Guest post by Bob Dolan, MIT

“What will I do next in my career?” can be a daunting question when there are so many options and variables to consider. Whether you are interested in a non-research career or a research-intensive track in academia or industry, this article will help you design a career exploration strategy.

Your career path can change multiple times throughout your life. Your role within your career may change, for example, from staff to leadership. You may also change careers if your interests and priorities change. Regardless of where you go and what you do, you will always need a strategy that will help your search be more effective.

An effective Career Exploration Strategy involves 3 steps.

  1.     Self-Assessment What are my skills, interest, traits, and values?
  2.     Career Research What positions/industries/institutions can use my skills?
  3.     Creating and Executing your Action Plan Building relationships/networking and creating an effective communications plan.

Step 1 – Self-Assessment

What are my strongest skills?  For example: research, problem solving, leadership, communications, programming, writing, managing projects, inventing, etc. Identify your strongest 3-5 skills.

What are my interests? Research shows that people are more successful when they work in an environment that interests them. Assess your interests and identify your top 3-5 in a work setting: for example, working independently, fixing problems, working in teams, fast-paced environments, writing, leading people, physical work, teaching, travel, etc.

What are your strongest traits?  How would you describe yourself? How would others describe you? What are your top 3-5 strongest traits? For example: artistic, adventurous, creative, responsible, sociable, loyal, people-oriented, dependable, a self-starter, efficient, civic-minded, a perfectionist, etc.

What are your values? What is important to you?  Your personal values keep you on course and are one of the most important aspects of your career choice. Understanding your personal values, and recognizing that they affect every aspect of your life, can guide you during your decision-making process.  How do your values fit with your personal life, work, family, love, peace, play, etc.?  How are your values shaped by your cultural experiences, family, education, economics, customs, status, ethnicity, social institutions, etc.?  Identify your top 3-5 values from the following:

  • Independence and Autonomy – having the freedom to do things on your own, minimal restrictions
  • Authority – managing your environment, influence over the outcome of a situation
  • Leadership/Management – coordinating the work of others, responsibility for results
  • Technical Expertise – the drive to have expertise in skill areas or functions
  • Lifestyle – having a holistic pursuit in your life, unifying career, family, and interests
  • Service – providing guidance or solutions, dedication to a worthwhile cause
  • Companionship – being in an environment that fosters friendships and teaming
  • Security – having financial strength or stability
  • Challenge – stretching your abilities, technically and organizationally
  • Prosperity – accumulating wealth, more than you need


Once you have identified your skills, interests, traits, and values, create a summary of your self-assessment.  As you begin to establish your action plan, use this summary to ensure that the role you are targeting has most of the attributes that you have identified as important to you.  It would be unusual that you would find all of your desired attributes in a job, but now that you are more aware of them look for them during your career exploration phase.  My advice is to go to a place that is right for you.

Step 2 – Career Research

You now need to consider different career options and conduct some research.

  • Do you need a job now, or do you have time to look?
  • Do you want academia, industry, non-profit, or government?
  • Will your visa status impact your ability to work in certain countries?
  • Is continued education or a postdoc an option?
  • Is a different profession/industry an option?

Once you have selected a path consider the following:

  • What type of organizational/institutional structure would you be comfortable in?
  • Are you compatible with the environment you are pursuing?
  • Do your values align with the organization’s core values and guiding principles?

Academic Positions:

  • Research, teaching, or both?  Public or private?  Do you need funding?
  • Lab requirements?  Other roles?  Local or international?

Industry Positions:

  • Public or private?  Start-up? Non-profit?  Research or technical roles?
  • Leadership or support roles?  What size organization?  Local or international?

Step 3 – Creating and Executing your Action Plan

To develop your career action plan, you must research your targeted organizations/institutions and truly understand what they do, what they need, and how you can contribute to their mission. You can identify different organizations/institutions by contacting staff at professional societies. They can direct you to resources and people for gathering information. The next step is to develop your written communications, such as your CV, Resume, Cover Letter, Research Statement, Teaching Statement etc.   You should also  consider possible references and begin speaking with them about your next steps.

In addition to the written documents you should begin developing your verbal communications. You need to develop responses to general questions like “tell me about yourself” or “tell me about your research”, as well as many other interview questions. You may also have a presentation component to your job search.

Now it is time to establish or strengthen your web profile. Social media is becoming a major recruiting tool for many companies, particularly LinkedIn. Research shows that most recruiters in the US use LinkedIn to source qualified candidates. You should have a strong profile that highlights your skills, accomplishments, impact on your profession, list of publications, awards, technical/science expertise, and organizations/groups you may be following.

Follow this career strategy to your success!


Bob Dolan

About the author: Bob Dolan provides career counseling and professional development workshops for the Postdoctoral Scholars program at MIT. He is a Certified Job Search and Career Transition Consultant with experience in the field of Career Management since 2001. Before joining academia, Bob had a private Career Consulting practice and worked with clients across multiple industries, as well as providing career consulting services for a global Career Management firm.