Taking an Unexpected Turn

Adriana Bankston offers reflections and advice to Ph.D.s about successfully leaving academe and pursuing other careers.

December 19, 2016
 
iStock/VasjaKoman

Being a graduate student has many perks (not just free food!), which I didn’t realize until after I graduated with my Ph.D. in 2013. For me, as I am sure for many of you, graduate school was a time of exploration. On the scientific front, I was able to spend countless hours reading and learning about skeletal muscle growth and repair, which became my sole interest and the focus of my every waking hour. I was deeply enjoying this scientific journey.

At the same time, however, I was trying to figure out where my life was going. What was I going to do as a career after graduation? How could I use my scientific knowledge moving forward? Like many of you, I, too, contemplated the idea of becoming a faculty member at an academic institution. I wanted to continue exploring the field of skeletal muscle biology and to use this knowledge in helping patients with muscular dystrophy. So I decided to pursue postdoctoral training, which lasted until 2016.

During my postdoc, however, my career path took an unexpected turn. I had the opportunity to attend a nonresearch meeting for the very first time, and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. During this meeting, I was able to network with other postdocs across the country and realize that we all had common interests and needs.

I began feeling a sense of belonging in my new community. I also became interested in how universities, organizations and governments can help address the needs of postdocs. I learned that providing a suitable training environment was vital to their scientific success, as well as their marketability beyond the laboratory.

Even broader, the role that graduate students and postdocs played in how the scientific enterprise functioned and advanced as a whole turned out to be a fascinating topic. That feeling was somewhat unexpected, but also felt very natural to me. I realized that working on particular aspects of the scientific enterprise was much more fulfilling for me than obtaining good results in the laboratory.

Although I was still motivated to advance science in order to help muscular dystrophy patients, it was now obvious to me that I could achieve this goal by helping young scientists succeed. It became my mission to improve the training environment for graduate students and postdocs, and to advocate for them both to the public and to their fellow scientists in academe. I continue to be motivated by and to pursue this mission today.

The Value of Your Ph.D.

Given my interest in science and the fact that I had been doing research for 12 years, my decision to pursue a nonresearch career path was initially somewhat surprising. But I hope the lessons that I learned during my transition from the laboratory can provide useful insights as you explore your own career path. For example, if you are considering something other than being a principal investigator (PI) in an academic institution, you may think that your Ph.D. has no value. But I am here to tell you not to quit your Ph.D. Having a Ph.D. has already opened doors for me in terms of being able to pursue a number of career paths.

You may also think that all you learned in graduate school was science, and that you are only qualified to become a PI in academe. But in fact, graduate school taught you (and me) many different skills that are essential for any given career path, such as communication, critical thinking, problem solving and data analysis, among others. I can tell you that I use every single one of these skills today, and that you will probably do the same in a nonresearch career path. Therefore, strive to build these skills while in your current position, as they will help you be successful later on.

Practical Advice

Although you will probably agree that you possess (or that you should cultivate) those skills, you may wonder how to leverage them in order to successfully transition into a meaningful nonresearch career. Some resources and advice that I have found useful during my career transition from the laboratory include the following.

Find your passion. I believe that passion is a key ingredient to finding your career path. But “What is your passion?” is both the most daunting and most exciting question I’ve ever been asked. To help you identify your passion, think about what motivates you to act on something in your life (and in your science), or what is significant to you. On a daily basis, are you more motivated by doing research in the laboratory or by other aspects of being a scientist?

In my case, I was motivated to improve the scientific enterprise from outside the laboratory. But the journey of discovering my passion and learning how to channel it into an actual career took a great deal of reflection and exploration. What gave me the first clue was completing the myIDP test, which matched my skills, interests and values with potential career paths. The results were a number of nonresearch careers that I could pursue, with science policy being the top choice (while becoming a PI was closer to the bottom of the list). This aligned well with my gut feeling that I could help science advance by pursuing such a career path, although I had never considered this choice before and knew very little about it.

Seek an additional mentor. I was glad that my postdoctoral research mentor encouraged me to take the myIDP test, and I was also excited about my interesting (and unexpected) results. When I shared them with him, he was initially disappointed that I did not want to become an independent faculty member -- an understandable reaction. But he eventually came to terms with this idea and wanted to help me in pursuing my desired career choice.

Still, while well-meaning, my mentor was unable to help with practical advice about a career path that he didn’t know much about. So I decided to seek an additional mentor outside my field of research. I approached the associate dean for graduate and postdoctoral studies at the University of Louisville, with whom I have been working closely for the past year on a career resource for trainees. He was enthusiastic about my new career choice and encouraged me to pursue it. He also advised me to do some more in-depth reading on the topic of science policy, as well as to cast a wider net and reach out to people working in this field at the national level.

Volunteer with organizations of interest. I was lucky that, in my particular case, several organizations examining the biomedical research enterprise -- including the status of postdocs in that system -- were already in existence and growing in popularity.

I decided to connect with them to see what they were working on and if I could help. Over time, that initiative materialized into several things: 1) a project on postdoc salaries that I ended up working on (which also led to a blog post and a publication), 2) a program on writing policy pieces that I helped pilot, 3) an interview/travel award-related blog post, and 4) two sessions at a scientific meeting -- one on career resources for junior scientists and another on preprints in biology.

I never dreamed that my volunteering pursuits could turn out to be so extremely fruitful in such a short time. They also provided me with opportunities to gain some hands-on experience in my desired career direction and to realize, without a doubt, just what I should be doing with my life.

Use your resources. I also sought other resources that could provide information on how to successfully transition into nonresearch careers. Initially, career panels and one-on-one networking at national conferences were the most valuable ways for me to obtain information about science policy. Informational interviews were also helpful in this regard, and I found that most people were willing to talk about themselves for half an hour, either in person or on the phone. I made sure to prepare questions in advance and keep the interviews short. I then sent a follow-up message and thanked them for speaking with me, and asked them to recommend additional contacts so that I could expand my network.

Following science policy experts on social media (especially Twitter) has also been a great way for me to grow my network and learn more about the hot topics in the field. Other online resources -- such as podcasts, articles, booklets or books about various career paths for Ph.D.-level scientists -- have also been helpful for me in transitioning out of the laboratory.

Step into the unknown. Even though I feel that my career exploration has gone well thus far, I still have occasional moments when I wonder whether I made the right choice and where all this will lead. After all, being a scientist in the laboratory was the comfortable, known scenario I had trained in for so many years, and my career path was set to be a PI at that point.

But it is now very apparent to me that embracing the unknown while transitioning out of academe is my chance to do what I want with my life. Many people don’t get this opportunity -- or are too scared to make the move.

I urge you not to be that person. Your life is yours to make, and taking a risk toward a new career path will pay off in the long run. It will probably also help fellow trainees going through the same transition process. And if you are truly committed to this new career path, chances are that you, too, will have a very rewarding and fulfilling career.

Bio

Adriana Bankston is an independent contracting editor for American Journal Experts and was the first postdoc member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders. She has a strong interest in improving the biomedical research enterprise.

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