Opinion: Hone Your Craft, Sell Your Skills

In an ever-changing job market, PhD scientists should be careful not to confuse their passion with their research foci, and to avoid academic tunnel vision.

By | May 12, 2014

FLICKR, MARIA REYES-MCDAVISLife science PhDs continue to pursue academic careers despite the low pay, long hours, and lack of opportunities in a dwindling job market. The freedom to engage in creative, intellectually stimulating work, the security of tenure, and the ability to make a meaningful contribution to society through teaching and research are all motivations for students seeking academic career paths in the life sciences. However, the reality of the academic job market is that fewer than one in every 10 PhDs will secure a tenure-track position. Despite this, many press on, claiming that they need to continue to “follow their passion.”

A common misunderstanding among early-career scientists is the thought that their passion is their research focus. A more careful examination reveals that their passion is not so much the subject but rather, the promise of the life that academia might offer.

There is hope: these ideals are accessible outside the academic world. Rather than being passionate about a subject, PhDs should instead focus on mastering their craft and building what author Cal Newport calls “career capital.” The first step for a young scientist is to identify which craft they have mastered in the context of their academic work. STEM PhDs spend years developing specialized knowledge in their niche academic fields; most are not aware of the transferable skills they developed during their training.

In addition to research, analysis, writing and editing, some of the most valued and least-discussed transferable skills include leadership, decision-making, the ability to navigate organizational processes, and sales and marketing. Every successful academic is implementing these skills, whether they know it or not. At its core, grant-writing is an exercise in pitching a sale to a funding agency. Writing a research paper is about marketing a story to editors and reviewers. Going on the job market is about selling one’s skill set, one’s research program, and one’s future potential as faculty member. All of these skills are in demand in non-academic contexts and form the basis of “career capital,” which can be leveraged to create career success both inside and out of academia in a variety of career paths.

A craft does not emerge in a vacuum; it develops in the context of specific circumstances—people, projects, and resources. Once you have identified the craft you want to make the focal point of your career, it is necessary to create the circumstances that will support the development of this craft to ultimately create success on your own terms.

Identifying resources

Who do you wish to serve, and can they provide you with a living in exchange?  In which contexts might you experiment with and further develop this craft? To make a living from your craft, it is also necessary to identify who has the means and desire to support it. Many early-career scientists do not know enough about the job market outside of academia to determine the true demand for their skills. Thus, early-career scientists should research the demand for their skills and find low-risk situations to test them out—for example, an internship—while they’re still in training.

Connecting with the right people

Building relationships is necessary not only to develop one’s craft, but also to find a niche in which this craft is in demand.  Your social network—which encompasses people you know through social media, professional societies, or family and friends—is rife with opportunities to develop these relationships.

  • Peers: peer-to-peer support and collaboration is fundamental to identifying and developing the craft one is most talented in. Success requires building good relationships among individuals.
  • Mentors: people who have knowledge and experience, have mastered the craft you seek to develop yourself, and who are willing to provide guidance and advice. Mentors come in many forms, and it is useful to have a variety of mentors who offer different perspectives and different expertise.
  • Champions: people in a position of power who have faith in your abilities, who will support your work, and who will occasionally blow their trumpets on your behalf.

Early-career researchers must rid themselves of the notion that they are passionate about a niche topic, and instead realize that, in most cases, they are pursuing the values academic life seems to promise. Instead of chasing this elusive dream, young academics should focus on honing a craft and discovering the variety of contexts in which they can use it to create a career on their own terms that represents these values. 

Viviane Callier is a research scholar in developmental physiology at the Ronin Institute for Independent Scholarship in Montclair, New Jersey and a science writer at a consulting company in Washington, D.C. Nathan L. Vanderford is the assistant director for research at the University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center in Lexington. 

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