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This week's guest blogger is Image Goddess who is a PhD Scientist with a multidisciplinary background. She has a degree in a field within the biological sciences and is currently enjoying life after graduate school. She blogs at http://imagegoddess.blogspot.com.
When you're in graduate school, especially in the biological sciences, your life is your dissertation work. You live it. You breathe it. If you're like most doctoral students your dissertation work is everything. You are in the standard doctoral student mold created by the system you have to go through to get that coveted degree. And because your whole life is focused around getting your degree, after several years all you can think about is getting done and moving on. But you're often afraid to think about it. Where are you going to move on to? That's the big question. You've spent years dedicating yourself to obtaining this degree, to your research, but now what? And frequently, you don't want to think about it until you're absolutely sure you're going to graduate soon. Why plan when it may not happen this year? Or even the next.
I'm sharing my story because I wish someone had been there to support me with a different perspective. That there are many other options out there - all you have to do is look and not be afraid to do what you want, no matter what others think.
It took me seven years, almost to the day, to earn my doctoral degree, which I did in 2008. About halfway through I knew I loved science, I loved doing science, I loved everything about it, but I also started to realize I was living in a bubble created to steer me in one direction - to take a post doc position then become a PI (Principal Investigator) and lead my own lab. The longer I was in this bubble created by the academic institution I was in the more I wanted to burst it. And I did. Little-by-little I started poking holes in it and it was the best thing I ever did.
So here is my main advice: If you even think you're interested in pursuing a non-traditional track (by this I mean post doc to PI) the second the thought pops in your head you need to act on it. I don't mean you need to make the decision now what you want to do for a career, but what you need to do is start looking for things that will open possibilities for you when you're ready to make a decision.
Doing things outside of my doctoral research was one of the best decisions I ever made. It wasn't easy though. While working more than full time on my research I went through a Certificate Program in an area I was interested in but not related at all to my dissertation work - it took me several years. I took something that I considered fun. And that's important for anyone out there looking to do something else. You have to enjoy it because if you add more work to your already full schedule, and it's not something you love, you'll end up hating it. It will become only work, and by that I mean you aren't doing it for your benefit you're just doing it to have something to do. I had to fight for what I wanted because my department couldn't comprehend why I wanted to do something different. I was departing from the traditional path, stepping outside of the lab, and this was a foreign concept to all the faculty. They didn't know what to do with me so I had to figure it out on my own.
The Certificate Program wasn't the only thing I did. I took classes to learn the theory behind teaching and how to become a great educator because I knew I loved to teach. It was always something I was interested in but the opportunities were few and far between to get teaching experience in our school. That's probably overstating it; they were virtually non-existent. There was no support for doctoral students interested in teaching. Not only did I take additional classes for it but I also participated in a summer program offered in my area where I designed and taught an entire course. It last for over a month and I did it for two summers. Again, I did it because I enjoyed it, not yet knowing if I was even going to use the skills I was practicing at the time.
One question I'm often asked is what did my advisor think of this; the person for whom I was doing all of my doctoral research. Well, here's the thing. I didn't ask him. I just did it. I knew he wouldn't support me in anything I decided so instead of argue I just went ahead and did it. As long as I didn't let it affect the progress and quality of my research I didn't think it was any of his business. It wasn't his future, it was mine. And I had to make the decisions that were best for me.
So where did all of the extra work get me? Today I have what would be considered a non-traditional job for a PhD scientist. I work in academia but I'm not a post doc or faculty. Officially it's administrative, but I don't want to call it administrative because it's more than that. Universities like to categorize people into research, faculty, staff, and post docs but know that there are combinations of the above. It's not that rigid. I do administrative work but I'm also involved in the research, but not in a laboratory setting. Even though I've been in this position for two years the people here still aren't sure how to handle me. I can't be easily categorized which I like. I socialize and work with both the faculty and the administrative personnel. I see everyone's perspective and I get along with them. I'm the only person in the Center who has a PhD and has a mostly research background. As a result, I'm doing things I like and defining my own role.
Recently I added something new to my career path - I'm teaching for a university doing online classes and it's not the university I have my day job at. But I love it. I realize I can do more than one thing and not be confined in a specific role or path.
So what are the major points I want to get across from all of this:
1. If you think you might be interested in something else look into it. Don't wait.
2. Remember that you are building the base for your future and to create a base that will open a wide range of possibilities for you. Diversify.
3. Your dissertation work isn't everything. Once you graduate what matters is the skills you've learned and developed and the fact that you have those letters after your name.
4. Talk to people. There is always someone out there who can offer you advice if you want to take a non-traditional path. Just keep asking and keep looking.
5. There is nothing wrong with doing something different than what you're getting your degree in.
6. Don't let people scare you. If you know what you want stick to your guns and don't back down. There's always a way if you really want it.
So I like to say I've blazed my own trail. I've become a person that people in our school now direct students too when they are interested in something other than a post doc career. Please don't think I'm bashing post doc or faculty positions. I'm not. It just isn't right path for everyone and I think it's a shame that those positions are they only ones most doctoral programs focus on.
Blaze your own trail and keep your eyes open to the possibilities. It's easy to get lost in your dissertation work but please don't lose sight of your future.
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I was like you in many respects, only I did take a postdoc. I wanted to go the tenure-track because I am competitive and alternative careers were presented as alternatives for less successful or less ambitious candidates.
You did what I should have done!
My plan was to study part-time for an MA in Liberal Arts, but unfortunately, now I had the money, I was stuck in remote little elitist Ivy League setting where courses were not available. Any other university and I could have enrolled in undergrad classes! I did do a lot of other stuff – outreach, teaching, leading a postdoc association.
Once I started really looking I found people to speak to about alternative careers. I even found a couple of individuals who had gotten tenure-track before they finally realised it was not what they really wanted.
One thing I came across a lot was the attitude “but you are good enough to go the tenure-track” as if anything else was less worthy. That really pissed me off!
Thank you for this post Image Goddess. At the moment I am trying to change the feeling i have that non-TT positions (I don't want to use the term 'alternative') are a failure. I know they aren't and maybe I feel like that because of the attitude Dr. Girlfriend mentioned above. But I don't know what else i want to do that would not involve research. I really like teaching and the best for me is a job that involves both research and teaching. But isn't this TT?
Have you thought of your current job long time ago and you put it as a goal or it was something unexpected or, allow me to say, by chance?
DG touched on this same topic a few posts ago when she was talking about postdoc life. I think this is a huge downfall of the academic system. It's almost as if academics don't want people to be successful outside of the University system. I hear rumblings out of a few institutions that there are new programs for biotech MBAs to help PhD scientists transition to biotech. It'd be nice if there were similar programs for science policy, writing, etc.
Dr. Girlfriend: I got that attitude (and still do) and it really pissed me off too. But it also made me more determined to do what I wanted. I'm stubborn that way. What I dislike now that I find myself doing is having to explain to people why I'm doing what I'm doing. It gets old. I chose something I enjoy so why is it anybody's business. I tell them I earned my degree not to simply get into the tenure track. I got my degree so I would have the freedom to choose something I enjoy doing. I wanted options.
OmicsScience: I don't care for the word alternative either but I also don't like non-TT positions. By using a negative word in the description it gives it a negative connotation. At least it does for me. I would like to label it all as career options for PhDs. I should start saying another career option instead of alternative career options! That's a great comment you made about teaching and research. It could be TT but it might not be. I teach, and do research, and run a program. But I'm not TT. As long as I'm doing something I like, I don't care if it's TT. A lot of work I do and the faculty around me do is practice based and the academic TT system hasn't figured out how to take that into account. It's unfortunately a flawed system that doesn't recognize teaching excellence and practice-based work.
