A friend from graduate school often referred to academia as “La-la land.” The expression has stuck with me, partially because I feel it to be true. The idealized academia bubble is a dream world to the obsessively curious. You get paid to be actively curious and pursue what ifs. You can ask an infinite number of questions, and not knowing doesn’t incur penalties but rather incites a drive to discover answers.
I have been in academia for roughly 13 years of my life. Once I decided to get my PhD, the path was clear: undergraduate researcher/lab tech to grad student to postdoctoral researcher to research professor. I am currently a postdoctoral researcher in a wonderful Cell Biology lab at the University of Texas Southwestern (UTSW) studying endocytosis. I have a caring mentor who manages to run and support the department, while not neglecting her family. She perfectly represents who I wanted to be as a research professor. However, as I observed the duties and troubles facing a professor at a large research institution, I realized the realities of the job are not appealing to me.
To be clear I am still in love with science, but I am increasingly familiar with the practical difficulties of a career as a research professor. I enjoy doing experiments, discussing theories, solving problems, learning and teaching techniques, and working toward self-imposed deadlines. But I dread aspects like networking and conflict management that the position requires. I also don’t want to compromise my research interests for the new sexy topic sweeping the field. I no longer feel some of the disappointments are worth the tremendous effort we put into our work.
After deciding I did not want to continue the usual research path, a new sensation overtook me: dread. What now? Do I leave la-la land? If I leave, what do I do with all this knowledge on biology and microscopes? Am I even useful outside academia? Leaving the bubble I have worked in for the last 10 plus years feels daunting.
There is plenty of literature on non-academic careers for biomedical PhD holders. A quick Google search reveals multitudes of articles in leading scientific journals. I also made a point to attend every career advice seminar, workshop, and course I could find to identify something I could/should do with my life. I started using the My Individual Development Plan (myIDP) (1) tool, which I found useful as a starting point for identifying career options. Still, I felt I needed more in-depth self-analysis and guidance—and I found it in Know Path.
About the Know Path Program
Know Path, formally known as Pro Path, is a 15-week immersive partially self-paced program designed to assist biomedical scientists to survey, shape, and pursue career goals. The structure of the program also enables the identification, acquisition, and implementation of transferable skills.
The idea for this program arose from deficiencies perceived by Kayla Jackson (2), a Training Coordinator in UTSW’s Career Development team. Kayla identified the need for a more structured program that mirrors the career development process in a time-sensitive format through the lens of her business background. Though career development resources are readily available to trainees, things are typically delivered piecemeal. In addition, often graduate students have resources but postdocs, though on a more urgent timeline, are in a particular blind spot for systematic career exploration. To fill this gap and host the Know Path content on a novel platform, the Career Development Office collaborated with the CEO of Acceleron, a Dallas-based e-learning company that teaches practical life skills to K-12, college, and adult populations across the U.S. (3). The Know Path program has five major components: self-assessment, career exploration, work readiness, job search, and a case study.
Though the program is now available to other entities through Acceleron, it was piloted in 2016 and revamped in 2017 based on participant feedback. The cohort grew from 15 postdocs the first year to 25 the second year including a test population of five senior-level graduate students. To better understand the issues and challenges biomedical PhD-holders face, in 2017 Ashley Lakoduk (4), a UTSW graduate student with a strong background in science communication and a passion for teaching soft skills, joined the instruction team. Ashley actively participated in the improvements made to the program in 2017. The new combination of the team’s business and scientific backgrounds became an excellent point of synergy for making Know Path successful and well suited to their audience.
I was a 2017 participant. The first part of the course concentrated on self-assessment. It begins by analyzing principles of personality types and inherent characteristics using MBTI (5) and the Gallop StrengthsFinder Assessment (6). Beyond preparing for a different career, these assessments helped us understand how we relate to our environment, what can be improved, and most importantly, it helped us identify our individual strengths so we can better leverage them.
After getting to know ourselves we moved on to career exploration where we used what we learned about ourselves to find career options that fit our strengths and personality. We got suggestions from peers in our cohort and later the instructors submitted their career path suggestions based on our personal interests, goals, and hobbies. Because the course is targeted toward a small contingent, there is an element of individuality that sets it apart from more generalized advice. In addition, the later modules provided strategies on conducting informational interviews with professionals in our careers of interest to get honest feedback on what it’s like to be in a specific role.
The other modules also highlighted the importance of networking (still necessary, I begrudgingly found out), the work culture outside of academia, and important information on business concepts. In the last point, I was surprised to see how similar our statistical and logical analyses are to those used in business. The names change but the game is the same. This gave me heart, and the confidence to try because I realized I either already know, or I can easily learn.
The last two days of the course were the Case Study, which was my favorite part of the course. The instructors consider it an experiential learning opportunity, where we applied what we learned in the previous weeks. Consulting is an excellent self-evaluation opportunity because it requires mastery of all the components necessary for any career: problem identification, analysis, and solution presentation. Our cohort took part in a consulting opportunity at Health Wildcatters, a healthcare startup incubator company (7). A real business problem on a medical device startup was presented to us and we were split into groups of ~three people for the span of two days to strategize a solution to the case question. The goal was to generate a spectrum of answers implementing our scientific background as well as business models that may be helpful to the startup and present them in an organized way. The energy in the room was extraordinary. It was clear not all of us wanted to go into consulting, but every group made excellent use of the tools we learned during the self-paced part of the program.
Ultimately, I believe the course conveyed several important messages: 1) you don’t have to stay in academia; 2) to switch careers is not failure; and 3) most important, academic PhD training helps you prepare for a wide range of non-academic professions and career options. As Kayla put it, a PhD is “not an identity but a qualification.” This is a transformative idea. Now, instead of wondering anxiously if I’m useful outside of academia, I’m thinking about how to apply my transferable skills to attain the future I want.
I’m still figuring out what career I will pursue in the future. Since I took the Know Path program in the beginning of my second year as a postdoc, I have a little more time to figure it out. I am grateful to the people who designed the course and ran it at UTSW. Though of course I still have some anxiety about the future, now that I’ve taken the program I have confidence that even if I don’t know where I’m going, once I decide, I will know how to get there.
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:
Rosa E. Mino is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. She is part of the Schmid lab in the Cell Biology department. Her research focuses on the mechanisms regulating clathrin-coated pit formation and maturation during endocytosis.