Career stories of successful professionals can seem flavored by a kind of retrospective determinism. The leap to a new field, the cross-country move, the whims of the job market – these things coalesce into narratives that can seem at once irreducible and preordained.
So I wondered: What are the career stories of those only one step out of grad school? What factors are shaping their nascent careers? Which skills are they choosing to employ and which are they happy to leave behind? How are they transitioning into their chosen fields, and where do they see their paths going? Oh, and have they bought professional pants yet?
This post is the first in a new series of Q&As with recent graduate-school-graduates. While the career profiles give examples of successful professionals who have branched out to a range of fields, these posts are the stories of those who are just one branch ahead.
This first Q&A was graciously answered – over email – by a good friend who finished her PhD in the summer of 2012.
What did you study in your PhD program?
I got my PhD in neuroscience, and my thesis work was focused on motor control circuits in the brain.
When you first started the program, did you know what you wanted to do after grad school?
Entering grad school, I was absolutely certain I wanted to stay in academics and become a professor with my own lab. This was largely driven by my desire to help people. I wanted to cure diseases, and a career in scientific research was the only path I saw with the potential to make that happen. My certainty also came from my undergrad research mentor, an old-school scientist who preached that being a professor was the only worthwhile thing to do in life. Anything less was treason or failure. Fortunately the faculty I worked with in grad school weren’t so narrow-minded. But it’s hard to get over those early lessons.
How did your career plans or goals change by the time you were finishing your PhD?
Like many grad students, I entered a period of soul-searching around Year 3. This is the time when all initial excitement has worn off, you’re deep in the thick of unexpected problems, and the end is far out of sight. You’re forced to ask yourself, “What REALLY motivates me?” Is it the excitement of observing something completely new? The satisfaction of methodically solving a problem? Or something else? The perfect career is one that matches your motivations in the big overall sense as well as the small day-to-day. And the daily process of working in a lab wasn’t making me happy.
I love communicating scientific ideas, synthesizing a broad range of topics, and directly helping people. So I started looking for careers that would better play to my strengths and my motivations. It took a couple years for me to crystalize these ideas, but by the end of grad school I was focused on a new set of career paths: teaching, science writing/editing, or directing science at a nonprofit.
What do you do now?
I’m a science intern at a nonprofit disease foundation in LA. I work closely with the Director of Neurobiology, who oversees all the neuroscience research they’re involved in. That includes ongoing work in academic labs and private companies. My responsibilities include grant reviews, assay development, and data analysis.
Were you involved in any organizations or activities while in grad school that helped lead you to where you are now?
I was fortunate to attend a school that’s very progressive when it comes to alternative career paths. Their career center hosted a variety of events (seminars, workshops, mixers, etc.) aimed at teaching grad students about options outside of academics. The internet is another great resource. I read countless articles to figure out which paths might be a good fit for me. The most important thing you can do is get informed.
The next most important thing you can do is get experience. If there are options you’re considering, try them out to see if you actually like them! I tried out all of my top three choices. For teaching, I did a couple quarters of TA work and participated in a K-12 volunteer program. For writing/editing, I asked my advisor to let me review manuscripts, and I also started a science blog. For nonprofit work, I decided to pursue an internship at a foundation, which is where I am now.
Of the skills you developed as a grad student, which are most useful to you in your current position? Which are you happy to leave behind?
The most important thing I carry from grad school is how to think like a scientist. That entails a lot of different skills – analytical problem-solving, critical thinking, the ability to find and filter information quickly, attention to detail while still keeping a big-picture perspective, and especially patience and perseverance (grad school beats that into you). Scientific thinking gives you an advantage in basically any type of job, and it also makes you a more informed, responsible member of society.
On a more specific level, I was trained as an electrophysiologist. I wasn’t expecting that to be especially useful after grad school, but it’s actually turned out to be a major asset in my current job. We interact with several electrophysiology labs in academics and industry, and my training allows me to review new data and grant proposals with a level of sophistication that could only come from spending literally thousands of hours doing similar work myself. So technical training can be very useful. On the other hand, I’m very happy to not be actually doing that work anymore.
Are there any skills/tools/habits that you need in your field but didn’t develop during your grad school training?
There are a lot of skills that grad school doesn’t necessarily teach you. One of the most important, especially in my current job, is communication. It’s easy to be isolated in lab and only come out to talk about your work a few times a year at lab meetings. Fortunately I was proactive in seeking out opportunities to write and give presentations as a grad student. Even so, I still have a lot to learn, especially when it comes to communicating in a way that’s professional and persuasive (instead of my typical overly-cautious scientist style).
What’s a typical day for you like now?
My current job is a 9-5, which is a nice change of pace from the always-on-the-clock mentality of grad school. Most days are a mix of meetings and working at my computer. A typical day might include: a morning looking over data from a contract research organization, a presentation about the latest updates with one of the drugs that we’re developing, and an afternoon writing up a review of an academic proposal. Also, because I’m new, I spend a lot of time reading papers to get up to speed on the science of the projects I’m involved in.
What’s the best thing about your job? Do you miss anything about bench work?
Even though I’m just an intern, my projects are directly contributing to the development of several different drugs that are very close to clinical trials. I finally feel like I’m actively participating in the process of curing diseases. That’s definitely the best part of my job.
I don’t miss bench work, but sometimes it’s frustrating to work so closely with labs and not be in direct control. If I have an idea for an assay or a new experiment, I can’t just test it out quickly myself. It’s up to other people to do if/when they want to, and in the way that they want to. So I miss the fast turnaround and control of producing my own data at the bench.
Where do you see yourself going from here?
I love the work I’m doing as an intern, and I would definitely like to continue down the same path for a career. Directing science within a nonprofit foundation is a great fit for me – it’s personally and intellectually satisfying, and I see it as a sustainable career that could make me happy for a long time.
Any words of wisdom for current grad students who might be interested in making a transition like yours?
Get informed, and be proactive. Learn as much as you can about different career paths. If you’re considering work at a nonprofit, seek out individuals who work at organizations you’re interested in (you’ll be surprised how generous people are to help you out). Talk to them over the phone or over coffee. What were their reasons for leaving, what do they love about their current job, and does any of that resonate with you personally? Try to get experience too. Nonprofit careers are a bit trickier than teaching or writing when it comes to testing the waters while you’re still in grad school. But look into volunteer work or internships. Any experience helps. Aside from looking great on a resume, it’ll help you figure out if it’s really a good fit for you. Even if you end up staying in academics, you’ll know you’re making that choice for all the right reasons.