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Science Careers Blog

July 13, 2010

Taking Your Passion for Science Away from the Bench

esof-th.pngIn addition to the funding workshop (with the video now available on the ESOF Web site), Science Careers organized a session on alternative careers during the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) in Turin, Italy, earlier this week. For those of you who couldn't attend, here's a quick guide from my colleagues Brianna Blaser and Ric Weibl on how to find love away from the bench should research not be for you:

  • Reflecting on Your Preferences 
There are many differences among employment sectors (and particular jobs), including wages and benefits, work-life balance, how you relate with colleagues, and the focus of your daily duties. For example, "Some people really very much enjoy focusing down on the details... Other people are like global thinkers. They want to solve big problems," Weibl said. So you first need to find out a little more about you and what you enjoy doing. Taking career inventories, writing pros and cons lists, or writing a journal may all help you in this process. 

  • Researching Your Options 

Once you know what you want, you have to match it with what you find out is out there. "The first person many of us think of turning to when we want to talk about our careers is our PI, and you may have a productive conversation with your PI about your career, but it may also be that they really have a specific career in mind for you and so they don't want to have an open and honest and frank conversation with you... It may also be that they don't know a lot about other career options" outside of research, Blaser said. Searching Science Careers and other careers Web sites, reading books, talking to career service professionals, looking at job ads in journals, and networking are all good approaches to mapping the career landscape.

  • Conducting Informational Interviews

You can also get a lot of information by talking to people who are already in fields you might be interested in. Ask for a few minutes of a person's time, by e-mail, phone, or a face-to-face meeting. Prepare for the encounter ahead of time. "The CEO is very busy and has a lot of other things to do than being an informant to a young scientist trying to figure out where his life is going to go," Weibl said. Ask quick and open-ended questions that go to the point, like, 'What attracted you to this field?', 'Describe a typical day or week', and 'How do I locate positions in this field?'. Afterwards, "Always write a thank-you note," Weibl said. "Handwritten thank-you notes are special. I keep them on a wall in my office." They also help people remember you down the line, Weibl added.

Always try and carry out multiple interviews by asking the people you talk to whether they could give you some referrals. "Listen carefully," Weibl said. Sometimes the advice is good, sometimes it is not so good. Use your critical skills. A theme will start to emerge, he added.

  • Making the Transition

Training expectations and career paths are different in academia and other sectors, so this is something that you need to find out. Assess the skills you already have and figure out what other skills you will need to get into your new field of choice. Volunteering, doing an internship, getting a fellowship, gaining additional training, and taking a part-time or temporary job will all help you get in.

  • Talking to Your Supervisor

Some day you'll have to walk in and tell your supervisor that you don't want to stay in academia. "They've invested in you; you've invested in them," Weibl said. This is a "difficult conversation that you must have at some point with your adviser." It can help to realize that "this is about you, not about them", and that you are not the only person who has these doubts about whether or not to become an academic scientist. "It's not unusual for your adviser to actually surprise you with a very positive and supportive response, but you're going to have to talk to that person, and you're going to have to own that decision," Weibl added.

It may not feel like it at the time, but take this as a time of opportunity. "We have this plan maybe when we start grad school that we are going to be this great researcher, we're going to become an academic, get tenure. But things might go differently, and that' s not necessarily a failure," Blaser said. "It's a time to re-evaluate and figure out where you want to go." 


The slides of the complete talk can be viewed on the Science Careers Web site, and a video is available on the ESOF Web site.

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