Opinion: Encourage alternatives II

We don't talk enough about how scientists can excel outside the lab

Nathan L. Vanderford
May 12, 2010

In my previous article, I suggested that PhD-level scientists seeking careers outside the laboratory face at least two significant barriers: a negative stereotype about these careers and the false perception that PhDs are not adequately trained/educated for these positions. Mentors and academic programs should do more to support PhDs who desire to pursue alternative careers, but PhDs seeking these careers should be prepared to obtain additional education and/or training to ease the transition into such careers. Additionally, other actions can help: PhDs in non-research career fields can take a more active role in supporting others interested in similar positions and employers can do more to recruit PhDs.

Image: Wikimedia commons,
Al Luckow

With greater than 50 percent of science and engineering PhDs working outside of academia, according to the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA), and with many of those jobs being outside of the laboratory altogether, it seems that there...

For those who are employed in a non-research position, consider ways -- perhaps through career fairs or by visiting your degree-granting institution/department -- to discuss your experiences, how you got where you are today, and the benefits that you see in your career choice versus the research track; be a resource for the next generation of alternative career-seekers. I am practicing what I preach by, for example, writing and volunteering to discuss my educational and research and post-research experience with college students at my undergraduate institution.

Employers seeking out PhDs for non-research positions should be doing more to recruit others into these positions, and should encourage their PhD employees to participate. Employers should also devise strategies to highlight the unique and important contributions that non-research PhD employees are making; touting the achievements of current employees would generate more interest from individuals considering a pursuit of a non-research career.

Employers are luring PhDs away from research by, for example, sending recruiting and/or human resource specialists to career fairs. But, why not allow current alternative career PhD employees to participate in these events? Let the people doing the work speak to recruits in order to provide a firsthand account of the benefits both the employer and employee are experiencing.

Support is available to those of us who are interested in alternative careers. Research journals, such as Science and Nature, and science magazines, such as The Scientist, are doing a great job in acting as a forum for discussions on alternative careers and in announcing and participating in career fairs and workshops.

Ultimately, we all have to take control of our own career path. However, despite our best intentions and efforts, there are forces that can prevent or delay career success. PhDs are making great contributions to science through non-research careers. These careers are rewarding especially for those who indeed love science but do not love hands-on research. The new generation of PhDs shouldn't have to struggle to gain access to a non-research career path if they are so inclined. Academic programs, mentors, alternative career employees and their employers -- everyone regardless of status, position, and sector -- should do more to respect, encourage and support the career pursuits of others.

Vanderford earned a PhD in biochemistry from the University of Kentucky, completed a one-year postdoctoral fellowship at Vanderbilt University, and is now pursuing a career in research/science administration.

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