Taking Stock and Taking Steps
Taking that huge leap away from the bench is very intimidating. As scientists, we’re pushed day after day to follow specific protocols, where deviation can mean the loss of a day or week or month’s worth of work. It shouldn’t be surprising then, that veering sharply from the standard academic research career track can feel wholly unnatural.
At the time, my thoughts were quite mixed. I wondered if my past mentors would brush me off, suddenly branding me as a big waste of their time. I was afraid of what my friends and my colleagues would think about me “giving up.” I was afraid that my research skills were all I had, and that they wouldn’t get me anywhere. I felt overqualified for everything but had experience for nothing. Fortunately, a renewed sense of purpose helped me to send these concerns to the sidelines. I did need a career, after all.
The number and quality of career resources available to me were amazing. I visited the campus postdoctoral affairs office. I looked to the Internet for advice and tips. I took stock of the skills I valued and the leadership I’d learned and drafted my first non-scientific resume. I was lucky. While I made a few missteps and went through my share of frustrations during the job hunt, my path moved forward fairly quickly.
One day, I happened upon a program called the “research administration fellowship” at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. The listing said it would “provide the fellow with key experience rotating through a number of different areas within research administration,” including scientific communications, technology transfer, clinical trials management, strategic planning and many others. If there was something I was familiar with from graduate school, it was rotations. I timidly tossed in my application and waited to see what would happen.
About one month later, I was hired into the fellowship program. Man, was I in for culture shock!
A Strange New World
The strangest thing about having my first “real job” was just that: It was a real job. No more walking into the lab whenever I felt like it, wearing jeans and a ratty T-shirt. No more stopping by unannounced to idly chat up department heads. No more downloading music on my iMac when I had downtime (and no one was watching). Now, I was in a world of dress shirts and ties, appointments and hierarchies and overly regulated PCs. Funny thing is, other than losing my iMac, I found the whole thing very appealing.
Over the next year and a half, I took to my rotations with great enthusiasm. I worked with the communications department to hone my writing skills for nonscientific audiences, learned about human subject protections with the clinical trials office, participated in the strategic planning process for the research institute and teamed up with the compliance office to develop a proposal for creating a novel assent tool for pediatric research subjects. As I navigated each administrative group at Children’s Hospital, I found myself becoming an integral part of the community. I understood the research institute inside and out, from the perspective of the scientist and the administrator. And, as the fellowship finally came to a close, I was fortunate enough to successfully land a job at Children’s Hospital that matched all of my newfound interests. Call it a strange twist of fate, but I joined the office of postdoctoral affairs as an academic programs officer, responsible for providing guidance and programmatic support for research trainees much like myself only a couple of years prior.
My roles in the office of postdoctoral affairs are many: I’m a guidance counselor, project manager, web editor, hiring manager, program coordinator, event planner, career advisor, committee organizer, strategic planner, mentor and ombudsman. I have my hand in many projects and work in a collaborative team atmosphere with a common goal and purpose. I support all of our research trainees as they traverse whatever career path they choose.
Most importantly, I wake up in the morning and, more often than not, I look forward to going to work.
If there’s one tidbit of advice I can give to those seeking out their ideal career in science, it’s this: Find yourself a career that you love. I try my best to convey this to all of the postdocs that contact the office looking for advice. Inevitably, some will lament about being completely lost.
“You have the opportunity to explore a ton of career options,” I tell them. “Besides, you’re ahead of the curve. Most people don’t even know what they want to do when they’re 50.”