Celia Fernandez: Post-Ph.D. Life – Where Do I Go From Here?

 In PhD/Postdoc Blog

The PhD/Postdoc blog series features scientists at different stages of career development as they explore and plan for their next steps. Over the course of six months, Yeonwoo Lebovitz, Anthony Franchini, Megan Duffy, and Celia Fernandez will give monthly updates on their progress. Check back every Wednesday  for new posts.

Current position: Postdoctoral Research Fellow studying Cell & Molecular Neurobiology
Program start date: November 2015
Institution: The University of Chicago

I can hardly believe that I am almost finished with my first year as a postdoctoral researcher. I recently received my Ph.D. in Neurobiology and started my current postdoctoral position as soon as I possibly could, determined to make it up the academic career ladder. While I do enjoy my current project, and I am immensely proud of all that I have achieved, I don’t quite feel like I have it all figured out yet. I thought things would be clearer, that I would be able to confidently map out the rest of my life during my postdoc, well on my way to that coveted professorship and my own lab. That plan still appeals to me, and yet… there’s this nagging feeling, that maybe there’s something else out there, something I might even enjoy, and something I might be perfect for, something that I haven’t even given a chance. In my experience, non-academic careers for Ph.D.s had always seemed somewhat of an off-limits topic, as if mentioning that anything else (even teaching!) was your goal except a professorship and tenure was tantamount to “giving up” on science (Guess what? It’s not!). And yet – wouldn’t it be foolish if I didn’t at least learn about and consider other science career paths? Thank goodness that more and more initiatives like NIH BEST are breaking down the taboo of talking about life outside the Ivory Tower. Here at the University of Chicago, we are lucky to have the MyChoice career development program, which makes learning about all science career paths, academic or otherwise, more accessible for graduate students and postdocs in the biomedical sciences. At the moment, I’m still pursuing academia, but I’d like to use this blog as an opportunity to share my own questions and thoughts about non-academic career paths in science, from the perspective of someone who has never before considered it. I’ll start by sharing a little bit about myself.

The road to get here was long, but the trajectory was always academia. I took a gap year after high school; I worked multiple part-time jobs in coffee shops and restaurants to support myself while attending college full-time; I took three years after college to gain more experience in a basic research laboratory. I worked plenty of jobs outside of academia, just so I could afford to get my foot in the door; so why would I ever consider backing out? Working in basic research has always been the goal – the default goal, sure, but still, scientific discovery within the backdrop of an ivy-covered academy is the ultimate dream – right? It’s so prestigious! You’re pushed towards excellence by rubbing shoulders with the best and brightest! And besides that, I love playing the role of teacher in the lab. I’ve always envisioned myself ultimately as a professor, standing in front of a group of young eager minds just waiting for me to bestow my years of knowledge and experience upon them. On top of all this, designing and performing experiments to address an important question is fun, collecting and analyzing data is exciting, and I’d always assumed that the only way you could really “do” science is to be associated with a university.

That’s definitely not the case. I am lucky to know quite a few (genius) people who transitioned from a traditional academic postdoc to industry, and frankly, their lives sound amazing. When I first decided I was going to open my mind to all the things I can do with a Ph.D., I contacted these folks to sort of “interview” them. Before calling, I jotted down some questions I had about alternative careers: What was their average day like? Do they enjoy what they do? What are some downsides? How did their prior experience influence their current job, and is there room for growth? This helped to guide the conversation, and I was pleasantly surprised by their enthusiastic responses. Incidentally, I later found out that such career advice “interviews” are actually recommended as part of an Individual Development Plan (IDP). It was definitely a useful exercise for brainstorming what other career options I might have available to me, which I would otherwise have never known about, and is a great way to draw on your network (I’ll talk about networking in a later post!).

I’m still not quite sure what road is best for me at this point; I know I still love “doing” science; I know that I love sharing science, by teaching and mentoring students, and giving weekly presentations on my progress; and I know that I love writing about science, in papers and grants. I’ll keep chugging along the path I’m on now, but moving forward, I’ll keep my eyes out for the many (many!) other paths I now have access to.

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