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Amid The Pandemic, I Learned To Reflect On What Really Matters To Me In A Career

“Hot off the press, congratulations!” my Ph.D. supervisor wrote to me back in August. Our paper—which I had written during lockdown based on labwork I completed before the pandemic—had just been accepted for publication. “Great!” I responded. And that was that. I went back to cleaning my apartment and waiting for bread to bake. My city’s lockdown made celebrating with co-workers at pub trivia or group drinks impossible. The only person who was going to celebrate this accomplishment with me was me—and I didn’t feel like celebrating.

If you had asked me at the beginning of my Ph.D. what I wanted to do after graduating, I would have said that I wanted to hide away at a fume hood and do research. If the pandemic hadn’t hit I probably would have blithely remained on that track, carried along by the momentum of my expectations for myself and my future. The cheers of labmates and colleagues when I published that paper would have spurred me forward.

But publishing in isolation, with no celebrations, gave me a chance to reflect on what I truly find rewarding. The paper gave me little sense of personal or professional accomplishment. I realized I don’t find satisfaction just from the act of research. In the words of organization expert Marie Kondo, it doesn’t “spark joy.” Where did that leave me?

I had more than a year of my Ph.D. left. The prospect of working at something I no longer enjoyed, for a goal I was no longer excited about, was discouraging. “Get a Ph.D.” had turned out to be less of a career plan and more of a single step toward something unclear. I no longer knew what my career trajectory ought to be. I had been getting emails about university-sponsored graduate student career workshops every week for years. Like most people I knew, I figured I had better ways to use my time. Now, feeling aimless and uncertain about my future, I thought I would give them a try.

When I attended my first (virtual) event in November, I was a little discouraged at first to see it was mostly first-year graduate students who were already thinking about their career plans and how to optimize their grad school experiences accordingly. I felt late to the party, and somewhat regretful I hadn’t taken advantage of these resources earlier. But I told myself late is better than never and that there was still lots I could learn.

As part of the workshop we completed an Individual Development Plan (IDP), a sort of quiz that helps you rank your career values and priorities. I had last taken a career quiz in high school. It told me to pursue marketing or vending machine repair, so I was fairly skeptical going in. When I got my results, I was surprised at first to see that “teamwork” and “help society” ended up as my top career essentials. But when I thought more about what I found fulfilling over the previous year, this began to make sense. I realized that I’ll remember the people—the graduate students and other researchers I met and got to work with. I’ll remember painstakingly going back and forth with my supervisor to craft a manuscript we were both happy with. For me, collaboration sparked joy.

The IDP suggested careers in public policy or administration. The prospect of leaving research was scary. But if the major research milestone of publishing a paper wasn’t fulfilling for me, I needed to look elsewhere. So, rather than start new research projects, I’ve begun to write my thesis earlier than I planned, aiming to apply for a science policy fellowship in the fall. I’ve started to do something I previously associated only with business students and career professionals: networking with past collaborators and professors.

I wish it hadn’t taken a global catastrophe for me to find my way to what I hope will be a rewarding career path. Yet if COVID-19 hadn’t happened, I expect I would still be going full-steam ahead on research and would have realized far too late that I was on the wrong path. Going forward, I hope I can make a routine of regularly reflecting on what sparks joy—without waiting for a crisis.


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