This is something everyone should consider. For job seekers, it is the first question you should ask as part of your job search.
The answer should involve doing what you are passionate about. You are designed to do this. You are good at doing what you are passionate about.
So, what excites you?
How can you get paid doing it?
Ikigai – pronounced “icky guy” – can help you figure this out.
Ikigai is a Japanese concept that everyone is born with a natural purpose for their life (their Ikigai). If you can discover and live your unique Ikigai, your life will be filled with great satisfaction and meaning. It is your career sweet spot.
How does ikigai work?
Spend time contemplating the four ikiga questions:
What do you love?
What are you good at?
What can you get paid for?
What does the world need?
Once you answer these questions, look at where they all overlap. This is your ikigai, or career sweet spot.
What do you love, what is your passion? This question gets at a great motivator in life. What would you do if you won the lottery and didn’t have to make money? After the sports car and dream vacation, how would you just follow your heart?
What are you good at? This question leads to your vocation. For some, the answer is similar to the answer to the first question, but for others, it is not. It is a more practical question; less emotional. We all know on some level what we are good at. We may want to be an actor, that is our passion, but we find ourselves pushed into being the person who runs the box office instead, because we’re good at it. This is our vocation.
What does the world need from you? It is, ultimately, the question of what your mission is. Why are you here on earth? What can you achieve that will help others, that will make you valuable socially, that will make the world a better place? Explore what others value about you; aspects of yourself that you may not see as valuable.
What can you get paid for? What is your profession? It is a variation on the third question, but focusing on money. What do others value about you enough to give you money to do? If the world needs it but is not willing to pay you for it, it is charity work, not your profession.
Love golf? Are you good enough to make a living at it? If so, this could be your dream career. If not, golf is your hobby. You’ll need to find another way to make a living (which will support your golfing).
Love biology and art? How do they intersect into a career?
Consider be an illustrator for technical textbooks
Maybe you can analyze stained biological slides; your ability to see subtle differences in colors and discern the biological relevance could make you a star
Many scientists enter a PhD program believing their career path will be one thing — often targeting an academic position — only to realize part-way through the course that their interest lies elsewhere. Given the competitive job market for academic positions, and the lack of information about alternative careers available to many undergraduates, such changes are understandable. In a 2019 Naturesurvey, 45% of graduate students said satisfaction with their program worsened over time. Nearly 8 in 10 respondents expressed concerned about uncertain job prospects.
What happens if your desired career trajectory shifts radically while still a graduate student? Should you get another degree after completing your PhD?
Are you over or under-qualified for your new career?
One issue to consider is whether — in light of your new career goals — you need a PhD at all. Pharma and biotech companies continue to hire BS and MS scientists in large numbers. According to a 2019 employment outlook report from MassBioEd, the number of nationwide job postings by biotech companies for BS-level hires (approximately 115,000 in 2018) was more than double the number of postings for MS and PhD candidates (approximately 58,000 and 52,000 respectively that same year).
“I think there’s an overproduction of PhDs in many areas of lab sciences,” notes Eric Celidonio, Founder and Managing Partner at Sci.Bio. Biotech companies need scientists for benchwork, and hires with a PhD typically move out of those roles quickly. These jobs are mostly filled by BS and MS scientists.
While some specialized non-R&D roles such as Intellectual Property prefer to hire scientists with a STEM PhD and provide legal training, other entry-level roles for STEM graduates don’t need a PhD, and may be seen as an overqualification.
For many graduate students, the best way to break into a new career would involve entering the job market with a MS degree instead of a PhD and transitioning into a new role after several years of work experience, rather than seeking the ‘perfect’ additional qualification before searching for your first job.
Get another degree or acquire work experience? Getting an entry-level position in any industry is challenging without qualifications or relevant experience. Fortunately, recruiters and biotech companies often view a couple of years’ experience as equal to — if not more valuable than — a qualification in that field, notes Brandi Byner-Burrow, a sourcing specialist at Sci.Bio.
Full-time paid work experience isn’t always necessary for entry-level roles. Seeking out volunteer opportunities is another way to showcase your aptitude and motivation for the position. For example, if during graduate school you decide to transition into science writing, start building a portfolio of clips while you are still in your program by writing for your student newspaper or department web pages. If there are local chapters of professional STEM organizations, assist them with communications. These unpaid experiences can later be leveraged into securing paid internships or entry level roles in your chosen field.
Similarly, many graduate programs offer business courses, investment, and consulting clubs aimed at doctoral scientists, providing business and entrepreneurial training while completing your PhD. The tuition fees for an MBA program is often in the six-figure range, so it makes financial sense not to complete one if you don’t need to!
Some caution is necessary if you decide to take elective courses during your PhD. Recruiters wish to hire PhD scientists who are experts in their particular STEM field, and additional coursework not immediately related to that field may detract from your research and the acquisition of technical skills. Kerry Ciejek, Managing Partner at Sci.Bio, stresses the importance of “establishing credibility” in your field of STEM training before changing fields.
Making an informed career decision
If you’re weighing up the decision to pursue another degree, it is important to gather as much information as possible from recruiters, hiring managers, and people working in your desired occupation. Ask people how they got into their current role, and what (dis)qualifies potential candidates in the view of hiring managers. If you don’t have the opportunity to network with these people in person, reach out on LinkedIn and politely request a short informational interview. Most people are happy to discuss their professional experiences, give advice, and help junior scientists make good career decisions.
Are you a PhD candidate interested in careers outside the lab? Not sure your STEM PhD is a help or a hindrance to finding your dream job? The experts at Sci Bio are here to help. Get in touch with us today.