Oh, the places you'll go
after grad school!
Translating skills for the job market: Can I put goldfish brain surgery on my resume?

Translating skills for the job market: Can I put goldfish brain surgery on my resume?

When you're looking to transition from science research to something else, you'll have to consider how the skills developed in years of research will translate outside that environment. And here you might protest, as I did initially, that these skills just do not translate. Where exactly on my...

myIDP: Career matching for scientists

myIDP: Career matching for scientists

My Individual Development Plan, or myIDP, is like a Harry Potter Sorting Hat for PhD scientists and career paths. Take three short assessments on skills, interests, and values, and myIDP will triumphantly announce to all of Hogwarts (ok…just to you, on your computer) your career...

Latest entries

Mastering out and Moving on

Aug 22, 2013

My posts here have become far less frequent as I’ve turned my energy elsewhere. In the past few months, I have applied and interviewed for jobs, finished writing a Master’s thesis, sold nearly everything I own, and moved across the country to Manhattan. After just shy of two years in the Neurobiology & Behavior graduate program at the University of Washington, I’m leaving with a Master’s degree. And a week from now, I’ll start work as a consultant in the life sciences practice of a management consulting firm in New York City. Here, a little more about how all of this came to be…

When I first came to grad school I had this hazy notion that I wouldn’t need to worry about what I did next. I had a fellowship that would support my research, and everything would progress merrily from there. At the end of my 5 – 7 years, perfectly tailored career pathways would lay themselves out in front of me and job offers would pour down on me and my newly minted PhD like a reliable Seattle rain.

I was disavowed of this illusion midway through my first year. In many ways grad school is an apprenticeship for a professorship, a career that both no longer appealed to me and, let’s be honest, is so rarely available it is functionally fictional.

I reasoned that if I was going to commit half a decade of my life – or more! – to a graduate degree, I should probably have some idea of what I’d do with said degree. So I began my informational interview project, and eventually this website, intent on answering the question: What else can I do with a PhD in neuroscience?

But over the course of a few months, that question gradually shifted. It became: Do I really need a PhD to find a satisfying career?


Forging a Career from Science and Art

Jul 26, 2013

“There are two kinds of truth: the truth that lights the way and the truth that warms the heart. The first of these is science, and the second is art. Neither is independent of the other or more important than the other. Without art science would be as useless as a pair of high forceps in the hands of a plumber. Without science art would become a crude mess of folklore and emotional quackery. The truth of art keeps science from becoming inhuman, and the truth of science keeps art from becoming ridiculous.”

Raymond Chandler

This career story comes all the way from Brazil, where Carolina Brandão Zanelli turned her graduate degree in plant biology and love for drawing into a career as a scientific illustrator and translator. Read on to learn why Carolina decided to leave academia, how she forged her own career path, and what life is like as a scientific illustrator. Also be sure to check out Carolina’s website, Art for Scientists, where you can find examples of her work. As Carolina says, “the interaction between science and art is so exquisite, and yet, we often still see science and art as opposing, mutually exclusive paths. I’d like to use the blog to show that this is not necessarily true.”

What did you study in your graduate program?

I have a college degree in biology and studied plant biology in my graduate program. More specifically, in my undergraduate and graduate research I studied plant population ecology and community ecology in the Brazilian Cerrado, a savanna-like vegetation type and one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. I also studied ecological restoration because this was the main research theme in my laboratory.

When you first started the program, did you know what you wanted to do after grad school?

When I first started the program, (I thought) I wanted to pursue an academic career.

How did your career plans or goals change by the time you were finishing your degree?

My career plans had turned upside down by the time I was finishing my degree!

The more I saw of academia, the least I wanted to become part of it. Professors in Brazilian public universities are expected to dedicate themselves to three major activities – research, education and community outreach. But they are mostly evaluated (and, therefore, recognized and funded) by their contribution to research, and the mechanisms of this evaluation are still widely debated. The result is that professors and grad students are forced to “publish or perish”. Other academic activities such as education and community outreach are severely compromised, and those few that dedicate themselves to these activities are poorly recognized and funded, if at all. These and other academic issues slowly filled my mind with doubt and anxiety.

As time went by, I also noted that, although the academic career had seemed the logical thing to pursue, it was mostly what people in general expected of me (as a high-achieving student), but not necessarily what I wanted to do.

Then, in the second year of grad school, I failed the qualification exam. Soon after, when I was feeling sad and disappointed, a colleague wrote me to ask if I could draw an illustration for his paper.

