Accessing Career Exploration & Development Opportunities

 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 recently met with an undergraduate biology major seeking career advice; she liked science, particularly immunology, but she wasn’t sure what her options were, whether or not she should pursue a Ph.D., and what life would be like if she did go down an academic career path. To be honest, I wasn’t even aware of what the steps were to get a job as a professor until very (embarrassingly) recently. No one ever told me, and I never felt comfortable enough to ask. Part of the problem was that I wasn’t sure what resources were available to me, and for some reason I always had the impression that career development was something for non-science majors. So, in the past year or so, I decided to take a more proactive approach to educating myself about what my career options are, and it’s been a highly rewarding experience that I would recommend to anyone in the sciences.

I’ve mentioned before that my institution has an NIH-funded career development program specialized for science Ph.D.s called the MyChoice program, which I signed up for almost as soon as it started, and I can’t say enough good things about it. Most universities probably have some kind of career development program or office to help students get to that “next step,” whatever it may be, but the MyChoice program is unique in that it is tailored specifically for Ph.D. students and postdocs in the life sciences. For example, many of their seminars are scheduled at times that wouldn’t conflict with most lab work. That’s a huge plus for me; I usually blow off many seminars scheduled during the day because I’m also usually in the middle of a big prep, etc., during that time. The topics are always interesting and informative, and usually highlight someone who received their Ph.D. from our university, making the talks more relatable. The program also aims to give plenty of exposure to as many different career options as possible, another big plus for me, since the only other alternative to research I had previously been aware of was teaching; I had no idea what consulting even was, or intellectual property law, or how a Ph.D. is valuable for a career in tech transfer. And MyChoice participants not only get to attend seminars, but we also get to sign up for workshops on different topics like analytical skills used in industry or how to approach course design as a teacher. I never would have been exposed to any of this if it hadn’t been for this professional development program, and I suspect it is the same for most others who are pursuing a degree in biomedical sciences.

One of the recent career exploration seminars was a panel of Ph.D.s from my university who went on to become consultants. Like all of the speakers at previous seminars, they talked about how they were able to use the skills they learned during their Ph.D. to help them in their current position, not just the specialized knowledge they developed over the course of their thesis. For example, being able to balance a heavy workload and focus in on the important parts of a project were key to completing the project on time. Solving complex problems that had multiple moving parts was another, and being resilient and not giving up on a difficult task was yet another. Although the seminar left me feeling like consulting was not a good fit for me, it was again good to know that I had developed skills that were transferable and valuable to other fields besides my specific area of research.

In addition to the MyChoice program, I have also found a wealth of information online. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the journal Science has a list of articles on their website about careers outside of academia, and they do a great job of discussing all the reasons and motivations for wanting to pursue something else besides research. Performing an actual job search with “biology Ph.D.” or something similar as the query was a very useful exercise to find out what kinds of jobs are actually out there, what they entail and what the requirements are; then I can go back to someone with more expertise in that particular field and ask them targeted questions to really dig into whether that’s something I want to pursue.

All this being said, I still find myself “coming back” to research as a career choice, but with a more informed perspective and with a much better understanding of what it would take to get a job as a professor in academia or a scientist in industry. I’ve been conducting informational interviews with people on both sides of the research spectrum, and hope to compare and contrast the two in next month’s post.

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