One day when I was a little girl, I walked to elementary school with a new friend for the first time. We’d both walked to the school many times, but never together. After we’d walked (and talked) for a couple blocks, I realized I had not been paying attention to where we were going, I’d just been following her. I said “I hope you know how to get to school this way, because this isn’t the way I usually go.” She replied that she didn’t know how to get there that way either, and she was following me. We looked around and realized we were several blocks past the school, and quickly turned around.
This story occurred to me recently as I was thinking about a number of students to whom I’ve been giving career advice recently. Many of them consider their advisor to be their main professional mentor, and rely on their advice for career matters.
However, when they stop to think, they realized that while their academic advisor may know a lot about what classes to take and what academic chemistry departments are best, most professors have had no experience outside academia. That means they may not be the best people to follow if you are in interested in a career in industry, government, or even a different level of academic career.
While your academic advisor is close, and certainly the easiest person from whom to seek advice, the easy way is rarely the best way. I suggest to these students that they move outside their standard circle of colleagues, and seek advice from someone with a different perspective and experience.
As a first step, seek out professors who are currently collaborating with industry, or better yet had a career in industry before going into academia. From there, you can move out and make connections with people in all sorts of fields, learning about their experiences. With this wider perspective, you will be better able to determine which career path is best for you.
Maybe now is the time for you to look around and see who you are following, and if they actually know how to get where you want to go. Who are the advisors and mentors in your life, and are they able to give you good advice? Have you actively gone out looking for professionals who are where you want to be? Do you attend professional society meetings, and learn about new trends and opportunities in your field? Do you have the next steps in your career planned out, and are you executing that plan? Or are you just following along, hoping that you will somehow eventually end up in the right place for you?
In the end, my new friend and I were late to school, but we made it there. With some concerted effort and experienced mentors, you can reach your career goals as well – and sooner, rather than later.
This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC. Lisa is a scientific communication consultant and author of “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press.