Reflections on Making the Leap

Making the leap. Photo by J F.

Making the leap. Photo by J F.

At ASCB, and especially here on the COMPASS blog, we frequently visit the topic of non-academic careers. Many of us have discussed the growing imbalance in academia, with greater numbers of PhD students being prepared for a niche job market—the tenure-track professorship—that is not growing at a commensurate pace. The number of doctorates awarded annually has been accelerating for decades, but an increase in part-time faculty and a shrinking of tenured positions has led to one clear result: a ballooning population of postdocs whose job prospects are increasingly uncertain.

PhDs have largely responded to the difficult academic market by entering non-traditional career paths. Recent estimates indicate that only one in ten graduates will end up in a tenure-track position. So in today’s climate, non-academic careers are really the majority choice for PhDs, at least in the biomedical fields.

The good news is that there is growing awareness of the situation at the institutional level, and it’s being addressed in myriad ways. Teaching-centered postdocs, the NIH BEST program (with offshoots like ASPIRE), and other efforts are helping to improve career planning. PhDs are also taking the initiative to broaden their own job prospects.


A Personal Choice

Even with collegial and institutional support, the decision to leave academia is ultimately a very personal one. At its root, it is a process of deep self-reflection, self-realization—and no small amount of fear and self-doubt.

Beyond the grueling internal battle, there also looms the inevitable conversations between you and your mentor. The daunting yet necessary talks in which you lay bare the thoughts that have been bubbling in your consciousness for weeks, months, maybe years, when the decision to leave your academic position crystallizes and becomes a reality.

The commitment to leave academia, and the mentor-mentee dynamic that stems from that decision, will be different for everyone. However it manifests itself, the transition is bound to be difficult terrain to navigate, fraught with professional and emotional peril.


Navigating the Waters
Leaving academia is a situation that no PhD is ever really prepared for. Why would we be? Implicit in the modern doctoral career path are the dual assumptions that true success only happens in a very narrow window—“the professor or bust” mentality—and that this success is readily achievable for anyone with talent and a strong work ethic. Under these kinds of assumptions, there isn’t much of an incentive to mentally prepare for making a break with academia. Nor is there incentive to deal with all of the downstream ramifications of such a decision.

So what do you do if, somewhere along the winding graduate path, one or both of these implicit assumptions no longer rings true to you? How do you prepare for a career outside of academia? And how do you break the news to the people who’ve been guiding you toward an academic future?

Here are some of my thoughts, born of recent experience and reflection.


First, Make an Informed Decision

Explore your interests. When you realize that you no longer want to pursue research, a glaring question enters your mind: What am I going to do next? You’ve probably spent years preparing for a life of research, without giving much thought to the alternatives that are out there. So the first thing to do is to fully explore your career options. There are many resources available to help you with this (for example, the Individual Development Plan). I would add: network! It’s a cliché, but networking really can be invaluable when looking for a new career. Anytime you meet someone at a conference or event whose job title intrigues you, exchange contact information and ask to speak with them about their career. Informational interviews will help you learn what a job is really like, and illuminate a viable path to getting there. Even when you don’t meet in person, reach out on LinkedIn. People are usually more than willing to offer free advice. After all, there’s a good chance that they were once in the same position as you!

Also, take advantage of volunteer work. It will allow you to judge whether you’ll enjoy the job, gain some experience, and develop connections that can potentially lead to employment opportunities in the future.

Recognize your expansive skillset. The natural inclination to associate doctoral training with technical expertise makes it easy to overlook the broad range of skills you’ve developed over your graduate career. Many skills that have little to do with experimental prowess are highly sought after in non-academic jobs. Spent a lot of time writing manuscripts and presenting at conferences? Communication skills are extremely valuable in the medical writing, science journalism, and science policy fields. Worked productively in a team setting? Nearly every corporate environment, from pharmaceutical companies to consulting firms, will reward you. Try to flesh out your skills and strengths, in order to gauge whether you’ll flourish in the career that interests you.

Dedicate time away from the bench for proactive career development. Figuring out where you want to go and how you’ll get there means spending some time away from the bench. To make measurable progress, dedicate time exclusively to professional development every week. It’s very easy to get sucked into the research vortex, as there’s always another experiment waiting to be done. But spend all of your time running assays, and you may start to feel as though you’re spinning your wheels.

