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Career in Life Sciences: Plan it or Lose It

By: , Posted on: May 12, 2015

Many people have asked me, does a successful career in biomedical and life sciences just happen, or do you need to plan for it? My answer has always been “Plan for it or lose it.”

planning a career in biomedical sciencesAs the proverbial grasshopper discovered when winter came, if you fail to use the present to plan for the future, your future may be bleak, indeed .You must create and follow a well-defined and informed career plan to achieve excellence and obtain a satisfying career. Without a firm plan, you will probably follow many pathways that end in blind alleys. These experiences may increase your frustration and lead you to lose focus. You will waste time that will deter you, as a budding scientist from pursuing your initial goals.

As a consequence of poor planning, trainees may perceive all endeavors, both course work and laboratory research, to be too difficult to pursue because they lose confidence in their own abilities and having become enmeshed in emotion cannot settle into an appropriate mindset for developing a useful training path. I argue that carefully predetermined career plans provide a structure for trainees to follow which is stable, doable, desirable, and well informed. Once in place, the route to success is clear, though not guaranteed.

Unfortunately for most folks, the “whatever” approach to career development will not end well in most cases.

My recommendation that you have a plan does not dictate the nature of the plan. The plan may be a conservative, risk adverse one or a risky one that skates on the edge of failure. However, both should contain elements of innovation and opportunity. Bottomline, it is a plan and not a random pathway. Proponents of this approach to career development, including myself, are confident that having a plan reduces stress and can be an efficient mode of career development if properly executed.

The down side of this approach is that if plans are too rigid, trainees may miss out on exploring new opportunities that come their way. They may also not gain valuable experience in effectively responding to a changing external environment that they have little control over.

Some students take the opposite approach, operating without a plan and taking advantage of opportunities that come up which they successfully pursue. They do not pay attention to milestones and live in the moment when it comes to deciding what the next step will be. They do have vague goals which they are comfortable with changing when their internal and/or external environments undergo modifications. This approach has a romantic element in that not knowing what is around the corner is in itself exciting and challenging.

I would argue that the best practice is to have a well-informed plan on paper that is open to adjustments, either minor or major. Students should be open to exploring opportunities as they arise and to ensuring that these explorations are comprehensive, well informed, and not too time consuming. However, they should not be too carefree and lackadaisical about planning. Unfortunately for most people, the “whatever” approach to career development will usually not end in success.

However, speaking practically, while I have argued for the importance of planning, which of the two approaches students adopt is more about their individual personalities than about which path is correct. Students need to understand their own strengths and weaknesses and how these relate to how they choose to attain their goals –  whether they choose to plan carefully or to ride the waves.


About the Author

Avrum GotliebAvrum I. Gotlieb, MD is Senior Academic Advisor to the Dean; and Professor in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology at the University of Toronto in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

His book, Planning a Career in Biomedical and Life Sciences: Making Informed Choices is available for purchase on the Elsevier Store. Use discount code “STC215″ at checkout and save up to 30% on your very own copy!

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Biomedicine & Biochemistry

The disciplines of biomedicine and biochemistry impact the lives of millions of people every day. Research in these areas has led to practical applications in cardiology, cancer treatment, respiratory medicine, drug development, and more. Interdisciplinary fields of study, including neuroscience, chemical engineering, nanotechnology, and psychology come together in this research to yield significant new discoveries. Elsevier’s biomedicine and biochemistry content spans a wide range of subject matter in various forms, including journals, books, eBooks, and online information services, enabling students, researchers, and clinicians to advance these fields. Learn more about our Biomedical and Biochemistry books here.