By: Kelly K. Andringa, PhD, MBA, University of Alabama at Birmingham Division of Nephrology Program Manager
As Michelle mentioned last month you don’t want to be nearing the finish with your postdoc (or perhaps even your graduate training) without having a career goal or target in mind. These goals and targets can change, but you should have some idea where you’d like to start. Sometimes these goals aren’t the same as your mentors and you might not have any idea exactly how to get where you want to go. This is where you need an active network (something else Michelle mentioned) to help you out.
Networking is discussed ALL the time as the vital part of any career path, not just science. If your career aspirations take you away from the traditional academic faculty track you will need to reach out and talk to others who have those roles you’re interested in. “Alternate careers” is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot. The statistics about obtaining an academic faculty position look daunting (see this video from Dr. Sally Rockey about the average age of faculty and R01 PIs in academia over the last 20+ years) and lead people to think about exploring other options. Now, let me be clear, I thoroughly enjoy my “alternate career,” it is in no way my “back up plan.” I haven’t taken the positions I have after my postdoc because I was discouraged from being faculty, I went into this career path fully aware of what I was getting into and what I was giving up. I definitely think that careers in academic research are possible and people who want them should absolutely go for them. I am not that person.
During my graduate training I had 5 projects going, I needed a bit of help narrowing my focus. About the time of my qualifying exams, my mentor and I had a good sit down about my career goals and aspirations. Although I had initially gone to graduate school with the goal of running my own lab and working on more tolerable therapeutics for cancer treatment, I had started to realize I had skill sets that would be better utilized outside the lab. Fortunately, my graduate and postdoctoral mentors were open to those discussions about careers outside of academic faculty positions. Thankfully, I’m reasonably willing to talk about the things I want/need regardless of the outcome, but not everyone has mentors that are supportive of other career paths. Luckily, Science Careers (sponsored by AAAS) has an online IDP (Individual Development Plan) to help you determine your interests and get them down ‘on paper’ so you have a career plan going forward that you can modify and discuss.
Clearly, there are a number of “alternate careers” out there and I’m hoping there will be more blog posts about some of the other ways people utilize their PhD’s outside of academia. I can only speak to my area of interest, I’m in Research Administration. What do I do every day?? Well my daily tasks are varied and no day is the same. I’m currently a Program Manager at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. I assist in the management of a multi-institution P30 grant that has three research areas with about 7 different core facilities involved with those areas. There is also a pilot grant program as well as educational components for seminars, workshops and training experiences. I also assist in the management of an NRSA postdoctoral training grant that currently funds 5 trainees, plus a number of other tasks for my boss and my division. Here is what I enjoy most about my job; I get to talk about all different kinds of science and research with so many different people. I help direct faculty interested in utilizing our core facilities to the correct people, I get to read about new and exciting research directions via the pilot studies proposed, and watch young scientists transition their careers where they want to go, it’s great. I do miss the bench work, but I think my skills are best utilized in helping others reach their scientific research goals.
So how did I get here? We have to take it back to networking, as Glinda told Dorothy; you’ve had the ability all along you just wouldn’t have believed me. In those original discussions with my graduate mentor, he mentioned that one of his classmates from graduate school was a program officer at NIH. He sent her an email asking if she would be willing to talk to me about her career and what her job entailed. Here’s a hint, informational interviews are a great way to connect with people who have jobs you’re interested in. This is not a time to pester them to get you a job or pass around your CV, this is informational, you are inquiring about their job, how they got there and what they do on a daily basis. I sent a number of emails and had friends send emails to people who had jobs I was interested in learning about. I talked to program officials at NIH, associate vice presidents of small and large universities, directors of sponsored programs, program managers from my university and others in compliance offices (IRB, IACUC etc.) about their jobs. Networking is important, don’t be pushy, and ask when a good time is to call. Have a number of questions ready but don’t plan to take up more than 30 minutes of their time (maybe less), they can make it go longer but you shouldn’t be the one keeping them on the phone for hours, they’re busy and you want them to remember you were sensitive to their time.
So you’re likely thinking, great advice Kelly, but does it really work? In fact yes, it does work. One of those informational interviews I had was with someone who also had transitioned from a postdoc to grants management. A year after I spoke with her, her division was looking for someone to manage and ARRA funded multi-site project. She contacted me to see if I was still interested in administration and if I would like to interview for the job. So see, making a good impression while learning about someone else’s job got me an “in” for an interview. Networking won’t necessarily get you the job. Your education, training, and knowledge will get you the job; networking can help get you in the door.