Finding Time for Career-Enhancing Activities

Research is your top priority as a graduate student or postdoc. That, coupled with your passion for science, may drive you to devote every waking moment to your research.  You love discovery.  You need to publish.  However, regardless of your career aspirations, your regular routine may benefit from a slight change of pace.  Maybe there is a certain career you’ve always wanted to explore or skill set you’ve wanted to develop.  Participating in activities outside of lab can help you learn a lot about yourself, forge meaningful networks, and potentially guide your future career path.

Earlier, we discussed serving on the career symposium committee and how to make the most out of such opportunities.  Other activities may range from writing an article for a newsletter, organizing a monthly seminar series or social event, teaching a course or leading a journal club, taking the initiative to start a new interest group, or serving as a co-chair of a postdoc or graduate student association (such as FelCom or the Graduate Student Council). There is a variety of opportunities with a range of time commitments to explore.

Choose the right moment, but make the time: Develop a comfortable balance between your research and activities, and never overextend yourself.  For both graduate students and postdocs, the “middle-years” of your fellowships are generally good times to participate.  Don’t get heavily involved when just starting your fellowship or when your lab is in the midst of preparing for a sensitive event like a grant deadline or a BSC review.  For grad students, avoid periods of time when you have a high level of academic responsibilities.  Perhaps it feels like there is no perfect time or personal/family commitments make it difficult to participate in events that extend into the evening.  Though, let’s say you devote 5% of the “standard” 40 hour work to such career-enhancing activities.  That’s 2 hours a week!  Look at your schedule from that perspective and determine how you can find the time.

Do the job right or don’t do it at all: Don’t participate in an activity if you are just looking to add a line to your CV, and don’t agree to take a role if you are not truly enthusiastic about it.  That line on your CV alone won’t do or say anything if you can’t support it by explaining the transferrable skills that you may have acquired.  Make sure you clearly understand what is expected for each one before you volunteer.   If you don’t fulfill your responsibilities, it could irreparably damage your reputation with colleagues and staff.  Give plenty of warning if you have to respectfully miss a meeting or withdraw from an activity.  Again, research is your top priority and everyone understands if extenuating circumstances arise.

Taking the next step: Talk to your mentor about your participation in any activities during normal working hours.  If your mentor isn’t too enthusiastic about your participating in a certain activity, start with an event that doesn’t take up much time.  Explain to your mentor how these activities can be important for your future career path and show, specifically, how small the time commitment really is for many cases.  Show through experience that these activities are not interfering with your ability to get new data or proceed with your research.

The NIH (or your university) is a great place to explore your skills and interests both in and out of the lab.  If you choose the right activity, plan ahead and manage your time efficiently, you can significantly enrich your experience here.

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