Finding your direction in science – part 1: The choice of courses and supervisors

What comes up after holidays? Yes, reality, serious and inevitable. For many of us this means also facing the questions of how to continue with your career/studies. As discussed many times before, this is a topic that returns like a boomerang several times during a scientist’s professional life. That’s why we want to dedicate the next tow “What’s on” contributions to share some thoughts with you.

Right now, you might be picking courses or lab rotations for your next term. Or you have just graduated (congratulations!) and looking for a postdoc position. Or you are an experienced postdoc looking for a position or job. If you know exactly where you want to go in your career and which methods you would like to learn, great! We hope you can get into the spot made for you. For many of us, especially at the student level, however, this is not the case.

Actually this bares an advantage! It is easier to keep your eyes open and that might highlight options you did not consider in the beginning, but turn out to be just right for you. Here are some general points you might want to consider when picking courses, lab rotations, interns or even when looking for PhD programs:

  • Going abroad? There are many options (also in terms of funding) and although it might be scary, it is a unique experience that will foster your personal and professional growth like not many other experiences can.
  • Change of fields? Many people spend quite some time in the same lab/scientific field during their studies. Understandable, it is convened, it might help you to finish stuff and get deeper into a topic you are interested in. On the other hand, checking out other labs will enable you to learn new methods, meet new people, get some new viewpoints, and perhaps refresh your mind and perspectives. This can be quite stimulating, and it shows your interest and flexibility (two impressions you might want to induce with your CV). Working in different labs early on is defiantly recommendable. You will get something from changing and even if it’s just knowing that the first topic is the one for you.
  • Have a look, have a chat! Apart from science discussions, it is also quite important to get along in the lab environment, especially with your future colleagues. So if you are drawn between two options why not asking for a one-day trial? Just looking over people’s shoulders, asking them about their work will give you a good impression of what the work will be like. You won’t take much of their time and “your” PI might be quite keen himself on getting to know you better and appreciate your enthusiasm. Definably worth asking for.
  • Be aware of your options! Check in advance on the regulations of your university what you are allowed/supposed to do. The regulations can be very different between different courses even at the same university. Some departments might want you to take an internship in industry, in others you will have to stay in the same department and write a report, prepare a poster or both. The earlier you know the better.
  • Volunteering? Especially in between courses or while waiting for PIs to reply to your application an increasing number of people starts to work for free in labs at their university. For a couple of hours a week they do “small” jobs like cloning or cell culture maintenance. This not only does make a good impression, gives you experience, looks very enthusiastic on your CV, gives you the chance to interact with more experienced scientists, but it also puts “your foot in the door”.

This list could go on and on and the internet is filled with several others factors to consider. Most important advice at the end: Do not get overwhelmed by all these factors, just get started with something. After all, it will be an experience (positive or negative) to learn from. The only real mistake is to do nothing at all and wait for people to approach you with the perfect opportunity.

Good luck and a successful term, Your YSSC