A scientist’s career path is often the result of a series of chance meetings, unexpected events and changes in personal circumstances. You shouldn’t be afraid to follow your own unique route, says Zoe Self.
Guest contributor Zoe Self
Have you ever been striding down the road only to realise that you are heading in completely the wrong direction? If you turn around on the spot, you’ll likely get some funny looks from those around you. You could look at your phone, pretend you’ve been called away to attend some kind of crisis and go back in the other direction with a new (if not false) sense of purpose. Or, you could look at your watch and pretend to realise that, actually, you need to be somewhere else. But what if this was your career path?
When I finished my biomechanics PhD in 2012, I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay in research. More than anything, I was exhausted by the end of my PhD and felt like the approach of ‘a change is as good as a rest’ applied. I really wanted a job in science communication, as I had loved the outreach and engagement work I’d taken part in throughout my PhD, but had been made aware, by those working in that area, that jobs were hard to come by. I eventually decided a lecturing role would suit as it required many of the same aspects. Engaging students in my discipline sounded equally fulfilling, but it wasn’t long before I felt like I was heading the wrong way. I no longer felt like I was learning and achieving (important at an early-career stage); to my surprise I missed research (a break had changed my outlook), and I still wanted a shot at a career in science communication.
It was a tough decision but I left my permanent, well-paid senior lecturer role for an 18 month postdoc, working in the same lab in which I’d completed my PhD. I decided that if I was having doubts, it was best to turn around sooner rather than later and the postdoctoral role had a large engagement aspect to it. I’ve been told I’m an idiot by others working in short-term roles, striving for a faculty position, and that I’m taking a step backwards on the academic ladder. I disagree: what I see is the wiggly beginning of a (hopefully) long and, almost certainly, unique career path.
There are a few generic career paths in science but more often than not, a scientist’s career path is the result of a series of chance meetings, unexpected events and changes in personal circumstances. Moreover, sometimes the job you hypothesised would be the right one for you, yields a negative result. Having to deviate from your planned route can be unnerving, but at some point you have to realise that uncertainty is inevitable when it comes to careers.
I learned this when I started attending career sessions early in my PhD. Initially they were frustrating because it was unclear as to how the mini-autobiographies speakers were sharing were going to help me. One speaker described how he had essentially stalked employers, turning up unannounced to wait at office doors in the hope of catching some time with them, eventually leading to a highly respected job in science journalism. It certainly didn’t sound like an approach that would work for everyone. Another speaker described how he quit his PhD, fled the country and went to do a short internship, editing at a journal (leading to a full-time role as an editor). At the time, I saw quitting a PhD as a terrible thing to promote to current students, because if it doesn’t work out you’re unlikely to get a second chance, but it worked out in that particular instance. Other speakers described how prioritising family drastically changed their course (but often for the better in hindsight).
What I am beginning to realise is that these speakers were demonstrating (knowingly or otherwise) that there is no generic career path for a scientist. It’s ok to take a unique route, and you’re not an idiot if you turn round and head off in another direction. In fact it might just get you to the right place.
Ultimately, it’s very unusual for someone’s career to take the exact route they planned from the start. There will be diversions (babies), crashes (redundancy), scenic routes (internship) and, if you’re lucky, some unexpected shortcuts (senior person leaves/dies/wins the X Factor). Or, you might just realise that actually you were going the wrong way: don’t bother with your phone or watch, simply turn around where possible.
Zoe is a winner of the 2015 London Naturejobs Career Expo journalism competition, and a post-doc in the Royal Veterinary College’s Structure and Motion Lab. Here she investigates the mechanics of quadrupedal galloping and human walking both of which feed into improving our understanding of injury and performance, as well as inspiring advances in robotics and prostheses. A proportion of Zoe’s time is also dedicated to engagement and outreach work, in particular focussing on getting more biomechanics into school science, and it is in this area that she hopes to advance her career.