The Race to the Publish Line – After the Race is Won

September 18, 2013 | Posted by Fraser Tan in Grad School Help |
Me (Fraser) the day I received my PhD.

Me (Fraser) the day I received my PhD.

Over the past few years, it’s been almost impossible to miss coverage of the  increasingly bleak academic job market. With so few tenure track positions open for the hordes of PhDs and post-docs looking for work each year, it’s time to start thinking outside the academic box. About four years into my degree, I decided that I did not want to become a professor, but I had no idea what I could do instead. How many other jobs were there for someone to run PCRs? Who else needs mice scruffed, clipped and genotyped? I felt trapped on the academic career path, and that made climbing my wall even harder.

With the help of my network and friends, I began to realize that I did have skills valuable outside of academia. We Doctors of Philosophy are good critical thinkers. We figure out how to break down and tackle large problems. We can learn quickly, assimilate and evaluate new data, pivoting away from disproved ideas and generating new ones. We can communicate complex ideas to others. We are persistent and tenacious.  These are all qualities highly valued in areas besides academia. Realizing this was a good first step, but I still didn’t know what I wanted to do – I only knew what I didn’t want to do.

A few nights ago I had an inspiring conversation with a friend about finding his path. He sat down and started writing down things he loved, irrespective of his training or his work. Try this out for yourself! I did something like this as I began considering alternatives to a professorship; most of what I liked to do I had exposure to already. I like teaching, which I could broaden into communicating science. I liked having multiple challenging projects that would hold my interest over time. I liked the freedom to determine my own schedule and priorities, but I also really loved working with others in a team. I also wanted to protect my “me” time, so a consulting positions was not on the horizon. But I also really love learning, and that desire pushed me to explore a whole new area; business.

Some of the things you find may be wacky; for a while, I considered applying to the CIA (both the Culinary Institute of America and the “real” CIA). Once you have an idea of what fields you like, go learn more about them. You can reach out through your LinkedIn network (a godsend for shy people like me!) to find people for informational interviews. You can audit classes at your university, find relevant extracurriculars, even take online courses. (There are a lot of resources available here.) The point is, once you know where you want to go, you can figure out how to get there.

My friend loved biology and computers. He considered becoming a bioinformatic researcher, but eventually (and happily) settled into biotech, working at a company that produces software for biotech project management. For me, I jumped at the opportunity to volunteer with BenchWise.org; it was my chance to expand my skills and explore the business/start-up intersection of biology and technology. That position led me to Science Exchange, a place where I could use my hard won expertise to help improve scientific research. Finding the right job takes skill, more patience than you think, the willingness to jump when an opportunity arises, and healthy dose of luck.

Thanks for reading my humble opinions on grad school, and how I did (or did not) manage to get through it. I’m always happy to chat more – you can reach me at [email protected] or on Twitter as @pandaferret. Good luck with grad school and beyond!

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