Reflection and Mentorship Clarifies Career Goals

Ella Taagen

Ella Taagen

When Ella Taagen’s research came to a screaming halt this spring, she unexpectedly found she had time. “Throughout my doctorate I’ve been so busy, first with classes, then mentoring undergraduates, and seasonal fieldwork, that I hadn’t really taken enough time to reflect on what I wanted to do after Cornell”. She seized the work-from-home opportunity to do an inventory of what she loved most about her research.

What did you reflect on when you finally had the time?

I was comfortable with academic expectations. But I wondered, was I just assuming I wanted an academic career because I was used to the lab and familiar with field work, where a postdoc would be the natural next step? I found I loved the data science side of my work a lot more when our lab closed and I could devote time to programming, and this unexpected revelation actually shaped the last chapter of my thesis. This chapter simultaneously doesn’t require my presence on campus and lets me hone the skills needed for the job I now desire as a quantitative geneticist.

I also reflected on my values. When my advisor, Mark Sorrells, suggested I apply to the National Association of Plant Breeders Borlaug Scholar Program, named after the Nobel Peace Prize winner who started the green revolution tackling world hunger, the values Norman Borlaug stood for immediately resonated. It became clear that pursuing a career that will advance our collective vision to provide effective, affordable, and quicker responses to the challenges our food system faces is of utmost importance to me. I also realized I am drawn to the private sector, which offers the opportunity to engage in cutting edge research at the intersection of basic and applied genetics, but also provides an environment that values and develops skills in team-driven work and leadership.

What was the draw to the Borlaug Scholar Program for you?

One purpose of the program is to help scholars navigate their career goals through a matched mentor. To learn more about these benefits, I talked with previous awardees. Dan Sweeney, another graduate student in plant breeding and former Borlaug Scholar, was matched with an industry mentor at Corteva and told me he learned new ways to think about research, less about asking open-ended questions and more about solving a problem. This visibility and partnership with industry intrigued me. I could imagine how a mentor outside of academia might change my trajectory. My favorite part about plant breeding is that the field is very interdisciplinary, and my research gets at a limiting factor for all crops: genetic recombination. I study the variation and limit of genetic recombination in plants, which I believe is key to developing novel technologies and more efficiently harnessing the power of selection for plant breeding. But until I applied to the fellowship and met more industry-based scientists, I wasn’t sure if the private sector would be interested in this research as well. The Borlaug Scholar Program helped me break out of my academic bubble.

What were the keys to a successful application?

Having taken the Finding Your Research Voice workshop offered by Careers Beyond Academia, I realized that the researcher can be in control over how their work is disseminated to the public. I took it one step further to apply this knowledge to how my work would be perceived by employers as well. For instance, by scouring position descriptions in industry I was drawn to the postings for quantitative geneticists. Using that phrase, rather than the academic title of my graduate degree as a ‘plant breeder’, helped me increase the specificity and relevance of my research in the review panel. I’ve internalized that my brand is important, rather than superficial, and that my science won’t speak for itself. Careers Beyond Academia has also provided feedback on my website, LinkedIn profile, and the way I think about describing my work.

What else have you done to take advantage of your ‘downtime’?

I value open-source initiatives and am empowered by Shine Theory. Creating a personal website using GitHub was a big achievement while working from home. I explored existing templates to write my own code and shared ideas with my colleague Jenna Hershberger, a fellow Borlaug Scholar. Jenna introduced me to LaTeX for creating a resume, which looks fabulous and saves a lot of time. We now both have personal websites with open source code accessible via our GitHub profiles. “Ellie and I have different career goals, and we ended up with two very different looking sites, but we had fun with the coding and helped each other along the way,” says Jenna, who studies plant breeding and genetics with Michael Gore. “Cornell’s collaborative environment raised both of our chances and ultimately both of us were awarded the prestigious Borlaug Scholar fellowship.”

I also used the downtime from my lab work to Google myself and maximize online opportunities for readers to know a little more about me as a whole person. I’m more of an introvert, but I’m also passionate about issues of inclusion and want to pay it forward. By sharing, for instance, that I grew up in downtown Seattle, I hope to inspire and empower others who did not grow up with an agricultural background to go into the field that I love. In addition, I want to share with everyone who is not in love with their dissertation research that it shouldn’t narrowly define what you do next.

I’ve begun to regularly meet with my Borlaug Scholar program mentor, and the growing relationship has helped me realize that the people you work with are more important than the location. Previously, I may not have applied to a job if I didn’t love the location. As part of the Borlaug Scholar program, I also was able to attend the NAPB conference (virtually) and participate in a professional development workshop focused on acing an industry behavioral interview. It was great to learn concrete skills I can practice, such as the SMART method, before I am on the job market next year.

What would you recommend to your fellow grad students and postdocs who are unsure about their career trajectory?

  1. Take some time for introspection to connect with what impassions you
  2. Connect with mentors who are in the field you think you want to go into
  3. Take advantage of the resources on campus to get feedback, find community, and support for your future

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Compiled by Susi Varvayanis, executive director for Careers Beyond Academia