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 Kyle Dolan, head of science and innovation at the British Consulate-General in Chicago.
Describe your career trajectory.
Dolan: As an undergraduate, I was a molecular biology major at Colgate University and had designs on pre-dental studies. I thought I might want to go into the dental profession in some way, although I wouldn't say it was a well-defined career plan. While I was there, I had the chance to start doing research — and the more I did, the more I enjoyed it. My undergraduate experience culminated with me doing research for a semester as a volunteer tech at the National Cancer Institute.
That experience convinced me that I wanted to keep going in research, so I applied to return to the National Institutes of Health after I graduated. I received a Postbaccalaureate Intramural Research Training Award and went back to work at the NIH’s genome institute for a year. During that time I decided to apply for graduate school.
I ended up at University of Chicago in the biochemistry program. I became a protein crystallographer studying protein-DNA interactions in bacteria. I finished my degree in five years, and didn't quite know what I was going to do next, so I looked for a postdoc that would give me time to explore what I wanted to do. I was still thinking that I would end up doing research as a full-time career.
At what point did you start thinking about nonresearch careers?
Dolan: For my postdoc, I stayed at Chicago but changed departments and joined a lab doing microbiome research. So I went from 10 years of molecular-biology research to working with mice, which was a huge change.
I started thinking about nonacademic careers after I became a member of the Postdoc Association at my university and decided to join its public-affairs-and-policy committee. I helped organize an event around the American Association for Advancement of Science meeting when it was held in Chicago in 2014. The experience going to AAAS was interesting and helped me learn more about science policy. I became the chair of the public-affairs committee, and then went to Boston for the first meeting of Future of Research (FoR), a grassroots organization of postdocs advocating for change in biomedical training and funding. That was at the end of 2014. I saw what the group did, and thought: This is an important moment for young scientists; this is the kind of thing I want to be involved in. So, with the help of a lot of people in Chicago and the folks at FoR, we put on our own Future of Research symposium in Chicago in 2015, which I helped lead and direct.
At the same time, I was attending career-development sessions on my campus about science-policy careers … and I started thinking about AAAS fellowships. …
But I wasn't sure whether I wanted to leave Chicago. I had grown attached to the place. At the National Postdoctoral Association meeting in March 2016, I met the director of the postdoc office at Boston University, and she told me she had worked for the British Consulate in Boston at one time. A month later, I had set up regular email alerts from a job website, and it emailed me a position for a science policy job at the British consulate in Chicago. I thought, This is my chance! I can do a policy job and stay in Chicago! I applied and got it.
What's your current position?
Dolan: As the head of science and innovation at the British Consulate in Chicago, I showcase great British science in the Midwest, and vice versa. I have a territory that covers 13 states in the Midwest, so I travel all over to talk to people at U.S. universities. I'm also part of a wider network of science officers at the British consulates across the country, and at the embassy in Washington. We're part of the UK Science & Innovation Network, a team of science diplomats who help to promote Britain’s science agenda and promote the UK as a partner of choice for research and technological innovation.
The idea is that the UK wants to advance the science around big global challenges — like climate change or feeding a growing world population — and to work with other countries to tackle those challenges. We come in to help Britain find partners and common interests that can be turned into research partnerships, researcher exchanges, joint funding opportunities, and the like. In the UK, the major government funding agencies for research are the Research Councils. We get to know their agenda in depth and see where there might be opportunities they can pursue here or areas where we would like to try to support more collaboration between Britain and the United States.
How did the skills you learned in graduate school help you in your current role?
Dolan: This is a job that is, first and foremost, about communication and interpersonal relationships. Understanding what Britain is trying to achieve in a large policy sense is also critical. I’m not British and I haven’t spent time in the UK; I had to learn on the job. A lot of the work consists of organizing and attending meetings and workshops, planning visit programs for senior UK visitors, and doing outreach to maintain a broad contact network.
Project management skills are key. Whether you are leading a project in the lab or organizing a meeting for senior UK visitors, you need to know your objectives, and you really have to be good at collaborations and personnel management — things like how to assign tasks, identify the timeline and workflow, and take periodic reviews to evaluate your progress. If you're someone who has experience putting a meeting together, that gives you a leg up, because so much of what we do is that kind of logistical work.
As a scientist you get trained to be a specialist, but in my role now I'm a generalist. There is so much learning you have to do on the job. You have to get a sense for a lot of different fields. Having a research background has been helpful in knowing where to look for information and be a critical consumer. It's my role to distill that information for someone back in the UK. We're in different time zones, and we have to really make sure that our communication is clear, direct, frequent.
What kind of experience is needed to do the job you have now?
Dolan: Like me, several of my fellow science officers have Ph.D.s in various scientific areas, though it's not strictly required for the job. Having exposure to science policy certainly helps; one colleague of mine had been an AAAS Science & Technology Fellow. We also have folks who've worked in international relations and consulting.
Is there anything you wish you’d done differently?
Dolan: At this point, no. At times, when I was trying to figure out what to do, I felt in the dark. It doesn't feel great not to know what you're going to do. But just knowing that I was able to find an area that I was interested in — and then find this kind of job — makes me feel pretty lucky. I’m only nine months into this job but when I think about the future, I feel more excitement now than trepidation.
Anything you'd change about doctoral education to prepare people for the diversity of jobs out there?
Dolan: My thoughts on this are certainly informed by my experience in my own career path and my experience with Future of Research. I think there is a strong case to be made that grad students and postdocs should get out of the lab and have some sort of career development opportunities — even if it's just a regular seminar on different career paths. I think that is such an important thing. Just generally speaking, I would argue that Ph.D. programs should enable people to explore different career opportunities and help them find mentors in different career paths.
What advice do you have for postdocs?
Dolan: Stay open to opportunities, have honest conversations with your peers, your PI, and whoever else you consider as mentors or advisers. Start early. When you get to graduate school, look for opportunities to find like-minded people both in your program and outside.
Having a good work-life balance helps. We all know that science projects can be all-consuming. But it's so important to build time in for yourself to recharge. The objective isn't just to finish the experiment or publish the paper. Think about what you want to be doing down the road. Taking the long view is important. Having good habits of work-life balance can really help with that.
Finally, don't be afraid of networking. Networking is definitely something you can learn. I took the time to learn how to do that and it is one of the things that is directly responsible for me having this job. So make a point to network, early and often.