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Four things to consider when planning your career

6/9/2015 11:39:41 AM

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It should come as no surprise to readers of this blog that the field of science is broad and holds many career opportunities. As someone who started out as an academic scientist and transitioned to a writer and editor, I have felt overwhelmed with the choices in front of me more times than I can count! How can a scientist ever plan the next step, next move or next phase in his/her career? For those of you who are on the academic track, those who are transitioning to a new discipline, and those who are considering a move away from the bench, I’ve come up with four things to think about that can help you choose the path for your journey. 

1. Education level

It might seem like an odd consideration to start with, but choosing the education level that best fits your needs and goals is a great place to start. A bachelor’s degree is almost always required for jobs in science, and usually a bachelor’s of science at that. It is important to choose a major that reflects your interest in the subject matter and that will help you learn the building blocks for your career in the field, such as chemistry or biology, or a more specialized major like biochemistry or microbiology. Many of the jobs I have posted on this blog that require a B.S. are entry-level and nonmanagerial positions – great jobs to gain experience and test out whether you like the field. However, this education level presents a potential challenge for those who want to move into more senior-level roles. You might be able to move up, but it might happen more slowly for you than for your colleagues with higher levels of education. Bachelor’s degrees in science are great for some of the outreach and writing positions, especially combined with experience in other, nonscientific areas such as marketing, business or finance. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the Ph.D. Getting a doctoral degree is not for everyone, because it requires many difficult years of study and research. Graduate student life is also not known for its ease – just see one of the many humor pieces or comics poking fun at these poor (literally), stressed-out students. However, getting a Ph.D. can pay off in the long run, as it is considered the “terminal” degree in the field and affords the degree holder limitless possibilities. Becoming an academic professor or running your own academic research lab, running a lab or collection of research groups in industry, consulting — you name it; the sky’s the limit. One downside to holding a Ph.D. is that you may be considered overqualified for some nonacademic jobs, or you may set up your career trajectory for a management-only track. Few tenured research faculty members continue to work at the bench for the rest of their careers, due to the increasing responsibility that comes with their jobs.

If bench research is really your goal, you might consider getting a master’s degree in your area of interest. M.S. holders can move more quickly into senior-level roles, typically are paid better than B.S. holders and are plentiful in both academia and industry. However, a M.S. is not considered the terminal degree (unlike the Ph.D.), so you may hit a ceiling in your career at some point. Combining a science bachelor’s degree with a master’s of business administration (MBA) or master’s of public health (MPH) also can leverage your scientific background for more unique opportunities.

With any education level, you should consider how many years you will need to invest to attain the degree. Be aware that the job market can shift while you’re in school, so there is always a risk you could become trained for a vanishing position. Think about different ways you might use your degree to help you decide if additional school is worth the investment.

2. Work/life balance

Once you’ve settled on the education level that’s right for you, it’s good to think about your definition of “work/life balance.” This can mean something completely different to different people, and it takes into consideration hours, pay, family, location and more. For example, I have known many academic scientists who cannot shut off their working brain. They eat, sleep and breathe research! For them, work/life balance means getting to pursue their passion 24/7/365. A 9-to-5 desk job would not be ideal for these folks. On the other hand, some enjoy the predictability of working the same schedule every day and getting to power down and go home each day.

Academics tout the love of their flexible schedule, which is definitely a perk. Many corporate environments have strict working hours, but every company is different. It’s good to ask about expectations and get an idea of workplace culture. One idea that is rarely brought up in discussions about flexible hours is that it can also mean working nights or weekends. This is definitely true of a career as a science writer: I work nights, weekends and holidays, all by choice.

When thinking about your family (children, parents, spouse or partner), hours likely matter, but geographic location might also weigh heavily on your decision. Do you need to be located in a certain area for your career path? Many large research universities or research companies are in large urban areas. If you want to work for the government or in science policy, the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia will have to be high on your list of places to live, as the majority of these jobs are in a small area of the country.

3. Long-term prospects

Once you’ve thought about your ideal degree and work/life balance, you should consider the long-term job prospects of potential careers. Academic science has been considered in the past a steadier choice than industry research, but today it seems there are as many examples of academic researchers losing funding as there are 20-year employees losing their positions in corporate R&D departments. I’ve interviewed tenured faculty before who stress the importance of pursuing compelling research questions or inventing broadly applicable research techniques. I’ve heard corporate employees talk about building skill sets to make themselves indispensible to their teams and divisions. There are ways to find and keep a job in any scientific career.  

What if you don’t want something long-term? You might consider newer ventures or hot, trendy research topics. Another option is a temporary position that will grow your skill set and help you explore a career path. You should ascertain whether the job requires a minimum time commitment many academic positions expect you to stay for at least one or two years — and whether you are comfortable with that time frame.

4. Independence and creativity

Do you enjoy dreaming up ideas and making them into reality yourself? Do you prefer for someone else to give you direction or a mission? Some combination of the two? It’s important to consider these questions. Many corporate researchers are given assignments and told how much time they can spend on a project, constrained by their company’s budget or by what needs to be brought to market. To some, this sounds energizing, but others prefer the freedom academia affords to chase down any idea and follow an organic line of questioning. Perhaps, to you, creativity means coming up with ways to engage others in science, whether that is through teaching, outreach, policy or writing. Independence can mean working for yourself, or it can mean getting to own your own project while working for someone else.

Seeing the big picture

As I wrote above, trying to consider all of these factors at once can be overwhelming! This is especially true when you’re early in your educational or career path and have a difficult time imagining what might lie ahead.

Seeking out more information about career options that interest you is the best way to start planning. Besides this careers blog, the National Institutes of Health has resources from its Office of Intramural Training & Education, and Science Careers and Nature Jobs both have years upon years of archived content on all types of careers in science.

Going to careers fairs or panels where you can speak with those in the field — or just speak with others who are trying to figure out what to do — can be incredibly helpful. Keep these four considerations in mind when asking questions at a careers event, and don’t be shy about asking about things that are important to you. 

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