1. What is your current position?
Assistant Director of Science in Society, Northwestern University
2. How far in advance of your planned starting date did you begin looking for jobs?
About a year
3. How did you learn about your current position?
My career story is really about creating your own opportunities because my position didn’t exist until I pitched the idea to my current boss.
When I was in grad school, I was really struggling. I was sure what I wanted to do, only that I didn’t want to pursue tenure. So, to blow off steam and to gain some new skills, I spent a significant amount of time volunteering with an after-school science program, called Science Club. Science Club is run by our office, Science in Society at Northwestern University. Science in Society was doing awesome work at the time but only had two full-time staff members. It limited their ability to start new projects and expand the scope of their work.
So, about a year before my graduation date, a program coordinator job opened up with the office and I pitched the idea of making that a post-doctoral position instead. There were some back-and-forth discussions about the wisdom of that change but I eventually started my post-doc with Science in Society. I was promoted to Assistant Director about a year later and have been loving it ever since!
4. Were any resources (inside or outside your university) particularly helpful in your job search?
In my third year of grad school, I recognized that I didn’t want to pursue a tenure-track academic position but I wasn’t really sure what else I wanted to do. So I started volunteering a lot. It was through those volunteer experiences that I identified my passion for youth education and outreach. Once I figured that out, it became hugely important to network with professionals in the field and learn from them.
5. What was your work or educational background before you were hired?
I earned my bachelor’s in biology and my PhD in cell and molecular biology. While I didn’t have much formal work experience, I had spent many years volunteering for a number of causes, including a ton of work with kids.
6. Which aspects of your background (postdoctoral training, internships, etc.) were required for your position?
I was able to create this position because I had a mix of scientific training, experience working in youth education, and the ability to handle high pressure, complicated work.
7. Was your mentor supportive of your career choice?
My PI was extremely supportive of both my volunteer work in grad school and my transition out of the lab. She is a new-ish faculty member and it seems like many of the younger faculty understand the realities for new graduates- that a minority will ever receive tenure-track faculty positions and the vast majority need to pursue careers outside of academia. It is important to have regular conversations with your PI about your career plans so that they understand your perspective and can help you.
8. How would you describe the interview process and how did you prepare for it? Were there any skills or experiences in your CV that seemed to stand out?
I was fortunate in that I didn’t really need to interview for the job. I had been volunteering with my current boss awhile before we started formally working together. He knew me well enough that an interview wasn’t really necessary.
9. Has your career trajectory followed the path you’d expected when you started graduate school?
Not at all! When I started grad school, I fully expected to pursue a job in academia, running a small lab and teaching college students. But as the years wore on, I realized that I wasn’t especially thrilled about a career in research. I was, however, very excited about the science outreach and volunteering I was doing on the side. This was an instance where I trusted my gut and followed my interests rather than doing the “impressive” and “practical” thing instead.
10. Was anything about your job not what you’d expected before you were hired?
As a program administrator for the university, I’ve learned a fair amount about the realities of working for large organizations. Things are always more complicated than they seem and I didn’t expect to spend so much of my time navigating through politics and bureaucracy. Ugh.
11. Are there any skills or experiences you wish you’d had before you started?
I wish that I’d had more experience writing for a public audience, managing large budgets, and supervising employees. Having those skills would have made my transition so much easier.
12. How do you spend an average workday?
I don’t know that I have an average workday- it’s always changing. My job is a mix of curriculum development and implementation, event planning and logistics, graduate student training, advising faculty and research staff on their outreach projects, writing grants and evaluation reports, meeting with community partners, and leading after school and in-class programs.
Since most of our work takes place after school, my mornings and early afternoons are usually spent in the office, writing emails and meeting with people. By 2:30p, I’m usually out the door and going into the community to run an after school club or to touch base with our community partners. The summer months are a little more low-key and I do a lot more computer work, designing our curriculum and running an analysis of that year’s evaluation.
13. What do you most like about your work?
My favorite part of this work is helping people see how awesome they are and supporting them as they become even more awesome. Whether it’s showing urban kids that they are in fact smart enough to do science, expressing appreciation to teachers and lightening some of their load, or helping graduate students take pride in their research and reinvigorating their love of science, it’s so wonderful to put a smile on someone’s face and get paid to do it.
14. What do you find the most challenging about your work? Our unofficial office motto is “What can we do to help?”
If you ask that question enough, people will start giving you things to do and will start leaning on you for support. It’s the best part of our work (I love being able to help) but it’s also a big responsibility. I’m always nervous that I won’t deliver enough for our very deserving community partners.
15. What skills do you think are absolutely essential for your position?
Communication skills- the ability to clearly communicate complicated concepts, to speak authentically in front of an audience, to write for non-scientists, and to communicate tactfully as part of a team
The ability to get things done- to manage multiple large projects at once, to plan events, to quickly adapt when things change, to follow through on a promise or deadline
Teaching experience- the ability to work with and connect with students, an understanding of how people learn and build on concepts, experience adapting science experiments for a school-aged audience.
16. Do you think it helps to have a certain personality to do the work you do?
Yes! This type of work is not for everyone. It is very people-focused and can be very fast paced. So, you would need a strong desire to work with and help people, the ability to empathize with people and understand their situation, the ability to listen, a calm demeanor in stressful situations, the ability to work with and lead a collaborative team, a sense of humor, and the ability to have fun.
17. Are there any traits that would make it difficult to succeed in your position?
I can say from experience, it is hard to advance in this work if you are introverted, reserved, and not people oriented. As a reformed introvert, I had to learn to be more expressive, more authentic, and more open because so much of this work depends on building relationships and quickly connecting with people.
18. What advice would you give to someone looking for a position like yours?
Good for you! And good luck! A career in youth outreach is definitely off the beaten path and will require you to be independent, to be a self-starter, and to create your own opportunities. There aren’t many job listings for this kind of work but for the right people, the opportunities are out there.