Traitors or Trailblazers? Scientists Pursue """"Alternative"""" Careers

SERENDIPITY: Carol Yoon, a freelance writer in Bellingham, Wash., was convinced she would hate science journalism until she landed a fellowship that placed her at the Portland Oregonian for a summer. Carol Yoon, a freelance writer in Bellingham, Wash., was convinced she would hate science journalism until she landed a fellowship that placed her at the Portland Oregonian for a summer. "I did it on a lark," she says. Discovering that she enjoyed writing about science, Yoon remarks, was "

By | November 9, 1998


SERENDIPITY: Carol Yoon, a freelance writer in Bellingham, Wash., was convinced she would hate science journalism until she landed a fellowship that placed her at the Portland Oregonian for a summer.

Carol Yoon, a freelance writer in Bellingham, Wash., was convinced she would hate science journalism until she landed a fellowship that placed her at the Portland Oregonian for a summer. "I did it on a lark," she says. Discovering that she enjoyed writing about science, Yoon remarks, was "a total shock."

Even if you have the perfect career in your sights, it's still not easy leaving the fold, comments Goodman. Advisors and associates may tell you that you're wasting your training and making a mistake.

Maybe your mentors feel they've failed you as academic parents, she says. And perhaps your colleagues are angry because they're also unhappy but too scared to try something new, explains Yoon, who got her Ph.D. from Cornell University. The way she sees it, "their reaction has nothing to do with you. They're just showing you their personal neuroses and fears."

Even your family might not be warm and supportive. For years, Bieker-Brady's nearest and dearest hazed her with lawyer jokes. "They really believed that lawyers are Satan's closest friends," she says. "Now they've accepted my choice--although they did have to go through grief and mourning first."

Regardless of what others think, you have to follow your instincts, maintains Goodman. "Nobody knows what's important to you." When well-meaning colleagues gave Goodman a hard time, she says she ignored them. "I would remember something Barbara McClintock once said to me: 'When you know you're right, they can't hurt you.'"

Wu Wishnow agrees. "I'm happy and productive and proud of what I'm doing," she says. "I don't care whether other people approve."

Today academics seem to be more accepting of nontraditional careers. Perhaps it's the job market, perhaps it's the jobs. "Academic life ain't what it used to be," says Bieker-Brady, who remembers sneaking out to law-firm interviews in her one navy blue suit. Certainly as more people opt to use their training outside the university, alternative careers will become more mainstream.

"These days, working at a start-up [biotech company] is considered more normal than alternative," says Gallager, who went from research positions at the National Institutes of Health and Yale University to Neurogen, where she directs research identifying compounds that regulate the activity of neurons in the central nervous system.


INDEPENDENCE: "I like the fact that I'm running my own show," says Alice Deutsch, an inventor who founded a company called Bioscreen in New York City.

Do these former lab denizens miss running gels and counting colonies? "No!" Goodman answers definitively. "I don't even cook." The kitchen is too much like the lab.

Others do miss some things about academic life. "I miss the intellectual puzzle solving," says Seiler. Lord also misses the act of discovery. "That orgasmic feeling of 'Oh my God, I have this great idea.' And then you do the experiment and realize you've learned something," she says. "I do miss that."

Joy misses the community. "It's hard to leave your academic family," she says. But you soon build a new community of people you interact with again and again.

All things considered, most wouldn't want to go back. "I like stretching my brain and learning new things," says Strauss. "And I like wearing slippers to work."

Of course, none of these experiences are gender specific. So why are women more open to alternatives? Perhaps more women choose to abandon academia to raise a family, says Yoon. And females may have a different psychology. "Maybe women are more open minded, more imaginative, and have more interests in life" posits Joy. "Or maybe they're more easily discouraged," which might make it harder for women to make their way in any career. "I think sometimes women swallow things that make them unhappy if they feel it will make other people happy," says Goodman.

But in the end, you have to satisfy yourself. "Life is too short and you should do something that you enjoy and that allows you to make an impact on society," maintains Wu Wishnow.

"I wanted to do something I could believe in and something where I could feel that I really made a difference," says Eliene Augenbraun, CEO of ScienCentral, a television production company. "Through TV I can have a huge impact on people--much bigger than any experiment I could ever do."

"A Ph.D. trains you to think," says Seiler. How you use it is up to you.

"I'm my own boss, I do what I want, and I enjoy my work," says Deutsch. "I think if you can achieve that, you've accomplished a lot in your life."

 

So you hate the lab--or at least the eppendorf tubes. Now what? Women who've made the switch and are enjoying successful careers outside academe offer the following advice:

  • Talk to people who have adopted alternative careers. "Ask them what they like about what they do, and what they hate about it," says Kristina Bieker-Brady. You might hit on a path that suits you.

  • Ask people to describe a typical day, says Alice Deutsch. Are they on the phone or traveling or in meetings? Decide whether that's how you'd like to spend your time, says Evelyn Strauss.

  • Indulge your interests to gain extra experience outside the lab. Laurie Goodman wrote and published a novel while she was in graduate school. Including her foray into fiction on her resume moved her to the "top of the pile" when she was applying for a job as a journal editor. Seeing that you're multidimensional "intrigues people," says Goodman.

  • If you're interested in writing, whip up something for an institutional publication or the local paper. If it's the business life you crave, Peipei Wu Wishnow suggests taking a course for entrepreneurial aspirants. To learn what it's like to be a stock analyst, try working up a research report on a biotech company. "Maybe you'll hate it, maybe you'll love it. But if you do enjoy it, you'll be showing potential employers you're interested," says Sharon Seiler.

  • Do your alternative homework in secret if you have to, says Janet Joy, who wrote a column for the Association for Women in Science newsletter and also sneaked out of lab to volunteer as an intern for the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology one morning a week. "I chose early morning because people in lab come in late, so no one noticed I wasn't around," she says.

  • Sample different experiences before you settle on which way you want to go. "Test the waters," advises Wu Wishnow. In fact, Eliene Augenbraun tried them all. She went from doing scientific and medical illustration to international science policy at the United States Agency for International Development before launching her TV venture.

  • Don't be afraid to stumble. Wu Wishnow and Deutsch had early business projects that failed. And Augenbraun faced a stack of rejection letters two feet tall before landing her policy gig. "At a page apiece, that's a lot of rejection," she notes.

  • Derive a career from first principles, suggests Strauss. "Figure out what your perfect job would be, what you enjoy doing, and make up a career that matches it."

Bottom line: just go for it. "The only way you don't get things is by not trying," says Goodman. Bieker-Brady agrees. "Go with your gut. If it feels right, do it," she says. "Even if it makes no sense at all."

-- K.H.

 

The best way to find out about alternative careers is to speak to folks who are living the dream. Organize a symposium at your university and invite people with alternative careers. The following resources offer additional information and suggestions.

ASSOCIATIONS
American Association for the Advancement of Science
[Offers mass media fellowships and fellowships in science policy and diplomacy]
1200 New York Ave. N.W. * Washington, DC 20005
202-326-6400
www.aaas.org/AAAS/fellowgrant.htm

Association for Women in Science
1200 New York Ave. N.W., Suite 650 * Washington, DC 20005
202-326-8940
www.serve.com/awis/

National Association of Graduate and Professional Students
825 Green Bay Road, Suite 270 * Wilmette, IL 60091
888-88N-AGPS (888-886-2477)

Karen Hopkin is a science writer based in Silver Spring, Md.


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