Take time to explore your options – there is no perfect path for finding your career, says Erica K. Brockmeier
Many of our scientific journeys began long before we stepped foot onto a university campus. We may have had lifelong fascinations with the natural world, a desire to make some positive change, or simply a love of learning. We aspired to become like our science heroes, the Marie Curies and Bill Nyes of the world, and so embarked on the path towards becoming a scientist.
It’s a path that has a typical beginning: you earn an undergraduate degree and then complete a Master’s and/or a PhD. But after completing these steps, it’s not so clear which way a typical career path leads. With far fewer academic positions available than there are PhDs, the traditional path that scientists take, from student to postdoc to professor, is no longer the path most frequently taken.
A personal career path is just that: personal. A career is unique to your set of skills, your passions, and the opportunities and situations that you find along the way. Finding your fit in the scientific community can sometimes be as much about finding out what you don’t like as much as it is what brings you joy and fulfillment.
My own career path began not with well-formed plans or a firm idea of what I wanted to be, but rather with the use of a tool already well-known to many of us: procrastination. While nearing the completion of my PhD, I had the vague feeling that I didn’t want to become a research professor, but I loved doing research and didn’t want to leave academia. I wanted to keep learning and doing science. More than anything, I was afraid of leaving a university environment after nearly 10 years as a student. So after completing my dissertation, I took the next step along my career path and became a postdoc at another university.
The job started off well: the project involved an industry partner and I found myself working on interdisciplinary and collaborative research. But as it progressed I faced an ever-growing to-do list and became increasingly aware of the lack of training, support and learning opportunities. As a PhD student, I had enjoyed the opportunities to learn from my advisors and mentors. As a postdoc, I found myself responsible for unfamiliar tasks and unable to find the type of mentorship that I felt I needed to do the job well.
I tried to manage multiple projects, budgets, students, and deliverables as well as I could, but worried that I had fallen behind on my understanding of the science behind my project. This made me doubt my ability to become an expert in the field. Overall, I realized I was not getting what I wanted out of the postdoc experience. With less than a year to go on my contract, I decided it was time to look beyond academia for the next step of my career journey.
I started off with some career soul searching, guided by Chris Guillebeau’s “Born For This” book. I focused on answering two questions:
1) What did people ask me to help them with?
2) What did I like most about my current job?
I recalled friends and colleagues frequently asking for help with writing and editing. Whether it was providing feedback on a labmate’s thesis or editing fundraising letters for conferences, writing had been an integral part of collaborations. I also found great personal reward in the scientific writing and communication aspects of my work. I even took the time to start a professional development blog for post-graduate and early career researchers.
I started to explore my options, knowing that I wanted to be heavily involved in the writing aspects of science and to keep up with the world of scientific research. Combining my interests and career goals with the knowledge that I would be staying with my husband in the North West of England for another two years, I found there was a great opportunity for me in medical communications.
I had never heard of medical communications before I started looking for jobs, but I soon realized that this job was a perfect fit. Medical communications agencies develop materials to help educate healthcare professionals about new technologies and innovations in medicine. They also provide guidance and support to pharmaceutical companies on numerous materials, from clinical trial publications to educational slide decks. I was excited at the prospect of getting paid for exactly the kind of work I enjoyed doing the most and for the opportunity to learn new skills while staying connected to cutting-edge science in healthcare and medicine.
As I neared the completion of my postdoc contract, I was fortunate enough to make a connection with a medical writer thanks to a collaborator at my university. After sending in my CV, completing a writing test, and landing an interview, I received an offer to become an associate medical writer at Prime Global. I started in June 2017 and already feel like an integral part of the team, with a stronger sense of belonging than I ever had in academia. I enjoy that every day is different, and I am never left feeling burned out. At any point in a week, I could be doing literature searches, preparing a new educational slide deck, data checking, or discussing new project ideas with clients.
I also quickly discovered that having a job outside of academia didn’t limit my opportunities to learn and was instead quite the opposite. I now have the mentorship and support I felt was lacking during my postdoc. I also find it rewarding to work with a diverse group of people—after having worked primarily with scientists and researchers throughout my career, I quickly realized how much breadth is added to my day from working alongside people from other areas of expertise, such as finance, project management, and creative design.
I hope my example helps show that the path that you take towards finding your ideal career will rarely be a smooth journey—and that’s not a bad thing. Finding your path involves trial and error, a willingness to step outside your comfort zone, and the confidence to go forward without a perfect plan. There’s certainly no ‘typical’ way to finding your own career path. I hope that examples like mine can inspire you to take those crucial first steps on your own path.
If you’re thinking that a career in medical communications might be the perfect fit for you, be sure to check out the First MedComms Job website to read more about the field and how you can get started.
Erica Brockmeier is an Associate Medical Writer for Prime Global. She is also the lead writer of Science with Style, a professional development blog for PhD students and early career researchers. You can follow her story of becoming a science communicator on Twitter at @EKBrockmeier.