A long time ago in a
landgalaxy far far away, there was a great gathering where those weary of the well-trodden trail of tenureships and grants repaired themselves. The gathering in question was the Naturejobscareer expo, a free one-day event organized for students and scientists alike. Featuring some truly inspiring speakers, it gave a much-needed boost to my hope for a career in science that can be both emotionally and financially (yes, $$$) satisfying.
After all, academic research seems to have less and less cash to go around recently for the swelling ranks of newly minted PhDs and post-docs; not to mention the technicians without whom no project can be run. For me, the difference seems especially stark when my friends in management and medicine are mulling over their property portfolios. Given this near-saturation, it often seems as if employment options are limited within academic research while career pathways elsewhere feel equally difficult to navigate. It is natural, therefore, that young scientists-in-training feel anxious about the future.
However, academic research need not be a gladiator’s pit; nor are career pathways outside the arena of academic research scarce or hard to come by. The key requirement in both cases is networking. Dr. Jim Gould, the director of the HMS/HSDM Office for Postdoctoral Fellows at Harvard Medical School, emphasized the importance of networking at the early stages of a research career. In a detailed (and brutally honest) presentation, he outlined the difficulties that face early career researchers, emphasizing the high level of competition for a limited number of places, all against a backdrop of shrinking research funding.
Despite this, Jim pointed out it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Academic research isn’t a dead end option that involves working on other people’s projects and ideas simply to secure funding. The key, he explained, was to decide what you wanted out of a scientific career, using an individual development plan to assess your skills and interests against your objectives. Armed with this knowledge, the next important step is to network with like-minded researchers and industry leaders, pooling resources and knowledge to enable the pursuit of mutually motivating goals and ideas. He explained how events like symposia and research conferences present the kind of low-risk, high-reward setting that give students the opportunity to network confidently and professionally with both their own peers and leaders in the field.
And if the individual development plan reveals that academic research isn’t your mug of media? Not a problem, according to Lauren Celano, CEO of Propel Careers. Speaking on the industry job market and the requirements for prospective employees, Lauren emphasized just how many different career pathways existed outside of academic research: ranging from industry and pharma to law and marketing, and provided a detailed exposition of the skills required for many of these roles.
Echoing Jim, she accentuated the importance of networking and collaboration to identify both the skills required for various industrial roles, as well as the opportunities to acquire them. Transitioning from academia to industry was neither impossible nor did it need to be difficult, provided scientists have confidence in the universal applicability of their skillset and network with those who had already made similar transitions. She urged scientists to be aware of these options and to have confidence in the transferability of their skills and talents. Demonstrating leadership experience in any capacity (clubs, charities, project work, etc.) and good interpersonal skills are an added plus when looking for industry roles.
Flying back to Melbourne, I was already busy updating my LinkedIn profile and signing up for a Twitter account (yes, I’ve only just started speaking hashtag); the words ‘network’ and ‘connectivity’ ringing bells in my brain. Of course networking involves a lot more than that but hey; I’ve got to start somewhere.
More importantly, having talked to both fellow grad students and post-PhD luminaries (again, networking), I understood that abandoning academia’s soulless grant-chasing does not negate your training or your claim to being a scientist. What makes you a scientist is the ability to cast out for a solution beyond the ken of current knowledge and reach for it using a patient, logical, step-by-step approach. And outside of the lab door is a whole world of career options, just waiting for you to reach out.
Ashish Nair is a researcher who discovered to his amazement that his written thesis apparently described a cogent, well-executed PhD project- despite all evidence to the contrary. He now invests more time in writing. Apart from writing for science, he still likes to work at the bench and also enjoys travel blogging.