How could I have forgotten? I had been drawing for my whole life! My drawing skills had already proved themselves incredibly useful during college for making the schemes of cells, tissues and organisms that are so important in biology. And in the previous year I had already been asked by two colleagues to make scientific illustrations for their publications!

This was my “epiphany”. After that I started searching the web for ways to fuse my art-related interests and skills with my education as a biologist and researcher. It took two more years of hard work to overcome my anxiety, complete my research and get the Master’s degree, gather information and start my own business as a scientific illustrator and translator.

Were you involved in any organizations or activities while in grad school that helped lead you to where you are now?

There was a point during grad school when I was out of funding, so I started working in an environmental company.  It was in another city and my partner couldn’t move with me, which meant constant traveling. It was also quite outside of my area of specialization: I was performing microbiological analyses of water quality; even though the company had a sector dedicated to environmental impact analysis, to which I felt more suited with my knowledge on plant ecology and forest restoration. Eventually I quit this job to start my own business.

Nonetheless, it was still a good job, stable and well-paying. It enabled me to complete my Master’s and to save enough money to keep things going after I quit and launched my business, especially in the first four months. I met lots of people and learned several things, most of all, that you don’t need to know everything to start doing something.

What do you do now?

Now I work as a scientific illustrator and translator, at my site and blog Art for Scientists, where I help scientists and educators share their knowledge and hope to inspire scientists, educators, parents and students to see science and art in an integrated way.


On Becoming a Science Teacher, Part 3

Jun 21, 2013

When considering career options, it helps to hear more than one perspective. And since science teaching is a popular career choice for science PhDs, this post offers a third voice in the series On Becoming a Science Teacher.

Catch up first with the story of Hans de Grys, a high school chemistry teacher: “One morning I woke up with this epiphany that I wasn’t locked into grad school, and that I would be much happier as a high school teacher.  I haven’t looked back since.” In the second installment of the series, we heard from high school biology teacher Thomas Artiss: “If you are looking for a career that will sustain you – one that will keep you interested, and happy, and consistently challenged – you would be hard pressed to look much further than a career in education.”

Now, a Q&A from Stephen Fisher, a longtime high school chemistry and math teacher (who endured much grief from my high school self – sorry Dr. Fisher!). First, a note on Stephen’s background, in his own words:

I obtained BS & MS degrees in chemical engineering and then a Ph.D. in Physiology. None of these was really a rationale career choice, since I didn’t actually know what doing engineering or physiology entailed.  When my post-doc ran out, there was a hiatus of about a year, after which I began teaching.  I then taught (mostly) chemistry & math at the high school level for 28 years.

When did you realize you wanted to teach? Was there a particular experience that led you to pursue this path? 

What I first realized was that I did not want to do research.  There followed a period of uncertainty and questioning.  I then realized that I’d been happiest when teaching as a graduate student.  Not exactly a revelatory moment, but close enough.

How did you prepare for the transition from science research to science teaching?

I didn’t really.  I got lucky and got hired with no real teaching experience.

What was the greatest challenge you faced as a new teacher?

Not really having been in a high school classroom since I’d been in high school and not really having had any particular ‘teaching training.’

What do you find most fulfilling about teaching science? 

What’s fulfilling is spending my days teaching adolescents.  The science part is certainly enjoyable, (it’s what I know), and I think it’s important that science is understood by citizens in a democracy.  But that’s a small piece of the picture—I’m not really a science missionary.


PhD to University Administration

Jun 5, 2013

 This installment of One Branch Ahead comes courtesy of Alycia Mosley Austin, the Director of Graduate Recruitment and Diversity Initiatives and Executive Coordinator of the Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Program at the University of Rhode Island. Here, Alycia shares the story of her path from the neuroscience PhD program at UCSD to her current role in university administration, and shares advice for others looking to make a similar transition. Alycia was particularly active in activities outside of the lab and serves as an excellent model for grad students looking to get involved in their communities.

What did you study in your PhD program?

My research was in developmental neurobiology of the mammalian cortex. I started out studying the effects of genes that regulate arealization of the cortex on interneuron migration, but then I switched labs and advisors after my fourth year (more on that later). My dissertation focused on genomic variations in neural progenitor cells of embryonic cortex.

When you first started the program, did you know what you wanted to do after grad school?

