Notes on becoming an educator outside of academia
I am an applications scientist with BMG LABTECH. The role of applications scientist varies depending on the company. At BMG, I perform a primarily educational role. This suits me well and fulfills my long-standing desire to teach.
I followed a fairly traditional path within academia. After receiving my degree in biology at Hastings College in Nebraska, I moved into a Ph.D. program at Northwestern University. I was a member of one of the first cohorts to enroll in the Integrated Graduate Program in Life Sciences at Northwestern University’s Medical School campus in downtown Chicago. This program is now called the Driskill Graduate Program.
Because I was at a graduate-school campus, I did not have the required teaching load that many graduate students have. However, I believed at the time that teaching was going to be important for my future, so I volunteered to serve as a teaching assistant beyond what was required, initially assisting with a medical histology class and subsequently with a graduate-level cell signaling course.
This is the first lesson I learned: Don’t be passive. You are responsible for your education. If you feel that there is an aspect your program lacks, don’t just accept it. Be proactive and seek out opportunities that will fulfill your needs.
Learning to teach
Because I enjoyed teaching so much, it remained a priority during my first postdoc at the University of California, San Francisco.
UCSF had a joint program with San Francisco State University called the Postdoctoral Teaching Fellowship Program. Through this, I learned more about learning theory and the variety of teaching and learning styles.
When I moved back to Chicago for a second postdoc, I seized the opportunity to teach at Roosevelt University.
Finally, when the lab I was working in moved to Washington State University, I was able to capitalize on the opportunity to teach part time, which eventually turned into a full-time teaching position.
Whenever a new opportunity arose, I did not hesitate to offer to help. In this way, I was not only involved in teaching standard lecture and lab courses but also became involved in the burgeoning online opportunities at WSU. Again, this exemplifies the need to be proactive. The chair of my department said it well: “Get involved in as many projects as possible. Make yourself indispensable.”
Finding the right fit
Throughout my time as a student, postdoc and teaching faculty member, I developed many great relationships with both faculty members and students. To this day, I am in contact with many talented people who are using their Ph.D.s in different ways.
Within industry, the variety of occupations these colleagues were performing was quite impressive and showed me that, if I wanted to, I could follow this path. So when I decided to move away from WSU for personal reasons, I cast the net wide and sought opportunities in both the academic and private sectors.
The ability to work from home on several different online teaching projects allowed me to apply for a wide variety of jobs, and I leaned on my network to get me in the door. With several near misses at job opportunities behind me, I was told about the job at BMG by two colleagues from my time at Northwestern.
This time the fit was right on both sides of the table, and I was happy to make a final relocation to North Carolina to pursue the opportunity. The job search experience was longer than I had hoped but showed me the importance of having a good network. Without it, you are making the process harder on yourself than it needs to be. It is vital to develop and foster your network; you never know if it will be the difference that gets you that coveted interview so you can shine.
On the job
As I said before, I view my role as an application scientist as one in which I am continuing to serve as an educator. The main difference is that my audience is made up of consumers of a product that I am endorsing. Therefore, it is great for me that BMG LABTECH is such a well-respected company with a track record of excellence. It is easy to speak well of a company whose product performance speaks for itself.
One major part of my job is producing notes that describe how our microplate readers have been used to perform various assays. Many of these assays use commercially available technologies or kits. Therefore, it is important that I have a relationship with the various reagent companies. With these companies, we decide whether or not I will perform tests in my lab space at BMG or at the labs of the reagent companies. I then compile the data generated into short application notes that provide some background and describe the assay principle and setup. The final step of the process involves me presenting the data and discussing its significance to consumers.
Another way I generate application notes is by connecting with our customers. I keep an eye out for reports of novel approaches that have been performed using BMG microplate readers. These can be in the form of journal articles or presentations at scientific conferences. I then contact the authors and work with them to produce an application note. I also develop presentations for meetings, webinars and sales demonstrations.
So as you can see, I am truly using all the skills I developed during my time in academia. I am still very much connected to current literature, I still employ the skills I learned while working in the lab, and I write and create presentations based on data from the experiments I or other scientists within BMG or our collaborators have created.
I also am still learning, which is very important to me. I have a much better appreciation for how instrumentation can help the performance of an assay.
I am not where I, as a graduate student, predicted I would be, but I am very happy that I kept an open mind. Which leads me to the final lesson I have learned: Keep your options open. There are many different avenues to a career that will make you happy.
Carl Peters (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an applications scientist at BMG LABTECH, a developer and manufacturer of microplate reader instrumentation.