For a neuron, branching out is no simple thing.

First, the neuron has to seek out viable targets. Neurons employ a variety of searching strategies. Some are designed to find the closest target as quickly as possible, while others roam around, unfettered by time or space or parental pressure. However the search proceeds, a neuron has to find its targets before it can make connections. Think of this as the exploratory pathfinding phase.

When I began exploring nonacademic careers a year ago, I started by searching for targets. I had no clear idea of what I might find, only that there lay a vast, hazy world of jobs out there that did not involve pipettes. When I came across a path that looked intriguing (technology transfer? tell me more), I explored it through informational interviews, web resources, and more. In some cases, I learned quickly that a particular path was not for me, and I stepped back. Often, exploring one path led me to a whole new set of ideas. The whole process looks a little like this:

But the story doesn’t end there. Whether a real connection forms between a neuron and a potential target depends on an interplay between external cues, like molecules in the local environment, and intrinsic factors, like the proteins active inside a neuron.

Certain external cues can be particularly attractive for a neuron, but if the neuron doesn’t have the internal structure to support a connection, it will not survive.

The same goes for finding a career path. It can be tempting to let extrinsic factors like location, salary, and culture guide the search: “I want a well-paying job with views of the Seattle skyline and bean bags instead of desk chairs.” Letting external cues drive your search is relatively easy. If you want to work in Boston, you look for jobs there.

A strong path, though, is one shaped also by internal factors, like personal strengths, interests, values, and personality. But how do you let internal factors guide your path? And how do you figure out exactly what these factors are?

If you’ll indulge my neuron simile, the process of identifying your internal factors is like unzipping the DNA inside a neuron. DNA gives the neuron genetic instructions that control most of its functions and guide its growth. So what is it that drives you? What are your innate qualities? How do you function best?

This new series of posts, categorized under pathfinding, will explore tools I’ve used to answer those questions. These tools range from assessments to books to workshops, and more.  The goal of this series is to better understand internal factors, and in doing so, make finding a suitable path a little easier.

Next in this series: Dependable Strengths.

*Movie from: Andersen, E. F., Asuri, N. S. & Halloran, M. C. In vivo imaging of cell behaviors and F-actin reveals LIM-HD transcription factor regulation of peripheral versus central sensory axon development. Neural Dev 6, 27 (2011).