Opinion: Tales from the Nonacademic Career Path

Graduate students from The Scripps Research Institute share how they prepared to enter policy, law, biotech, and beyond.

By | September 3, 2017

ISTOCK, BAONAOver the last month, I have been on a quest: To find out how those of us scientists searching for jobs outside academia were faring and if my own experience in looking beyond the ivory tower was an outlier or a representative measurement. As I was preparing to leave The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI), where I had been a graduate student for the past five years, I wanted to understand why transitioning into a non-academic career could feel like taking the road less traveled, when it is, in fact, the path of most graduate students at TSRI and elsewhere.

Trained in biochemistry, I focused my graduate research on understanding time-of-day dependent metabolic fluctuations. Post-graduation, I was looking for a career that would draw on my experience but allow me to delve into a broader range of scientific discoveries. Thus, I became interested in science communication. In my current job search I am ruling out post-doctoral training.

Non-academic positions require applicants to pair their scientific knowledge and competence acquired during academic training with additional skills. Naturally, different non-academic career paths demand vastly different qualifications, the only commonality being the need to plan ahead. For instance, my former classmate Alex Krois, who earned his PhD in a structural biology lab, intends to work as a biotech-IP lawyer. He spent three months prepping for the Law School Admission Test (in addition to full-time lab work). He now studies at UC Berkeley School of Law on a scholarship.

The more inclusive that science is as a community and the more people we can call scientists, the more progress we will see.—Anne Kornahrens,
AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow

Our colleague Anne Kornahrens performed her graduate work in synthetic organic chemistry. I reached her in Washington, DC, where she is now a AAAS Science and Technology Policy fellow. Anne says she had to precisely time her defense to enable an elaborate 10-month application process. She also joined organizations outside of TSRI’s campus to practice outreach and STEM education, which ultimately became her policy focus.

In my informal survey of fellow students, it became clear that another important form of preparation for the non-academic world is connecting with the fields they wanted to enter in advance. This was pointed out by my colleague Bryan Martin, a protein biochemist and NMR spectroscopist, who is one of many transitioning into industry research. To make these connections he conducted informational interviews with former colleagues who have acquired positions in the biotech sector. This is a great way to gather information about the job and how they got it and to propagate a professional network.

My former classmate Rebecca Miller, who performed her graduate studies in structural biology and now works for a company developing plant-based protein—in a marriage of her passion for biophysics and a desire to act on climate change—even volunteered with industry conference organizers. Running the conference registration desk put her in a prime position for making acquaintances in the field she wanted to enter.

To create opportunities to connect with professionals and explore different careers, TSRI’s Career and Postdoctoral Services Office (CPSO) organizes on-site company visits, career panels, meet-the-alumni, and other networking events. “We also recently launched a career exploration pilot program at TSRI that allows students and postdocs to visit employers to gain real-world experience working on representative projects,” says Ryan Wheeler, the director of career, international, and postdoctoral services. “Each visit lasts just one or two days and aims to increase trainees’ knowledge about a specific career path and company culture.” These efforts continue to foster interactions between the academic and other scientific communities and are crucial in making the full range of careers suitable for PhDs more accessible. I highly recommend stepping into your local Career Services Office to find out about the programs they offer.

How to decide which career path to choose? The students I spoke to were driven by finding the best fit for their interests, skills, and values, often exploring several options at first. Completing an Individual Development Plan, an online tool that matches the results of a personal assessment exercise with possible career trajectories, is a great starting-off point in this process. Additionally, many of us took advantage of CPSO’s one-on-one advising appointments. In a personalized manner, CPSO connected us with alumni who had gone down the same path, pointed out resources and ways to demonstrate specific skills (a.k.a. building a resume), and provided feed-back on application packages.

Finding small ways to try a different career on for size helped me ascertain I was moving in the right direction. For instance, the first step I took was to volunteer with the TSRI Council of Scientific Editors. Helping others express their scientific ideas and goals in research manuscripts and fellowship or grant applications gave me a heightened sense of contributing to overall scientific progress.

I am excited to contribute to driving science forward in the role that best fits my talents and passions, and so are the students I spoke to. As Anne notes from her new vantage point in DC, “the more inclusive that science is as a community and the more people we can call scientists, the more progress we will see.”

Anna Kriebs is a graduate student at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California.

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