A class on career options

Published June 29 2016

Nancy Manley teaches a popular graduate seminar course about life science careers. ROBERT NEWCOMB, UNIVERSITY OF GEORGIA PHOTOGRAPHIC SERVICES

Research funding crunches and a glut of young Ph.D. scientists battling for academic research jobs have forced many in the life sciences to re-evaluate their ideas of what constitutes a typical science career. Fortunately, Ph.D.-level scientists have been applying their skills to a multitude of nonacademic science-related jobs for years. Nancy Manley, director of the Integrative Life Sciences program at the University of Georgia, long has been aware of the plethora of job options for her Ph.D. students. But she says resources to prepare them for nonacademic careers have been scarce. Ten years ago, to give her students a chance to investigate their options, Manley began teaching a seminar course called GENE 8200: Careers for Ph.D.s in Life Sciences.

Bree Yanagisawa, a science writing intern for the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, spoke with Manley about the importance of the course and its content. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What’s your scientific background?

I’m a distinguished research professor at the University of Georgia in the department of genetics. I have been here for 14 years now. I’m a typical faculty member who had what would be considered a typical academic career track. I went to graduate school, went to a postdoc, got an assistant professor position and then got promoted.

Why did you decide to start the course?

I’ve been teaching and mentoring graduate students and postdocs in my own lab for my whole career, but I was always mystified by faculty who told students that the best students should go into academia and everybody else should consider something else. It was like somehow all those other jobs were consolation prizes for those who couldn’t cut it in academia. I never felt that was true.

I was asked to teach a seminar class and told I could teach whatever topic I wanted. I knew that students needed more information about other careers. So I decided to try it one year — to use a graduate seminar as an opportunity to have a discussion about career options.

What is the course content and how is the course run?

The specific career topics the course covers change every year. We start the first meeting talking about careers. What is a career track? What kinds of jobs are available to people who have Ph.D.s in life sciences? I usually divide the options up into academia, government and private sector, and within each of those we talk through multiple possibilities.

We generate a long list of possible careers that students could have. I have the students pick a career or maybe a couple of closely related careers. Each of the students then goes out and is responsible for getting information about what the career is, identifying people who have that career who have a life sciences Ph.D. and interviewing them. The students have to OK their question list with me, and then they contact the people and set up the interviews. The rest of the class is the students giving presentations on their findings to everybody in the class.

Are there any careers that are favorites each year?

There are some that we do every year, for sure. We always do patent law. We always have somebody who wants to do big pharma and large biotech companies. We always have somebody who does small biotech companies. So the standard things that you would think of as the primary careers outside of academia. We usually have somebody who does nonprofit organizations of one kind or another. We will often, though not always, have somebody who does science writing as a topic also.

I also usually (do a separate lecture) about academic careers. I think one of the problems we have even within academic careers is that students really don’t know what they are like. Students have a general idea, but they don’t know what faculty do with their time. They don’t know very much about the nuts and bolts of running a lab. One of the things I tell them is: You may think that academia is not for you, but what is that based on? Do you even know what it is that you’re deciding you don’t want to do?

Would you recommend all students take your career exploration course regardless of career aspirations?

Absolutely. The purpose of the class is to have students make conscious choices about their career decisions. But in order to make a conscious choice, you have to have information. Many students have never been full time in the workforce. There are really big differences in the kinds of benefits you get if you work in government versus the private sector versus being self-employed. The course is not just about the day-to-day content of a career but also about the nuts and bolts of making career decisions.

What is the biggest misconception students have when they come into the course?

That academic jobs are the hardest jobs and that other jobs are easier and pay more.

The real answer is that all careers have advantages and disadvantages and that pay is not always based on how hard you work, but it often is. If you want a job that isn’t very difficult but pays you lots of money, it doesn’t exist. Any career that you want to have that’s going to be personally rewarding and financially lucrative is going to require you to work really hard.

It’s not a matter of finding the easy way out. It’s a matter of finding the job that is the best fit for what is important to you.

What’s one piece of advice you hope your students take from the course?

At the end of the class we always do a sum-up discussion and talk about (the common elements of) the advice given by all of the people. They are: be successful in graduate school, and network, and go out there and do the best at what you’re doing now, because the experience of graduate school trains you for all of these other careers. That’s the reason why people who have this degree can have all these diverse careers. The degree itself is valuable.

Students reflect on Manley’s course


VanDrisse

I remember in one class Nancy told us not to confuse uncertainty with (lack of) interest, which allowed me to reflect on the true reasons why I was confused about my future career path. It turns out, I knew what I wanted the whole time. I just needed someone to help me gain confidence in my decision.

- Chelsey VanDrisse


Xu

After I explored several possibilities (biotech industry and consulting) according to our discussion in the class, I decided to continue my career in academia more consciously. Now I am a postdoc (at) Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and I enjoy what I am doing, because I know this is the area (in which) I fit very well. Thanks to the-career development class, I became very dedicated to what I am doing now.

- Jianing Xu


Avery

Most graduate programs I am aware of groom you for postdoctoral fellowships and a life of academia. As a consequence, students and postdocs alike have a tendency to pigeonhole themselves into this niche. Limiting ourselves in this way is foolish. The key fact I took from Manley’s seminar is that as scientists we have tangible and transferable skills that virtually any employer in any field is looking for.

- Jay Avery


Rhaesa

I now feel confident conducting an informational interview to see if I’m interested in a career. This skill alone has made this class well worth my time and will be so valuable to my future job search. Taking this class has shown me more options for careers than I realized existed and has given me the tools to get onto my career path of interest.

- Amanda Rhaesa

Bree Yanagisawa Bree Yanagisawa was an intern at ASBMB Today when she wrote this story. She is a Ph.D. candidate in pathobiology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Follow her on Twitter.