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 Charles Mire talks about his transition from an undergraduate degree in Russian, to a career in I.T, to a Chemistry PhD.
Charles Mire is originally from Texas and in 2007 left for Australia to pursue a PhD. He and his family currently reside in Waterloo, Ontario in Canada. He loves trail running, being outdoors, cooking, and making “stuff.”
Scientist in career transition
What is your scientific background?
I took many detours on my way to becoming a scientist. My undergraduate degree was in Russian, from the University of Texas, Arlington. At the time, I avoided math and science studies because I failed badly at my very first calculus course. However, I went on to establish a successful I.T. career for myself. Thanks to my foreign language experience, learning new programming languages was easy for me.
After about four years, I wanted bigger challenges and decided to pursue an advanced degree. The technical nature of my I.T. work was satisfying, so I chose to continue my education in that direction. I even confronted calculus again and succeeded! The degree program I wanted to pursue also required numerous advanced math courses, in which I also succeeded. Emboldened by these small achievements, I went all out and switched tracks from I.T. to physics, earning an MSc. in applied physics from the University of Texas, Dallas.
Whilst studying for my MSc., I met the professor who would later become my PhD supervisor. He left Dallas and eventually ended up in Australia at the University of Wollongong. Following in his footsteps, I was then accepted into the chemistry program at the University of Wollongong. My PhD research focused on using printers to fabricate structures made of biopolymers and conducting polymers. I designed and built a couple of 3D printers on top of studying materials science.
Post-PhD, I worked briefly at a start-up company helping them set up a gas testing system.
What is your current job?
“Newly minted scientists have no choice but to adapt and be very open-minded about possible careers”
Currently I am in career transition and I have to say it is the most surprising experience I’ve had as a scientist. I spend most of my time searching job boards and networking. Also, I am slowly building up my running endurance; exercise can be a great way to cope with the stresses of job hunting.
The traditional career path (academic or industry) seems very different from my impressions when I first started my journey as a scientist. Research funding has changed significantly. (For further reading check out these articles: Young researchers lose out in European funding programme; Funding uncertainty strands Spain’s young scientists; Stagnant funding of NIH is shackling young research scientists; Nobel history illustrates gap in grants to young scientists). Newly minted scientists have no choice but to adapt and be very open-minded about possible careers, looking at new avenues where their skills could be applied.
Can you detail the steps you have taken to get to your current position?
“During my PhD project and my post-PhD work, having a diverse skill-set has been an advantage.”
The scariest part of my career has been making risky decisions; leaving a reasonably successful I.T. career to move to Australia for a PhD was a huge risk. I have had a lot of good fortune throughout my career and by making the most out of opportunities and maintaining a positive attitude, I have been able to make positive career steps.
During my PhD project and my post-PhD work, having a diverse skill-set has been an advantage. For example understanding statistical methods, data mining, programming and hardware hacking, has all come in handy, especially for making custom instrumentation for the lab.
Where do you see your career in the future?
“It’s good to see some universities changing their PhD programs to reflect this new economic reality for careers outside academia.”
With any luck, I will find a hybrid career that requires both my science and I.T. skills; entreprenuership is not out of the question either. It’s good to see some universities changing their PhD programs to reflect this new economic reality for careers outside academia (see Nature New’s article, PhDs leave the Ivory Tower). In an ideal world, I would love to be able to positively influence science policy and funding.
Do you have any advice to other scientists considering a career in your area?
My advice for other scientists would be to gain proficiency in skills beyond the central focus of your research. For example, install Linux on an old computer and set up a local database and web server. Then add a content management system and build a local blog that interfaces with your scientific data. Or get an Arduino starter kit and learn how to build a custom sensor device of some sort. (If you have no idea what I am talking about, feel free to ask me questions, I’m @charlesmire on Twitter).
In summary, find something parallel to science that you are good at to broaden your career options.
Also, get out and network! Talk to people and learn about different industries.
For more career transitions, check out Ian Mulvany’s post, Paige Brown’s post, Alom Shaha’s post, Rebecca Caygill’s post, Josh Witten’s post and Asha Tanna’s post. You can also follow the conversation online using the #Transitions hashtag.