Image: Agnes Tapley (via U.S. National Park Service)
I’m a planner. Maybe it’s because I’m a scientist who thrives on following a step-by-step protocol, or because my personality is fundamentally at odds with the concept of “winging it,” but I’ve always preferred to have a plan for what comes next.
For the last 12 years, I’ve pursued the same linear training path followed by most biomedical scientists in the United States. It’s gone something like this: Earn a bachelor’s in my field of interest (neuroscience, in my case); get some research experience in a lab; go to graduate school for a Ph.D.; take classes; do rotations in different labs to figure out what my research focus will be; get through my qualifying exams; choose a lab for my dissertation; attend countless thesis committee meetings; do experiments; secure my own funding; do more experiments; present my research at conferences and in seminars; write and publish a paper; try to satisfy my thesis committee; do even more experiments; write my dissertation; find a postdoc; repeat experiment/funding/publishing cycle until I eventually run my own lab, most likely in an academic setting.
My mentors have generally followed that same path, and because scientific training uses an apprenticeship model, I expected my career plan would unfold similarly. Ticking off the boxes to be a well-trained scientist takes a ton of time and effort, and leaves little energy to devote to asking whether this career path I am on is the right one for me. It probably doesn’t help that, like many young scientists, I am training in a culture that still discourages people from leaving the research track — either indirectly, through a lack of visible role models who have pursued nonacademic careers, or directly, by overhearing professors describe people who have left research as “a waste of good training.”
Despite all of that peer pressure, by the end of my Ph.D., I had a growing sense that I was following the wrong career path yet I was unsure of how to change course.
That realization presented a number of big, scary questions: What else could I do with my Ph.D. and research training? How would I gain the experience and skills to transition to a career away from the lab? Where would I find mentors to help me navigate a nonacademic track? How could I take responsibility for my own training and create a career plan that was right for me?
First, I needed to assess my interests and learn more about what careers exist for someone with my background. I enjoy talking to people about science and about how research can help solve societal, public health, or environmental problems on a much larger scale than what I study in the lab. I am also interested in issues that affect the future of the research enterprise, such as how biomedical scientists are trained.
By attending career symposia, completing an “individual development plan,” and meeting with a career counselor to do some personality assessments, I learned that my interests were aligned with the field of science policy. So I took advantage of opportunities to write about science policy issues by joining a postdoc-led discussion group on such topics. In the lab, I led discussions of papers on scientific research and training. I participated in a Capitol Hill day with my scientific society to urge lawmakers to support robust funding for biomedical research and training. And I jumped at the opportunity to apply for a leadership role with the postdoc association at my university.
Without realizing it at the time, I was starting to create a customized career plan. I was elected to serve as liaison between my postdoc association and the National Postdoctoral Association, a nonprofit dedicated to improving postdoctoral training. I attended the NPA’s annual meeting where I was forced to step out of my comfort zone and network with other attendees. It turned out that networking was less intimidating than I had anticipated, and I left the meeting as a member of an NPA committee. I followed up with some of my new contacts through informational interviews, with the intention of learning more about jobs like science-policy analyst or program manager for postdoctoral training. That process has helped me to build a network of contacts.
Next, I focused on gaining hands-on experience to help me prepare for a nonacademic career: I wrote for nonscientific audiences, organized a panel discussion of female scientists at my home institution, and led a project to connect postdocs at several local research institutions to help us network with each other and share professional development resources.
Some of you may be thinking: “That all sounds like it takes a lot of time. What about the job you’re actually getting paid to do as a postdoc?” And you would be right: This process has been time consuming. It requires a lot of effort outside of the standard workday, and has been possible only because I maintain open communication with my very supportive boss and have access to fantastic career-development resources at my university. I still have to be productive in the lab by generating data, teaching others, and writing and publishing scientific papers. But I’ve learned to be confident in the activities that I’m doing to supplement my scientific training and to hold firm in my belief that I’m doing what is best for me and my career.
My efforts seem to be paying off. I’ve started to apply for jobs that are in the domain of science policy and workforce training, and I’m getting good feedback on my qualifications and skills. While I once felt like I was treading water without a clear sense of what I should do next in my career, I now feel like I’ve made a plan that focuses on my individual training needs.
And I’m certainly not alone. For example, a new guide— the Advancing Postdoc Women Guidebook, released by the NPA — details resources and programs offered by professional societies and associations to help female postdocs advance their careers. The book includes chapters on career exploration, informational interviewing, and job searching in academia, industry, government, and nonprofits.
If you’re like me and you work best with a plan, venturing away from the academic path can sometimes feel directionless, intimidating, and overwhelming. But fortunately I can report that it’s really not that bad. There are scores of freely available resources to help you along the way, whether it’s to help ensure that your postdoctoral period provides an effective training experience, to help you explore nonacademic career options, or to present opportunities for developing professional skills. And it’s always comforting to know that there are many others who have gone before you and blazed a trail.