Let your advisor know early and often about your internal thought process. There are certainly horror stories about ill-intentioned mentors. In my own interactions I’ve found that mentors generally have your best interest at heart, but often haven’t been thoroughly exposed to all of the career choices that are out there. Broaching the topic of alternative careers is somewhat akin to speaking from the outside of an echo chamber. Moreover, they may not appreciate the current job plight for PhDs. Keep in mind that the career prospects of the last generation of scientists were quite different from what scientists face today.

But in any case, your advisor can’t help you if you keep your internal dilemma to yourself. Let your mentor know about your desire to pursue a non-academic position as soon as it takes serious hold in your mind. Maintaining an open line of communication, however uncomfortable it may be, is better than a silent struggle that provides no opportunity for help and guidance.


Then, When It’s Time…

Be able to explain how your new career benefits science. Anytime you’re looking to switch careers, it’s essential to be confident that the new job fits your goals and values. For dyed-in-the-wool scientists, a large part of this means believing your career contributes to science. This can be difficult if those around you consider some non-academic positions to be unimportant. A job that doesn’t explicitly advance knowledge in a specialized field may not seem scientifically valuable to someone who has built their career doing just that.

It’s therefore worthwhile to have a convincing explanation as to how your job will contribute to the scientific enterprise, writ large. Explaining the job’s value to your mentor and colleagues will help you build confidence that you’re making the right choice. If you really know this job is the one for you, it should be easy to give a convincing rationale. Likewise, if you find it difficult to explain, this is a red flag to take a pause and reflect further. Remember that you’ll never persuade everyone, so the most important thing is to feel secure in your own decision

Develop a firm transition plan that leaves your research in order. Research is a continual process, and at any given point we’re generally juggling multiple projects at several different stages of completion. So there will rarely be an ideal time to leave a lab, and your departure will certainly have an impact on the lab’s progress. You can ease the transition by letting your advisor and labmates know as early as possible if you intend to leave. This will give everybody time to logically apportion your projects and develop a strategy for completing the work you started.

Anecdotally, it’s actually quite common for manuscripts to be published months—and in some cases, years—after leaving for a new position. So an unfinished paper is not in and of itself a reason to stay should a new opportunity arise.

Be prepared for abrupt change. Non-academic jobs typically operate on a very different timeline from academia. There’s generally no such thing as giving an employer your one-semester’s notice, except in the confines of a university. So while you may spend months or years searching for a job, when an offer comes you may need to transition out of academia quickly. If you’re serious about changing careers, be prepared for a potentially rapid up-ending of your professional trajectory if an offer presents itself.

Don’t let fear of the unknown hold you back. It is entirely natural to be nervous about entering a new job. This is especially true in academia: It’s not uncommon to spend five years or more at the bench earning a PhD, and then another three to five years (or longer!) as a postdoc. After such a prolonged period research becomes second nature, and “cutting the research cord” can be scary. But if you’ve really thought long and hard about your new career path, these reservations are largely instinctive and will pass with time. Don’t allow fear to metastasize into paralysis: If the decision to leave is right for you, swallow the fear and go for it!


Finally, and Most Importantly

Don’t let anyone dissuade you from believing that your passion has value. The professional value of what you’re passionate about will be determined by those who are willing to pay you to do what you love. But ultimately, the personal value of your career is, and always should be, determined by you and you alone. Your academic mentors can help you develop and mold your passion, and provide you with the resources to achieve it. But at the end of the day, only you are capable of defining it.

About the Author:

Travis is a former postdoctoral researcher in the Cell Biology Department at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in Bronx, NY, where he studied the role of linker histone H1 in the regulation of chromatin structure in Drosophila melanogaster. He remains affiliated with the Einstein division of the national IRACDA program, where he is developing interventions to improve STEM student learning outcomes, and is an adjunct assistant professor at Iona College. Travis recently left his full-time academic position to pursue a career in medical writing. He has been a COMPASS associate member since March 2015 and is serving on the communication subcommittee. Email: Comments and suggestions are always welcome! Email: Comments and suggestions are always welcome!
Christina Szalinski is a science writer with a PhD in Cell Biology from the University of Pittsburgh.

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