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? I spoke with a number of people who had taken Master’s degrees and found great fulfillment in nonacademic positions. One of my favorite high school teachers took an MS rather than continue on for a PhD in chemistry, and is now a happy and successful high school chemistry teacher. Another woman I spoke with took a Master’s in oceanography and has since charted a remarkable path in the field of competitive intelligence. And Carolina Brandão Zanelli, the most recent subject of the One Branch Ahead series, combined her interest in science and art to become a scientific illustrator – with an MS, not a PhD.
Once I realized that a Master’s degree could be a viable option for me, I began to think more seriously about what I wanted for my next step. I spent a lot of time reflecting on what I like about science – asking interesting questions, planning projects, validating conclusions through data not truthiness, working with smart people – as well as what I don’t like about science (I won’t dwell here on the negatives). And besides interviewing dozens of people, I took self assessments, attended workshops, and read a pretty insightful career exploration book.
While each of my informational interviews provided some guidance in this process, it was a conversation over a year ago at a backyard barbecue with a PhD scientist-turned-management consultant that resonated most strongly with me. Months later she graciously agreed to fill out my Q&A, and I found myself nodding at everything she wrote. Particularly this part:
I wanted to move into a position where there was significant opportunity to leverage both science and my general problem solving skills. In retrospect, many elements of academic science are not well-aligned with my personality: I function best when I am working directly with people and up against frequent, hard deadlines with deliverables that have very clear, tangible impact. My lab work was diametrically opposed to almost all of these personality traits, as I was almost always working on projects by myself, under a loose timeline at best, producing data that very few people would ever see.
So like the researcher I am, I set off to learn whatever I could about management consulting. I sought the wise words of friends who had experience in consulting (friends, thank you!). I poured over Victor Cheng’s excellent website and Marc Cosentino’s Case in Point (go-to preparation materials, I learned). Management consulting interviews use a specific format known as the case interview, and I had heard that my enjoyment of the case interview would go a long way in predicting my enjoyment of consulting. I loved the case interview. I walked around my apartment market-sizing everything I could see.
Landing on management consulting was like seeing a dozen oddly shaped apartments during a housing hunt, and then finally stepping into the right one, and thinking “ah, this one!” (I’m in the middle of an apartment hunt right now, can you tell?)
With the resolute support of my advisor, to whom I am forever grateful, I wrapped my research up into a 15 minute presentation and a 70 page thesis and will officially graduate tomorrow.
And what’s next for branching points? That remains to be determined, though I hope it can continue with new voices and possibly a partnership with the University of Washington. More on that later…
In the meantime, thank you for reading, and may all of your branching points send you off to the most enriching targets (I have to end with a terrible science metaphor, don’t I?)