The 4 Steps to Finding Your Passion

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?

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What Happened?

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.

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Acceptance

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.

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Exploration

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.

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Connection

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.

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Reflection

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.

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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.

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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 stephaniecwhuang@gmail.com.

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14 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. anika

    wrote on November 3, 2010 at 11:57 am

    As I was leaving lab work behind in my own career, I often felt alone and that made the transition very difficult, like I was the only one who was having these feelings. I have since realized that is not the case, but if I had been able to make connections with other people going through the same transition, I am sure it would have been easier.

  2. Ragamuffin

    wrote on November 3, 2010 at 12:25 pm

    thank you for this post, Stephanie. having worked as a research assistant for two years post-undergraduate and just submitted my grad school applications, your interpretation of your own journey speaks volumes of reassurance to me. i struggled with self-esteem issues when i decided not to apply to programs directly out of college — knowing that i was breaking with the flow of my peers, who primarily applied during our senior year.

    i have learned, since, that research is truly my passion. during my working years, i have seen a project that i began as a summer intern three years ago come to fruition in the form of a funded grant, three research papers and myriad tests of my commitment and trouble-shooting skills. although, admittedly, science writing/editing is still in my line of sight as i envision the evolution of my PhD…

  3. Stephanie

    wrote on November 3, 2010 at 12:33 pm

    Thanks for commenting, Anika! Your experience is exactly why I feel compelled to write on alternative careers. I was very lucky to have had (and still have!) lots of support from my friends and colleagues during my transition. I want to make sure no one feels alone out there! What are you doing in your career now?

  4. Stephanie

    wrote on November 3, 2010 at 1:06 pm

    You're welcome and thanks for sharing your story! I applied to grad school straight out of college, and I think that if I had done what you did and worked first, I might have figured out earlier that research wasn't for me. Best of luck with the grad school apps! You'll have to let us know where you end up!

  5. alan@benchfly

    wrote on November 3, 2010 at 2:10 pm

    Exploration is so important yet it's something I think can be very difficult for us to find the time to do. Coming up through the academic system, most of us only see that side of the career and there's usually not a lot of time to "test the waters" on other career options- whether in or out of research.

    Stephanie's advice to start at the university career office is spot on. It's nearby and something we can visit over a lunch break. Although the counselor probably won't provide us with the perfect career after one meeting, just taking that first baby step towards exploration can be incredibly empowering. It will help us realize that we're in control and that we're not stuck where we are. As Stephanie points out, career counselors will also be able to plug us into alumni networks and other resources that will make continuing our exploration much easier.

  6. anika

    wrote on November 3, 2010 at 4:06 pm

    I'm a high school biology teacher now so while most of my colleagues in the lab were considering academic or biotech/pharma jobs I was headed in a totally different direction.

  7. Ragamuffin

    wrote on November 4, 2010 at 1:35 pm

    your blog is a terrific resource — if you don't mind a random plug, i have a career advisory event tonight (appearing as an alumna at my undergraduate university), the context of which is ideal!

  8. Stephanie

    wrote on November 4, 2010 at 2:17 pm

    That's awesome, we definitely need good science teachers out there!

  9. Chandreyee Das

    wrote on November 4, 2010 at 2:44 pm

    This made me think — is the fact that Stephanie wanted to post Tweets about things she found interesting ITSELF a sign that she wanted to be a communicator? In other words, how many people engaged exclusively in research (academic PIs, for example) use Twitter regularly?

  10. Lessons from a Recovering Postdoc | BenchFly Blog

    wrote on November 4, 2010 at 4:53 pm

    […] Not sure a postdoc is right for you? Check out Stephanie Huang’s article on Finding Your Passion. […]

  11. Stephanie

    wrote on November 5, 2010 at 7:24 pm

    I agree, Alan. Research can be super-competitive, and I remember feeling like I would fall behind if I didn't spend every waking second at the bench. It really took that epiphany for me to realize that maybe I didn't want whatever it was (a lab of my own, a professorship) that I was working so hard for. Yay for career offices! I really think they're underutilized.

    That's an interesting point, Chandreyee!! Nearly all of the science types that I have connected to on Twitter are bloggers or writers. But at least a handful of the bloggers are PIs (or postdocs) and engaged in research. In fact, I can think of at least three prolific bloggers who are PIs (and there are probably more). But I would guess they are in the minority. :) I think your comment actually begs a larger question – should being a researcher be so different from being a communicator? Academics do a lot of communicating – writing grants and papers, giving talks, etc!

  12. BenchLife: Your Life in the Lab | BenchFly Blog

    wrote on November 30, 2010 at 11:40 pm

    […] The Four Steps to Finding Your Passion – looking for that spark that gets you excited to wake up in the morning? Follow these four steps […]

  13. Miss(ing) PhD

    wrote on March 11, 2011 at 5:47 pm

    This is a very interesting post and and I think it's great to expose more people to career options outside of academia once one's earned the PhD. However, I wonder if the term "alternative" is the most effective way to encourage people into non-academic careers. "Alternative" career implies that these careers are somehow secondary, inferior or even less-accepted to the norm, i.e. academia. I wonder, Is there a different term or way in which to describe all the other amazing career possibilities that are available to PhDs?

  14. lfmata

    wrote on July 22, 2014 at 2:57 am

    Very interesting post Stephanie. I wish you had wrote this 10 years earlier. That would have save me three post docs to conclude that academia is not for me (anyway I should have trusted my intuition when I finished my PhD). Nothing is wasted time, I certainly learned and developed a lot of skills in my career. Now with 41 years old, I decided that I will stop and will try to find my my passion and pursue it. I am devoting 30 minutes almost everyday to it and find it an enjoyable but difficult (or endless) task. Can it be too late??? I like to think that no, it is never too late.

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