Choose Your Own Non-Academic Adventure
A year ago, I wrote a piece on competition in science. The general jist of it was: academic culture isn’t an ideal backdrop for quality scientific research. I was very smug (still am), and you’d think I’d leave my snazzy by-line at that and move on to my next step in global domination. However, because I am a flawed human being with a giant ego, I stuck around to read the comments.
Wow 7ydn48v, you really know how to kick a scientist when they’re down.
The “re-branding” they are referring to is the very crux of my current research project – where do PhDs go when they leave academia, and how do they get there?
When I first read the comment, I was pretty butthurt. That’s not FAIR! It’s not that EASY, you guys!! etc
Flash forward to a year later, and I will admit that the poster has a point.
If you’re considering finding work outside of academia, it might well feel as though the next practical steps are a tad overwhelming. A comment like this one might push you over the edge. (see: YOU GUYS?!)
But do you remember when else you felt overwhelmed? How about at the beginning of your PhD? Or maybe when you realised you weren’t even halfway through that epic literature review. Then there’s the time you legit fell asleep at the bench at a 12-hour time point…If you’ve spent time working in research, you’ve probably felt overwhelmed*. You are an expert in dealing with overwhelmed-ness.
It’s a sentiment that’s come up a few times in my discussions with PhDs – that finding a career opportunity might not be that different to any other obscure research journey we have found ourselves on. Here are a number of reasons why, terrifying as it may feel, finding a the right career path for you – a person with research experience - is totally do-able (NOTE: do-able ≠ easy).
1. You already appreciate that there are limits to what your supervisor can do for you.
There is a glorious moment in everyone’s PhD wherein they realise: they know more than their supervisor does. Generally the subject of this knowledge tends to be limited to the subject of your thesis - but if you’re very unlucky, it can also include university policy, lab protocols, fellowship applications, people skills…
Once you learn the limits to your supervisor’s expertise, it can actually make things easier. You stop expecting miracles and start taking ownership.
One of the things it is HIGHLY unlikely your supervisor can help you with is non-academic career advice. Sure – you can ask. But, just as you might have come to anticipate that their practical advice could be a tad outdated, you know to take their advice (and maybe attitude) with a pinch of salt.
2. You know that some answers require leaving your database of choice.
As much as you might have a personal favourite, if you haven’t realised that there isn’t one single repository of wisdom upon which your thesis can rely, then consider this tip a freebie.
If you’re facing the challenge of finding a career (or even a tiny opportunity) outside of academia that’s a good fit for you, there is actually a wealth of information out there. You just need to know where to look and how to scrutinise it.
There are books, blogs, papers, Tweeters, Facebook groups, Linked-In groups, training seminars, conferences…and there are other humans. Which leads nicely to my next point.
3. You know how to ask for help.
I think this attitude will depend a lot on your research group and JUST how competitive/ confidential your research was. In my field, I felt as though it was completely normal to track down someone whose research was parallel to mine, and to approach them for some insight or advice. It was also fairly normal to sometimes be met with blank stares or unanswered emails. But you know what? NEITHER of these things resulted in death or injury, and when people were helpful and responsive, it moved things along a HEAP.
If you can track down someone whose research experience might be similar to yours, you can probably track someone with a similar career path too.
4. You can appreciate the concept of confidentiality.
Lots of research fields involve confidential data. You know which parts of your project you can chat about with mates on the bus, which are more appropriate to keeping within group meetings, and maybe some aspects which only you and your supervisors can talk about.
Depending on the culture of your research group, and maybe the personality types of the people you work with, your search for alternate career options might involve a lot of diplomacy and even outright secret keeping.
This awareness and appropriate respect of workplace culture is a skill which will remain invaluable throughout your career, wherever it might take you.
5. Hate it though you may, you understand the value of networking.
I have spoken to so many people who hang all their career success on ‘being in the right place at the right time’.
I would like to officially call BS on this nonsense and remind everyone that while you might not be an absolute master of your own fate, you can definitely nudge things in the right direction. One of the best ways you can do this nudging is by TALKING TO PEOPLE.
This can involve approaching people directly (see point 3), but it also involves being aware of the lay of the land, and being approachable. You can shoot someone an email - but ‘networking’ can also just involve participating in/ contributing to a room/ social media group/ conversation/ meeting etc where you know there are likely to be people who are likely to have some useful information. It’s really just a game of probability. As one of my interviewees Malini Devadas put it, “You make your own luck.”
6. You know (OH you know) your thesis isn’t going to write (or even plan) itself.
In the same way that every research project is different, there also isn’t a single career plan for anyone. No one is going to hand you a set of instructions about how to go about this. The best way to learn how to do a PhD is just to do it. The same goes for opportunity searching.
There are some careers for which it seems the pathways are fairly well defined (patent law and medical science liason being two), and others which seem a bit more…wishy-washy.
Whatever you end up doing though, it’s ultimately down to you to do it.**
(Just a final closing note from Amy Poelher…)
“Treat your career like a bad boyfriend. Here's the thing. Your career won't take care of you. It won't call you back or introduce you to its parents.Your career will openly flirt with other people while you are around. It will forget you birthday and wreck your car. Your career will blow you off if you call it too much. It's never going to leave its wife.Your career is fucking other people and everyone knows but you. Your career will never marry you. (...) If your career is a bad boyfriend, it is healthy to remember you can always leave and go sleep with somebody else”
*If you have never felt overwhelmed, you are either i) a supreme being with excellent emotional intelligence (please call me), or ii) an obnoxious asshat (please stay away from me).
**Please don’t interpret this as an excuse to never ask for help. ALWAYS ASK FOR HELP (respectfully, appropriately, and patiently, of course).