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Alternative science careers at a glance

Leverage your knowledge and skills at jobs beyond the academy
Martina G. Efeyini
October 23, 2020

Many of us have been working from home for months to help stem the COVID-19 pandemic. For some of us, this has been a time for making professional changes or exploring different career options. I have been writing about so-called “alternative careers” for scientists for about a year now for ASBMB Today, so I think it’s a good time to review some of the options that exist for those of you who are ready to put the academy in your rearview mirror.

The most important step is to assess your skills and think about how you can apply them to different industries. As a scientist, you know how to solve problems and can work in different environments across disciplines.

Positioning yourself for an alternative career requires building your professional brand and creating a portfolio that showcases your skills and outputs.

Research administration and adjacent jobs

Naturally, scientists have analytical and problem-solving skills that are transferrable to a variety of research areas.

Are you interested in applied, biomedical, or clinical research? Do you want work on the other side of research as a research administrator? A great way to break into these positions is by applying for fellowships at national research institutes or public health laboratories.  

Example program: The Association of Public Health Laboratories has a COVID-19 Laboratory Associate Program that is open to scientists (bachelor’s to Ph.D.) with experience in microbiology, biology, chemistry or related disciplines. Associates receive training on critical projects related to COVID-19 in local and state public health laboratories. If you are interested, act fast!

Related articles: Check out my articles about federal jobs. I wrote about how to become a principal investigator, training opportunities at the National Institutes of Health  and working as an epidemiologist at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Teaching

With the switch to online learning, there is a high demand for scientists in educational spaces outside of academia.

If you are looking to contribute to science education beyond the classroom, take advantage of opportunities to teach, develop curriculum, engage students in informal settings and design programs that suit students virtually.

Example job: The National Science Foundation has an opening for a science education administrator (program director) who will focus on capacity building for informal STEM learning environments. The deadline is Nov. 16, and a Ph.D. or master’s degree in a STEM-related field is required.

Related article: About this time last year, I wrote about careers in STEM education. Check it out to learn about educational consultant jobs, instruction and curriculum development jobs, educational specialist jobs and STEM education programming jobs.

Communications

No matter what you do, being a good communicator will make you stand out.

Look for opportunities to strengthen your oral and written communication skills. For example, attend a grant-writing workshop, present at a conference of some kind, volunteer for ASBMB Today or lead a journal club. All these activities, once recorded on your résumé, will show that you are working on your communication skills.

Example job: The Society for Science and the Public is hiring a full-time news editor. This position is in Washington, D.C., and is remote until stay-at-home orders are lifted. An advanced degree in science and/or journalism is preferred.

Related article: I wrote about science communication careers last November. Check out the article to learn about building your brand, developing your portfolio, taking #scicomm courses to become a stronger writer and presenter, and getting work experience through fellowships and similar programs.

Leadership and teamwork 

Professionals must be flexible. This means being able to work in different environments, connecting with people across disciplines and managing changing responsibilities day to day.

If you have strong interpersonal skills, crave working on multiple projects and can handle fast-paced deadlines, a career that is collaborative will fit your needs.

Leadership and teamwork skills are important in all industries, so finding the right work environment (both online and in person) is essential.

Example job: The National Academy of Sciences has an opening for a program officer for its Board of Chemical Sciences and Technology. This person will provide scientific advice and manage multiple projects. A candidate should have a Ph.D. in chemistry or chemical engineering or a master’s and three years of related experience.

Related articles: Late in 2019, I wrote about nonprofit jobs. Check out this article if you’re looking for a mission-driven career. And earlier this year, I interviewed Lou Woodley, director of the Center for Scientific Collaboration and Community Engagement, to learn about science “inreach” (not outreach) jobs.

Advocacy 

There are many career options that will allow you to advocate for the cause or causes you care about, such as climate change, education reform, health disparities, patients with certain diseases, and so forth.

Scientific societies and other organizations that engage in advocacy often offer training programs for graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and faculty members.

Example job: The American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Science and Technology Fellowship is a highly competitive program that trains Ph.D.-level scientists in federal science policy. Fellows work in one of the four areas: executive branch, legislative branch, the judicial branch, or the Roger Revelle Fellowship in Global Stewardship. The deadline to apply is Nov. 1.

Related article: Check out this article I wrote last year for additional fellowships and training programs. Just keep in mind that the pandemic likely has affected their timing and/or processes.

Martina G. Efeyini

Martina G. Efeyini is a toxicologist, science communicator and advocate for the next generation of scientists. She works at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, CURE Scholars Program and is a careers columnist for ASBMB Today.

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