As academics we all sometimes wonder “What is there on the other side”? In this case I’m not talking about the supernatural; I just mean the world outside of academia. I wanted to discuss a little bit about a symposium that I went to recently at NYU’s medical school called, “What Can You Be With a PhD?” This is a question many grad students worry about, and that people have asked me as well. Maybe it was expected twenty or thirty years ago that after you got your PhD you went directly into an academic faculty position somewhere. With dwindling opportunities for academic positions and decreases in government funding to work individually it seems that this is not a given anymore. I attended this seminar so that I would have answers for people looking to me for career advice. I am happy to report that there are, in fact, a number of opportunities if you are willing to stretch out a bit.
The main theme of the sessions in this symposium was that grad students needed to be willing to step into a field for which they were not immediately an expert. We spend so many years at a lab bench earning our stripes to be called one of the “experts” in what we do. It’s scary then to think about moving into a field that is not what you trained for or where you are even qualified. What I learned in the symposium sessions, however, is that in taking a risk to try a non-academic career, you could be rewarded with a job that you really love.
The first session I attended focused on working in the government on a policy level. Many people reading this would probably think that they don’t have enough background in politics in order to get involved in that kind of a job. I learned from the panel that there are great resources that you can use! Two of the speakers were fellows in the American Associate for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Policy Fellowship Program. They were willing to take one to two years to step away from scientific research to go and work within the government. They advised policy makers on decisions related from everything from Global Warming, to Public Health, to Domestic Security. What’s more, once they had the background in working with policy makers they were able to transition to permanent positions. These people stepped out of their respective fields into a totally new area and found that they could be successful at it!
The other most interesting session centered on Scientific Journalism. How does science get communicated to the public? Somebody has to write about new research being done in a way that is accessible to all people (other than yours truly here). As scientists we are forced to write in order to communicate our ideas. If you find that you really love this process, why not pursue it as a full time career? This was the main point of the writers on the Scientific Journalism panel. Just stretch out and write a few pieces and send out a few “pitches” as they called them. You can get started and there are a number of resources to help you begin. One member of the panel is currently on the board for the National Association of Science Writers. She said that they, along with The Open Notebooks have a number of resources to help you get your writing published. All four of the members of this panel agreed that writing about science was what they were passionate about. They were glad that they had taken the chance to put themselves out there and try a career they ended up loving.
Too often I feel that people associate leaving academia with “failing”. This feeling makes us afraid that if we think about or try something else we are setting ourselves up to be failures. If the What Can You Be… symposium has taught me anything it is that this is patently false! In all honesty I still believe that I want to be an academic and I feel that this is what I love and where I can be most successful. What we all should think about, however, is where we can be the most successful. If that’s in academia, that’s great, if that’s in the government or in the media or elsewhere that is equally great! I’ll end this post with the most powerful quote that any of my teachers ever gave me. Dr. Montgomery, my AP Lit teacher said, “If you love doing something you’ll find a way to do it”. So try now even as a graduate student! Look for a fellowship, submit a few articles to magazines, get involved with outreach programs at your school. Stretch out! That’s how you can learn about what you want to do as a career after graduate school
Here are some resources that I mentioned:
AAAS Policy Fellowship Program:
National Association of Science Writers: