Side gigs as preparation for an alt-ac career

Elizabeth Stivison
June 3, 2022

When applying for any job, you want to show on your application that you have skills the employer is looking for. But what are you supposed to do if you're looking for a job outside of academia but you’ve only been working in a lab for years? How are you supposed to have gotten skills for one job while doing a different one? 

There are at least two things you can do. One is to learn to market the skills you do have, including “soft skills,” in a way that shows how they apply to your new dream job. It’s worth looking seriously at all the things you’ve learned through lab work that can apply to other jobs. 

A second thing you can do is to just find ways to get the specific skills you need for the new job. To do this, you might need to look outside your lab (or even school). This can include getting a side job, internship or volunteer experience or participating in a workshop, class, certificate program or info session. 

This can be tricky, especially during your Ph.D. or postdoc, when it feels like everyone wants you to spend every waking minute in the lab, but it can certainly be done. And if you are thinking of a career outside of academia, what you do away from the bench can be critical. 

I’m funded by this special grant. Am I allowed to do this? 

You can definitely go to info sessions and workshops for career development! The National Institutes of Health published guidance in 2014 clarifying that postdocs and Ph.D. students have a dual role as both employees and trainees and are expected to “be actively engaged in their training and career development under their research appointments” and that “(t)his dual role is critical in order to provide postdocs with sufficient experience and mentoring for them to successfully pursue independent careers in research and related fields” (emphasis mine). So the NIH knows you need to learn and do things besides pipetting to be successful in your career. 

You can also, probably, work a little on the side too! To be clear, this usually must be, in addition to your full-time work, rather than by cutting back on your full-time work. You can look into your particular funding source to see the specific rules about how much time is allowed and whether you can be paid. 

Two common sources of funding for Ph.D. students and postdocs are Kirschstein NRSA fellowships (F31 or 32) and training grants (T32s). There is some allowance for part-time work in both of these.

For example, the NIH Grants Policy Statement says of Kirschstein NRSA recipients, “Beyond the full-time training, NIH recognizes that Kirschstein-NRSA fellows and trainees may engage in part-time employment incidental to their training. Fellows and trainees may spend …  an additional 25% of their time (e.g., 10 hours per week) in part-time research, teaching or clinical employment, so long as those activities do not interfere with, or lengthen, the duration of their NRSA training” (emphasis mine again). It’s a little open to interpretation, but it seems that working a part-time job at a restaurant is off the table, while working part time in a job that will develop your skills for a science-related career is an option. 

For those of you funded on a training grant (T32): These grants describe the goal in their call for applications that trainees are expected to work on professional development as well as research. And not only are you allowed to work on professional development tasks, but you should. In fact, when the grant comes up for renewal, the principal investigator writing the grant will probably ask you for a list of all the great things you did, including career-development training, workshops and internships. So it’s good for your program too if you do things that are good for you! 

Another option is a temporary leave of absence if you found an internship or fellowship that is short term and full time, rather than part time. Many schools allow short-term (one- to three-month) leaves of absence but are strict about it being for professional development or to further your learning and not for simply seeking employment elsewhere. So you will have to be careful about whether an internship or fellowship counts as employment or counts as training in the eyes of your institution. 

If you are unsure if you are allowed to do what you want to do, see if your institution has an office focused on trainees. This might have a name like the biomedical training office or the research education and training office or even the office of postdoctoral affairs or graduate student affairs. The staff in the office are likely to know details of whether students and postdocs may do specific things. 

In addition, you can also contact the source of your funding. 

If you find you are not allowed to work part time or take a month or two for an internship, don’t fret! Volunteer activities are still open to you, as are online courses, certificates and info sessions! 

It’s also worth checking your institution’s conflict-of-interest policy and whether whatever you are planning to do will require you to declare it in its annual conflict-of-interest survey. 

What can I do? And how do I find it? 

Finding courses, certificates and trainings: 

Coursera and EdX offer free courses. In some cases, you can pay a fee to get a certificate to show you really took and passed the course. Most of these courses are taught by university professors around the world. There is a wide variety of subjects available, including coding, teaching, data analysis, policy and writing. 

Universities offer online courses and certificates too. Or, if you’re working at a school, you might be allowed to audit or take courses there, possibly free or with reduced tuition. 

Scientific societies offer courses and seminars online too. The ASBMB has a whole career-development section on its website that includes webinars, CV/résumé evaluations and career coaching. 

Local and state scientific societies and academies of science also offer courses and workshops and are worth checking out. 

If your institution has a career-development office or postdoc office, see what they offer as well. They might be a treasure trove of info sessions and workshops. If you are like me, you might even already be getting emails from your graduate student or postdoc office that you are ignoring… before realizing that they are actually full of incredibly useful stuff! 

Finding internships, fellowships, and volunteer opportunities: 

As mentioned above, your scientific society, your local or state society or academy of science, and your career office are great resources to find advertised internships and jobs, besides sites like Indeed and LinkedIn. At my own institution’s career office, I’ve seen postings for internships in data analysis, medical writing, editing, philanthropy and policy, among others. 

Fellowships in policy and writing are also offered by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. 

If you are interested in teaching, you may be able to find work as an adjunct at your school or one nearby. You can even ask around at your own institution to see if any professors need a guest lecturer from time to time. 

If you are interested in teaching younger students, many schools, towns and museums have programs in which scientists can teach or work with schoolkids. Getting into science outreach (here are some tips!) is a great way to learn about teaching. 

If your school has a technology-transfer office, you might be able to work or volunteer with them to learn about business, licenses and patents. 

There are many ways to get writing experience. School magazines and department newsletters both usually have at least some articles written by volunteers. Society newsletters and magazines, including ASBMB Today, need volunteers to write many articles too. You can also just try to pitch stories to any magazine you like.
You can also join a club or take a leadership position in one. This way you not only learn about the topic of the club but you can also gain organizational and management skills.
With some careful research to make sure what you want to do is allowed, there are many ways to gain the skills you need for your dream job outside the lab.

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Elizabeth Stivison

Elizabeth Stivison is a postdoctoral researcher at Vanderbilt University studying inositol signaling and a careers columnist for ASBMB Today.

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