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From scientist to career advising: lessons learned in transitioning careers

A career education specialist shares how he rediscovered his strengths and was able to forge a new career path.


After over 12 years as a molecular biologist in academia, I felt frustrated by being unable to land a faculty position. When I did a thorough reflection, it became clear that my aspirations had changed and running my own research program was not something I enjoyed. It was time to switch careers. I felt lost, but the following steps helped me rediscover my strengths and choose a new career path: career advising.

1. Take a deep breath and take stock of where you are and where you want to go

I revisited a list of job-related tasks I most and least enjoyed that I had made during my PhD and updated during my postdoctoral training. I realized it had evolved significantly at each stage of my career. The connecting thread in the positive experiences was working with students, writing for lay audiences and organizing career and professional development events. So, I knew I eventually wanted to pursue something that combined one or more of those aspects.

I know what you are thinking: “What if I don’t know what I like?” Trust me; we have all been there. Try these approaches:

  • Use career resources at your institution and online. Nowadays, career and professional development resources are available with a click of a mouse. Book an appointment with a career advisor at your university, and use websites like VersatilePhD, ImaginePhD and myIDP to narrow down interesting career paths. Conversations with career specialists helped me gain clarity for what I wanted to pursue, and reading the experiences of individuals in different vocations narrowed down careers of interest.
  • Volunteer in different clubs at your institution and explore any networking opportunities. Take full advantage of experiential learning opportunities such as virtual networking events and career panels. Think about what you enjoy doing that makes you lose track of time. It’s vital to distinguish losing track of time while doing an enjoyable activity vs. doing something deadline-oriented that you aren’t fond of but need to complete. Organizing career, social and professional development events during my postdoctoral training set me up to pursue career development as a career path.
  • Try informational interviews, shadowing professionals and job simulations. Use informational interviews to learn about someone’s day-to-day activities in their career and how they got there to determine career fit. While shadowing someone in person may be difficult during COVID-19, online shadowing or pursuing career specific activities, such as writing a blog about latest pharma industry trends if you are interested in a career in pharma, builds your career-specific knowledge base. Conversations with individuals involved in career development and providing feedback to contacts on their resumes and cover letters confirmed that I would enjoy pursuing career development as a future career path.

2. Be objective and intersect the labour market, your core values and skills

Take note of your core values, including what you are passionate about, your lifestyle and the geographical location you desire. Finally, take account of your skills so far. – Are they sufficient to make the transition, or do you need to gain more experience?

Here are some tips that helped me:

  • Talk to people who have similar backgrounds and have made the same career change. In addition to those in the career path I desired, I made it a point to chat with PhDs who had made the same transition. These conversations helped me understand the core competencies needed to transition and highlight relevant skills from my doctoral experience to land the next role.
  • Have a plan B and C. It may take you some time to make the transition, and it’s essential to have a backup plan. Also, be prepared not to find your dream role immediately. If the job is dream role-adjacent, it will allow you to refine your skills and gain experience.
  • Create a network of support. For many of us, fear of failure and guilt for abandoning years of training come hand in hand with the excitement of pursuing a new career path. I was thankful to have colleagues from STEMPeers and the Postdoc Academy who I could share my struggles with and who supported each other.

3. Brand, network and give back

When you think of any commercial product or brand, there are always a few names that pop up in people’s minds. Branding is essential for associating your name with a profession, whether it is with employers or your peers. Establishing yourself as a serious player is essential for any field.

  • Use LinkedIn to brand yourself and support others. Build your LinkedIn profile with job-specific keywords that highlight the core competencies you have gained for a chosen career. Connect with alumni through LinkedIn groups and write short posts, blurbs and articles to highlight your insights in a field. Share, like and tag your colleagues’ fantastic work and provide value to your professional network.
  • Pursue professional development opportunities. Professional organizations are a valuable resource to connect and learn the fundamentals of your chosen career path. I’m thankful to both the GPDN and GCC for allowing me to join as a trainee member.
  • Collaborate and expand your knowledge. I am thankful to have gained valuable help from Dinuka Gunaratne, Ashley Haroutunian, Sam Stewart, Stephanie Warner, Lydia Soleil, Vipul Sharma, Chris Smith, Tracy Costello and others that collectively resulted in my career transition. I have been fortunate enough to collaborate with STEMPeers to invite Canadian newcomers to share their career journeys and with Dinuka to organize a community of practice on coaching graduate students.

A career is an evolving journey, so take that leap of faith and always believe in yourself!

Ketan Marballi
Ketan Marballi is a postdoctoral and graduate student professional development specialist in the faculty of engineering and architectural science at Toronto Metropolitan University. Following his PhD and postdoctoral training in molecular biology and neuroscience, he pursued his passion for helping graduate students and postdoctoral trainees with their career and professional development.
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  1. Vinayak Khattar / October 6, 2021 at 15:57

    Very informative and well written article. Wishing you unparalleled success in your career progression
    This is a really nobel endeavor- helping students find their calling!

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