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How to Pursue a Non-Research Career While in Graduate School

‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’

‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.

‘I don’t much care where,’ said Alice.

‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.

                                   From Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

According to a recent article in PLoS ONE by Henry Sauermann and Michael Roach, interest in an academic research career declines over the course of graduate school [1]. This should come as no surprise, since the increasing supply of newly minted PhDs each year far exceeds the current academic job market. In fact, in 1973, 55% of US students graduating with a doctorate in the biological sciences secured a tenure-track position within six years of completing their PhDs, and only 2% were in a postdoc or other untenured academic position. By 2006, only 15% were in tenured positions six years after graduating, with 18% untenured [2, 3]. This means that over 80% of PhD graduates these days have to look for non-academic careers. Yet, the current graduate education system focuses exclusively on training for the academic path and leaves the freshly minted PhDs unprepared for the present job market. Graduate training emphasizes increased specialization in the academic research direction, which does not necessarily represent the skill sets currently in demand on the job market. As a result, many new PhDs are forced to default into staying on the academic path by doing a series of post-doc fellowships, which may not necessarily increase their chances of getting a job they want (only 1 in 5 post-docs will actually get a tenured faculty position). It is becoming painfully clear that graduate training programs should be raising awareness about non-academic opportunities and what they entail. While it should be the incentive of graduate programs to educate students about possible career choices before they are thrown into the job market, in most cases, PhD students have to provide for themselves and look for such opportunities on their own. So, given that academic jobs are limited and the current graduate training does not prepare the majority of students for jobs outside of the traditional academic career, I think it would be prudent for every PhD student to think about their professional development while they are still in the midst of their graduate training. The first thing you need to do is to understand where you want to go from here with your life. In order to determine what you want to do when you “grow up”, you have to take the initiative and do some soul-searching and self-assessment. I recommend the following plan of action for pursuing your own professional development while in graduate school:

Step 1: Self-assessment

In order to determine the direction in which you want your career to grow, you need to figure out what causes, problems and values are important to you. This is the very first step, the very first question you must ask yourself before you even attempt to explore possible career directions. Some basic questions you might want to ask yourself are:

  • What is it that I enjoy/love doing in this world?
  • What is it that most energizes me?
  • What work most exhausts me, and what is the opposite of that work?
  • What is it about the world that I dislike/am most bothered by, and would love to fix/correct/eradicate?

Step 2: Finding the right match for your skills and aspirations – that which you seek is seeking you!

Now that you have a better idea about what you like doing and dislike doing, you must figure out what careers exist out there that match your vision. Here is a previously published BsB article that discusses a number of non-academic careers for scientists (Alternative careers for scientists). But if you are having a hard time narrowing it down to a particular job description, I suggest you take a piece of paper and draw three columns: the first column should list the skills you currently have, the second column should list the possible careers you are interested in and the third column should list the skills needed to perform the jobs in question. In the end, you should be able to narrow your list down to the kinds of careers you are interested in, skills you currently possess and skills you need to acquire to explore these careers. One way to experience different career directions is by volunteering or participating in extracurricular activities to gain the skills you need. A good idea would be to reach out to your student body organization, non-profit organizations, etc. Another way is to apply for internships in the field that interests you. In the end, you need to have a vision of what it is that most interests you and that you would like to do. You may want to ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is the product/service that my community/country/world most needs?
  • What skills are needed to make that change?
  • What skills do I currently possess?
  • What skills do I currently lack and need to learn to be able to do what I enjoy the most?

Step 3: Networking

While the whole concept of networking may seem as uncomfortable as speed dating, I think that a lot of people misunderstand what networking really means. We are involved in networking on a daily basis: you strike up a conversation with a stranger while waiting in line at a supermarket, you mingle with people sitting across from you in a bar, you ask how your classmates chose their research focus – these are all examples of networking. Humans are social creatures and networking is just a basic expression of that social aspect. You can utilize this aspect to make new contacts in your field or in a field to which you would like to transition. I already discussed the importance of establishing your professional network early in your graduate training (How to start your PhD the right way), and there are a number of BsB articles here that discuss networking at length (Networking for Scientists, Networking is NOT a dirty word, Scientists – Get Networked). Start attending professional networking events that are relevant to your career aspirations. It will feel awkward at first, but networking is just a skill that will improve with practice. Expand your non-academic network and use it to your benefit. The best allegory for your professional network that I can offer is a tree in your garden: if you nourish it and take time to take care of it, it will flourish, grow and offer you plenty of its fruit. As such, you need to show genuine interest in your network, stay in touch with your contacts, update them on your success and offer them your help whenever you can. This way, your contacts will truly appreciate you and value you, and when the time will come for them to extend you a helping hand, you won’t find yourself in need.

Step 4: Informational interviews

Once you have identified a possible career direction for yourself, you need to find out as much as possible about it before you actually make a full leap. Let’s face it, you have diligently in a very specific skill set, and transitioning to a new field might require some adjustment. Before you fully commit yourself, you need to try it out and see if it is really for you. Informational interviews offer a great way to talk to people who have already managed that transition and are working in the field that interests you. Informational Interviewing is a valuable tool for career exploration and building your network.  The goal of an Informational interview is not to ask for a job, but to expand your understanding of a career area as you consider career directions, as well as to make valuable professional contacts. Informational interviewing allows you to:

  • Learn about a career field: its culture, opportunities and necessary skill sets
  • Explore what a particular job might entail
  • Gather information about a specific organization
  • Develop a network of contacts
  • Receive advice on job search strategies
  • Build your confidence and knowledge for job interviews

Making the contact and arranging the interview is the first step, but knowing what to ask when you arrive is critical. Such informational interviews can be conducted either by email, phone, or in person over a cup of coffee. Again, you are not trying to ask that person for a job. Instead, you should demonstrate genuine interest in learning more about what they do and how they got to that point. People like to know that others find them interesting. However, people do NOT like to be asked by a stranger to get them a job, so do not ruin your informational interview by being pushy. Do at least THREE informational interviews with people in the field you are considering, and ask them the following questions:

  1. How did you get into this field?
  2. What do you like BEST about this work?
  3. What do you like LEAST about this work?
  4. How do I get into this career, and how much of a demand is there for people who can do this work?
  5. Is it easy to find a job in this career, or is it hard?
  6. Who else would you recommend or suggest I talk to, to learn more about this career?

This is your chance to network your way into the field that interests you, so do it well and one day it might prove pivotal in your job search. Most importantly, do not think of your first non-academic job as your final destination, think of it as a stepping-stone in your journey.

References

  1. Sauermann, H. and M. Roach, Science PhD Career Preferences: Levels, Changes, and Advisor Encouragement. PLoS One, 2012. 7(5): p. e36307.
  2. Cyranoski, D., et al., Education: The PhD factory. Nature, 2011. 472(7343): p. 276-9.
  3. Taylor, M., Reform the PhD system or close it down. Nature, 2011. 472(7343): p. 261.

 

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