Repost: finding the alternatives within academia

This is a re-post of some career advice I wrote lo these many years ago for the Alternative Scientist blog, which is/was written by a group of bloggers for researchers considering careers other than traditional tenure-track research and/or teaching. The aim of the post in question was to help people get started on their new careers while still working in academia. I’ve directed a few people to it recently, and find that it’s still relevant; I’m also rather proud of the piece, and have decided that it would be nice to have it posted and archived over here alongside my other witterings!


The best time to prepare for your next career move is NOW.

But what if you don’t really know what you want to do after your degree / PhD / postdoc?

Well, NOW is also a good time to start figuring that out.

Identify the things you enjoy

The great thing about the academic experience is that it exposes you to many different tasks and experiences that are relevant to careers outside of the traditional tenure track. If you can identify the parts of your work that interest you the most (hint: these are probably the times when you’re actually happy to be working rather than reading blogs), then you’ve already made a huge first step towards identifying your ideal career.

I made my first step when I started to write my PhD thesis. I’d enjoyed my three years in the lab about as much as it’s possible to enjoy a PhD, but I struggled with some technical aspects of the work, especially long-term cell culture. The sorry state of my house plants is a testament to my lack of a green thumb, or whatever the cell culture equivalent is. When I started to write, I realised that my rate of progress was determined solely by the amount of time and effort I put in. What a contrast to those long Sundays in the lab, slaving away over a hot incubator, only to have my cells die before the end of the assay! I’d always enjoyed writing anyway, but this was my first realisation that I might enjoy writing about science more than actually doing it. This suspicion was confirmed during my postdoc – I was always happiest when writing papers, popping into the lab occasionally to run a gel and chat with friends. It took me a little longer to identify careers in science that were primarily based on writing, but I got there in the end.

So: what do you enjoy most about your current situation? Straight-up lab work? Maybe a research position in industry would suit you. TAing? Maybe you’d like to be a teacher, or to work in a public communications role such as in a museum or science centre. Do you find yourself more drawn to the opinion pieces and corporate merger information than the research articles in Science and Nature? Consider a career in science policy, intellectual property, or business development.

Hate everything about academia? Well, all is not lost. Any hobbies and volunteering you do in all that spare time you have (ha!) will also give you some ideas. Or maybe you have a friend with no scientific background, but with a job that sounds pretty cool. Might a biotech or big pharma company, a University or a museum or a professional association, need people to play a similar role within their organisation? Have a look at the careers section of their website and find out.

Now find a way to do them more often

If you enjoy a specific part of your current position, find a way to incorporate more of it into your remaining time in academia. This is a good idea for two reasons

  1. it gives you a better idea of whether you really do want a career that focuses on this one area
  2. it gives you experience that will make your CV stand out from all the others

You want to convince future interviewers that you’re looking for a career, not a job; being proactive, not reactive; working to a long-term plan, not applying to any old scientific job that crops up in your local area. If you can point to areas of your CV that show a long-standing commitment to your chosen field (do this in the cover letter and – repeatedly – at interview), you will stand out from the pile of CVs stacked up in human resources.

My postdoc supervisor knew that I eventually wanted a job in scientific communication, and she was happy to help me gain more experience. I volunteered to edit and proofread manuscripts and studentship / fellowship applications written by other lab members. I wrote parts of her grant applications and progress reports.

But don’t just rely on your boss; look for other opportunities too. My department had a newsletter, run by some of the grad students, so I wrote articles whenever I had time. I volunteered for Let’s Talk Science, an outreach programme that took us into high schools to, well, talk about science.

Writing and communication are relatively easy examples, because they’re such a large part of academic science anyway. But you should be able to find ways to gain more experience regardless of your chosen future field. Just volunteer for anything even vaguely related – even if you end up spending a lot of time proofing legal documents from your technology transfer department, sitting in committee meetings, volunteering for ethics review boards or whatever, you can find a way to get the right experience and flesh out your CV. (That’s the other great thing about the academic experience; always more tasks than volunteers).

Again, you don’t have to stick to academia – maybe a local charity would appreciate some help with their own newsletter or website. Maybe you have a friend who could use a fresh pair of eyes on her big sales report. The skewed tasks:volunteers ratio is not just an academic phenomenon…

Repeat ad infinitum

Hopefully the advice above will help you to make that first step into your new career. But don’t stop now! Your first non-academic position is unlikely to be the amazing dream job that you will do for the rest of your life, but it will expose you to another, broader, range of experiences. For example, as well as the grant writing that is my day-to-day focus, my new job also gets me involved in public relations, website design and intellectual property issues. I haven’t quite figured out which parts I enjoy the most (definitely not intellectual property!), but you can bet that as soon as I do, I’ll start volunteering for more of it.

About Cath@VWXYNot?

