What are you passionate about?
Guest contributor Aliyah Weinstein
This question plays a role in the career decisions for almost everyone, yet is absent from most conversations when it comes to early-career scientists. Questions all PhDs hear are: What kind of research are you interested in doing? Do you want to work in academia, or in industry? But these questions make a fundamental assumption: every scientist wants to pursue a career in research. I, for example, have had a lifelong interest in writing and languages.
In high school, I realized that I was most interested in choosing to study biology in college and subsequently pursued a PhD in immunology. Of course, I did not spontaneously lose my interest in communication when I started studying health sciences. I’m now looking forward to a career in which I can combine my interest in these two fields by pursuing science communication.
Non-research careers for scientists include science policy, writing, patent law, regulatory affairs, teaching, and consulting, and other paths that involve or support scientific research without actively being engaged in bench work. And while an understanding of these potential career paths may not come until during graduate training, skills and interest in these fields may be found much earlier in a career. An early interest in law or government may translate to a career in patent law, science policy, or regulatory affairs. An interest in management or business can be expressed by a consulting position. A desire to mentor can be fulfilled by a career in teaching.
Scientists have multifaceted portfolios of interests and experience that doesn’t disappear even as constraints on our time increase. While it is necessary to devote a lot of time to research during a PhD, that does not need to come at the expense of interests that students may have in other areas. A growing number of recent PhD graduates are pursuing a scientific career away from the bench. While career paths in academic or industrial research may be expected of recent graduates of PhD programs, in reality, only about 60% of PhD scientists end up with a career in one of these fields.
The growth of careers in science outside of academia is enticing in its own right. This is accompanied by a growing understanding that not all PhDs will, or even want to, become PIs.
A recent study suggests that for graduates considering the decision to step away from the bench, it is important to do so early, without pursuing postdoctoral research, or, at least, by making sure not to do too much postdoctoral research. Though the culture of academia can often dissuade scientists from doing anything with their time other than research, it is important for trainees especially to banish that notion, and instead evaluate the more important question of what are you passionate about? when deciding what to do with their lives.
Aliyah Weinstein is a graduate student in immunology at the University of Pittsburgh, where her research focuses on the pathways controlling anti-tumor immunity. Outside of the lab she enjoys learning languages, trying to achieve her goal of visiting all 50 U.S. states, and eating at all of Pittsburgh’s delicious restaurants. You can find Aliyah on LinkedIn, Twitter, and her blog.