This week's Tungsten Hippo post is a list of 10 short ebooks to load on that new eReader you got for Christmas. Or to load up onto an old eReader if you just want to explore some new authors or subjects.
I've also been working on my annual year in review blog post. As went through my old posts to pick out my favorites for my roundup, I was struck by how the number of posts has tapered off toward the end of the year. I think the problem is that most of my spare cognitive cycles are currently going to unbloggable career-related decisions, so I am not coming up with topics I want to blog about.
Ironically, a tweet in my feed about careers has given me a topic I want to post about. @AstroKatie posted a link to her Storify about the advice grad students do (or do not) get about non-academic careers.
The details of the advice I got as a graduate student have receded into hazy memory- it was roughly 15 years ago, after all. But I do occasionally participate in career panels and other events set up to help grad students and postdocs find careers outside academia. I also recently hired for two junior-level positions in my group, positions that could have gone to new graduates (but did not- I'll talk about why later).
So I have a couple of thoughts on the transition to a non-academic career. Note that I did not say I have advice on non-academic careers. You could perhaps combine these thoughts with knowledge of an individual's specific background and interests to get some advice, but I will not try to do that.
Thought #1: Events organized to expose graduate students and postdocs to "alternative" careers tend to focus on a small subset of possible careers.
When I was in graduate school, a career in research in industry was presented as an "alternative," which struck me as a bit strange even then, since it was a career doing exactly what you'd trained to do, just in a different type of organization.
I still see industrial research represented in these career events, and I don't have a problem with that. There are indeed some great research jobs in industry. The people speaking about research jobs in industry also usually at least mention the lab-based jobs that are less like academic research, which is good, because those jobs can also be interesting and rewarding.
There are also a lot of great jobs in industry that are not lab-based. Sometimes, these are covered in career events, but I think their inclusion is spotty, depending primarily on what the people that can be found to participate in the event do for a living. I see project management covered more frequently these days. The events that include me on their panel have scientific informatics represented, since that is what I do. There are also careers to be had in regulatory affairs, manufacturing, alliance management, and business development. There are almost certainly additional careers that aren't coming to my mind right now, too.
And then there are the jobs that aren't in industry. Again, I think there are some "go to" careers that are usually represented on career panels. I generally see someone involved in patent law. University tech transfer offices are also well-represented. I don't often see science writers at the events, but someone always mentions that as an option in their remarks. They also mention the possibility of hiring on at one of the big management consulting firms, although I don't know a single science PhD who has done that (I do know some people with other backgrounds who have worked for those firms). Less frequently, the possibilities of working to develop science policy or doing public outreach in support of science are represented. Again, there are probably many additional careers that aren't coming to my mind right now.
My point is not to bash career events. There is no way that any one event could represent all of the possibilities. And that is my point. There are many, many things that people with science PhDs can go on to do. Almost all of the careers I've listed in this post benefit from a science background even if they do not require a science PhD. There are many, many more careers that would benefit from the other skills you develop while doing a PhD, such as critical thinking, problem solving, ability to direct your own work, but that is perhaps a topic for another post.
Many of these careers are things that your average graduate student or postdoctoral fellow will have no way of knowing about. However, there is a good chance that at least one person who graduated from one of the institutions with which you have been affiliated is working in each of these careers. Most professionals are happy to talk about their career paths- particularly if they have, for instance, signed up with their alumni association and indicated that they are happy to talk about their career paths. If you are interested in pursuing a non-academic career but don't know what, exactly you want to do, you can use those alumni associations and your own LinkedIn network to find people who can tell you about a wide range of careers.
Oops, that sounded a lot like advice.
And professors who want to help your students and postdocs out, but don't know anything about non-academic careers? You can build up your LinkedIn network with people who have worked in your lab, and then link to your current students and let them search your network. Yes, I know that it is fashionable among academics to make fun of LinkedIn, but that is because academic networking is done in an entirely different way. Trust me, out in industry, LinkedIn can be a valuable tool.
Thought #2: People leaving academia tend to have no idea how to apply for a non-academic job
As I mentioned, I have recently hired two junior positions, either one of which could have gone to a recent graduate or a postdoc looking to make a transition away from the bench. In both cases, I wrote the job descriptions to require next to no experience and to emphasize my willingness to train. In neither case did I get many applications from people without industry backgrounds, and few of those that I did get could really be included in my "top ten" stack of resumes- the stack I use to set up phone interviews.
I received resumes with no cover letter and no indication of any interest in the field for which I was hiring. I received resumes with cover letters that plainly stated an interest in a different field. I received resumes that were strong in one of the areas I was looking for, but had no indication of any experience in the other areas (which I had called out specifically in the job listings) and which did not have cover letters noting an interest in growing in those areas.
I know that academic institutions don't always do a great job of explaining how to apply to a non-academic job, but you have emailed me your application. You presumably know how to use the internet. Avail yourself of the information available online and write a good cover letter!
In both cases, I ended up hiring people with industrial experience in a scientific field who were looking to transition into my field. They have been great additions to my team and I am happy I hired them, so it worked out well for me. But I worry about the people who did such a poor job of applying for my positions. I did not have the time to contact each and everyone and ask the obvious questions that their application materials failed to answer. Nor could I reach out to each one and offer personal advice.
I am interested in helping people navigate from academia into industry, and make it easy to network to me via the academic institutions that I attended. I go to career days and local networking events and issue blanket invitations to contact me for an informational interview. Very few people take me up on that, even though it is my policy to take the people who contact me for an informational interview out to lunch- and I say that!
So I do care about this issue- but when I am filling an open position in my group, I care more about finding a great candidate. I am almost by definition pressed for time, since I am usually hiring because we have more work to do than we can handle with our current team. When I am hiring is not when I can do outreach. That is perhaps unfortunate, but it is true.
Here again, is something that a professor who wants to help his or her students transition out of academia could do: make a list of links to posts like this one and other resources about how to apply for non-academic jobs, and share them with your students.
So, that ended up sounding a lot more like advice than I intended. Sadly, it is probably not specific enough to be truly useful. If any of that piques your interest, feel free to leave me a more detailed question in the comments, or reach out via email. I can't buy you lunch over the internet, but I will answer your questions.