"one of the sillier science bloggers [...] I thought I should give a warning to the more staid members of the community." - Bob O'Hara, December 2010
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17 Responses to Repost: finding the alternatives within academia

  1. Nina says:

    Nice read Cath, and a good reminder that I should start TODAY to define my career. I’ve been struggling too recently. I think I identified my science hobby, but still no idea ho to turn it into a career.

  2. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Thanks Nina!

    Let me guess: you’re trying to figure out how to make a living from doing nothing but fieldwork?

    Well, whatever your science hobby is, I wish you luck developing it into a career!

  3. Nina says:

    unfortunately, no, that’s not it. That would be easy because there is always a lack of fieldwork techs. Perhaps I should consider it … Fieldwork tends to get more fun when you’re not responsible for the Nature papers that should come forward based on the crappy samples.

  4. Alyssa says:

    Love this post! This is definitely how I found out I love doing outreach (I had no idea – or did I? – you volunteered for Let’s Talk Science!). I can’t wait to be doing that for a living (I’ll blog about it if the university red-tape ever lets up on the job that I’m supposed to be starting June 1st).

    • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

      Thanks Alyssa! Yeah, I did the biologist’s standard fall-back of getting kids to swab various parts of themselves and the classroom and culture the bacteria on agar plates (we took them back to the lab to incubate and sent photos of all the gross cultures back to the teacher). They were pretty good at predicting which items would be the grossest (the computer keyboard was the worst!) We also used the hand-washing demonstration powder they use at staff orientations here – it’s a white powder that leaves traces that are visible only under UV light when not washed off properly, so you can see which parts of your hands need special attention in future. We scattered some on the floor and had some on our hands when the kids came in; we both shook hands with the first three students through the door, and then told the class at the end of the agar plate swabbing exercise / discussion of antibiotic resistance what we’d done. We went around the whole room with a portable UV light and showed them how far the contact with the first three students had spread the “infection” – it was all over the floor, on all the common equipment, and on more than half of the students’ hands! I hope we didn’t create any germaphobes 🙂 I also helped to judge a science fair, which was AWESOME. We don’t do such things in the UK so I’d never even been to one before, and it was fantastic to see what the kids had come up with. The best part was when the people we picked in 3rd place came up to us almost crying they were so happy to win bronze!

      Overall it was amazing fun, but sooooo much prep work! I’m very excited to hear about your new position!

  5. Grant says:

    Good to read, Cath. I’ve added it to my article On alternatives to academic careers and “letting go”; I add it to the others I’ve written on this theme when I find time (and motivation!).

    One thing I’ve been thinking about others (i.e. not me) moving to new fields of endeavour is to try leverage off at least one thing you do well & enjoy, rather than take a wild leap into the unknown (for rare exceptions that might work, but it comes with the obvious gotcha’s). Your article fits well to that – build up your new patch through volunteer efforts leverage off that.

    • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

      Thanks Grant! That’s a really nice collection of articles.

      Yes, I can’t even imagine taking a wild and crazy leap into completely unknown territory. Writing / editing has been a common thread in all my jobs, and I expect that to continue; I was lucky enough to identify this as something I enjoy and am good at at a relatively early stage!

      • Grant says:

        My main gripes are that while students do have to make their own way in the end—as your article encourages—I would like to see universities be more pro-active about getting students to see the wider range of careers as pretty much all they see while they are students is the campus and the lecturers, and there should be a better appreciation of jobs outside academia – countering the thing that only academic jobs are seen as truly worthwhile use of a higher degree.

        (This earlier article pulls together some thoughts from several posts on the subject: Career paths, redux – the academic research career is the exception .)

        • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

          Agreed! PIs with, um, old-fashioned attitudes toward “alternative” careers are also extremely unhelpful; I was lucky in that both my PhD and my postdoc supervisor were very supportive of my decision.

          • Grant says:

            Not just PIs/lecturers with old-fashioned views, but actively showing there is more than PIs/lecturers to look up to or aspire to be. Just not doing anything leaves the students mainly only seeing PIs/lecturers as the people that are using the qualifications they are training to get. That was fine when the majority of Ph.D.s did end up within academia, but that hasn’t been true for some time. Hmm. This is a hobby horse 🙂

          • Grant says:

            I didn’t quite say that first sentence properly:

            Not just PIs/lecturers with old-fashioned views, but those with more open view, but who don’t actively show there is …

  6. cromercrox says:

    Great post Cath!

  7. bean-mom says:

    I loved this post when I first read it years (has it actually been years?!) ago, and I enjoyed reading it again here.

    Amen to everything you say. This dovetails nicely with Athene Donald’s recent career post–that is, to keep an open mind and seize opportunities! That’s what I’m trying to do (although it isn’t always easy). After my first starry-eye plans fell through, my current plan A is to get a non-tenured research staff position at my current institute. I am still trying to figure out plan B.

  8. Thanks Bean-Mom!

    I know, I couldn’t quite believe how long ago I wrote this! I hope your plan A goes so well that you don’t need a plan B 🙂

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