A Road Map for Successful Career Exploration

Most graduate students and postdocs know they should give serious thought to their next career steps, but they aren’t sure how to navigate the career exploration process. After all, for those with doctoral training, there are a dizzying array of possible career “destinations” both inside and outside academe. Collecting information about even a few of those options can quickly become overwhelming and hard to sustain along with your current job.

What’s more, career exploration is a bit of an emotional roller coaster — an ever-changing blend of exhilaration, disappointment, anxiety and hope. If any of these challenges sound familiar, take heart! In this column we share a tool we developed to help people keep moving steadily forward despite these challenges.

The tool, called the Career Exploration Road Map, is designed to help you: 1) visualize the “terrain,” or process, of career exploration, 2) track your progress and 3) identify the most strategic next steps. It is meant to be pinned to your wall and revisited every few months. Some trainees have found the road map helpful when they start exploring careers, for the conceptual orientation it provides to an often unfamiliar process. Others have found it especially useful when they’ve gotten bogged down, as a means of getting unstuck and starting to move forward again.

We developed the Career Exploration Road Map for University of California, San Francisco, graduate students and postdocs participating in our Motivating INformed Decisions program (or MIND, funded by an NIH Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training award). The road map, like the entire MIND program, is career neutral; many of our trainees are actively considering both a more traditional faculty career as well as a different career possibility. If you are exploring more than one career simultaneously, the road map can help you track, juggle and reprioritize your efforts dynamically to make best use of your time.

The road map guides you through six different stages of career exploration. (Please click on the Career Exploration Road Map graphic to follow along while you read.) As professor of organizational behavior at the London Business School, Herminia Ibarra, notes in Working Identity, her insightful book about career reinvention, career exploration is a highly iterative process. This iteration is represented by the cyclical path of the map. The self-assessment stage (green) is followed by investigation (yellow), reflection (orange) and synthesis (red), culminating either in planning and implementing a job search (purple) or in reassessment (blue) and renewed investigation (back to yellow).

Within each of these stages, the map poses a number of questions, which may be considered in any order. In the green self-assessment stage, for example, you are prompted with questions like “What am I good at?” “What am I interested in?” and “What’s important to me? What do I care about?” Those questions can be answered intuitively, or you may find it helpful to take formal assessments such as myIDP (natural sciences) or ImaginePhd (humanities and social sciences).

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