Finding Your Niche- at UIC and Beyond

A woman gazing at artwork.

The hyper-specialization of higher education can be daunting for today’s students trying to make important career and life decisions. We make the first major decision as inexperienced teenagers in undergrad between the deeply divided disciplines of the humanities, STEM, and soft sciences, perhaps without understanding what our majors actually entail. With so many diverse options, choosing a fulfilling career can seem like a formidable task. The specialization you choose will, at its core, become part of your identity. So how do you find your niche? 

It is a natural part of the process to change direction many times before settling into a niche. Experiences drive us towards careers that will best meld together individual strengths and passions. When I was five years old, my parents’ biased view of my artwork ignited dreams of driving around the country in a van, painting with water colors. At ten, my love for the dentist and their variety of toothpaste flavors inspired my next career choice. By the time I entered college, I thought I knew exactly what I wanted to do -- become a psychologist. However, after my first semester I realized that the more I learned, the less clear my future became. I loved almost all of my classes (with the exception of economics), so how could I choose? I couldn't, so I pursued degrees in both psychology and biology, gaining experience that eventually led me to choose UIC and a project in neurobiology. But like many of my peers, I was still left thinking about which career would be fulfilling for me, and where I saw myself after PhD life.

UIC creates the perfect opportunity for those of us searching to find where we fit. A true melting pot, the diversity of UIC’s faculty and students makes for a one-of-a-kind experience. While the path to the PhD is riddled with complexities, don't be discouraged. Earning your degree is going to open up a world of opportunity. If anything was learned last year by Rudy Bellani’s workshop on alternative science careers, it is that the world is our Oystir. If oysters can create pearls from a grain of sand, we can create a world where the impact of our work is omnipresent and inspiring. We just have to keep our minds broad, our dreams big, and our work ethic strong. 

So where should you look for inspiration? Try Versatile PhD, a website that is home to nonacademic job listings for science PhDs. You’ll be amazed at the variety of career options. UIC also offers career advising, located in the Student Services Building. Make an appointment and you just might find yourself feeling excited about the future.

Interested in academia? While we are constantly reminded how difficult this is, it’s not impossible. Look at assistant professor Stephanie Cologna. She’s successful, young, and a great resource, both scientifically and professionally. Take advantage of opportunities to get to know faculty members. You will be amazed at the different backgrounds and interests that shaped them into the scientists they are today.

Never stop trying new things, improving yourself, and pursuing your dreams, because they will make you better at whatever you chose to do. Inevitably our focus becomes more specialized, but the most successful people understand where their work connects to the bigger picture. Inspiration comes from experiences and knowledge, and who doesn’t need a little inspiration now and again?