Sorry for the long break, folks! Back to the broadcast…
Previously in Changing course, biochembelle had arrived at some critical tasks and timelines for starting her transition to the world outside academic research. There was much to do – but where to start?
Lists can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they provide a clear view of what needs to be accomplished and reduce the cycle of things floating in and out of consciousness. They provide a focal point and free up some mental space. On the other hand, a long list of tasks can look daunting, and it can be tough to figure out where to start.
For me, contacting my PhD advisor, Larry, was a top priority. We had maintained periodic contact since I’d finished my work in his lab. I hoped he would provide a letter of reference for my fellowship applications. But he’d also been a great mentor, even after I’d left his lab, and I wanted him to hear about my career decision from me.
I drafted an email – updates on what was going on, an attempt at a brief summary of my decision, a request that he serve as a reference. I hit “send.” Within a few minutes, I had a reply – an auto-reply that he was traveling and might be slower to reply to email.
Then a few hours later, he replied, “Let’s talk when I get back.”
A wave of anxiety hit. Did he think this was a bad idea? Would he try to talk me out of it? Would it make a difference?
Plans and contingencies
It was a week or so before we talked. I was apprehensive as I rang his office. We caught up quickly. Then I launched into my pitch – why I felt it was time to pursue a career beyond the bench, what I was interested in, how I’d arrived at this. When I finished, I think I may have literally been holding my breath.
I relaxed a bit as he responded. He understood that the academic path wasn’t everyone’s choice, and the current market presented additional challenges. He recognized that there were many directions that a scientist with a PhD could pursue.
Then, with a mix of encouragement and reality, Larry noted that the AAAS policy fellowships were competitive. What are your plans if you don’t get a fellowship?, he asked.
I was looking into policy fellowships with other organizations, I replied. I also intended to start applying for jobs in a few months. I realized stepping out of a postdoc and straight into a dream job was unlikely. So I was considering posts where I thought I might gain experience that would be useful for building my career beyond the bench, work I could envision doing for at least a couple of years – tech transfer, medical communications, technical writing…
As we talked, Larry said something that struck a chord: “At this point in your career, your next job isn’t going to be your last.”
Next, not last
I had understood this intuitively. I had talked about my next job vs my career path, recognizing that my next position would likely be a stepping stone out of academia. And yet there was something in those words.
…your next job isn’t going to be your last.
Thoughts began to crystallize, over the following days and week but even as we talked.
In academia, after finishing PhD and postdoc training, people can and regularly do spend their entire careers at one institution. Their titles change. Their research and teaching topics transform. Their responsibilities shift as they pick up and set down administrative roles. There are no doubt upswings and downturns and curveballs. But in many ways, the tenure-track faculty post seems to involve doing many of the same things, often at the same place, for years or decades.
We were talking about something different. We were talking stages and transitions. to explore, to build experience, to find direction, to expand networks. We were talking about taking a position with the expectation that I would likely move on after a year or two.
It was certainly not a novel concept. It was certainly part of the reality for many outside academia and outside the sciences. But after focusing on and being embedded in the academic research track for so long, it was a big change in thinking for me.
At one point, perhaps mere months before, the idea would have been nerve-wracking. But those words actually allayed some anxiety. The next step didn’t have to be perfect. I didn’t have to commit the rest of my working life in the next job. If it wasn’t quite what I was looking for, I could move on in relatively short order. It was a waypoint.
We continued talking a bit. Beyond the routes I was exploring already, industry could hold some positions of interest. Some trade organizations had divisions that focused on science policy. When we ended the call, I had a few more avenues and contacts to pursue.
Message vs. source
As trainees, we often presume that our academic advisors have little to contribute to discussions of careers beyond the tenure track. Sometimes it’s based on experience with them. Other times, it’s based more on assumptions – our own and others’. Although it’s true that faculty may not know the market we’re heading into or can’t coach us in getting the job we want, it doesn’t mean they have no value to add.
My conversation with my own PhD advisor was insightful. It reminded me of the networks academics build outside academia, through collaborations, consulting, and previous trainees. It also illustrated how a mentor can crystallize and strengthen important points that had perhaps been troublesome or amorphous before.
Very specific advice should likely be validated with those working in sectors of interest. But, as I found, conversations with academics can offer new ideas and insights into our own process. When we decide that academics can’t possibly offer any insight and thus we won’t even bother, we may do them a disservice and deprive ourselves of benefits. True mentors want us to find success in the endeavors we choose and can help us realize those goals, even if our objective is far removed from their own path.