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Career Advice

Beyond the bench

Taking your science PhD beyond academia


You’ve completed your PhD and now you are turning your attention to launching a successful career. To some this may seem more daunting than completing the degree itself – you may feel excitement, panic or a combination of both. While achieving your academic title was no mean feat, the decisions you now face about your future appear to be looming. Added to this is the reality of a marketplace rife with talented academics but limited academic opportunities. There are steps you can take to empower yourself throughout the process.

Just what are the job market realities for today’s PhDs? Beryl Lieff Benderly points out a number of them in his article Not Your Father’s Postdoc, including the fact the median age of researchers earning their first independent faculty appointment is rising. Closer to home, a postdoc club at UBC for medical science researchers recently cited an informal statistic: only 20% of PhD students and postdocs in their respective fields will become full professors. This sober reality means that graduate students and postdocs need to think more broadly about their futures or, as Dr. Ida Chow, executive officer of the Society of Developmental Biology stated in Beryl Lieff Benderly’s article, “the number one thing that every postdoc needs to think about is what they want to do when they grow up.” So, what’s your answer?

Take the time to ask yourself: “What do I really want?”

In earlier times, this would have been a rhetorical question – young academics followed a linear path as they moved from PhD to postdoc to faculty position. Even today, graduate students are often so busy being graduate students that they forget to set specific career goals and, in some cases, end up avoiding goal setting entirely. You may have proceeded from one degree to another without examining what your true calling might be, whether in academe or not. The academic community supports and encourages the academic career path; and it’s even considered by some to be “bad form” to discuss or consider a non-academic career.

Take a moment to ask yourself:

  • What am I an expert in?
  • What distinguishes me?
  • What type of person am I?
  • Where can I leverage my talents? Academe, industry, NGO, consulting, government?
  • If industry appeals to me, what sector would I be suited to?
  • What are my most outstanding skills and talents?
  • What kind of lifestyle do I want?
  • How important is money to me?

These questions require you to focus on yourself and articulate your priorities. Finding satisfying work requires honest answers to what appear to be simple questions, but require serious thought.

Start investigating the world of work and explore the options

Regardless of your final focus, it can be a worthwhile exercise to consider areas beyond those to which you believe you’re “married”. Having worked with hundreds of graduate students, as well as many more professionals, it’s been my observation that humans are curious about the world beyond their specific domain – even if momentarily. Act on these curiosities. Many graduate students are experts about the academic environment but know little about the variety of job options available “beyond the bench”.

So where might some of these options exist? After doing some exploring, start building professional contacts in different sectors. Many PhDs have stellar research skills as well as a passion for coming up with conclusions; government, industry and the non-profit sector employ researchers of all kinds. Research positions share some common characteristics with academe, but it’s important to consider what differentiates them. In the biomedical field, for example, the roles researchers play can be similar to those of an academic researcher, although both similarities and differences will depend on the age and size of the organization and stage of the venture funding.

Consider less conventional roles as well. Experts are hired to fill all kinds of company-specific roles, from policy analyst to writer, content developer to advocate, patent agent to consultant – all are positions that require expert knowledge.

Take notice of the kinds of non-academic skills that are needed for non-academic positions. Some companies look for leadership skills; others for the ability to edit complex texts; and others for public speaking talents. Consider how you might develop these skills before you start your job search. There’s no lack of opportunity to develop them. And once you’ve got them, they’ll prove to be valuable assets once you’re sitting across the table from a potential boss.

Establishing a sound grasp of the potential organization’s reason for being is critical to getting them to take you seriously. Teach yourself about its history, mandate, successes and goals. If the word “profit” sends shivers down your spine, you’re likely suited to a non-profit or governmental organization. If the world of high finance fascinates you, look to the private sector. Another important point is that size matters: if you’re thrilled at the thought of having hundreds of colleagues, go big; if you’re more comfortable in an under-ten-people situation, seek out small.

The line between academe and industry is starting to blur in some disciplines. In some cases, PhDs have moved back and forth from academe to industry, particularly in engineering, nursing, business, economics and math. More recently, bridges are being built between the two worlds. At SFU, a group of bright math minds has come together as a collective and called themselves Mathematics of Information Technology and Complex Systems. Industry looks to the group for its expertise in specialized areas.

Weighing traditional ideas of how to advance an academic career while exploring the job market can be confusing for any PhD. Although mentorship and guidance are essential to career management, the decision to follow a specific path should come from within. Finding an environment that will bring out your best is your biggest challenge. But by being proactive and strategic, a career in the knowledge economy – be it on campus or off – comes in a variety of guises.

Marlene Delanghe is a graduate student career adviser at the University of British Columbia.

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