Last week, we took a little diversion from our stated objective of talking diversity in STEM. Doctor PMS and I have been talking and thinking a lot about the next stage in our careers, and about the anxiety and challenge that holds for us. We wanted to see about giving some space to that, especially as community has come up as important in many of our conversations thus far.
Clearly we’re not the only ones struggling with this – as the ensuing conversation (and wrestling that into this recap!) made clear. But we also wanted to hear how others have made it through and reached the other side. We wanted advice, too.
For starters, many of us attempt to figure out what’s next and make ourselves more marketable by taking on extra tasks or responsibilities.
Yet some (myself included) were all too familiar with the struggle to do that, when we have pressure to focus on one:
We likely won’t get recognized for the additional work we’re doing to make our resume stand out, to explore other options, to broaden our skills. We are feeling more pressure to do as many additional things as we can, while often operating within a culture that puts a premium on a single type of output.
Part of this was the fact that many of us are in an academic culture that values specific goals (peer-reviewed publications, tenure) and a specific path (PhD, postdoc, tenure-track faculty). In addition, as biochembelle (@biochembelle) mused, maybe we get too focused on certain titles in academia (e.g. “tenure-track professor”) – ones that we don’t see when/if we leave. Moreover, Luna CM Centifanti (@LunaCentifanti), Doctor PMS (@Doctor_PMS) and Jorden Cummings (@jordenc_phd) brought up that we are often under the impression that if you leave academia – don’t expect to come back. This narrative alone can be harmful and create anxiety, as Amelia Jordan (@Robot_Insect) noted, as it makes us feel like we can’t even try something else, even if we’re unhappy or academia doesn’t feel like the right fit.
Being on an Ivy League campus right now, I have heard from graduate students that success is getting tenure at another Ivy. Anything less is failure. But. This doesn’t have to be the case.
In fact, many responded that leaving was not always a one-way street. While it may be difficult for some in some fields, you can absolutely return to academia. Further, I argue the narrative that it can’t be done says far more about academic institutional culture than it does about reality – and this culture is not everywhere. For me, my MS and PhD studies were at an institution that was very different in this regard from where I am now. The University of New Hampshire was very applied – graduate students worked very often with collaborators off-campus and outside academia. The faculty represented a range of backgrounds, as did the grad students themselves. Leaving academia was never frowned upon, it was done regularly. And you could return – there are academic institutions that value and welcome non-academic experience.
See, there is more than an academic path out there. Moreover, we shouldn’t be looking into it just because we’re hearing over and over again how there are too few jobs and too many of us. Academia might also be the wrong fit! There may be something else out there we’re better at.
Yet even if you do get past the narrative and make the decision to test the non-academic waters, doing so is a challenge. Ian Street (@IHStreet), Jessica Catrilli (@jess_carilli) and others noted that translating our skills and experiences can be difficult. Jorden Cummings (@jordenc_phd) and V. Siva (@DrVidSiva) added that you don’t always know what jobs to look for. The problem is, as V. Siva continued, there is often little being done to help prepare us for a job beyond academia. Doctor PMS (@Doctor_PMS) followed up that this is why it’s so tough – how do you know what skills you need, if you don’t know entirely where you’re headed? And I’ll add – how do you know even know which direction to go, if you’re never made fully aware of all the options available to you?
Unfortunately, in addition to all of that, we have to face fact that the job market may be no better outside of academia.
We can’t assume that just by leaving we’ll suddenly be at an advantage, even if we do figure out how to translate our skills and experience, how to update our resume. However, I’ve also been told that you can make your academic experience work for you. If you have an advanced degree, this can signal that you are good at multi-tasking, at starting and completing difficult projects and research, that you can handle challenges and solve problems. Basically, as academics, we tend to completely overlook what it means to have gone through rigorous academic training in the first place. We can translate that into marketable skills.
So. What to be done? How do we try out new fields when we have been told so little about them? How do we move in a non-academic direction with little support in doing so?
First. The big bottom line really is the fact that there are other paths. Most of us are just not used to seeing them after having been in academia our entire careers thus far, and interacting with only other academics.
Viviane Callier (@vcallier) added there’s a clear path in academia, but less so outside it. This alone is “both terrifying and exciting“…!
So how do we see what’s out there, this place with no path? One really helpful way is simply talking to other people who’ve done it.
In addition to learning what’s out there, do some self-reflection.
What do you enjoy most about your current job? What are you good at? What would you like to learn? What about other positions sound intriguing? If you can design your perfect career, what would it look like? I know these sound kinda silly, but they really are deeply important questions – and don’t limit yourself. Dream big. For example, I’ve been doing a lot of this thinking over the past few months of my postdoc. Yes, I am doing interesting work at a very prestigious lab at a very prestigious university but… I realize I enjoy the connections between research and management far more than theoretical work. I like collaboration – I like connecting people. I am good at running meetings, staying on task, and following up. A career in academia likely isn’t for me – but a job for a non-profit or “boundary group” that connects research and policy, one where I help develop long-term goals and the strategies to get them done? That would be fabulous. I also want a job that pays me to do diversity work – and I want that work explicitly part of long-term goals and strategies.
Maybe that’s a big dream, but it helps me craft what I do now. Who I talk to, what I talk about, even how I frame the papers I’m working on.
To help you think about this, try out new things! Talk to new people! Read stuff! Check out job boards (some of my ideas come from job posts I’m not yet qualified for). You never know what might click.
Another helpful tip: informational interviews – when you interview someone for information, usually about their job and how they got there, as opposed to for a job yourself. These are also a great way to figure out what might fit for you. Look into people writing or doing cool things, look them up online, read about them. If they have a career that sounds intriguing, even if you have no idea how you’d get there… guess what, they might have some insight. Sure, cold-contacting someone is scary, but remember that informational interviews are done widely in other fields (outside academia!) and that people love to talk about themselves!
If you do decide to make a switch, seek out resources that can help you figure out what you need to be successful in that field. Learn what matters in this new career – what skills, experience, and what they value. Start to network, from your informational interviews say. Update your CV/resume – it will not be the same across postings! – and while this will be challenging, it can be done!
But perhaps don’t just go at it haphazardly. As Doctor PMS (@Doctor_PMS) stated, and I agree, make a plan. If I can think through things, the steps I need to take, that makes all the difference in the world. If you don’t know what comes next, or those steps – again, find someone who does! But – keep in mind this plan should be flexible. You never know what’s going to happen next…
In the meantime, remember the importance of taking care of yourself, and of spending time with the people around you. I’ve just added a whole bunch of additional things for you to do – when you’re already pressed for time, stressed, and anxious. This is where your friends and colleagues come in.
Never underestimate the power of community – of a safe space to talk about your worries and your hopes. Where you can share struggles and get advice, be it with one person or many.
This is particularly important much more broadly. Ian Street (@IHStreet) also got us talking about mental health – a HUGE part of this conversation that often gets left out.
There was a lot of conversation about mental health – and for good reason. Graduate school and our early careers are often highly stressful. We are also likely isolated from friends and family – and even from those around us. I think we often hide our anxieties, feelings of not measuring up, depression, from our lab members and advisor. As the conversation made clear, this is a major, major issue – that we don’t often talk about, and are rarely sure where to go for help.
We don’t talk about our struggles very often. We don’t want people to know that we’re having a tough time, or we’re late on that manuscript. We don’t want people to know we’re not sure how to do that analysis, and didn’t understand this paper – yet it can be much more than that. We live in a society that has a tough time with mental illness in all of its forms already – and now we’re in academia where we rely on our brains and competition may mean we don’t want to show any form of “weakness”. This is a systemic problem I’m already getting sidetracked on, so I’ll just say this: having a community you trust, be that one person or many, and talking about issues together in a safe space is key, but hard to come by. Try to find it well before you need it, if you can, and be that space for others. Do not shy away from conversations about mental health – be supportive. If you need help but can’t find it in your lab or advisor, go elsewhere. Even twitter can be a supportive space where you can be anonymous until you’re ready to find people you can trust IRL.
Coming back to our topic, one important aspect of support is having a mentor you trust, someone you can discuss things in a more professional capacity, as being proactive can help ease anxiety. A mentor is also critical for determining your career path and supporting you through it.
I don’t think I can overstate this – the importance of mentoring, either as a mentor working to help your students understand the options available, or as a student looking forward. However. We live under the assumption that you just need the one, and that one is your advisor. This isn’t true. Let me reiterate Alycia Mosely Austin (@AlyciaPhD) by saying you likely need more than your advisor. First, maybe your advisor isn’t very good at mentoring. Find another. Second, one person cannot do all the mentoring things for you. Your advisor may be a great mentor when it comes to your research, but has never left academia. They cannot mentor you as you think about new career options. As Ruth Hufbauer (@hufbauer) pointed out, faculty may not have be able to advise students on career decisions that are new to them, as well.
A good mentor will help you navigate potential avenues available, and can assist with everything from converting your resume to learning the important jargon you’ll need to know (as David Thul pointed out) to network effectively. And this isn’t just for now. You will need to seek out good mentors for various reason throughout your life. This is not something that is given – this takes active work. Learn to do this now.
Finally, Cassie (@mosquito_chaser) brought up an interesting point…
I know a lot of minority groups feel this way – that what we do as individuals reflects on us as a whole. It’s unfair but reality. To this I say – I’ll echo biochem bell (@biochembelle), Sci Curious (@scicurious), and Alycia Mosey Austin (@AlyciaPhD) that we can lead in demonstrating all of the things we can do in our fields, the range of experiences and opportunities out there. There are many ways to be an inspiration!
So. An attempt to sum up: Think about what it is you want to do, and what you’re good at. What makes you tick, what will be fulfilling – but then take steps to make that a reality. Realize you can try something new – but you will have to work at it and seek help. Be proactive – talk with other people about their paths, about other options, network, attend seminars outside your focus, try out an informational interview or two. Plan ahead – but allow plans to be fluid! And, bottom line, pay attention to you in other ways too: watch you stress and anxiety levels, know you can and should talk about mental health – yours and others. Take time when you need it, don’t be afraid to support yourself too!
There is hope!
I tried to grab all the articles and resources shared during this conversation, but please add more in the comments!
Post-academic Ph.D. Careers: a Spectrum of Alternatives
Finding your career path: A list of articles and resources from @biochembelle
The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tenure-Track Faculty Life
Advice for PhD Students: Tips From Professors, Startup Founders, and Industry Professionals
PhD to University Administration: A post on Dr. Alycia Mosley Austin’s (@AlyciaPhD) career path.
A Scientist’s Guide to Citizen Science from Megan McCuller (@mccullermi).
biochembelle‘s posts on Changing Course, Part 1 and Part 2.
An Interview with Professional Development Consultant Marquita M. Qualls, PhD
From @SciCurious: Tips for getting out and The ‘system’ failed me. It should have failed me sooner.
Things to do and not do for your future – not former – self.
“In order to be successful, one must project an image of success at all times.”
How Uncertainty Fuels Anxiety
Science Careers: @sciencecareers
The National Postdoctoral Association at nationalpostdoc: @nationalpostdoc
SACNAS (Society for Advancement of Hispanics/Chicanos and Native Americans in Science): @sacnas
AAAS MassMedia Fellowship: @AAASMassMedia
Thank you to everyone who participated! In no particular order (and let me know if I missed anyone):
Jorden Cummings @jordenc_phd
Megan McCuller @mccullermi
Luna CM Centifanti @LunaCentifanti
Ian Street @IHStreet
V. Siva @DrVidSiva
Alycia Mosley Austin @AlyciaPhD
Amelia Jordan @Robot_Insect
Gary McDowell @BiophysicalFrog
biochem belle @biochembelle
Melissa WilsonSayres @mwilsonsayres
Viviane Callier @vcallier
Bill Hooker @sennoma
Terry McGlynn @hormiga
Corey Welch @CoreyWelch_STEM
Wandering Scientist @wandsci
David Thul @David_J_Thul
Ruth Hufbauer @hufbauer
Starving Scientist @starvingphd
Bill Price @pdiff1
Marissa Berlin @stiricide
Sci Curious @scicurious
Jessica Carilli @jess_carilli
Alberto Roca @MinorityPostdoc
SJ Mentch @sjmentch
Please feel free to continue the discussion in the comments and post additional resources I missed! And don’t forget to check out our two guests post that came about as a result of this conversation:
HIRING SUCCESS STORY guest post by @AlyciaPhD
Tips for Handling Career Anxiety guest post by @wandsci
Til next time!