Conference Panellists Share Career Advice They’d Give to Their Younger Selves


Career paths take many twists and turns. Sometimes we reflect on how we reached our current destination and think, “Why was I so focussed on the wrong part of the story?”

We asked seven of our Conference Panellists to share career advice they’d give to their younger selves. They’ve provided excellent advice for anyone preparing to embark on their own career path.

1. Don’t be too focussed or narrow-minded.

When considering career options after the PhD, be open to multiple possibilities:

“I’d advise my younger self to not be so certain and single-minded about what a career is,” explains David McDonald. “I’d also say not to be so dismissive of other careers just because they didn’t fit my evolving criteria. It took me a lot of trying and failing before I started to look more broadly at other careers with curiosity.”

“Don’t be so focused,” counsels Marian Toledo Candelaria, “It sounds counterproductive, but being open to what can happen and keeping your skills updated will give you an advantage in the job market. My undergrad was in fashion design yet one of my favourite classes was typography. However, I did not do my minor in graphic design because I was so focused on becoming a fashion designer.”

According to Clark Richards, “It seems obvious in this context (now), but it would be ‘don’t discount non-university research jobs!’ …[T]here is a surprising amount of ‘interesting’ research that comes about because of things that are relevant to Canadians, and a creative scientist can find lots of ways of ‘adding’ new research questions to existing studies.”

2. Let go of “control” and embrace uncertainty.

When you begin to consider potential career paths, allow yourself to take risks and become more comfortable with ambiguity:

Jennifer Chain advises, “I started thinking outside the box, taking risks, trying new things, and now I have the kind of career I’m excited about. I am involved in science projects that I would have never have dreamed of before now and I’m learning more every day. My advice to my younger self would be to not follow the same path others are following – follow a path that is right for your own personality, values, dreams, and goals.”

Marian Toledo Candelaria explains that, “…your desired career outcomes will be outside of your control. When I enrolled in my PhD, I knew that obtaining a tenure-track job would be a (very) long shot. My specialty is medieval Scotland, so I am limited to jobs that are either outside of Scotland and are broader than my discipline, or are inside Scotland but that would require me to obtain a work permit, which is very difficult to do at the moment. …There is little one can do about this process and it is important not to blame yourself if your career goals have to adapt to outside circumstances. But it is also important to have a Plan B and C because they’ll probably become Plan A and B.”

“I still sometimes get caught in the trap of wanting a career path – steps in a clear progression toward a set goal,” admits David McDonald. “But for most people, that does not exist. So, I’d tell myself that I should look for something that will help me grow over the course of a few years.”

3. Be proactive.

Identify your definition of a fulfilling career, and start doing what you can now by looking for or creating opportunities:

“I wish I had been more proactive about my career,” explains Jennifer Chain. “I focused a lot on the kind of science I wanted to do, but not as much on different ways I could do that science. …I realized that to me, doing science was not fulfilling if it wasn’t being applied to the development of new things (i.e. treatments, products, technologies). This realization helped me be more proactive about the direction my career was going, how I was going to apply what I had learned, and what I could do to help move scientific knowledge toward treatments, products, and technologies.”

David McDonald provides this practical advice, “Instead of looking for roadblocks, I had to start asking, ‘In what ways would this job be fulfilling?’”

“Although I did learn how to use Adobe Creative Suite, I did not keep my skills updated,” observes Marian Toledo Candelaria. “Ironically, at my job I don’t do either fashion design nor medieval Scottish history: a good portion of what I do is graphic design. That [undergraduate] typography course has come in handy, but I’ve had to re-learn all of my technical design skills because I did not keep designing while doing my PhD.”

4. Don’t worry about “the end.”

Instead of constantly striving towards one ultimate career goal, focus on what it is you want to do and learn:

“If I had the opportunity to give my younger self career advice,” recalls Amy Bloomfield, “I would say to not become too fixed on an idea of what career I was preparing for or qualified to do. I never thought I’d become a data scientist – stats was a part of my research experience, but it was definitely a secondary consideration. Coding scared me. I thought I was done training when I defended my dissertation – but it was only the beginning! And that’s a GOOD thing!”

Ryan Cobb’s career advice for his younger self would be, “[A]void thinking about jobs in terms of a long term career arc. Instead, think more about what things you want to do and what you want to learn. A job might be a great opportunity in terms of building up your knowledge and skills, so don’t worry about whether it fits into some ideal career path or arc.”

5. Find mentors.

Finally, cultivate relationships with people who will become excellent advisors:

Clau Gonzalezv advises, “Cultivate mentors. Be willing to listen to their advice, and open-minded when it is not what you want to hear. A mentor can help stretch your thinking and abilities, so learn from them as much as you can.”

Join the panellists to find out more about careers beyond the professoriate on Saturday, 11 May 2019 by registering for the Online Career Conference for PhDs!

Checkout the Conference Program & Purchase Your Ticket

Contributors to this Blog

Amber Bloomfield, PhD
Data Scientist, Office of Institutional Research, Planning & Assessment University of Maryland

Jennifer Chain, PhD
Science Officer for Cellular Therapies, Oklahoma Blood Institute

Ryan Cobb, PhD 
Account Manager, Small Business Administration of the US Federal Government

Clau González (ABD)
Management Analyst, National Institutes of Health

Dave McDonald, PhD 
Associate Director of Graduate Student Services, Duke University Career Center

Clark Richards, PhD (Oceanography, Dalhousie University)
Research Scientist, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Bedford Institute of Oceanography

Marian Toledo Candelaria, PhD (History, University of Guelph)
Marketing Assistant, Wilfrid Laurier University Press

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