By Carolyn Beans, contributor
Before continuing on the academic track, many of my fellow graduate students and I wanted to at least know what other options we had, so we organized an alternative careers day. We asked professors for the names of former students who went on to careers outside of academia. We searched online for biologists working for local businesses and nonprofits. We invited about a dozen panelists from institutions ranging from the EPA, NIH, and NAS, to the Nature Conservancy and local biotech companies.
Just a quick glance at the program was enough to inspire hope for a challenging and fulfilling career off the academic track. These jobs exist! We found them! And they sound amazing! Oh, by the way, inspiring panelist, how did you go about getting that job? We learned that many career paths off the academic track go something like this: A post doc, a job that was OK but not quite right, then a move for family reasons, then some volunteer work, and then hearing about a job opening at the right place at the right time through a random supermarket encounter with a friend of a friend.
The hardest part about deciding whether to leave academia is figuring out what other options are available. The scariest part about actually stepping off the academic track is finding yourself without a track. Many jobs outside of academia are highly specific: chief of an imaging facility, director of research administration for a cancer institute, associate director of a science museum. Few people hold each of these positions and there is no guarantee of an opening anytime soon. Leaving academia with the singular goal of obtaining any one of these jobs would be risky. The best we can do is identify a broader career category to work towards, such as science research, administration, or outreach.
While our career day panelists couldn’t offer us a direct path to their own jobs, they did offer a survival kit to aid us in charting our own paths. Below are some of their tips on how to make your way outside of academia.
- Schedule informational interviews: Identify people working in careers that interest you. Email them, call them, and take them out for coffee. Ask about their career paths, their day-to-day work, and what you can do to prepare yourself for a career in their profession. It is not always easy to get contact information for people online. If you figure out a way to reach out, and do so in a polite way, they will be impressed. Have your resume on hand, but don’t offer it unless asked.
- Shadow people: Maybe working as an ecologist for the Environmental Protection Agency sounds like your dream job, but how much do you know about what these professionals actually spend their days doing? How much time do they spend researching? How much time in meetings? How much time writing? How often do they leave their desks? These are the kinds of questions best answered by shadowing a professional. Ask if you can spend a couple of hours at work with someone to gain a better sense of their daily responsibilities.
- Work for very little, for a little while: We all need to pay the bills, but volunteering or interning is sometimes the quickest way into a new career. This low-paid work will not only boost your resume, but also help build your network. To soften the financial blow, consider volunteering while still in school.
- Show off your skills: So maybe your mad skill at extracting DNA from century-old thistle plants isn’t a major selling point outside of academia. As a graduate student, you have many other skills that are transferable. You are highly experienced in public speaking, writing, project management, problem solving, and long-term goal pursuit. Highlight these attributes in cover letters and interviews.
- Use your own department: Yes, academia is often accused of not preparing students for the outside world. But even if our academic advisors don’t have first-hand experience with jobs outside of academia, they surely know people who do. They must, given the fact that the majority of PhDs do not go on to tenure track positions. Some of our advisors’ former students must be in other careers, and these may be valuable people to connect with.
Carolyn Beans is a fourth year Biology PhD student at the University of Virginia and is one of the winners of this year’s Nature careers columnist competition. Watch out for more posts from Carolyn here on the blog and in the magazine.