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Science Careers Blog

March 26, 2007

What's the Alternative?

Leaving the bench doesn't mean leaving science. That was the general consensus among the panelists at Friday's alternative careers symposium for life-science postdocs in Cambridge, United Kingdom, sponsored by ScienceCareers.org and the University of Cambridge Careers Service.

"I read journals and talk to scientists every day--I'm still very much in science," said Stella M. Hurtley, senior editor at Science. All panelists said their education and/or the skills they gained while getting their Ph.D.s are called upon daily in their jobs.

The six panelists--all with Ph.D.s and most with postdoc experience--left the lab for careers in editing, tech transfer, regulatory affairs, corporate communications, consulting, or patents. Iain Thomas, manager of life science and technology for Cambridge Enterprise, a company that commercializes technology from the University of Cambridge, encouraged the audience to consider alternative careers at the first sign of not being happy in the lab so that if they have to make a change, it's from a position of knowledge and understanding. "I think that being scared of change is one reason people end up in their postdocs as long as they do," he said.

Patent attorney Zoe Clyde-Watson conceded that a Ph.D. and postdoc experience may not be required to become a patent attorney, but she noted that, more and more, firms are looking for very specialized scientific experience that can best be gained by getting a Ph.D. in a specific area.

Although her Ph.D. gave her essential expertise for her job in regulatory affairs, Davina Stevenson, senior regulatory officer at Mundipharma Research Ltd., said it was really the soft skills she learned during her Ph.D. that landed her interviews outside of the lab and aided her transition to a new career. The six panelists listed the soft skills that they rely on: meeting deadlines, solving problems, being an independent thinker, understanding how research works and the speed at which science happens, being proactive, having good writing and communication skills, and having good organizational, interpersonal, and analytical skills.

Each of the careers represented by the panelists calls for a specific skill set, and in the afternoon, Anne Forde, careers adviser for life science at Cambridge (and a former Science Careers editor), highlighted and explored the skills are best suited to a variety of alternative careers, including management consultancy, editing, science writing, tech transfer, and regulatory affairs. The 140 attendees contributed ideas on the abilities required for specific roles. These were then compared to the aptitudes that employers in those fields generally say are necessary and that they look for during the recruitment process.

In a second workshop, Seema Sharma, European program director for ScienceCareers.org, discussed the differences between a conventional CV and a skills-based CV. A skills-based CV should include:

  • Your name in large letters
  • Contact details
  • Education (most recent degree first)
  • A brief employment outline (most recent position first)
  • Relevant skills drawn from employment, work experience, additional skills and activities
  • References 

This CV format is particularly suited to people in a career transition, as its focus is on skills that match the employers' requirements rather than on past education and training whose relevance may not be obvious at first. Many of these skills are hidden in a conventional CV.

Listen to a podcast of the event here.

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