Out and back: How searching for a non-academic career led me to academia

In college, I joined the cross country team. I wanted to try something new and they needed bodies. To get my baseline mileage up, I ran a lot of out and backs – going from point A to point B and then tracing the path back to A.

Running and research often go hand in hand for me because around the same time, I also joined a lab. I was instantly sold. I loved working with my hands, and how that work generated more questions. I loved talking with my labmates about the discoveries we were making. I wanted to become a professor and do research and work in small, effective teams.

Senior Airman Angela Duff, 62nd Aerial Port Squadron, runs on a pathway along Heritage Hill Apr 19 as part of her daily routine. SrA Duff, an aspiring fitness competitor, attributes her physical fitness to eating healthy and regular free weight workouts at the base gym. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Abner Guzman)

In my first year of grad school, I joined a career development committee because I was curious. It was a small group of graduate students and a faculty advisor figuring out how to help students and postdocs learn about careers. I learned the process of career exploration (researching careers, informational interviews, gaining experience), but didn’t apply it to my own path since I thought that I had made a choice: professor. Yet over time, it got harder to see myself as an academic researcher. I felt further and further from my goals, and it didn’t feel worth the struggle. By my third year, I no longer wanted to pursue the tenure track. I decided that I would actively explore nonacademic careers, find the best fit, fill any skill gaps, and graduate fast.

I explored nearly every career I could think of: entrepreneurship, patent law, policy, academic administration, communication, and industry. I sat in courses and workshops, went to career panels, and had informational interviews with dozens of PhDs about the grass that was greener. Everyone was eager to help. I felt like I had finally found the support and community I was missing in grad school. I felt in control—I was making the decisions about who to talk to, what to ask, and how to move forward. During this process, I got better at listening, contributing to conversations, and asking questions. From being involved with the career committee, and thus talking with faculty about career development, I began to connect to my academic community again. I didn’t feel the same pressure of needing to do well in research, which ironically released many inhibitions in lab, and lab got better. The work that I loved doing the most, whether it was in research or with student groups, was still what I had loved as an undergrad: working on interesting questions and working in great teams. And at the end of the day (five years later), I wanted those questions to be about science. I’m now in the process of thinking about postdocs, and considering the type of training environment I want, which scientific questions would fit with the long-term goals of my lab, and how I would run a lab. These are the same type of career exploration questions I would ask myself about any path, but now tailored to tenure track.

Not everyone is going to want to stay on the tenure track after grad school, nor should anyone expect them to. But the ability to go out and explore is essential for figuring out the right path. Sometimes it feels like there isn’t time to explore things outside of lab, or that there is still a stigma against such exploration. Yet, without knowing the options, how can we find our way? And who knows, maybe tomorrow (or five years from now) I’ll set off on an entirely different path.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are the views of the author(s) and do not represent the official policy or position of ASCB.

About the Author:

Sara Wong is a graduate student at the University of Michigan in Cellular and Molecular Biology. She studies how myosin V-mediated cargo transport is regulated in space and time. Email: sawo@umich.edu. Twitter: @sarajwong