Career paths are not always straightforward. Choosing a scientific vocation can involve challenging and unanticipated decisions, often with no tour guide to follow. Some scientists may hop from the lab bench into industry while others progress up the academic research ladder. Others decide to leave research behind and explore science communication, teaching, setting up their own business or working in technical roles outside of the lab.
While a love of science can lead to varied and fulfilling careers, it may be lonely trying to evaluate the next step to take. Recently, initiatives such as “This is what a scientist looks like” and the #IamScience discussions, have shone a bright light on scientific career trajectories. In our latest Soapbox Science series, we focus on some interesting examples of scientific career transitions. We will hear from different contributors, all of whom use their scientific background in their current jobs, asking each of them the same questions: how did you decide on your career path, what are your motivations, and what does the future hold?
In this post Amanda Ullman talks about her transition from the bench into pharmaceutical marketing and finally scientific conference organizer.
Amanda Ullman graduated with distinction from McGill University with a BSc in Microbiology and Immunology. She earned her PhD at Stony Brook University in Molecular Genetics and Microbiology. She continued her training as a postdoc in the Microbiology department at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and then in the Department of Immunology at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Amanda tweets as @ScienceMandy
Program Manager, Life Sciences, at the New York Academy of Sciences
What is your scientific background?
From the time I was a child, I was really interested in germs. Unsurprisingly, the focus of my graduate studies and first postdoc was in viral pathogenesis. I find the complex interplay between virus and host enthralling. I have also loved using viruses as a tool to understand signal transduction and cell biology and of course, the immune response. Building upon my interest in immunology, my second postdoc explored transcriptional regulation in NKT cells which function on the cusp of innate and adaptive immunity. I was really excited by this cell type’s implications in autoimmunity.
What is your current job?
At the New York Academy of Sciences, I work with a team of scientists to help shape the Academy’s agenda of scientific conferences. I find it both challenging and exciting as I need to quickly learn about fields I am not an expert in. It’s somewhat analogous to preparing for journal club with fundraising and organizational aspects superimposed onto it.
“It is wonderful to think and talk about science without the pressures that accompany lifting a pipette.”
In this role, I enjoy a broad understanding of current research across the biological sciences, as opposed to having a very esoteric perspective at the bench. It is really intellectually satiating! It is also provides a great opportunity to liaise with those in academia, industry, government and at other scientific organizations. It is wonderful to think and talk about science without the pressures that accompany lifting a pipette. I did not, however, escape grant writing – I still submit grants, but I do not find the process nearly as stressful as submitting a fellowship application.
Can you detail the steps you have taken to get to your current position?
In 2009, about 6 months into my second postdoc, despite loving science, I was concerned about forging a career as a scientist and decided it was time to explore other options. To supplement my income as a postdoc, I had done some freelance medical writing for a continuing medical education company. I enjoyed writing and thought that perhaps exploring medical communications for pharma full-time would be a good career move.
“…I needed to pursue a career that would keep my finger on the pulse of science, without the stresses and frustrations of being at the bench in a traditional academic career.”
I spent 2 years in promotional medical education. I worked on the scientific and then on the account management side of the business. It was interesting to learn how drugs are marketed to physicians. It was also good exposure to marketing and medical strategy. Prior to this experience, I had never heard terms like “messaging” nor drugs referred to as “brands.” Ultimately, it was this exposure that led me to understand a) that I did not enjoy marketing; and b) I really missed basic science. My career choice had left me feeling alienated from what I truly loved. It became apparent that I needed to pursue a career that would keep my finger on the pulse of science, without the stresses and frustrations of being at the bench in a traditional academic career. Understanding what I wanted enabled me to focus my job search on roles that I would find fulfilling and exciting.
Where do you see your career in the future?
As scientists, we are intensely passionate about our research. Upon leaving the bench, I needed to find a role that maintained my connection to what I love.
“It was important for me to spend time doing something that did not provoke this scientific passion so that I could understand how critical it is to my professional fulfillment.”
I now understand that to be happy in my career, I need to remain a part of the scientific community. I need to think about and discuss science – daily! After a bit of a circuitous route, I found a role that I genuinely enjoy. I look forward to remaining at the New York Academy of Sciences, where I can continue to learn and think scientifically, for some time.
Do you have any advice to other scientists considering a career in your area?
The best way to explore and, ultimately, to find that first job outside of academia is to leverage your network of friends and acquaintances. Reconnect with former classmates and labmates that have already made the leap from academia. They can help you to understand what it is that they do and how they obtained their current positions. These colleagues can offer candid assessments of their industries, which may help you to determine if you are suited to work in those fields. Further, they may know of jobs openings at their own companies, or at others within their industries. Of equal importance, they might introduce you to other individuals with whom you should speak. This will help you to develop a better understanding of a career path and maybe even help you to get a foot in the door.
For more career transitions, check out Ian Mulvany’s post, Paige Brown’s post, Alom Shaha’s post, Rebecca Caygill’s post, Asha Tanna’s post and Toby Thompson’s post. You can also follow the conversation online using the #Transitions hashtag.