Chris Pickett
January 01, 2015

Finding a job away from the bench can be a frightening prospect. Are you sure you want to leave the bench? Does your training even give you the necessary skills to make this jump? What if you get a job and don’t like it? What are your options then? Will you be able to go back to academia?

When I left academic science, I had all of these fears and more. I had worked at the bench for 15 years before looking for a nonacademic position. And when I started my search, I had a new family and significant student-loan and credit-card debt. Making the wrong career move could have been disastrous for all of us. On top of that, my postdoc appointment had an expiration date, making unemployment a real possibility. Not only did I have to find a new career path that provided stability, but I also had to find it before my postdoc clock ran out.

However, these pressures did not drive me to act at first. They drove me straight into a brick wall. “What are you passionate about, Chris?” was the question that stymied my early job search and caused my fears to build up into an unfocused anxiety. If I couldn’t answer that question, how could I make the right career choice for me and my family?

The only way I knew how to answer these questions was to jump into everything that caught my interest. I considered a career in teaching, so I sought out local biology departments that needed an adjunct professor for a semester. I gave science writing a shot, but I found that I couldn’t muster the motivation to be as productive as I needed to be successful. Finally, I found my passion in science policy, and when I did, I committed to it wholeheartedly.

The time I spent working on policy issues caused friction with my postdoc adviser, and I couldn’t spend as much time with my family as I would have liked. But I recognized that this was my ticket away from bench work, and I wasn’t going to let it slip away.

It has been two years since I left the bench, and the biggest lesson I learned during my job search was that you have to commit. Commit to finding out what you are passionate about, and do it by getting your hands dirty. You can read about jobs and careers all day long, but you never will find out if a path is the right one for you unless you give it a try. Once you commit to a path, your confidence in your professional future will grow, and your fears about the transition will diminish.

Commit to get the job

Unless you’re applying for a postdoc or staff-scientist position, your next job will require a significantly different skill set than the one you use at the bench. Thus, you will need to pick up the skills required for this new position, and you’ll need to do so quickly. But your prospective employers will never question your ability to learn and apply new skills. That’s the benefit of that “Ph.D.” after your name.

What your potential employers will question, however, is your motivation. Given your intense involvement at the bench over the past several years, are you committed to this new career path? Is this a fleeting interest that you will ditch after three months? Or are you going to stick with it? Do you truly understand what this new job entails? To convince an organization to devote significant resources to training you, you must demonstrate your commitment.

What set me apart was my commitment to the career path. I made the time to make my voice heard consistently on policy issues. I visited with my elected representatives to advocate for science research, I wrote about policy changes at the National Institutes of Health and I talked about science policy to anyone willing to listen, all while trying to remain productive in lab.

And don’t forget: You’re almost certainly competing with a bunch of other newly minted Ph.D.s for the position. How will you distinguish yourself?

You have to carve out time to get involved. Whatever you are interested in, do something – anything – to gain experience and show that you are excited and committed to your new career path. This commitment will not only help you determine if this new field is right for you but also will make you stand out from your competitors.

Commit for you

I don’t know you, and I don’t know what your motivation was to get into science or to leave academia. But my guess is that, like me, you’ve put in long days, weeks and years in pursuit of your degree. You’ve given many presentations, read countless papers and jumped through many hoops. And, like I did, you probably also have a fair amount of fear at the prospect of leaving the bench.

We probably have one more thing in common – no matter what satisfaction you derive from your accomplishments at the bench, it probably isn’t enough to overcome the negative feelings you have about that work. And this is the critical issue that you must consider. What are the personal and professional rewards you need from a job? What job gives you the best chance to excel?

Yes, bench work can be very demanding of your time. And when you’re not at the bench, you’re in meetings, writing papers or making time for your friends, family and yourself. But investing time and energy into your job search is essential. In my search, I slowed the pace of my experiments and spent less time than I would have liked with my family in order to write, research and participate in as many policy events as I could until I landed a position. Those sacrifices have paid off in a job that I thoroughly enjoy. And I now have more time to spend with my family than I would if I were at the bench.

So why wouldn’t you make time to find what you’re passionate about? Why wouldn’t you make sure you are making the best possible career decision?

Do it for the job, and do it for you: Commit!

Chris Pickett

Chris Pickett was a policy analyst at the ASBMB when he wrote this article. Today he is the director of Rescuing Biomedical Research.

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