Like virtual reality for careers: A new online resource helps scientists explore job options

illustration of a woman using a VR headset with augmented interactives

In July, Shengpei Wang—a fifth year Ph.D. student at Syracuse University in New York—went to her university's career support center seeking help. She wasn't sure whether an academic career was right for her. She loved doing research, but writing grant applications and manuscripts is "not my favorite thing to do," she says. She had considered moving toward a career in data analytics, but her Ph.D. work wasn't particularly data-intensive and she had a nagging feeling that she wasn't capable of making the career switch. "I never doubted my interest; it's more competency," she says.

That's when a career counselor told Wang about a new set of online "job simulations" that allow scientists to test out jobs. The website gives background information about specific careers—in fields such as journal editing, science policy, and university administration—and the skills that are needed for each. Once job explorers home in on a career that interests them, they can follow instructions to complete a typical job task. (Thirty-one simulations are currently available, and more are in the works.) Each task was reviewed by professionals "to make sure it's a real, true-to-life industry-vetted task," says Thi Nguyen, an associate dean for graduate career and professional development at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, who led the development of the simulations.

The deliverables that job explorers are asked to produce aren't evaluated for quality. But Nguyen tells students not to worry about that. Instead, she asks, "Did you find yourself hungry to learn more about it? Did you find yourself in a little internet rabbit hole because you had fun?" If you were bored during the task, then you might consider crossing the job off your list of possible careers. But if you were engaged, then it's a good indicator that the job may be right for you, she says.

Wang took a stab at a task designed to simulate a career in data analytics: Clean up and analyze sales figures from a hypothetical company. The lingo was different than what would be used for an academic project, she noticed. But she found that her training had fully equipped her with the skills she needed to explore the data and produce a report about her results. "I can actually do this; it's not as hard as I thought," she realized. Now, Wang has more confidence that she can pursue a career in data analytics after completing her Ph.D.

For Luisalberto Gonzalez, a fifth year Ph.D. student at Washington University in St. Louis, the simulations helped him follow up on an interest that had been piqued at a career panel 2 years earlier. He heard a patent agent give a talk about intellectual property laws and, later, he spoke with her about her profession. But he still didn't have a clear idea of what a job in intellectual property would entail on a day-to-day basis and whether he would be qualified.

He completed a simulation that asked him to investigate whether an invention infringes on existing patent laws. That helped him see that "this isn't exactly so complicated that I'd have to do another year or two of work before I could do this; I could do this right now," he says. As a graduate student, he had learned how to take a scientific discovery and "break it down into the important bits" so that it could be communicated to others, he says. That skill was transferable to a career in intellectual property, he realized, because he'd be talking to inventors, digging into the patent literature, and presenting a final analysis. Gonzalez, an organic chemist, also liked that he'd be using his chemistry expertise in his daily work. "I'm still connected to science in that way," says Gonzalez, who plans to pursue a career in intellectual property after he graduates.

That's exactly what the job simulations were designed to do: help graduate students and postdocs narrow down what career options they're interested in, says Nguyen, who gave a talk about the new resource at the Graduate Research, Education, and Training Group meeting last week in Atlanta. The simulations are particularly useful during the early stages of career exploration, she adds. They can help students break through the "black box" that can surround a new endeavor, giving users a sense of what a career actually looks like and whether they'd be good at it, she says.

Each simulation is designed to take roughly 4 to 8 hours. That's a sizeable chunk of time to invest in one simulation, but it pales in comparison to the time required to complete an internship, get additional training, or apply and interview for jobs. "If you want to change career paths, then you need to be serious about it, and you need to put the effort into it," says Aparna Jorapur, a former lab manager at the University of California, San Francisco, who now works for a biotech company. The job simulations changed the course of her career, she says. "It almost lets you live a day in the life of someone else—of a career you want to pursue—and that helped me a lot."

Another benefit, Wang notes, is that the process can help spur further exploration, such as contacting people who work in the industry to set up informational interviews—a crucial step to learn more about people's actual experiences. Moreover, the job simulation experience will give her something of substance to talk about when she is able to set some up, she says. It also helped her formulate questions she wants to ask.

Nguyen and her colleagues launched the job simulations website in April, but in the year prior to that, she tested the simulations out with small groups of scientists, including Jorapur. Before trying them out, Jorapur—who holds a master's degree in biochemistry—had been solely focused on career options in basic science, but her supervisor encouraged her to check out the website and explore other options. The simulations served their purpose for both weeding out bad fits and identifying promising directions. When she tried the science policy simulation, for example, she very quickly realized, "no, this is not what I want to do with my life," she says. She stopped that one partway through. But when Jorapur tried out two business-related simulations, she completed them from top to bottom and discovered that she loved going through a company's portfolio and thinking about how business decisions are made. "It was really fun," she says enthusiastically.

Jorapur quickly focused on pursuing opportunities in industry. About a year ago, she landed a position as a senior research associate at FLX Bio, Inc., in San Francisco. She's still doing basic science research, but the position gave her a foothold in the industry and—after getting more training through a business program—she's hoping to move up in the ladder into a business management position.

The job simulations can also help scientists who are further along in their careers. When Larry Spears gave them a try, he was a senior scientist at Washington University in St. Louis—the next step after completing 5 years as a postdoc. He wasn't sure whether he wanted to "stay at the bench," but he knew that he wanted to be around science, he says. Spears completed the job simulation for a medical science liaison and found that it was a great fit for his personality and skillset. The travel that commonly comes with the job was an added bonus. Now, he works as a regional scientific sales representative for STEMCELL Technologies and is based in St. Louis.

"I do miss the bench and I miss the primary research," Spears says. But he's glad that his new position—which began in August—seems to be a good fit for him. "It's not the alternative career; it's just a career."

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