Looking beyond the lab

AAAS webinar highlights paths to nonacademic careers

The new normal is that most Ph.D.s will have nonacademic positions. Nowadays, jobs in nonprofits, government, industry, patent law and many other areas employ newly minted Ph.D.s. But how does a budding young scientist transition to these careers? As I was searching for my next step, advice from those that had experienced the transition was priceless.
Earlier this year, when I was looking for my next professional position, I had the chance to view a webinar (now a members-only privilege) presented by the American Association for the Advancement of Science titled “Thinking outside the lab: finding a fulfilling nonresearch career.” A panel of speakers with mixed experiences that led them to positions outside of the lab relayed their personal journeys and the necessary skills they developed along their paths. The webinar was full of gems that are crucial when navigating the career world away from the bench. Here, I recap some of the major points.
The panelists included Marcia McNutt, editor-in-chief of Science magazine; Lori Conlan, director at the National Institutes of Health Office for Postdoctoral Services; and Anish Goel, director of geopolitical affairs at The Boeing Company.
McNutt started on a traditional academic path, even obtaining tenure at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but decided to switch careers and accepted a position as a director of a small, not widely known oceanographic research lab.
She said that she had taken a personality test for a university study on women in science. The personalities had been organized into a triangle, with the points designated as the leader, the loner and the follower.
“This professor called me breathlessly to tell me that I was her Joan of Arc because I had fallen on the midway point between the leader and the loner,” McNutt said. “Basically, she said I was the person who would lead the troops into battle, but if they wouldn’t follow me, I would just do it myself.”
Conlan described her path as “planned happenstance.” She said, “Looking back on it, it looks very planned, but at the time it seemed like a random walk.”
The constant in this walk was her effort to highlight careers outside of academia while she was in graduate school and during her postdoctoral training. This helped her obtain a position at the Science Alliance at the New York Academy of Sciences and her current job at the NIH.
Goel began by saying, “I like to tell people that I’m actually on my third career now.” He said he began as a graduate student – delaying the process of facing the real world. He kept his eye out for opportunities even if they were outside his comfort zone and found the AAAS Science and Technology fellowship. After working for the government, he decided that he would switch to the private sector, landing eventually at The Boeing Company.
The webinar continued to be a goldmine of advice for a scientist looking to transition to a nonacademic career. Below are several highlights from which anyone on the job search can benefit.

Educate yourself

One takeaway from the webinar is that when you’re choosing a graduate school or postdoctoral position, you should seek out institutions with career-development offices or grants that allow Ph.D.s to intern at other organizations.
For those already stationed somewhere, Conlan suggested looking to neighboring institutions that offer programs if your current institution does not. In addition, she says that the myIDP resource provided by Science Careers is an excellent resource to match your skills, values and interests with possible career paths.
McNutt added that you should push for nonacademic career speakers for seminars.

Sell yourself

But what about that frustrating loop of needing experience to get a job but not being able to get a job due to lack of experience? Goel says that you have more experience and skills than you might think. Being able to think critically about issues is important for many careers. Think hard about how you are selling yourself.

Develop your skills

If you are already in a position meant to develop your skills, consider also gaining new experiences.
For instance, Goel said he would have practiced nonacademic writing and presenting to large groups of people by giving speeches. Conlan said that she would have developed office skills by volunteering at nonresearch offices at her home institutions. She said she also valued her service on various committees.
McNutt said that she would have honed her people skills – how to motivate people by recognizing their strengths and weaknesses, bringing them together to work as a team, and assigning tasks that they will excel at and be comfortable with.
If you do not feel ready after graduate school in these areas, consider taking a postdoctoral fellowship. As Conlan said, “A postdoc is a necessary career step for some people, not a holding pattern.”

Transitioning to a new marketplace

Goel has made the jump to a new career twice and said that he did his homework beforehand. It is important to seek out all of the options that exist and to be able to step out of your comfort zone. In the end, you need to find what best fits you at that time.
McNutt added that she approached every job as the job she would have for the rest of her career. With this strong work commitment, she moved forward in her career to many leadership positions.


The webinar speakers discussed networking at the most length, and I cannot stress its importance enough. “Networking is the foundation for making the right connections, building personal relationships with people, getting your name and work out there,” McNutt said. Nowadays, with so many scientists and publications, networking is the best way for someone to connect you with your work.
Conlan talked about informational interviewing, which is a great way to build your network. When contacting individuals in fields of interest, be prepared to ask better questions by recognizing your skill sets and finding the jobs that best match those.
Prepare to cover four basics:
  • • the present – what the interviewee’s current position entails
  • • the past – the path the person took and whom he or she spoke with on the journey
  • • the future – where the person is headed and where the field is going
  • • advice – who else you should talk to and career opportunities that might be available
If you are intimidated by networking, then try to think of it more as data gathering and an exchange of ideas like a research collaboration. Also, Goel notes that networking includes helping others out.
In the end, McNutt made an excellent point: “always build bridges along the way; never burn them.” You never know where someone will end up or how he or she can help you, so always be respectful and courteous.
No matter what you do next, it is going to be “like jumping off a cliff,” says Conlan, because you will not have any idea of what it is like until you are in the thick of it. If you keep your network open, you always can use that as an opportunity to transition back to a previous career or onto the next.
A career outside of the lab can be fulfilling and prestigious and can lead you on the road to a happy and successful life. Now is your chance to explore and find what job fits your best attributes!
Shaila KotadiaShaila Kotadia (skotadia@
berkeley.edu) is the education and outreach manager for the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (Synberc) at the University of California, Berkeley.