From the beginning I was skeptical that the lifestyle of a tenure-track professor would be something that I would enjoy, but I didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to do. After finishing an undergraduate degree in neuroscience, I spent two years as a research assistant in a genetics lab, which was a great experience. Since I knew that I enjoyed doing research I thought about a career in biotech, but I tried to read as much as I could about non-traditional careers to get a sense of what other options were out there.

How did your career plans or goals change by the time you were finishing your PhD?

During my second year of graduate school I started volunteering on a few committees, both for my program and the university as a whole. Once I got a better sense of how universities function I started to realize that I was interested in a career in university administration. Most professors that I knew complained about university service commitments because they are a distraction from research, but I found that I actually enjoyed that type of work. The next several years were spent trying to figure out how to turn my interests in science, diversity, and graduate education into a career.

Were you involved in any organizations or activities while in grad school that helped lead you to where you are now?

I was perhaps a little too involved with campus organizations during graduate school, which is related to the fact that my original advisor and I did not make a good match. I didn’t feel supported and my research was not progressing, so I sought opportunities away from research where I could feel competent, that my contributions were valuable, and that were enjoyable. Many of these activities were similar to the types of service that I did as an undergraduate, such as Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE) and Brain Awareness Week, so in a way I continued on the path I’d started before starting graduate school.

This list doesn’t include everything I did, but this it will give you an idea of the ways in which I was involved as a graduate student outside of the lab. I served on committees related to recruiting a diverse pool of graduate students. I was a founding member, vice president, and then president of Graduate Women in Science and Engineering (GradWiSE). For two summers I was a mentor in a program that provided underrepresented, undergraduate science students with an intensive summer research experience in preparation for graduate school. I participated in both neuroscience and genetics science outreach programs in public schools and at the local science museum.

All of these experiences helped me to develop a unique set of skills, including the ability to work on collaborative projects with every possible campus constituent from students and faculty in other departments to senior staff and administrators.

I should also note that once I switched labs I had two years to finish a PhD with a brand new project. At that point I put most, if not all, of the extracurricular stuff on hold.

What do you do now?


On Becoming a Science Teacher, Part 2

May 30, 2013

This is the second installment in a continuing series exploring paths to becoming a science teacher. For the first part, including an introduction to the series, see On Becoming a Science Teacher

The answers to this Q&A come courtesy of Dr. Thomas Artiss. Thomas obtained an undergrad and masters degree in zoology, a bachelor of education degree in secondary science and a doctorate degree in molecular evolution. He has taught secondary science in private and public schools, and he currently teaches middle school biology at a middle school in California.

When did you realize you wanted to teach? Was there a particular experience that led you to pursue this path?

I come from a family of teachers, and I tended to push back on the idea of pursuing it as a vocation for a long time. But throughout grad school, I was a teaching assistant, and I loved the teaching as much as I loved the research. When I was finishing my doctorate, I was deciding whether to pursue a career in education or research; I loved them both, but did not feel I did either well enough to do them together (i.e. a career in academia). I was offered a job at a private school in Seattle, and accepted it. And honestly, I can say that I fell in love with teaching – and knew I wanted to do it for a living – within a week (maybe a day!) of being in the classroom.

How did you prepare for the transition from science research to science teaching?

There was not much of a transition to be made. I was teaching right up until I defended my PhD thesis, and so I was intellectually in the teaching mindset for years. For me, it was more about letting go of research, and accepting that I would not be active in research if I pursued a career in teaching.

What was the greatest challenge you faced as a new teacher?

Although I cut my teeth in a robust college prep school where most students were fairly motivated and quite bright, there was still a range in student aptitude, abilities and learning styles. I started by teaching the way I had always been taught; lecture, lecture, lab, repeat. But I soon found that I was not reaching many students both in terms of how I covered material as well as how I assessed their understanding of it. I became more acutely aware of learning differences when I was teaching in a public school, and each year I am constantly trying to hone my methods, my assessments tools and philosophy of teaching to reach a broader range of students

What do you find most fulfilling about teaching science?

It sounds glib every time I say it, but the biggest joy I get from teaching is seeing students get excited about science. Whether I inspire students to pursue science as a career or not is not terribly relevant, and is certainly not what sustains me as a teacher. The most personally rewarding aspect of my job – the thing that gets me out of bed, excited to come to work each day – is seeing students excited, engaged and enthused with a topic, idea or concept. And at the end of the day, that’s where the grist hits the mill. Ask just about any teacher, and they will likely tell you the love of learning you see in students, and the many “ah-ha” moments that happen every day are the most rewarding aspects of the job.

