Success is such an arbitrary measure. “My main advice is to create your own definition of success”, recommends Grace Lee, a transition expert. “Very often we let everyone else define what it means to be successful: a great career, a family… In our field, articles became the currency of success, but that is not what defines you”.
Grace metamorphosed a lab-bench research PhD into a patient-focused PhD and later into marketing and business. She explains: “When I was in grad school I portrayed myself as a future expert in the field, but all my experiments failed during the first year, my advisor was absent and I lacked technical guidance; I hit a lot of roadblocks. I realized I hated what I was doing.” She decided to finish her PhD in neuroscience anyways but with the conviction not to come back to a lab. Meanwhile, she founded Krimson marketing, a side hustle, to have more income. “I learned about marketing, business strategy, and management. I joined the Vancouver Board of Trade and became a small business advocate.” At the same time, she landed a post-doc position in clinical neuroscience, working on ethical and policy implications of neuroimaging use in ALS patients. “ As my frustration with the system grew I realized I don’t like academia altogether.”
Naomi Galinski made the decision to leave academia in one day. She was discussing a post-doc opportunities in astrophysics with her advisor and he was completely honest with her: “Naomi, you did a lot of astrophysics as a PhD, you don’t really get to do more astrophysics than that”. As a Professor, you trade the hands-on experience for administrative tasks, grant applications, writing articles, and teaching. “Realizing that I wasn’t going to do more astrophysics than in my doctorate gave me permission to let it go”. That was it, the realization. “I’d achieved pretty much what I wanted and I was burnt out,” Naomi shares.
Naomi and Grace, like many others PhDs, initially saw themselves doing a couple of post-docs and looking for a faculty job where they could combine research and teaching. But only 18.6 percent of graduates land a tenure-track job and competition is fierce. For Naomi, this also implied moving out of Vancouver where she has her support network; it simply was not worth it.
Today, Naomi works for Copperleaf, a decision analytics software company, as a Product Support Specialist. A long way from astrophysics, at Copperleaf, the toolkit she gained through her graduate years has proven handy. “As a PhD student, you take a lot of your skills for granted: problem-solving, resourcefulness, flexibility, fast learning, time management…” She also has experience in programming, simulation, documentation, and technical writing. But technical skills were not everything Copperleaf was interested in. “They asked me if I like writing, aside from papers and grants. I showed them my blog. I also talked about my experience as touring guide at TRIUMF.” Naomi was a tourist guide at Canada’s National Laboratory for Particle and Nuclear Physics and Accelerator-Based Science for 4-years while doing her PhD studies. This mix of knowledge translation and technical abilities is exercised every day at her job to understand customer needs at meetings, to troubleshoot complex and multicomponent problems, to help them to get answers, and to document everything in the process. In contrast with academia, Naomi can now see her actions having immediate consequences. “It’s very satisfying to attend follow-up meetings with the clients and find them happy after they have their issue solved.”
Grace is forthright. “I’m not applying anything directly related to my PhD, but I am applying things from my side projects and extracurricular activities. If anything, I mastered a lesson in tenacity and perseverance and gained great professional connections.” Grace is proficient at networking. She has built relations with different universities, alumni groups, as well as small and big companies. She is often invited as a speaker or mentor at career events and she caught the attention of someone at STEMCELL Technologies. “They contacted and invited me to come to the office to meet different people, including CEO, Dr. Allen Eaves.” As a senior manager, she had the opportunity to improve the landscape through innovation, thanks to her understanding of the market and the customers. Grace loved the product management and marketing aspects of her role at STEMCELL, and has recently left the company torefocus on growing Krimson Marketing, starting another business, and continuing to act as a leader and small business advocate.
Transition can be exciting, but also scary, and you need to prepare yourself. Naomi recommends to take care of yourself and allow breaks, to learn about your skills, and be confident about it. As for when you look for a job: “network, network, network”; approach the companies to learn, be honest and direct, let them know you’re not looking for a job, but only to find out more about what they do. Once you’ve done your research, work on your resume, tailor each one to perfection, even if it takes hours, and don’t send them without knowing enough about the company. “In the end, all the connections and the networks you’ve built payoff. I sent an email to Copperleaf twice as a mistake, but they answered me the second time because they thought I was being keen and therefore valuable. I had been job hunting for several months then, and when they responded, I was ready. I wasn’t when I sent that email for the first time.” After tailoring her résumé and three rounds of interviews, Naomi mastered the job hunting skill and earned, not only a job offer, but the valuable insight that transition from academia is daunting but doable.
Management and customer/technical support are some of the many hats a PhD can wear. As highly qualified, flexible, and resilient individuals, some possibilities for PhDs include policy making, science communication, scientific/medical testing, sales, marketing, patent agents, science education for non-scientists, and other support roles. The set of skills will vary according to the role but a lot of transferable skills are already present. It is always a good idea to assess yourself at any point in your career, and if the transition is in order, start right away. Ask for support, work with a career counselor, and take advantage of the resources the Internet has to offer. Allow yourself to change paths. Transition is only a change of scenery on your own success.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Olga Zamudio-Prieto has a PhD in biotechnology from CINVESTAV, Mexico. She is the founder of STEM team and educational gifs for modern needs, as well as an advocate for diversity and inclusion. She is currently exploring the science communication landscape.