So you want to leave academia. What now?
Scientists generally start in academia, since that’s where Ph.D.s come from. So if you want to take your skills elsewhere, it can be overwhelming trying to figure out what your options are. In reality, your options are anything you want. You can open an Etsy shop selling custom lampshades, write your novel, or be a translator at the United Nations. But if you’re thinking you want to do something science-related that requires the skills you learned in grad school, where do you start?
Find potential career paths with myIDP.
You probably know a bit about yourself already, including what you like and don’t like about your work so far. So one good way to figure out what that means for a new job is to use myidp.sciencecareers.org.
I’ll just say this isn’t the same IDP you might have to fill out for your school, which is sometimes just a list of accomplishments you have or have not achieved in the past year and can be somewhat demoralizing!
Careers writer Martina Efeyini also suggested this site in her article about getting ready for alternative careers.
If you log in to the site, you are then directed to take several surveys:
- A skills assessment in which you rate your skills — such as research skills, communication skills and time management — from 1 to 5.
- An interests assessment in which you think about what activities you want to be doing. Maybe you want to design experiments, work with people, give presentations, write documents, travel or read about new fields.
- A values assessment in which you rate how important various values are to you. These include things about the environment you want to work in, the goals of your work, work–life balance, growth potential and finances.
The assessments will match your answers with the answers of people actually working in various jobs and give you a score of how your skills and desires match those of people in each field.
What makes this site even better is that it has several links associated with each career path, including professional societies, and articles about various jobs. So you can follow up to learn about and prepare for any of those careers. You can see what skills you need to work on to make yourself ready for the jobs you like.
Read blogs and articles about jobs outside of academia.
MyIDP is not perfect. You might look at the list of careers you match with and shrug. Another way you can find a good match is to read as much as you can about possible careers. One benefit of skimming lots of blog posts and articles is that you can keep an eye on your gut reactions to things.
If you find that every time a post mentions policy you want to read a little more closely, remember that and look deeper into what science policy careers are like. If you find your gut reaction is that you don’t feel like you can be serious about a job where you’re not the one actually doing the research, pay attention to that feeling and look at jobs that include benchwork.
Professional society websites are also useful to see what’s happening in a given career.
Do informational interviews.
So you’ve taken the myIDP assessments, read a bunch of articles, looked at (or joined) professional societies and now think you have some good ideas of what you want to do. A great next step is to talk to people who are doing these jobs and see what they are really doing all day and how they got there.
I love these informational interviews. They are always interesting, and, since you’re the one doing the interviewing, they are less stressful than a job interview when you have to prove yourself! It can help to make a list of questions ahead of time.
Here are ways to reach out to people:
- Pros: You can see exactly what job they have and any common contacts you have, and they can see who you are.
- Cons: Mot everybody checks their LinkedIn messages, and you can easily be ignored.
- Pros: An intro email from a friend usually carries more weight than a cold email.
- Cons: You have to have friends who know the people you are interested in talking to, and you have to ask for a favor, which can feel uncomfortable.
Google and company websites
- Pros: The world is open to you .
- Cons: Not every company or person you might want to contact will have info available online, and cold emails are easy to ignore. If you’re cold emailing, make sure to be brief and clear about who you are and why you’d love to talk to them.
Decide what skills you need and how to get them.
You’re not trapped looking only at jobs you have 100% of the skills for already. Once you’ve found a path you think you like, you can then figure out what skills you are lacking. Looking at descriptions of jobs you’re interested in can help identify these skills. Then you can plan how to get them.
Some options to build your skills follow.
- Volunteering can help especially with things like science outreach and writing.
- Fellowships and internships are great for expanding on skills you already have but that could use some strengthening.
- Co-workers willing to teach you skills, especially for things like lab techniques.
- Online courses are a good choice for learning the basics of a new field like coding, management or policy. Coursera, EdX and platforms focused on specific careers offer a wide selection.
- Workshops or classes at your institution. Research institutions often have CV/résumé and cover letter writing workshops, teaching and pedagogy courses, and seminars on things like mentorship.
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