Life after graduate school: exploring careers
Over the spring and summer of 2019, the Kelley and Cornejo labs at Washington State University held weekly Zoom meetings with a variety of scientists. This was our own spin-off of the increasingly popular science outreach program called Skype a Scientist. The intent was to introduce undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs to the exciting career possibilities previously unbeknownst to them, both inside and outside of academia. Interested scientists were solicited via Twitter and asked to present on their current job, the relevant training they had received in graduate school and the path that led them to their current position.
In each meeting, after a short introduction, we launched into questions from each student about how their projects and training in graduate school and beyond influenced the path and acquisition of their current position. We would limit conversations to half an hour to be respectful of the speaker’s time, which also seemed to be a sufficient amount of time to gain insight in their professional development.
To our extreme benefit, the Zoom series encompassed diverse speakers from various backgrounds, careers, expertise, and personalities. One constant, however, was the openness and honesty with which our questions were answered. Their openness provided us with genuine insight and a glimpse into various career paths. A surprising take-away to many of the lab members was the realization that many of the scientists did not have a linear career path. A common misconception among us was that deviation from a career trajectory would be challenging to recover from regardless of whether that deviation was in academia, industry, government work, or something else. However, many of the speakers shared that they forayed into many different fields, sometimes starting in industry and ending in academia or vice versa. This revelation was very impactful to many of us who have interests in multiple careers but are still unsure of what the future would hold. Many of the speakers echoed how our training in scientific and critical thinking will be a valuable resource no matter which occupation or field we ultimately choose.
We were very grateful to the speakers for passing on expertise and recommendations for garnering employment in their respective careers. One of the speakers introduced some specific examples of how skills learned in graduate school were translatable across career paths. Many of the speakers referenced how their development of computational skills were immensely helpful for jobs in different disciplines. Those who had made significant changes in employment, for example moving from academia to industry, referenced how starting a lab ended up being a very similar process and required similar management skills to later starting a business. We had another speaker suggest obtaining business experience for this reason, even for people who want to follow the academic path. Broad recommendations for skills to hone in graduate school for general success after graduation were focused on developing strong soft skills such as communication and organization. Good project management skills could be learned while in school working out the details and timelines for graduate projects which can be applied broadly to any job. Additionally, networking was heavily emphasized for the opportunity it provides to discuss new research with scientists from diverse background and fields of expertise. You never know when a random conversation at a conference or meeting might lead to a life-changing opportunity.
Around the end of this series our lab was able to dispel a number of misconceptions regarding workplace environments outside of academia. With the majority of the graduate students in this lab have only ever having worked in universities or on projects funded by them, we were surprised to learn that the seemingly intense, never-ending work life was not specific to working in academia. The illusion that jobs in industry or other fields started at 9am and ended at 5pm was changed with tales of strict deadlines, leading to long days, long weekends and sometimes little sleep. In the private sector, products can have an immovable set release date, quarterly reports must be filed and client services must be delivered in a timely manner. A second belief of ours that changed had been that careers outside of academia limited creativity and staunched scientific inquiry in order to achieve rigid goals. A number of speakers discussed the ability to continue publishing their findings and to pursue questions under the purview of the intent of the funding. Similarly, they pointed out that in academia, your pursuit of studies of interest will always be limited by the availability and your personal ability to obtain funding for the research question you are pursuing. Although this may seem like an obvious truth to life-long academics, this was a tough realization for some of us graduate students who have been fortunate to be advised by PIs who have had success in securing research funding.
Having this look into life outside of academia allowed many of us to reexamine our own intended professional pursuits. For some, the appeal of industry had always been a more strict daily schedule with mandated time off and a clear end to the day. For others, academia had always seemed more ideal because then we would have the freedom to pursue our scientific passion to explore any and all unanswered questions. Investing so much of our young adult lives into intense research can put graduate students in a bubble and warp their expectations and perceptions of life outside of school. This experience helped us see that there are many other fields where the skills we’ve developed are valuable. One important skill each speaker emphasized as crucial in the pursuit of any career is perseverance. According to one of our speakers, this perseverance is achieved by getting to know your strengths and weakness in order to develop resilience. The ability to go on, despite setbacks and difficulties, is a big part of success regardless of occupation. We would like to extend a heartfelt thank you to the each of the scientists that took valuable time out of their day to meet with us. Your insight was invaluable and helped shape a number of our career trajectories after graduate school.
Some of the scientists we were fortunate to talk to included:
Michelle Vierra, Pacific Biosciences
CJ Fitzsimons, Leadership Sculptor
Sarah Kingam, Pacific Biosciences
D. Allan Drummond, University of Chicago
Josh Schraiber, Ancestry
David Mittelman, Othram
Stephane Budel, DeciBio
Allison Shultz, NHMLA
Joanne Kamens, Addgene
Michael Hoffman, University of Toronto
Camila Londoño, Science Discovery Zone
Liane Benning, German Research Centre for Geosciences
Kamrun Zargar, CalRecycle