The 4 Steps to Finding Your Passion
By Stephanie Huang on November 3rd, 2010
Growing up, I was a stellar student. I majored in biochemistry/cell biology as an undergraduate and, immediately after college, entered a PhD program in cell biology. With my academic success and interest in science, it was an easy choice for me to follow a respectable career path that everyone, myself included, assumed would lead to a successful and stable career as a scientist. What could possibly go wrong?
Two years into graduate school, I started feeling uneasy. Something wasn’t right. I wasn’t as excited about my research as I thought I should be. Was I a bad graduate student?
A year later I had an epiphany. Perhaps… it was ok that I wasn’t excited about my research. Perhaps… I was in the wrong place and there was something else out there for me!
And then the floodgates opened. Starting on that day, I embarked on an often nervewracking, but ultimately satisfying, career transition out of the lab. Finding your passion is not always a straightforward process. In fact, to be quite honest, my process is still ongoing. I’d be happy to elaborate on the details of my career path in future posts, but the short answer is that I finished my Ph.D. and became a science editor and writer. Along the way, I’ve also become quite the alternative career evangelist.
I’m not a career expert or career counselor, but I know where you can find one. I don’t have all the answers, and I can’t tell you what’s right for you, but I can tell you what’s worked for me and perhaps together we can brainstorm and come up with new ideas.
My primary goal in writing this post (and hopefully future ones!) is to share with you my thoughts and experiences during my career transition and hopefully, to inspire you to go on your own adventure of self-discovery. Let me clarify that I am NOT here to convert those of you who are passionate about bench research and/or want to run your own lab one day. But I would encourage you to think about whether you’re in the right place and avoid committing to a career path purely out of inertia or because of a lack of awareness of your options.
A whopping 52% of you responded at the end of Hurdles to a Non-Research Career that one of the hardest things about leaving the bench was finding your passion. I completely agree! Unfortunately, finding your passion isn’t like performing a Western blot, where I can send you an optimized protocol or upload an instructional video on BenchFly! Rather, there is a certain amount of blundering that needs to be done. By telling you what’s worked for me, perhaps I can at least get you started.
In retrospect, I would describe my transition out of the lab as having gone through four distinct phases: acceptance, exploration, connection, and reflection.
First, I had to accept that what I was doing, I didn’t absolutely love! Research is an extremely time-intensive endeavor – it was only after accepting that I didn’t love research that I was able to prioritize and make time for my career exploration and transition. If you are having even the teensiest bit of doubt, why not invest some time now and figure out if there isn’t something out there that you’d much rather be doing? I would argue that, even if you do decide to stay at the bench, you would be more confident about sticking to a research-oriented career, knowing that you’ve explored your options. Additionally, any students and postdocs that you mentor in the future would greatly benefit from your knowledge of alternative science careers.
Simply put, I needed to get out of the lab and see what else was out there. I started by visiting the career office at my university. I was very lucky to have such a helpful resource right on campus! A university career office may offer workshops on resumes and CVs, panels on alternative science careers, and even lists of alternative careers that alumni have transitioned to (and yes, you can contact these people, that’s next…). There are also many great resources online. Science Careers maintains a huge archive of articles providing career advice for scientists, profiling alternative careers, and more. Bio Careers is a relatively new site dedicated to offering resources for graduates in the life sciences and is quickly building up its own collection of career-related articles and videos.
I was surprised to find that many of my classmates were also considering alternative and non-research careers. We’ve had some good venting sessions about the lab, but we’ve also had some great conversations about our interests and where those could lead career-wise. I alluded above to contacting alumni who have transitioned into alternative careers. This is a great way to hear about how someone who used to be in your shoes eventually transitioned out of the lab and into the job they’re at now. Networking is key and probably deserves its own post. I’ll just say here that, in addition to talking to your classmates and alumni, you should tap into your networks (real and online) and see who else is doing something that intrigues you. Ask for an introduction (politely) and see if that person might be willing to speak to you over the phone or even meet in person. You might be surprised how willing people are to tell you their story in exchange for a cup of coffee.
Self-reflection can be tough – it certainly was for me. Maybe I was too ambitious. It wasn’t sufficient for me just to find my next job, but rather, I wanted to find my ideal career – one that would be the best fit for my abilities and dreams. I think that finding your passion is necessarily a work in progress, and that your career and your dreams will likely evolve as your life and personal situation changes. That said, I also think it is really powerful to know what you want at your core, and to work from that to determine what kinds of jobs/opportunities would be the best fit for you. Ask yourself “If money or prestige was not an issue, what would you want to spend the rest of your life doing?” Consider your hobbies and interests. Left to your own devices, what do you end up reading or thinking about? An interesting way that I tackled this question was to make use of Twitter. I gave myself the rule that I would only tweet about things that I found incredibly interesting. After about 6 months, I looked back over my tweets and found a strong inclination towards science communication. It was clear as day and reinforced what I had sort of been suspecting all along.
Finding your passion as a scientist is not an easy process, but one that will ultimately present great rewards. It has for me! So, go explore and reflect. Talk to someone. Talk to me if there’s no one else around. I’m eager to swap career exploration stories and happy to help however I can.
Stephanie Huang received her Ph.D. in Cell and Developmental Biology from Harvard University. After a stint as an editor for the open-access journal PLoS Biology, she is now a science writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can read her blog or follow her on Twitter or contact her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.