I often speak to students, both undergraduate and graduate, about their career plans. And one of the things that has struck me about these conversations is how narrowly focused many of their career plans are. Most undergraduates see their options as limited to medical school, graduate school, or maybe an entry-level job in a biotech or pharmaceutical company. Graduate students often see their options as a binary choice—the postdoc/academia track versus the industry track.
These conversations have led me to reflect on my own thoughts about my career options when I was at those stages, and I think that I also suffered from a lack of imagination about what choices I had. But in the intervening years, I’ve learned that it’s a wide world out there and there are A LOT of choices—and a background in the biological sciences is great preparation for a very wide variety of jobs and careers. Not only do you develop strong analytical skills, but especially by the end of a PhD, you should have a suite of “transferable skills” such as project management, written and oral communication, and teamwork. The trick is to learn more about the options that are available to you, and then to frame those skills in the context of the career paths that interest you.
So, how do you learn about these other career paths? Explore. At every step along the way, try to find and take advantage of opportunities to learn something outside your sphere. If you are a graduate student, try to do rotations in multiple labs. Go to talks and seminars, even if the topics aren’t directly relevant to your work. Go to scientific meetings and make sure you talk to a wide range of people. Not only will these steps improve your science by giving you a broader context, exposure to different techniques and approaches, and insight into different ways of thinking, you will invariably meet people who have had diverse experiences and you can learn from them. If your program offers it, consider doing an internship or a co-op—there’s nothing like direct experience in a workplace to really understand what a job is all about. In addition, big meetings like the ASCB|EMBO Meeting have a large number of career-related sessions and resources. Even if a topic doesn’t seem as if it will be of interest to you, check it out anyway. You might be surprised! And finally, try not to be limited by your preconceived notions of what a career should look like. Don’t let a lack of imagination hold you back!
One more thing: This advice is not just for students and postdocs. It’s never too late to explore! A few years ago, I took a risk and applied for aa AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship. I took a sabbatical from my university job, moved to Washington, DC, for a year, and worked at the U.S. Agency for International Development on human rights. Although it was a challenge to juggle this job with my obligations to my family and lab, and it was not directly related to my research or my university job, the fellowship was one of the most meaningful and interesting experiences of my life. So, explore!
About the Author:
Lee Ligon is an Associate Professor of Biology and Associate Dean of Science for Academic Affairs at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Follow Lee on Twitter at @DrLigon.