December 2009

Jump, Don’t Fall, into Your Career Transition

Jeanne McAdara-Berkowitz small

Jeanne McAdara-Berkowitz received her Ph.D. in macromolecular and cellular structure and chemistry from the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif. She did a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California, Los Angeles, Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center and then joined FischerHealth Strategic Communications. After three years at the agency, Jeanne founded Biolexica, a communications consultancy specializing in the health sciences.

From the moment my parents gave me my first microscope, I never imagined I’d grow up to become anything other than a scientist. I designed my entire scholastic trajectory with that goal in mind, and I never questioned my plan until I was well into my Ph.D. candidacy. Despite a growing discontent with bench science, I managed to complete my thesis work and even did a postdoctoral fellowship. But even wonderful mentors, great co-workers and interesting projects couldn’t keep my heart in the laboratory. I eventually made the decision— one that was absolutely devastating at the time— to begin looking for a new career.

Today, I am a professional science and medical writer and communications strategist, and I couldn’t be happier. I work on a variety of communications projects, from media relations, marketing and Web sites, to deeply technical projects like helping researchers turn clinical studies into journal manuscripts. It’s interesting, varied and fast-paced work that is intellectually challenging, both scientifically and from a business standpoint.

Making the decision to leave the lab bench might have been the hardest part of my career transition, but the next hardest part was figuring out what to do and how to get there.

Almost Everyone “Falls Into” His or Her Career

The path that led me from unhappy lab researcher to successful consultant may seem like random coincidences and luck. But, over the years, I’ve found the common theme among most of the “alternative career” crowd is that everyone’s career history is a seemingly random amalgamation of network connections, referrals and opportunities that came together in the end. We all created environments that fostered connections and remained vigilant, so we recognized opportunities when they presented themselves.

For example, in the midst of my postdoc, when the angst of not knowing what to do with my life was at its peak, a friend who was a technician in my graduate school lab got a freelance gig writing for a magazine aimed at lab scientists. He put in a word with the editor, who then gave me a trial assignment. I was terrified. What did I know about writing an article? I probably worked harder on that 500-word product review than I have on anything since. But, that first assignment led to more writing work, and it also gave me a pretty good idea that, whatever I decided to do, I wanted writing to be a part of it.

The lesson here is not “find a friend who works for a magazine, and see if you can get a freelance assignment.” The lesson is: Share your hopes and plans for a career change with anyone you trust, even if you’re not sure what you want to do. He or she might know someone, or know someone who knows someone, so keep your ears open and jump at any opportunity that comes your way no matter how scared you might be of failing. Ask people to tell you their stories, and volunteer to help them with their work. Give it everything you’ve got. If you can’t summon your “everything,” look elsewhere, because that’s a clue that this is not what you’re suited for. And use any small successes to propel you forward.

Don’t Wait for Opportunities— Create Them

My experience with the magazine inspired me to go into communications. I signed up for university extension courses in journalism and public relations and worked up the nerve to introduce myself to the instructors. I sought out mentors, cold calling people in the communications department at the university where I worked and asking them to lunch to learn about what they did. I asked if there was work I could help with on a volunteer basis, and I met with their friends when they offered introductions. I studied everything I could about communications in science and researched potential employers who might need a Ph.D. scientist who liked to write. I tracked down phone numbers and called the executives of companies and took them to lunch. I handed them writing samples from my magazine gig. I kept learning about my prospective new field, and eventually I landed a job at a public relations agency specializing in health care communications.

Again, the takeaway message is that we have to create our own opportunities— I did not get that job from a posted ad or even through a personal referral. My first off-the-bench job was a direct result of my own research efforts and relationships I’d created from scratch. By seeking out connections, asking them questions and building relationships, I was able to figure what I wanted to do. And eventually, I gained the confidence I needed to contact people who might need me and convince them that they did need me.

Make Every Step in Your Transition a Learning Experience

My first job wasn’t perfect— the agency’s client roster was heavily weighted toward medical-device companies and hospitals, and, although they’d been hoping to move more into biotechnology and pharmaceutical work, they didn’t have the senior-level strategic expertise to attract those kinds of clients. But, during my three years there, I learned about the business of communications— about working on multiple projects under deadlines, tracking and billing for time, managing clients and accounts, and the fundamental strategic principles of marketing communications that apply to any industry. Most importantly, I learned that I loved both the actual mechanics of science writing and the strategy that tells us what to write and why. The key was that I approached my work with passion— and always with my eye on the most successful people. I learned the business by watching them, even while I was learning the basics.

After I’d been at the agency for a few years, my husband and I were ready to start our family, and my long commute and demanding work schedule didn’t seem compatible with my vision of parenthood. I negotiated a small but steady freelancing agreement with my employer, and, with that bread-and-butter arrangement in place, I turned to my professional network. Over the years, the colleagues and clients I’d met and friends I’d made had moved on to new jobs themselves, and they have become a self-perpetuating source of referrals.

Push the Finish Line Ever Farther

Working for myself, I’ve been able to mold my client and project roster toward my favorite kind of work— long-term relationships with a strategic component and lots of deep-level scientific writing. I’ve also been able to let my workload ebb and flow as my family has grown and changed. But, I’ve made a point never to become complacent about my career. With each new prospect, I look for personal and professional growth opportunities. I routinely take on projects that require me to stretch intellectually— and I do the requisite studying to make sure I’m providing the best service I can for my clients. I continue to network and meet new people and join and become involved in professional organizations so I can learn from others.

In the end, I found what I wanted to do, and I get to do it every day. But it didn’t just happen to me— I made it happen. So, to any aspiring career-changers out there who might be discouraged, wondering how on Earth a crazy set of coincidences will ever happen to them, I say “close your eyes and jump.” Go out and create the coincidences that will form your path to a fulfilling career. It takes work, and guts, but you can do it.

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