which I do now and find very satisfying. But if I hadn’t tried each of these career paths empirically, I would never have known if they were right for me. At each stage, I was able to learn the aspects of my current job that I like to do the most, and I carried those experiences with me to my next position to expand and develop into new skills.
In their book, Design Your Life: How to Build a Happy and Enjoyable LifeBurnett and Evans suggest that the best approach is to fail fast and fail forward. With that in mind, they suggest finding ways to experiment with aspects of life or careers you’re interested in so that you can either delete them or move them to your list of best prospects — even if it means starting with small steps.
For example, if you’re a scientist who thinks you really like marketing, consider if you could gain some experience in bite-size pieces to see if you like it before moving into a full-fledged sales and marketing role right from the bench. Could you be the social media marketing officer for a student club, volunteer to promote events for your department or get a taste of the role in another way first? If you are interested in a writing or editing career, could you write or edit a blog regularly or do contract editing in small pieces to see if you enjoy the process? If you are not sure you want an industrial job but are absolutely sure you want a research intensive job, can you do a postdoctoral study in industry, take part in an industrial training or just visit a company website to see if you are interested in that sector Profit and industry atmosphere?
Experiential learning opportunities abound in the career development of graduate and postdoctoral trainees. Audra van Wart and colleagues note that “experiential learning approaches can include a broad range of activities that provide hands-on experience and learning, both in and out of the classroom… or a set of skills.” They identify four categories of experiential learning activities for career and professional development: job simulations, employer visits, job shadowing, and internships. These different types of experiences can give you a different perspective on what might be a good next step for you. Consider the level of knowledge you have so far in the area that interests you and what level of scaffolding (prior knowledge, preparatory experiences or support) you may need to engage in a more comprehensive or intense experience – one that will best advance you beyond the current stage of Your career progression.
After you’ve passed the reading resource-about-a-new-position phase, talking about it with other professionals and exploring job postings, you may be in the process of settling in and need to step into the world of experiential learning to accelerate your career exploration and advancement. In fact, there are some great experiential learning resources for graduate and postdocs on career and professional development. An example of this is Intersect JobSims, which allows users to explore experiential learning activities developed by professionals in more than twenty job areas, in collaboration with graduate career development specialists. Or, as a next step, consider attending a site visit program to gain an immersive experience of what that sector or company is like. If your organization does not have a site visitor program, consider helping to establish one. Or check out the University of California, UCSD Postdoctoral Program in Industry Exploration, which you can read about temper nature, or the ELITE multi-institutional consortium, which organizes field visits.
As a capping experience, you may choose to seek opportunities to participate in an internship in the sector or career field of your choice. In fact, Patrick D. Brandt and colleagues recently found that participation in even high-dose professional development experiences such as internships is not associated with loss of competence or productivity in research and scholarship.
As we head into the new year, this is a great time to take stock of your career journey and as you are positioned along the trial run. What is the next stage next year that you might be able to turn into an experiential learning opportunity? Brainstorm possible connections, programs, and timelines to plan your experiential learning adventure now. The message is clear: experiential learning is worth the time to invest in making prototypes of your future. what are you waiting for?