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Planning your research career: journey or destination?

Starting a new year is always an exciting time for me. Another year gone, a few more grey hairs, but mostly I’m left with positive memories and some small achievements. It always feels like a new opportunity, full of potential, and a good excuse to spend a few days planning for the future. As a researcher these thoughts about the future go hand-in-hand with concerns about my career. Being on a contract that only lasts a few years reminds me (and I assume many other researchers) that soon it will be time for another move along my career path. The following post is adapted from a blog on career paths I read by Steven Sinofsky (who used to be a big shot at Microsoft).

When asked about your research career path, you might say things like you want to be “Professor at … university/institute” or “world renowned expert in …” or that you want to “combine research and clinical work”. It can often be worth taking a step back to consider how you think about the experiences and expertise you build over time. Climbing the academic ladder isn't the only way to think about a career, even though it is probably talked about the most.

For some people, a professional career is a destination. From the very start, the goal is to achieve some level of proficiency or stature. The destination can be a role, an institute, a level of achievement, or some other specific and measurable goal. For others, a professional career is a journey. The goal here is to experience work from a variety of perspectives or fields. This journey can be through different institutes, job types, locations, or even varied fields of research. While it is tempting to think of these as mutually exclusive or as a one-time choice, as you can expect, the reality is less clear. Even so, you might want to consider not just what your next step should be, but the reasons behind the ensuing steps and how they can contribute to a career path.


Many people start careers with a goal of working their way “up” the chain. As a researcher you can start with a Master’s degree, to getting a PhD, to becoming a post-doc, and so on (all the way to Professor or the Nobel Prize!). This is one way to define progress, and this might be exactly right for you. Setting your sights on specific and measurable milestones fits with how many view career progression. There are two views of a destination-oriented path:

  • Leader. As a leader you follow the path of moving “up”. You focus on meeting the objectives as defined by the organisation (whether that is an institute, a university, or a national research body) for what skills and experiences enable you to move through the milestones.

  • Expert. As an expert you follow the path of being the leader in your area within your topic of interest. For many academics, this can be ultimately where the highest satisfaction comes from. You know the ins and outs of a research topic or methodology better than anyone.

Focusing on your destination is not for everyone. As we know, there is always only a fraction of researchers at the top of the pyramid. A destination goal is a long-term play and means that you might need to take a step left or right sometimes to keep moving up. Most of the time, however, your next steps are visible to you and patience and timing are important factors that influence your progression.


Others start their career knowing that the world is a big place waiting to be explored. Going thoughtfully from one role to another, or one institute to another can fulfil your expectations of progressing through your career, or life. If the journey is your goal you want to have a clear understanding of how you intend to assemble a collection of experiences. In planning this, you might consider two views of a journey-oriented career path:

  • Traveller. As a traveller, you aim to have very different roles over time. You might choose to move to different parts of the world to experience different research cultures. Or, you might choose to work on a variety of topics within a large institute. All of these broaden your experiences; you will meet different people, learn from different perspectives, and experience your career from a variety of vantage points.

  • Explorer. As an explorer, you collect experiences much like an expert (as described above) but you establish expertise by looking at your domain from a 360 degree view. You might have experience researching different topics using similar methods or you might have completed projects in the same field that range from laboratory work to public health interventions. You seek to grow and progress through your career with in-depth experiences explored from different angles.

Of course, there are challenges associated with a journey career. You substitute the certainty of goals such as ladder levels or career stages, job titles, and pay grades with more substantial transitions. With a journey career your next steps are much more about what you seek out to achieve and less about what “comes next”. You will need to be flexible, adapt and conform. However, you will meet all sorts of new people and experience new ways of approaching problems and challenges.

Having considered all of this, you might reach a stage in your career where your focus changes from the journey to the destination as your goal (or vice versa). For everyone, different factors will come into play at different times of a career to shape the choices they make – such as personal preferences, family commitments, or even financial goals. Here at the ICECReam we would be interested to hear what your thoughts are, as an early career researcher, on starting a career path. How will you choose your next step? What will you consider as the most important factors?