Taking small steps to build up your transferable skills and contacts can be the key to moving away from academia and towards your dream job.
Guest contributor Lauren Emily Wright
Ever thought “I want to leave academia, but all I know is lab work”? Well despair no more — the path out isn’t as treacherous as it may seem. In a great keynote speech at the Naturejobs Career Expo 2015 on 18 September 2015, Phill Jones told the story of how he left academia to become the head of publisher outreach at Digital Science, a company that provides a multitude of services to scientists, institutions, publishers, and funding bodies.
Jones gave the audience the sense that calculated planning and sheer luck had both played their part in his career. With a PhD in physics, he was firmly grounded in the world of academia. But after following his wife to Boston, Jones realised that a postdoc in physics would be hard to come by in such a biology-centred city. “I had to be a little more flexible in my career,” he said.
As Jones notes, it is necessary to have an open mind when thinking of changing career paths. “You can’t think ‘all I know is how to pipette’.” Instead, think about what sort of transferrable skills you can offer an employer. For example, Jones finished his PhD with an in-depth knowledge of optics — perfect for a position in a biology lab that used optical imaging to investigate strokes.
But how can you identify which transferrable skills you already have, and which you need to gain for that ideal new career? How can you make contacts outside academia?
Jones strongly advocates informational interviews, in which you talk to someone knowledgeable in the field that interests you (or even your potential future boss) about your skills, ideal job and CV. “Informational interviews are a key activity if you want to move from one career path to another. They give you the chance to sit down with someone who knows about the kind of job that you want. They give you feedback, help you develop contacts, and give you practise talking to people,” he explained.
But, he added, “introspection is also very important.” Maybe you love presentations, or you’re a closet science writer. Identifying those interests and combining them with your scientific knowledge might just land you your dream job. Think about what you really enjoy doing and about what skills you have — however random they may seem.
Many young researchers don’t give serious consideration to the options outside academia. But the statistics say that we should definitely consider non-academic options. “We’ve talked for a long time about leaving academia as being an alternative career,” said Jones, “but it’s not. Leaving academia is now the primary career path. Staying in is the alternative.
Of course, that does not mean that your PhD is worthless. Instead, it’s an invaluable source of transferrable skills. If you are still doing your PhD but are thinking of leaving academia, keep planning and networking as you finish. As Jones advises, “be proactive in understanding where you want to go, and what skills you need to build to get there. Buy somebody a coffee that works for the company you want to, and ask them how to do it.”
In 2010, Jones left his faculty position at Harvard Medical School, frustrated by funding limitations. He decided that, through a career in publishing, he could work towards changing the system.
Jones had no knowledge of publishing, but that didn’t stop him. He changed jobs, networked and developed his skillset. First, he joined the editorial department of the Journal of Visualized Experiments, where he learnt how to build a company. Next, he moved to ReadCube, and used this position to make contacts. After tooling himself up, he was ready to take on his current position.
Herein lies Jones’s lesson. Each job, although seemingly unrelated to publishing, provided an opportunity to improve his skills toolkit, gearing him up for his current career.
Sarah, a delegate and medic who was previously a postdoc, says she that the presentation sent home the need for proactivity. “I realised that I have to search out opportunities, rather than waiting for them to fall into my lap.” But she also found the talk encouraging. “I thought it was really inspiring… It’s given me the idea that you don’t have to have a planned career; you can kind of jump around a bit.”
Instead of stressing about creating the perfect career right now, it is OK to focus on the skills and contacts that can be gained from doing the things that excite us in the present. Together, these assets can help land a dream job in the future.
- A guide to informational interviewing
- Know your network
- Blog posts by Phill Jones can be found in the Perspectives Blog at Digital Science