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The job market is tough. It’s wise to explore different career options

Here’s what grad students and postdocs can do to broaden their horizons—and how faculty can support them

by Jen Heemstra, special to C&EN
October 9, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 39


Illustration of a scientists standing in a circle of arrorws pointing outwards and in different directions.
Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock
Turn uncertainties into new opportunities.

Uncertainty has been an ongoing theme of this year, and for many early-career researchers who are nearing graduation or the completion of their postdoctoral work, one significant source of stress is uncertainty regarding the job market. The economic projections are continually fluctuating, but it is clear that for job seekers, landing the careers that they want is likely to be more challenging than usual. There are no good answers or easy remedies for this, but there are things that faculty mentors and students or postdocs can do to increase the likelihood of success on the job market.

One of the most important things that faculty can do is recognize the magnitude of the challenge that students and postdocs are facing and intentionally support them in all possible career choices. Empowering individuals to think broadly about their career options is a good mentoring practice at any time and is especially important right now, when job openings in some sectors are sparser than others. One of the benefits of a degree in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) is that it can serve as a path to job opportunities not only in academia or industry but also in policy, law, communications, and more. As research mentors, we can help individuals think through the career choices that will allow them to best leverage their skills or that will most closely align with their personal needs and interests.

Faculty can also take action to help the members of their research groups be successful in pursuing their desired career paths. While we may not have direct experience with career paths beyond academia, we can help connect early-career researchers with resources and mentors who can provide information about these options. Additionally, faculty can support students and postdocs in pursuing professional development opportunities that will help them be more competitive for their desired careers. Last month, Neil Garg and I wrote about prioritizing the careers of the researchers we mentor over the research itself, and encouraging professional development activities is a tangible way to demonstrate your commitment to this principle. For example, if a graduate student in your lab is considering a career in science communication, you can support their participation in workshops such as ComSciCon or the OpEd Project. These workshops not only help aspiring communicators build their networks and gain new skills but also provide opportunities to generate writing or digital media that can be included on their CVs. Importantly, these networking and professional development activities can be pursued throughout someone’s time in your group, not just when they are preparing to enter the job market. Schedule regular meetings with each member of your lab to discuss their career plans and strategize on what you can do now to help them be successful in the future.

For students and postdocs, one of the critical things you can do is to seek out these types of opportunities. Your institution may offer career guidance resources, and you can find people in your desired career path and ask them what events or activities they recommend. If you’re not sure how to connect with those individuals, social media can be especially useful. Most professionals would be excited to chat with early-career scientists who aspire to follow in their footsteps. These experts can help you decide whether a specific career path is right for you and offer advice on how to stand out in the applicant pool.

In addition to seeking out new networking opportunities, you can also try to make up for the ones that were lost because of the pandemic. If you were planning to attend a conference or symposium last summer, it was probably canceled or moved online. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still network with the scientists you were hoping to meet there. Reach out by email and explain that you had been looking forward to meeting them, and then ask whether they would be willing to find a time to chat about research and careers. You may not get a response from every person you contact, and some may respond but not have the time to talk right now, but there is a very good chance that many of the people you reach out to will be willing to connect.

Finally, remember that where you start your career does not have to be where you finish. My first job after graduate school was one that I knew I did not want as my long-term career. The 2 years I spent there were challenging in many ways, but they also provided me with clarity on what I wanted to do and taught me valuable skills and knowledge that I still use today.

Jen Heemstra is an associate professor of chemistry at Emory University who shares advice on Twitter at @jenheemstra. Find all her columns for C&EN and ask her questions at

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.



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