And no, I didn't know what I wanted to do. When I graduated it was the first time in my life I didn't know what my next step was. I kind of like it even if it was scary. I looked at everything. Even post doc positions if it was something that I found interesting. I looked in every possible domain for a wide-variety of positions. The problem I've notice a lot of people have is that they get so focused on a specific position title they don't see the other opportunties out there. I based my search on the subjects I liked working in and the skills I wanted to utilize, not on the title. Also, the advantage I had was I knew what I didn't like. I always hated the questions of where do you see yourself in 5 years? What are your goals? My goal is to enjoy my life and what I'm doing and make a difference somehow in the world around me. I do have goals for my life and career, specific things I want to do, but there are many ways to get there.
Brian: Programs like that would be great! There is definately a need for strong writers in science policy and other fields. I think other careers should be encouraged because the number of PhD graduates and post docs to available TT positions isn't that great!
Hi Goddess- thanks for this great post.
What was your certificate in?
Jade: I wondered if anyone was going to notice I didn't give the name of the certificate! I can't tell you the specific name because I did a google search and the specific name didn't have many hits. Too risky. But the field has a lot of hits! It was in the area of perparedness and emergency response. I really diversified! And it was my unique background (both the certificate and PhD experience) that got me the job I have now and opened even more doors than the PhD would have.
ah- OK, makes sense :-)
Having unique skills definitely makes you more attractive to employers. And I think getting the teaching experience on your own time was a genius move.
Your job sounds a lot like mine! I too have gotten the attitude mentioned by Dr. Girlfriend. It can be hard to shrug that off, but I know I've made the right choice in my career path. I agree, getting different kinds of experience is really crucial to having more options on the job market.
This is exactly what i wanted to say when they asked me this question during my postdoc interview. I said something similar instead less utopic for obvious reasons.
Thanks for your other comment on teaching, research and TT. I care only about the first two and i thought that TT is the only way. I will look into it. Thanks
Fantastic post. Always nice to hear asuccess story with some one with very diverse background It IS possible.
I too decided against a postdoc and going for a TT position. When I was getting close to finishing up my PhD, I did as much research as I could into non-academic jobs that I might be qualified for. I ended up in medical writing for several years. It was a good, well-paying job. Currently, I work in medical publications for a mid-sized pharma company.
Sure, I miss the lab sometimes and can't say that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life, but overall I'm happy with the choices I've made. Personally, I really don't care what others that I went to school with think. Like Image Goddess said, it's my future and I'm doing what's best for me.
Sounds like you are a liason and less of an administrator. Snazzy title.
Alchemystress: I used to have my doubts about such a diverse background. One of my friends and I talked about it because she had the same concern. We were worried we would be viewed as a 'jack of all trades but master of none." But it turned out as I had hoped and was an asset!
A Romero: I miss the lab sometimes too. But I know I made the right decision. I liked it, but not enough to make it my career.
Genomic Repairman: I like that! Actually, I sometimes call myself a translator. I work both with faculty in academia and on-the-ground emergency preparedness personnel. I'm the only one that speaks both languages. A lot of people in academia can't "talk" to the practicioners in a way to make them care about what their doing. It's kind of amusing, though sad, sometimes. People can't talk to people in other fields.
Fantastic post! I wish I had realised earlier in my PhD that TT wasn't the direction I wanted to go. I'm now in my 6th year and trying to juggle that horrible "finishing up experiments" phase while expanding my blogging and writing experience in my "spare time". It would have been wonderful if I'd had my eyes opened to career paths outside of academia when I first started out. But we were definitely drilled into thinking that a PhD leads to a postdoc leads to trying to get a TT position. I think that might have changed slightly since I started my program (change of leadership of the grad program). I guess my point is that without my own drive and initiative to seek out alternatives to a life in academia I would probably be half-heartedly applying for postdocs right now. The lack of education about the opportunities a PhD affords combined with the institutionalized predjudice against pursuing an "alternative" career is something that needs to be addressed in graduate programs everywhere.