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Advice to Students: Preparing for Your Career

May 26, 2014

[guest post by Ingrid Daubar]

A few days ago, incoming graduate student Alessondra Springmann asked a great question of the Young Scientists for Planetary Exploration Facebook group:

What things did you do in grad school (aside from research and classes and conferences) that best prepared you for postdocs and your career?”

Many people chimed in with excellent advice that is widely applicable, so we decided to compile it for posterity. Add your own tips in the comments!

One of the common themes was that as students, you should be thinking about your long- term goals, and build skills that will be useful for your ideal position. For example, if you are interested in teaching, get experience writing and giving lectures, not just grading homework. If you plan on being a scientist, start thinking of yourself as a scientist now – don’t just do research, but also write proposals and review papers. If you see yourself heading in an academic or administrative direction, get positions that will give you insight into how university bureaucracies function such as grad student representative or student government. Think about ways you can develop skills that could also work in an industry or private sector position. Practice speaking in public, which will be useful in almost any position.

Even if you’re certain about your long-term goals (and many people aren’t at this stage!), you may change your mind when exposed to other career paths. It’s hard to predict where your career may lead, so exposing yourself to tangentially related fields is wise. Use grad school as a chance to diversify, both scientifically and professionally. Conferences with a broad scope can help with this as well – spend some time at AGU in the terrestrial geology sessions and see what those scientists are doing. You can take this time to add skills outside of purely scientific tasks as well. Examples of this include learning to program, taking teaching courses, and volunteering for new things – you might even end up helping to plan a mission.

For similar reasons, seminars/colloquia/journal clubs were highly recommended, especially those outside your area of expertise. They are a great way to learn about different disciplines and think about interconnected scientific problems. If you have a chance to be the seminar organizer, it’s good exposure, and you can invite people you want to work for/with in the future. Seminars can also be a good opportunity to gain confidence speaking up and asking questions.

Reading papers is essential. Get into a habit of reading every day: keep up with the popular journals in your field, and read at least the abstracts, even if they’re not directly related to your work. This also relates to diversification – being well-rounded helps in general, leading to both scientific and personal connections that you might otherwise not make. At conferences, seminars, and when reading papers, learn to strip the science down to its basics: who is working on what problem, what are the open questions in this sub-field, what are the weaknesses of this technique.

One of the most popular recommendations was to write proposals in grad school. Your future academic career will most likely depend on getting funding. There are plenty of chances to write your own proposals as a graduate student – NSF, NESSF, and other fellowships directed specifically at students, as well as telescope proposals and many smaller travel grants and awards offered every year. You may not be able to apply for a NASA grant directly as a grad student (although it’s not completely unprecedented – be persistent if this is something you want to do!), but you can shadow your advisor through the process and help write sections that are relevant to your work. Ask to see their old proposals (both funded and unfunded) – especially the one that is paying your salary!


Networking was cited by many as one of the most crucial things you can do in grad school. This is the most likely way you’ll get your next job, so it’s critical to expand your network. Get to know senior people whose science is interesting to you and/or related to your project. Introduce yourself at conferences so they know your face. Get comfortable talking to people about your science. You might want to consider getting business cards for these situations, but sometimes it’s as informal as playing a game of poker with people in your field. If you can find a good mentor, cultivate that relationship. Not only could these connections lead to future jobs and collaborations, they also expose you to different career paths. Again, you never know where your future will lead, or who will be on your review panel, so don’t burn any bridges with the people you meet. This includes your peers in grad school. These folks will be your support system, rivals, collaborators, and friends throughout your career.

Several commenters mentioned that failure is a surprisingly important experience in grad school – one even said it was more valuable than success. Disappointment, imposter syndrome, exhaustion, and stress will not disappear after you defend; in fact, they will probably get worse. Develop mechanisms to deal with things not going your way. Your first talk will probably not go incredibly well. Practice more next time, and be more prepared. Your first proposal will most likely not get funded. Get feedback on its weaknesses, and make sure the next one is better.

Finally, a number of people emphasized the importance of finding balance in your life. Researchers who did not take a break between grad school and their first postdoc, or who worked 7 days/100 hours a week experienced burnout. Not only did their performance and careers actually suffer, they agreed that it’s not good for the soul. Take weekends off, even long weekends after finishing a paper, proposal or other milestone. Make time for rest, relationships and fun. Pursue hobbies that help you relax and keep you human and sane. You may need to experiment to find the right balance for you, and that balance will change with time. Learning how to find that balance, how to make life work, and adjust as you go is a vital skill.

Whatever you do, keep in mind that even though grad school seems very busy, you’ll never have as much free time or flexibility as you do now. Take advantage of that to do things you won’t have time for later in your career, like learning new skills and gaining experience in disparate areas. Whatever you do in grad school, work hard and have fun!

Thanks to all the people who contributed on Facebook: Erik Asphaug, Keri Bean, Brian Balta, Ingrid Daubar, José Luis Galache, Amara Graps, Daniel Hobley, Sarah Hörst, Chase Million, David Minton, Dave O’Brien, Jen Piatek, Andrew Rivkin, Kunio Sayanagi, Britney Schmidt, Alessondra Springmann, Matthew Tiscareno, and Angela Zalucha.

Have any tips you’d like to share? Please leave them in the comments!

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Ingrid Daubar permalink
    August 11, 2014 2:59 pm

    Lifehacker recently posted this list of “Things I Wish I Knew Before Going to Graduate School.” Not all of them apply to our field (for example, I thankfully never experienced the first one!), but some might be useful….

  2. Romain Tartese permalink
    May 27, 2014 3:28 pm

    In my opinion this post starts with the worst advice one could ever give to any grad student – “you should be thinking about your long- term goals, and build skills that will be useful for your ideal position”.

    I’ve seen grad students doing stuffs just because they think “long-term goals”, and it does not work at all…

    Do something just because you enjoy doing it, not because it can pay off in the future. We have to keep in mind that we are all privileged to work in academia as this is something we decided we wanted to do.

  3. May 27, 2014 3:22 pm

    Great summary! Susan always asked her interviewees what advice for young scientists just starting out on their careers (and I have continued the tradition) – you can read their answers on the 51+ Women in Planetary Science Page.

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