What does it take to land your dream job beyond academia? Do PhDs even have marketable skills? the 2017 What Can You Be with a PhD career symposium has some answers, reports Elisa Lazzari.
Last weekend over 50.000 runners got ready to run the 26.2 miles of the New York City marathon. Shoes, race number, watch: check.
Similarly, over 1500 grad students, postdocs and faculty members geared up for a different kind of marathon, the two-day long, bi-annual “What Can You Be with a PhD” (WCUB) Career Symposium. Business cards, steady handshake, smile: check.
With 20 different panel discussions and more than 80 panelists, each on a different career path, WCUB is the largest PhD career symposium in the United States.
Attendees flooded the halls of the New York University (NYU) Langone Health Center, where the event was organized by the NYU School of Medicine Postdoctoral Affairs Office, in collaboration with more than ten academic institutions and sponsors, including Naturejobs.
Career options were variegated, spanning from consulting to working for non-profit organizations, but all of them have a common thread: there is no “one-size-fits-all” path to transition towards alternative jobs — you have to create it yourself. “A PhD is a degree in learning.” Said Thomas Magaldi, PhD, the manager of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s career and professional development office: “I could put you in a room and ask you to do something you have never done before — you’ll figure it out.”
Whether you were interested in industry or in science communication or in something else entirely, all sessions were focused on a few steps to breaking into a new job. Here are some of the things I learned.
Get familiar with the job lingo
Put in the work to tailor your CV and cover letter to the job you are applying for. The language you use is critical. Mentoring undergraduate students can be described as managing a group of people. Conducting experiments is an intrinsic example of both problem-solving and time management. Any volunteering experience can be shaped to show your potential. “Anything that you did that someone could be hired to do, like organize a symposium, can be described as pre-professional experience” suggested Erwin Cabrera, PhD, associate director at the Research Foundation for the State University of New York.
Get involved with something outside the lab. Volunteer for outreach programs, contribute to your institute newsletter, and get your hands dirty. Show evidence that you are proactive, able to work in a team, and that you have a little bit of creativity. As many speakers echoed at the symposium, the value of your PhD resides in your scientific knowledge as much as in the fact that you succeeded in the process, becoming adaptable and resilient.
Tell a story
The one thing every single panelist agreed on: your cover letter and CV should be impeccable.
“Be great in person, be awesome on paper” was the paraphrased mantra of Elisabeth Mari, PhD, director of biomedical research at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. You can be likeable and energetic in person, but there is no forgiving a sloppy cover letter or CV.
Be ready to be asked to explain your previous work at different levels of depth. When she interviews someone, “I will ask you to explain to me what you did in your PhD in detail for ten minutes” revealed Jenn Matos, PhD, director of scientific strategy at McCann Torre Lazur, “and then again like I was your grandma.” For most positions, the question taking centre stage in your prospective employer’s head during an interview is “How soon can I put you in front of a client?” says Matos. Communicating effectively is the skill that will get you there.
If you got the PhD but need the visa
International scholars dread asking this question when applying for a job: “Will they sponsor my visa?” Such issues are generally treated on a case-by-case base, but keep in mind that small companies, non-profit organizations or start-ups are unlikely to have the budget resources to back your visa application. On the other hand, academic positions beyond the tenure track, such as a career development coordinator, program director or research administrator, could be more feasible options for international scholars under US cap exempt H-1B visa programmes.
The take-home message: we will be alright
Keynote speaker Melanie Sinche, director of education at the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine, was like the best friend that never stops believing in you. Her recent book, “Next Gen PhD: A Guide to Career Paths in Science”, shows that many PhD don’t know what jobs exists for them, or that they have many employable skills. From the survey she conducted, focusing on PhD graduates between 2004 and 2014, a stunning 75% of respondents were still conducting research to some extent in their current position, with 49% employed in education at-large. Numbers don’t lie.
In Melanie’s words: “Give yourself enough time to prepare.” In mine, train for your marathon.
Elisa Lazzari is a Postdoctoral Associate at Weill Cornell Medical College, where she studies how bone marrow endothelial cells promote the regenerative capacity of the hematopoietic system. Outside the lab she enjoys exploring the New York food scene and writing. You can find her on LinkedIn.