• GradHacker

    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online

Title

Beyond the Bench

Discovering and preparing for noncademic careers in STEM.

April 19, 2020
 
 

Four years into my Ph.D. and the initial excitement is wearing thin. Long hours and failed experiments have become my daily reality while stacks of papers and piles of coursework are gathering on my desk next to the manuscript and grant application I need to finish. I look around and suddenly realize I can’t see myself doing this forever, and I am left wondering, “Now what?”

If, like me, you find yourself in this situation, don’t worry. In this post I will share some tips on how to discover more about careers outside academia, as well as how to find professional development opportunities that will prepare you for such a career.

When I first found myself in this position, I had no idea where to start. I only knew about the “usual” options for careers with a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences: stay in academia as a PI doing research and/or teaching, or go into industry. After looking at the numerous comparisons of these two career paths and talking to people in my network with experiences in both, I could tell that neither seemed like a good fit for me.

Then I was invited to a workshop on “Owning your Career,” where I was introduced to the concept of an individual development plan. I completed the skills, interests and values assessments and was immediately provided with a list of my career path matches -- my top two were science policy and science writing. This list is certainly not exhaustive, but it opened my eyes to the wide world of possibilities for career paths available to those with a Ph.D. In this list you can see how your own skills, interests and values fit with different careers. In myIDP, you can also read additional information about different careers. This is a great place to start getting ideas and learn about different possibilities. Explore with an open mind; you never know what you might learn about yourself.

Once you identify a short list of career paths that are of interest to you, start finding out more. Look for “career day”-type events that offer the opportunity to learn about careers more in depth. Check out the websites of professional societies, both ones based around your area of study and ones based around career paths you are interested in. These websites often include information for volunteer opportunities, workshops, fellowships, internships, online classes and training opportunities, and networking opportunities. For example, some opportunities available through the American Society for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) are workshops and classes in science communication, science policy fellowships, science and engineering mass media fellowships, and more. Take advantage of any experience that can give you a short-term immersion in the activities of the jobs you are considering, or that will strengthen the skills needed in the jobs you are interested in.

You should also look for career development workshops and networking opportunities at conferences you attend. This can include events at scientific conferences, but many career paths may also have conferences hosted by their own professional societies. For example, I am interested in science journalism and writing, so after travel is permitted again, I plan to attend the ScienceWriters conference hosted by the National Association of Science Writers and the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing to network with both scientists and journalists working in science journalism.

Informational interviews are another excellent resource for finding out specific information about a career path or a specific job you are interested in. If you conduct them well, informational interviews can also help you add contacts to your network.

Finally, career development opportunities don’t have to be a special event. Consider what opportunities are available at your home institution. One easy way to get involved and learn more is to join your graduate student association. There are likely also people working in your institution who hold jobs related to the career you are interested in. Reach out to them. They may be open to an informational interview or to being shadowed. They may even have opportunities for you to practice your skills. For example, at my institution, graduate students have been able to contribute to the science outreach programs we offer for K-12 students by giving students and their teachers informational tours in our research building.

So, if you have found yourself asking “Now what?” fear not. Look at your options and find the best fit. There are nearly endless career opportunities available to someone with a STEM Ph.D., if you only look outside the box, or in this case, beyond the bench.

Have you explored different Ph.D. career paths? Please let us know how in the comments below.

Emery D. Haley is a Ph.D. candidate in molecular and cellular biology at Van Andel Institute Graduate School, where they are involved in science outreach and diversity activism. You can find them on Twitter @EmeryHaley2 or on LinkedIn.

Image by Brendan Church on Unsplash.

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