Image: Wellcome Tropical Research Laboratories, Khartoum, c. 1920
Plenty of science Ph.D.s wind up in nonacademic careers. Vitae columnist Viviane Callier has been interviewing some of them for this series. This month, she talks with Audrey Chang, chief of business planning in the exhibits office of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington.
Describe your career trajectory. How did you get to where you are now?
Chang: I finished my Ph.D. in biology at Duke University in 2009, and then went to do a postdoc at New York University. I lived very close to the American Museum of Natural History and I was really interested in volunteering there, because I think it’s always good to see how public institutions engage with a broad audience around topics like evolution, biology, life sciences, and earth sciences. So I began volunteering in its hands-on learning spaces that are designed for children and families to learn together.
The New York museum frequently reaches out to its volunteers (there were 1,500 of us at the time) for special requests and projects, because you never know who has what kinds of skills. And one of the things that came up was that one of the departments needed some documents translated from Mandarin to English, because they were bid documents for a contract in China. I volunteered because it was interesting and I was one of the few people who had that language skill.
In doing so, I started talking to people in the museum’s business-development department about what they worked on, and it just so happened they were looking to hire somebody with a science background and a language capability. So I joined the team and worked there for three and a half years — doing licensing and publishing, managing traveling exhibits, and working with intellectual property.
Can you describe more specifically what you did in that business-development role?
Chang: I was on the sales team, which meant that I got to travel all over the world to go to conferences, meet clients, and talk about our exhibits. For example, if a client was interested in hosting one of our exhibits, I would travel there to do some first-round negotiations and think about what was suitable for the space. Usually, I’d go with one of our operations people, so we could get a scope of what the client’s facility looked like and find the match for the right project for them. From there, if everything was suitable, our operations team would take over, and manage the scheduling, shipping, and actual installation of the exhibit.
It was a lot more fun than going to academic conferences because you get to be on the trade-show floor, which is a great way to meet people from all sorts of different backgrounds who are all engaged in science education. And you develop these really deep relationships with your clients and with other vendors.
In 2015, I moved to take a job in operations management at the San Diego Museum of Man, where I oversaw security and the front desk — the admissions and visitor-services staff — and also oversaw the business-development aspect of the museum.
Then in October of 2016, I moved to the Smithsonian’s natural-history museum in Washington, where I work in a business-planning role. It’s a new position there, which I’m really excited about, because the museum has never had somebody who was dedicated to business planning for the exhibits group. I think it’s a real opportunity to figure out how new business models might work. How can we get the most bang for our buck when creating exhibits? How can we stretch public dollars?
How did the skills you learned in graduate school help you in your various roles at these museums?
Chang: The communication skills you learn in grad school are critical. Because I was trained as a biologist myself and have a natural-history background from my undergraduate work, I am able to talk about exhibit content in a different way — because I understand the content differently — from someone who is coming from, say, the entertainment sector.
A lot of what you learn during your doctoral years is project management. You learn about resource allocation. You learn how grants work because you’ve had to write your own. I definitely used project-management skills when I was in business development at the natural-history museum in New York. A lot of what I did built on project-management skills that I think all scientists have — it’s actually a huge translatable skill that we don’t talk about enough during our Ph.D.s. It’s the idea of knowing how to prioritize, and knowing how to manage time and resources.
One of the reasons why I think scientists who leave the bench are ideally suited to work in operations and project management is because we are used to being resource limited. Right? You just never have enough money to do your project. You get pretty clever about not solving problems with money. You definitely come out of graduate school with a sense of how to be resourceful and how to get done what you need to get done within a set of constraints.
At what point did you know that you didn’t want a career in bench science?
Chang: Having mentored a couple of really bright young scientists in the lab, I realized that what I enjoyed about science wasn’t necessarily having to do it all myself, but seeing understanding in essentially naïve audiences.
If you watch or read the news, especially during election years, you’ll notice that very large discrepancy between how the public understands science and what science really is. So I saw a gap where cultural institutions like museums and science centers can really be of service. The combination of my own experiences as a volunteer in a science museum, and my realization that I really enjoyed working with people, was what led me to my work in museums.
Is there anything you wish you’d done differently?
Chang: So far, no. I’m pretty happy. If I had more time and more tolerance, I would probably want to go to business school at some point. I do think that within certain leadership positions at museums — and with my own interest in working on the business side — there are a few things that an M.B.A. can potentially help you with. I love the idea of learning more about nonprofit marketing, for example.
What is your employer’s perspective on hiring Ph.D.s?
Chang: When I interviewed for the job in New York, they asked me: “Why do you think you can work in sales given that you’re a PhD?” And my response was: “How often do you have to sell yourself at a poster or conference talk?” It’s all about pitching your science. If you want me to do sales and you want me to sell science, I guarantee most successful Ph.D. students who have had a few grants and a few conference talks under their belt will probably be pretty good at it.
Any advice for current graduate students and postdocs?
Chang: One thing they don’t tell you in graduate school: If you’re not looking for a tenure-track job, you have to be prepared to apply for a lot of nonacademic jobs. And I mean a lot. There is so much movement, and so many options, outside the tenure-track stream. I didn’t know this world that I’m working in now even existed until I ended up in it.
I’m always shocked by how few scientists are actually on LinkedIn because it’s not a priority for them to understand how other people in other industries work. Ph.D.’s and postdocs need to learn as much as they can about the opportunities out there.