Last year, we held a Career Development Week for the lab, in which I encouraged everyone to take a little extra time to focus on their career goals. For this exercise, I provide a list of career development activities that the lab might want to participate in and assign points for each item (they don’t know the point value until after they’ve selected activities). At the end of the week, we have a meeting to go over everyone’s activities, tally points, and give a prize to the winner. We just got done with this year’s Career Development Week, and I think it was my favorite lab meeting of the year! The lab was already in a jovial mood when I arrived, Halloween candy in hand. Despite the success of last year’s exercise, the lab composition is a bit different and I wasn’t sure if they would really buy in to the idea. I was pleasantly surprised! Each person really threw themselves into these activities, enjoyed themselves, and gained something valuable from the experience!

This year, I gave them the following list to choose from:

  • Join twitter (must be public account and have name, some photo, bio)
  • Follow 20 scientists or science organizations on Twitter (points given for every 20 followed)
  • Make a website (must include your research interests, CV/publications)
  • Update your website
  • Make a career timeline (must include 1yr, 5yr, 10yr goals with decreasing level of detail)
  • Review a preprint and email comments to the senior author
  • Give a 5 minute verbal presentation to a scientist in a different field and ask them to rate their level of understanding afterwards (1=didn’t get it, 5=very clear and understandable).
  • Give a 5 minute verbal presentation to a non-scientist and ask them to rate their level of understanding afterwards (1=didn’t get it, 5=very clear and understandable).
  • Learn a skill you don’t know but feel you should (must show evidence of progress or proof of proficiency). This could be an experimental technique, proficiency with some software, type of data/statistical analysis).
  • Identify one career development area where you feel you are weakest and make a plan to improve it systematically over the next year (first step of the plan must be completed within career development week).
  • Identify a career/learning/teaching opportunity you plan to take advantage of (not one I have already alerted you to).
  • Write a few sentences about something useful you learned or gained by focusing on career development this week (I will use this or excerpts for a blog post on the lab website)
  • Consider a mentoring network and list additional faculty you don’t already know that you plan to ask for feedback and advice (the goal is to expand your connections and potential letter writers as well as diversify the advice you receive).
  • Come up with your own career development activity (the group will decide how many points it is worth at the end of the week).

Here are some of the highlights:

Soumita Dutta, a postdoc in the lab, added her information to her existing Twitter profile (@dutta_soumita) and followed 63 new people. I was really pleased that just by following some relevant contacts, she started to see the utility and benefits of SciTwitter! She made a beautiful website, made a career timeline, and did a verbal presentation to a scientist outside our field. Importantly she signed up for several services and contacted several people that would help her in her goal of ultimately transitioning to an industry position.

Brittany Jack, a grad student that ran away with the victory and set the bar high last year, tried to take advantage of points given for following scientists on Twitter (@bmichellej87). She brought her follower count to over 1000 (I ultimately gave only 0.5pts for every 20 scientists/science organizations followed so no one could win the competition from this alone). She updated her website, made a career timeline, and gave verbal presentations to a classmate and a non-scientist friend. She also made a plan to start summarizing her findings/implications and collecting this so that it might give her a better big-picture view of her work. What a great idea! She came up with her own set of questions about work-life balance that we will include in next year’s career development week. Here’s what Brittany had to say about this week:

“By focusing on career development this week, I was alerted to what I was already doing to advance my career and how much more I could be doing to advance my career. The most valuable part of taking the time to focus on career development is that we are reminded what are goals are and why we are doing everything we are doing. Sometimes, the overall goal gets lost in the day to day activities and I am refreshed when I take the time to think about 10 years down the road. What does that look like? How can I make an impact now on what happens 10 years from now?”

Evan Craig, our newest research assistant, joined Twitter (@evanwalkercraig) and hilariously said he went for “quality over quantity” to follow 7 people. This included everyone in the room and apparently Steven Colbert, who he claims Twitter forced him to follow somehow. Evan made a website, a career timeline, gave verbal presentations, and identified areas of weakness and plans to overcome. While he wasn’t quite sure what he wanted when he joined the lab, I was excited to learn he has decided to apply to grad school. We now have a plan to make sure he’s a slam dunk candidate! He came up with his own activity, which was to do a mock interview with lab members and faculty in preparation for grad school interviews. Here’s what Evan said about this week:

“Career development week allowed me take a step back, and properly gauge where I stand, not just in my immediate scientific work, but in my equally important long-term career path. It allowed me to recall goals I had not contemplated for a long time, and make the proper adjustments to keep pursuing those goals, or change my path accordingly. This week begged questions like has my research triggered an unforeseen interest that I may want to pursue? Did I attend a presentation where I connected with speaker’s research or occupation? Career development week helped me synthesize these experiences to make sure my “career development” is growing along with my actual feelings and interests. And I’ve realized if you aren’t instructed to actively think about career development, odds are, you won’t!”

Shengping Huang, another postdoc in the lab, added information to his existing Twitter profile (@shengping_huang) and followed many new scientists and journals. He made a career timeline, gave verbal presentations, and made a plan to address some weaknesses he identified. He was also the only person to review a preprint and send comments to the author (an activity worth a ton of points). I was thrilled to see he selected this activity and did it for two preprints. Shengping rightly suggested that next year, we put a point cap for repetitive activities so no one could game the system. Shengping said this:

“During this career development week, I reviewed two preprints and emailed the comments (suggestions) to the corresponding author. It is quite useful for me to get the story behind the preprint via communication with authors. It also helps me to recognize other people in various fields. I love preprints!”

Kate Fee, is a student in the lab that is part of a 6-year medical program, was in class and couldn’t attend the meeting, but she sent over her information so she could still participate (we saved her some candy). Kate made a career timeline, made a plan to improve some of her perceived weaknesses, identified a new learning opportunity to shadow an MD over her holiday break, and gave a verbal presentation to a friend who has been texting her with questions ever since! Here’s what Kate had to say:

“It is always fun for me to think about my future and all of the options that lie ahead of me. That being said, the amount of options is somewhat daunting. I have learned from this career development activity that I have a great many interests, and the best way to figure out how to tailor those interest towards furthering my career would be to investigate them, and to reach out to professionals and gain knowledge from their personal experiences.”

After the point totals were in, the winner was…Evan! He edged out Brittany by a few points and won a Visa gift card. In case Brittany crushed everyone again, this year I had a second place prize (Starbucks gift card), so everyone didn’t think chasing the prize was futile. Brittany won 2nd place.

Seeing all of the effort everyone put into furthering their own career goals and hearing how they felt about this activity was unbelievably rewarding. The lab seemed as energized about it as I was and Career Development Week will definitely be a long-term Avasthi Lab ritual. I particularly liked that everyone decided to present their research to a non-expert and I think this helped them step back and see the level of detail that is appropriate to help even science audiences better understand their work. Arguably one of the most useful activities, the career timeline, was also completed by each person. I hoped that setting long-term goals would help them take directed action in the short term and was happy to see that they all felt this was useful. As last year, I encouraged everyone to keep these their goals and efforts in mind and continue to invest in their future a little at a time.

Based on our overwhelmingly positive experience, I strongly recommend putting a spotlight on career development outside of the usual activities. If you have a similar plan in your own lab or decide to try a structure like ours, let us know what you did and how it went!