As a science teacher at the middle or high school level, how much of your role is devoted to teaching science, and how much to dealing with behavior issues? How do you balance teaching content with teaching life skills (work ethic, integrity, teamwork, etc.)?

How much time is spent dealing with behavior issues and classroom management really varies from school to school, and even class to class and day to day.  I try to set a casual tone in my class, while emphasizing mutual respect. Sometimes, a class can take advantage of this, and I need to reel them back in. But for the most part, keeping students engaged, focused and interested minimizes behavior issues. As for the latter question, it really varies. I try to model behaviors (like lifelong learning or academic integrity) for students. I design activities that require group work and cooperation. I maintain fair and equitable standards among students with respect to discipline, work deadlines and academic honesty. And I try to take advantage of teachable moments (unrelated to my discipline, but directly related to ethos, ethics and integrity) whenever possible.

What advice would you give to a current science graduate student interested in teaching science at the middle or high school level?


Career exploration and development resources

May 27, 2013

Looking for the best science career exploration and development resources?

The Links page has just been updated with a new batch of helpful resources from around the web. Check it out for interesting links like a career planning tool from Stanford’s Career Center, tips for aspiring project managers, and ten simple rules for commercializing science research. You’ll also find new Links sections for self-assessments and science teaching, and personal stories from many PhDs who have already branched out.

Here, 2 newly added links worth highlighting:

1. dougsguides. Doug is a biology PhD, entrepreneur, business exec and Haas School of Business lecturer who created this site to help students transition to the business world. His site includes ebooks, self assessments, online guides, and tips on tricky subjects like handling coworker conflict and negotiating your first salary. As someone with very little business background, I found the business basics tutorials especially helpful. Much of the content, including an ebook on finding your first job, is free; other ebooks are available at a reasonable price.

2. What Are All the PhDs. A brand new Tumblr run by a biochemistry PhD and university administrator, this site focuses on telling the personal career stories of PhDs. You’ll find profiles of a children’s book author, a director of the rare book collections at Standford’s Medical Center, Doug (of the aforementioned Doug’s Guides), and more.


Proposal: A National Online Platform for STEM Graduate Student Career Exploration and Professional Development

May 20, 2013

The National Science Foundation is sponsoring a competition to innovate graduate education, and my proposal has made it to the final round. One of the awards is based on public vote, so I would be grateful for your support and vote! The text of my proposal is below, and can also be found at the following link…

Vote for my proposal to innovate graduate education. Voting ends May 29 and your support is much appreciated!


The realities of STEM graduate student career outcomes must be addressed. While graduate programs prepare students for the academic research track, in 2006 fewer than 15% of STEM PhDs attained a tenure track position within 5-6 years of graduating, a significant decrease from 55% in 1973 (1). Given that graduate student enrollment increased 50% between 2000 and 2010 (2), while tenure availability decreased (3), this trend is likely to continue.

These statistics reflect not only the increasing difficulty of attaining academic positions, but also students’ declining interest in pursuing this path. A recent large scale cross sectional survey of STEM PhD students at tier-one universities found that the share of students who consider a faculty research career “unattractive” or “extremely unattractive” doubles between early (pre-qualifying exam) and late (on the job market) PhD stages, reaching as high as 38% of late stage chemistry students (4).

A recent survey of UCSF graduate students reported a similar pattern. Interestingly, when asked why their career goals have shifted away from academic research, students overwhelming cite negative associations with the PI track, rather than a positive reason for change, like new knowledge of career options or the development of personal skills and interests (5).

Together, these findings reveal the core of the problem: graduate students increasingly view academic research careers as unattainable or undesirable, yet graduate programs do little to prepare students for career alternatives (4, 5, 6).

This problem is compounded by a two-pronged information asymmetry, in which students are provided little or no credible information about career outcomes, and policy makers know little about how or why students make career decisions.  Indeed, a working group recently convened by the NIH to study career pathways of biomedical science students lamented the lack of comprehensive, longitudinal data needed to better guide policy decisions about graduate education (6).


A solution is needed to address both the lack of resources for career development, as well as the shortage of data about STEM student career pathways. A national online platform for STEM graduate students could achieve both of these objectives, while also creating a collaborative, interdisciplinary community for nationwide graduate student support.

The online platform, accessible to STEM graduate students enrolled at accredited US universities, will pursue four objectives: