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Archives for April 2013

PhD Careers: 10 Ways You Can Become a Successful Biotech/Science Freelance Writer

Do you like writing, and especially writing about biotechnology and science? Then you might be ready for a career as a professional biotech and/or science freelance writer. There are plenty of “alternative” science careers that focus solely on writing, including the following:

  • Copywriter/copyeditor
  • Science journalist/newspaper reporter
  • Science blogger
  • Magazine writer/editor
  • Grant writer/consultant
  • Scientific publication editor

You may be wondering how a graduate student or postdoc such as yourself can break into the field of writing. Well, it is possible and I am living proof of that: Since 2011, I have been a professional full-time biotech freelance writer, having left my science postdoc in 2006 and having resigned from my (non-writing) biotech job in 2011.

However, I didn’t become a writer overnight. In 2007, I started writing for all kinds of websites and clients. Initially, I did this just for fun and to see my name “ up in lights”, so to speak. However, as the years passed and my client list grew, writing became my second job. Until 2011, I was not confident enough to resign from my “real” biotech job as a technical scientist. But at some point in my writing career, when I had acquired sufficient confidence as well as clients, I knew the time had come to say goodbye to my corporate job and move full steam ahead into freelance writing.

Currently, I work as a part-time technical writer for a large biotech, a featured blogger for I’ve Tried That (a work-at-home blog and online scam review site), as well as a newspaper reporter. I’ve also been published on my old biotech company blog. And I’m moving ahead with my sci-fi novel, which will hopefully be completed by early next year.

What can you do right now to get started on becoming a successful biotech/science freelance writer? Here are 10 ways in which you can gain experience, credibility, confidence as well some valuable clips (what’s a clip? Read on) to move ahead with your freelance writing career.

1. Improve your writing. You might think you write good; however, if you can’t spot the grammatical issue with this sentence, then you need some training. Take a few writing and journalism classes at your school. If that’s not possible, look up online learning sites like Udemy and Khan Academy and sign up for their writing courses. If you have a friend or colleague who is a published writer, ask him or her to critique your work. Don’t downplay this part of the process because all the networking and degrees in the world won’t help you out if you send a sloppy and/or grammatically incorrect resume to a newspaper editor or corporate headhunter.

2. Practice your writing. I’m continually amazed at how many budding freelance writers approach me and say “I’d like to become a freelance writer”; yet, when I ask them for their clips (published content pieces), they tell me that they have not submitted anything just yet. You don’t need to be hired as a staff writer at Scientific American or Sigma-Aldrich in order to start publishing. There are plenty of online science and biotech blogs that you can query (i.e., inquire about writing for and provide with a few content ideas). These blogs may not pay money for your content, but they will certainly feature you.

If you are employed by a university or company, find out if the institution has a blog and ask if you can contribute to it. Such blogs carry significant weight with clients; personally, I landed several biotech clients when I mentioned my posts on Promega Connections (a corporate blog).

You can also start your own science blog and publish there. Doing so gets your name out and shows potential clients that you have the skills necessary to write (and write continuously). The best part about maintaining your own science blog is that, as your writing improves, you can edit the content pieces you’re not too proud of. Nothing that you write for a blog site is “set in stone”, as is the case for print media such as magazines and newspapers.

3. Take practice shots with “content mills”. A common writing outlet for the aspiring freelance writer is the so-called “content mill”. Third party sites like Textbroker and Constant Content pay their freelance writers to create content for specific clients. These writing “gigs” don’t generate a lot of cash- but they will help you develop into a writer who can take criticism, edit content quickly and work on a deadline. Just keep in mind that most of these content mills will not feature you or your clips, so they are not ideal for long-term work.

Other content mills such as HubPages and the Yahoo! Content Network offer writers exposure and reader feedback as well as a miniscule paycheck via generated page views. These sites are ideal for gauging your audience and for creating content that grabs reader attention. They also allow you to practice SEO and traffic-generating techniques. However, don’t count on these sites over the long-term because they will not provide you with any respectable clips (or a decent paycheck).

4.   Complete a science journalism internship. If you are serious about becoming a journalist with the likes of the Chicago Tribune, New York Times, Discover, etc., then consider doing a science journalism internship. Many of these aforementioned publications already offer journalism internships to scientists but, if you’re not sure where to start, apply to the AAAS Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellows Program. Just keep in mind that many journalism internships will require that you move away for at least six months, thus forcing you to interrupt your current work or study program. In my opinion, though, journalism internships are worth their weight in gold in terms of the people you get to meet and network with. And speaking of which…

5.   Always be networking. As with any other profession, your freelance writing success is largely dependent on not just what you know but who you know. However, it’s not enough to simply go to a writers’ or biotech happy hour and hand out your business cards to everyone you meet. Rather, it’s imperative that you focus on meeting and actually getting to know those two or three (and no more) individuals at the networking events you attend. Finding out what your contacts do, what difficulties they are having, and what exactly they wish to accomplish in their professional lives is essential to productive networking. What do you do with all the information that you gather from your networking contacts? Read on…

6.   Add value to everyone in your network. Dale Carnegie stated that, “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you”. In light of this saying, make it your professional (and personal) mission to always think of at least one or two ways in which everyone you network with can be helped by utilizing your skills or resources. Let service become your underlying motto, regardless of whether (you think) that person will be able to help further your career. Then, tell that person how you might be able to help him or her. Trust me, your dedication to being of service will not be forgotten.

As a personal case study, I became a newspaper reporter not because I applied for the job (in fact, the position was never listed), but because I offered to write free news releases for a non-profit in order to relieve the club president of some of her duties. I would then send these news releases to several newspaper editors in my area. One of those newspaper editors needed a reporter and asked the club president if she could recommend someone for the position. The club president recommended me- and I was offered the job.

7.   Don’t worry about taking a job that’s not exactly in your field. Many biotech and science freelance writers worry that, if they don’t take a position that is strictly in the biotechnology or science field, they’ll never be offered work in their area of expertise. However, you can never be too sure what your potential client is looking for. For example, I once was hired to write a white paper for a biotech firm not because I had a Ph.D. in genetics or because I’d worked at a biotech but because the president of the company located my Motley Fool posts. The president and his team were tickled pink that an “uninformed” scientist had actually taken the time to delve into the world of stock investment and actually analyze the business models of publicly traded companies. This helped me tremendously with a biotech company that didn’t hold a particularly high opinion of scientists.

8.   Learn some marketing. If you take a look at where major corporations hide their technical writers, it’s usually in the marketing department. In fact, I myself am employed in a marketing department. Why is this? Because companies know that all the copywriting and copyediting you do for them isn’t worth diddly-squat if it doesn’t generate product sales. Thus, if you’re even remotely considering working for a company as a technical writer, take a few marketing courses and learn e-commerce words/acronyms like SEO, SEM, squeeze page, call-to-action, etc. Identify what factors generate site traffic and page clicks. Design a website- or three- and start selling your own product. If you have no product to sell, engage in affiliate marketing. But don’t walk into any corporate interview without at least having some idea of why that business is online and on social media and what e-commerce strategies it is using to improve its bottom line. You need to push your freelance writing ROI (another acronym you need to know) because no one else will.

9.   Query- and query again. All freelance writers, unless they spend their entire lives working for a corporate outfit, must eventually query a magazine/newspaper/blog about publishing an article idea they have in mind. This is also true for biotech and science freelance writers. If you don’t know how to write a query letter to a magazine, blog or other publication, never fear: There are literally thousands upon thousands of books on the topic. Also, various freelance writers discuss the process and even offer courses on the subject for a fairly low fee; Linda Formichelli’s $30 Write for Magazines e-course immediately comes to mind. If you don’t learn about the query process and become comfortable with pitching (and re-pitching) content ideas to strangers, you’ll miss out on a big chunk of the freelance writing (money) pie.

10. Don’t get discouraged. “No one can make you feel inferior without you giving them permission” (Go Eleanor!) is another motto you must learn to live by as you progress in your alternative science career. Your mentor, your colleagues and even your friends may try to dissuade you from becoming a biotech/science freelance writer. Your parents or relatives may wonder why you are throwing away decades of education to sit at home and blog (“I thought you were going to cure cancer!”). But if you let these doubts rule your life, you’ll never become a freelance writer- or just about anything else you aspire to in this life. Live your passion and let no one –not even you- put your ambitions down.

 

About the Author

Halina Zakowicz earned her PhD in 2004 from George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. She is currently a full-time freelance writer with niche expertise in biotechnology, e-commerce and investments. In addition to content creation, she focuses on content marketing including SEO, social media promotion, backlink creation (e.g., guest posts, articles, white papers), back-end product generation and strategic interviewing.

You may contact her through LinkedIn or email in regards to how to take your business to the top of the Google search page, improve your brand image, generate additional sales, etc.

Awesome Grad Student Advice for New and Current PhD Students

Advice From Someone Who Has Learned The Ropes


This guest post contains unique PhD student advice and is tailored to someone who is just starting out graduate school. For example, what are some real life advice and experience that will truly help a 1st or 2nd year (or later) PhD student?

So, here are the categories in a nut-shell: Advisor-related, Age, Studying, Extracurricular Activities, Career, Finances, and Other Advice (Grad School Depression, Wanting to Become A Professor, etc.) Enjoy 🙂

Advisor related:

-If you are lucky enough to get both research interest fit and personality fit perfect, congratulations! But sometimes, personality fit is more important than research interest fit as long as the research isn’t too different. A great advisor is interested in your career development, likes you as a person, advocates for you, and wants to hear your ideas. Even if his or her research is quite different from yours, they may give you the autonomy to work on your own projects and just supervise you. A bad personality fit will drive you nuts, even if you love his or her research. Consider that when evaluating your advisor fit. (This will vary by field: research fit may be less important in the humanities, more important in the natural and physical sciences. Social sciences are somewhere in-between.)

Don’t be afraid to be straight up blunt with your advisor when it comes to asking about your progress. Ask if you are where you should be both academic program wise and getting-a-job-after-this-mess-wise.

Be proactive. Advisors love when you draw up an agenda for your one-on-one meetings, come with talking points and progress to share, have concrete questions to ask, and have overall shown that you have been thoughtful and taken control of your own program. Of course, this won’t immediately come easily to you, but in time you will work up to it. Every semester I type up my semester goals, and at the beginning of the year I type up annual goals. I show them to my advisor and we talk about whether they are too ambitious, or whether I need to revise them, and how I can meet them.

Don’t expect your advisor to actually know what courses you have to take to graduate. They will know about comprehensive exams and the dissertation, but a lot of professors don’t really keep up with the course requirements, especially if their program is in flux. Get you a student handbook, and find out what you need to take. Map it out in a grid, and check off things when you finish them. Show this to your advisor every semester. You may have to explain how such and such class fills a requirement.

-Nobody loves you as much as you, except your mother. Keep this in mind as you take in advice from all sources, including your advisor. Your advisor is there to guide you, but that doesn’t mean you have to do everything he or she says.

Age:

Don’t feel like you have nothing to offer just because you are younger. I was 22 when I started graduate school. You got accepted to the program for a reason, and chances are you are just as equipped as any older students are to successfully complete the program, just in a different way.

-Your older classmates may be just as terrified as you. Talk to them. You have a lot in common. You are, after all, in the same place.

-You will feel like an imposter, like you don’t belong, or like you are constantly behind. Or all three. It’s normal. It will pass. (Well, sort of.) People of all ages go through this.

Studying:

You will have to read more than you ever did before, in less time than you ever have before, and you will be expected to retain more than you ever have before. The way that you studied in undergrad may need some tweaking. Be prepared for this.

-Corollary: you may find that your methods change with age or interests or time. I preferred to study alone in college, but in grad school, I prefer to study in groups. It keeps me on task and the socialization keeps me motivated. You may find that you shift from being a more auditory learner to a visual learner or whatever.

You will feel behind at first. This is normal.

-At some point you will realize that your professors don’t actually expect you to read everything they assign you. This, of course, will vary by program, but there will be at least one class where the reading is actually impossible to do in one week. The point is to read enough that you know the major themes and can talk intelligently about them, and then pick some of the readings to really dig into and think more deeply about.

For most programs, don’t worry so much about grades. If you stay on top of your work and do what you’re supposed to, you will probably get an A. How much grades matter varies from program to program. In some programs, a B is a signal that you are not up to par, and more than a few B’s will warrant a discussion with your advisor or the DGS. My program isn’t like that – A, B, it’s all meaningless. My advisor doesn’t even know what my grades are. But at almost all programs, a C means you need to retake the course, and two Cs means you have to convince the DGS not to kick you out.

Extracurricular activity:

What’s that? No, seriously:

A lot of your time will be unstructured. You will have coursework, but most grad classes meet once a week for two hours and you may have three classes. You may have meetings with your advisor every so often and some seminars or things to catch (like we have grand rounds and colloquia that are required), but a lot of time will be unstructured. However, since you have so much more work than you had in undergrad, you actually will have less free time than you had in undergrad. This may initially cause you great anxiety. It did for me. Some people love unstructured time, though. (I don’t.)

-Because of this, you’ll have to be planful about your non-grad school related stuff.

TAKE TIME OFF. DO IT. It’s important for your mental health. However you do it doesn’t matter. Some people work it like a 9-5 job. Some people take a day off per week (me) and maybe a few hours spread across the week. Some people work half days 7 days a week. However you do it, there needs to be a time when you say “f this, I’m going to the movies.”

-Find your happy place, something that keeps you the you you were when you came in. I love working out. It gives me energy and I feel good. I stay healthy. I also love reading fiction, so sometimes I just curl up with a good book, work be damned. You have to give yourself permission to not think about work, at least for a couple of hours a week. You may also discover new hobbies! (I never worked out before I came to graduate school.)

Your work will creep into all aspects of your life, if you let it. This is why I hate unstructured time. You will feel guilty for not doing something, because in graduate school, there is ALWAYS something you can do. ALWAYS. But since there will always be more work, there’s no harm in putting it aside for tomorrow, as long as you don’t have a deadline.

You may need to reach outside of your cohort for a social life. None of my close friends are in my doctoral cohort. I’ve met master’s students in my program, master’s students in other programs, and I know a few non-graduate students I hang out with, too. Go to graduate student mixers. (If your university doesn’t have any, organize some, if you like planning parties.) Join a student group that doesn’t take up too much time. I had a doctoral acquaintance who kinda laughed at me because I joined some student groups other than the doctoral student one, and I was usually the only doctoral student in those groups, but I met some close friends (and future job contacts) and had a good time.

DO NOT FEEL GUILTY FOR WANTING A LIFE OUTSIDE OF GRADUATE SCHOOL. This is paramount. This is important. You are a well-rounded, complex, multifaceted human being. NEVER feel bad for this. Everybody wants some kind of life outside of work. Yes, you may loooove your field, but that doesn’t mean you want to do it all day long. Some other doctoral students, and perhaps professors, may make you feel bad about this. Don’t let them. Just smile and nod. Then disappear when you naceed to.

Career:

Grad school is job preparation. Remember that from Day One. Always be looking for ways to enhance your skills. Read job ads and find out what’s hot in your field, what’s necessary, what’s in demand. For example, in my field statistics and methods are a hot commodity, and they’re not a passing fad. I happen to really like statistics and methods, so I have pursued that as a concentration of mine.

Don’t be afraid to take on volunteer work and part-time gigs that will give you skills that will be useful both inside academia and out, as long as it’s not against your contract. Your advisor may be against it, but he doesn’t have to know as long as it doesn’t interfere with your work.

-If you want to work outside of academia – if you are even *considering* the possibility – please please definitely do the above. Even if you aren’t considering it, consider the possibility that you won’t get a tenure-track job out the box and that you may need to support yourself doing something else for a while. You will have to prove to employers that you have developed usable, useful skills and this is one of the easiest ways to do it. But don’t overdo it – get the degree done.

For more academic related ones – always look for opportunities to present and publish. Presentations look good on your CV. Publications look better. When you write seminar papers, wonder if you can publish them with some revision. Write your seminar papers on what you maybe think you may want to do your dissertation on. Even if you look at them three years later and think “these suck,” you can at least glean some useful references and pieces from them. Discuss publication with your advisor early and often, and if you have the time and desire, seek out publication options with other professors and researchers. But if you commit to a project, COMMIT. You don’t want to leave a bad impression.

-If you can afford it, occasionally go to conferences even if you aren’t presenting. You can NETWORK, and you can hear some interesting talks, and you may think about new directions for your own research. You can also meet people who may tell you about jobs, money, opportunities, etc.

-Always try to get someone else to pay for conference travel before you come out of pocket. Including your advisor. Do not be shy about asking if he or she can pay. If he can’t, he’ll just say no. Usually the department has a travel fund for students, but often it’s only if you are presenting.

If you are interested in academia, you should get some teaching experience. There are two traditional ways to do this: TAing a course, and teaching as a sole instructor. If you can help it, I wouldn’t recommend doing a sole instructor position until you are finished with coursework. Teaching takes a LOT of time to do right. You should definitely TA at least one course, and probably a few different ones. But don’t overdo it, if you can help it, because again, it takes a LOT of time. More than you expect at the outset. If you are in the humanities, I think sole instructor positions are very important for nabbing jobs so when you are in the exam/ABD phase, you may want to try at least one. If your own university has none, look at adjuncting for nearby colleges, including community colleges.

(I would wager that the majority of natural science/physical science students, and most social science students, have never soley taught a class before they get an assistant professor job. At least, it’s not that common in my field, which straddles the social and natural sciences.)

Always look for money

Money is awesome. If you can find yourself you can do what you want, within reason. Your university will be thrilled, your advisor will be happy, and you can put it on your CV. It’s win-win-win! Don’t put yourself out of the running before anyone else has a chance to. Apply even if you think you won’t get it or the odds are against you (they always are), as long as you are eligible. Apply often. Apply even if it’s only $500. (That’s conference travel!) Money begets money. The more awards you get, the more awards you will get. They will get bigger over time. If you are in the sciences and social sciences, you should get practice writing at least one grant. You don’t have to write the whole thing, but at least get in on the process so that you can see how it’s done. Grant-writing is very valuable both in and outside of graduate school.

Revise your CV every so often. Then look and decide what you want to add to it. Then go get that thing, so you can add it.

The career office at big universities is often not just for undergrads. I was surprised to learn that my career center offers help on CV organization and the academic job search, as well as alternative/non-academic career searches for doctoral students. In fact, there are two people whose sole purpose it is to help PhD students find nonacademic careers, and they both have PhDs. This will vary by university – some universities will have very little for grad students. Find out before you write the office off.

It’s never too early to go to seminars/workshops like “the academic job search inside and out”, “creating the perfect CV,” “getting the job,” etc. NEVER. Often the leader will share tips that are more aimed towards early graduate students, or tidbits that are kind of too late for more advanced students to take care of. This will also help you keep a pulse on what’s hot in your field. It’ll help you know what lines you need to add to your CV. And they’re interesting.

Other:

Decide ahead of time what you are NOT willing to sacrifice on the altar of academia. Then stick to it.
I’m serious. If you decide that you do NOT want to sacrifice your relationship, don’t. If it’s your geographical mobility, don’t. I mean, be realistic, and realize that there will always be trade-offs. But you have to think about what’s important to you for your quality of life, and realize that there is always more to you than graduate school.

If you don’t want to be a professor, do not feel guilty about this. At all. Zero. However, you will have to do things differently than most doctoral students. Your advisor will probably never have worked outside of the academy (although this may vary depending on the field) so he may or may not be able to help you. But you have a special mission to seek out the kinds of experiences that will help you find a non-academic job. Test the waters with your advisor before you tell him this. My advisor was quite amenable to it, but that’s because I told him that my goal was to still do research and policy work in my field just not at a university, AND because it’s quite common in my field for doctoral students to do non-academic work. If you’re in a field where it’s not common (or where your professors refuse to believe it’s common, or it’s not supposed to be common)…well, you may be a little more on your own.

-Every so often, you will need to reflect on the reasons you came to graduate school. Sometimes, just sit and think quietly. Why are you doing this to yourself? Do you love your field? Do you need this degree to do what you want to do? Usually the answer is yes and yes, and usually you’ll keep on trucking. But sometimes when the chips are out you will need to reevaluate why you put yourself through this in the first place.

-To my great dismay, depression is quite common in doctoral students. Graduate work can be isolating and stressful. Luckily your health insurance usually includes counseling sessions. TAKE THEM if you need them. Do not be ashamed. You may be surprised with who else is getting them. (I found out that almost everyone in my cohort, was getting mental health counseling at a certain point.) Exercise can help, as can taking that mental health day once a week and just chilling. Don’t be surprised if you get the blues…

-…but be self-aware and able to recognize when the depression is clouding your ability to function. Doctoral programs have a 50% attrition rate, and this is rarely because that 50% is less intelligent than, less motivated than, less driven than, or less ambitious than the other 50% that stays. Often they realize that they are ridiculously unhappy in the field, or that they don’t need the degree anymore, or that they’d rather focus on other things in life, or their interests have changed. All of this is okay!

-You will, at some point, be like “eff this, I’m leaving.” I think almost every doctoral student has thought about dropping out and just kicking this all to the curb. You need to listen to yourself, and find out whether it is idle thought (nothing to worry about, very normal) or whether you are truly unhappy to the point that you need to leave. Counseling can help you figure this out.

-Don’t be afraid to take a semester or a year off if you need to. That’s what leaves of absence are for.

Lastly, and positively…

…graduate school is great! Seriously, when else will you ever have the time to study what you want for hours on end, talk to just as interested others about it, and live in an intellectual community of scholars and intellectuals? And occasionally wake up at 11 am and go to the bank at 2 pm? Sometimes you will want to pull out all of your hair but most of the time, you will feel fulfilled and wonderfully encouraged and edified. So enjoy this time!

Grad Student Advice Series: Approaching Your Advisor About Alternative PhD Careers

Doctoral students in many disciplines realize the odds are against them. But students are often afraid to approach their advisers about other nonfaculty career choices, for fear of disapproval. And the professors themselves may not know how to advise students about any other careers than the research life, although given the dismal job-market statistics in recent years, that ignorance about nonacademic options becomes less and less acceptable.”  ~The Future of the PhD

Today, there is something that is holding a lot of PhD students back. Fear. What happens is they never really come out of their shell, and they feel that if they do there will be disapproval from their advisors and professors. You will be marked as the “oddball” or the person who spent years getting a PhD only to “waste” it in a field that isn’t fully utilizing the degree. This couldn’t be further from the truth!

The reality is that “non-traditional” or “alternative” PhD careers are not so uncommon anymore and are becoming traditional. In fact, the more that we hammer away at the issue and try to promote awareness about graduate education reform and the need to accommodate alternative PhD careers, the more we realize that these types of careers are deemed “acceptable.” More importantly, there are very satisfying careers outside of academia that fully utilize your training, skills and knowledge. You can apply your PhD training to other fields and be very successful. There are thousands of PhD’s that made the transition years ago, and are working in fulfilling careers with good career prospects and bright futures.

PhD grads have many attractive and transferable skills: Data analysis and synthesis skills, writing and publishing, research design, presenting, grant writing, managing people and budgets, interdisciplinary contexts, self-motivation, critical and creative thinking, problem-solving, time-management and teamwork. These skills are effectively utilized in many fields outside of academia and serve as an important part of our workforce.

I can relate to the apprehension and fear of pursuing industrial careers because of how your PI will take the news. In all honesty, you have to look out for yourself. And, if that is what is truly BEST FOR YOU, then you shouldn’t hesitate being clear and up-front about your intentions.

I flat out went to my PI during my final year as a PhD student and stated that I was not going to stay in academia or do a post-doc. You can back this up with informational interviews as well: tell your PI that you researched this position and feel that it would better play to your strengths and future opportunities. It looks more impressive to justify the want and need to go into industry (or whatever field you had in mind) when you base it off something concrete. And this is simply by seeing first-hand what real-world experience looks like and internalizing this to channel your direction.

So here is how you can approach your supervisor and broach the subject:

1)    Come up with a plan beforehand

Instead of going to your Professor and simply saying, “I don’t want to stay in academia or become a Professor,” you can phrase it in a way that plays to your advantage. First, I would not recommend approaching your Professor unless you have done the necessary networking and informational interviews to get to this point. Why? Because once you have done this, it gives you a justification and reasoning for pursuing a career outside of academia. You are basing this off what you have done and learned (i.e. real-world examples), and ultimately what uniquely matches you. And, you also created potential opportunities on your own in the process.

We have known for a long time that the career prospects in academia are not favorable (only 14% of those in the life sciences land an academic position within 5 years of finishing a PhD based on a NSF survey). But this is NOT the reason that you want to pitch to your Professor. It is not a valid reason and lacks depth. One resource that I highly recommend that you should check out is MyIDP. It will personalize and pinpoint what careers are a good match for you! Once you take an online self-assessment test, your test results will show which science careers to pick from and may be a good fit (over 20 science careers are featured and ranked based on your skill set and interests).

A “plan” means that you have gone out into the world and talked to scientists or PhD’s who have transitioned into alternative careers. You can set up informational interviews with someone who is two years out of their PhD. This will give you a fresh perspective on how they made the transition, and they are more likely to be able to relate to your current situation. The more you learn about these positions, the more you are able to fit your plan to your career goals and identify your strengths and weaknesses. What happens is you are able to see the opportunity that lies ahead of you.

For example, let’s say you did informational interviews with a business manager in biotech industry. Let’s also say that this manager had a certain path that you learned about: PhD, post-doc, working in industry at the bench, then moving away from there (worked his or her way up into a management position).  A lot of people that have these career paths just happened by chance, promotion, or opportunity that opened up for them. They may not have had a career plan like what you are attempting to lay out ahead of you.

In other words, you know the “jumps” you wish to make ahead of time, as it also validates the value of a PhD, how you can effectively utilize it, and explains the need to leave academia WITHOUT hesitation, fear, and/or doubts. Therefore, this is putting YOU at an advantage.

You are taking hold of your own future and at least knowing the REALISTIC and necessary steps that one needs to take in order to transition out of academia. “Realistic” is defined as what your network (via informational interviews) lays out for you. In other words, they are going to tell you based on your current interests and skill set, which entry-level positions are going to be obtainable for YOU (if you were to apply for a job right now, what are you chances and what is a good match for you?).

So instead of reading about what positions you THINK would be a good fit for you, get out there and start creating opportunities for yourself! Nothing beats face to face interaction. So simply googling and reading blog articles about what kinds of PhD careers are out there won’t really get you anywhere. This is something that I call “PhD complacency” where the need to network and learn about career opportunities on your own isn’t viewed as “necessary.” Many PhD’s think that everything will “just fall into place” or just “happen by chance” someday. If this is your attitude you need to change it now.

Knowing what you want to do ahead of time will get you there much quicker and will be more focused. It will be a better use of your time and energy. Think about it. If I told you that you could skip an academic post-doc and go right into an alternative career in a different field wouldn’t you (if you knew ahead of time that is truly what you wanted to do)?

Just as I respect those who wish to stay in academia, they also need to respect those that wish to branch out from this field. That is why you must become numb to any reactions from those within academia and stick to your decision regardless of what other people think. 5 years from now when you are established in your career, it won’t even matter what people in academia used to think of you.

I also do not disapprove of the decision to take on a post-doc. However, there are also academia post-docs and industry post-docs. So I do disapprove if you are doing a post-doc and you don’t have a career path in mind or even know what field you want to be in. And I can almost guess that a lot of PhD’s took on a post-doc or stayed in academia simply because of fear that their thesis advisor would view them as a disappointment,  would not be supportive, and may give a poor reference for a career OTHER than what lies within academia. Also, many PhD’s stay in academia simply because they didn’t network or create opportunities outside of academia.

The whole point is that you may not have a complete and totally clear career path laid out in front of you (let’s say over the next 5 years). But what can happen is you at least can justify to your Professor why you wish to pursue a career outside of academia. And the best way to pitch this is that it better plays to your strengths, interests, potential opportunity, and career plan.

2)     Open dialogue: Know what to say

Approaching my professor about pursuing a career outside of academia was one of the hardest things I had to do. Here is why:

I was offered multiple internship opportunities during my 4th and 5th year of my PhD. During my 4th year I didn’t jump on it because I was afraid that my Professor would say “No.” The more informational interviews that I did and the more unemployed PhD’s that I saw, the more I realized that I needed to create and jump on any opportunities which presented themselves. Therefore, getting over this fear is a very key part of being a successful PhD student. Beyond the PhD is really what matters, and if your Professor cares about you and your future, they will RESPECT your decision. Therefore, when another opportunity presented itself the last 6 months of my PhD, I jumped on it.

I said something like this:

Based on what I have been doing over the past year by talking to PhD’s in the field, I have come to realize that I wish to pursue a different career path vs. obtain a post-doc or stay in academia. I feel that based on my strengths and interests that I would like to pursue other opportunities. I hope you will support my decision as I truly appreciate my time here and the scientific training that I have received. I feel that I can better use my education in other fields and this is what will truly make me happy. So with that said, an opportunity of a lifetime in the biotech industry has recently presented itself as I have been made an offer. I would like to jump on it with your permission.”

You have to look out for yourself. If you don’t, conflicts will only arise later on in your career. If you do not wish to stay in academia, why are you doing an academia post-doc? Are you buying yourself time until you figure it out? If you already are a post-doc, the same rules apply. You can still approach your Professor in the same way.

Here is the response I received:

We will always have different definitions of science. I am disappointed that you do not wish to stay in the field and become a scientist. BUT, I want you to do what is truly right for you and what makes you happy. I want to see you be successful. I want to see you get your PhD and utilize it however you see fit. I want to see you in a career that you truly want to be in. So, I guess that it’s OK and I’m fine with it.”

I took the heat. So one day went by where I was coined a “disappointment” or whatever else you want to call it. But your Professors need to care about your well-being. Even the Professors that DO NOT support alternative PhD careers almost have to care about what happens to you beyond the PhD stage. Why? It is a reflection on them. If you end as an unemployed PhD, this reflects not only poorly on you but them as well.

That is why, if you do the proper planning ahead of time and “take the heat,” you will be ten steps ahead of anyone who sits back in fear and pursues a post-doc only because that is the “expected” thing to do.

And chances are that you may be surprised. Different Professors will react in different ways. Some may be supportive, others may not. It doesn’t really matter if they are supportive or not. What matters is that you help yourself, seek out opportunities, and build your network outside of academia. Don’t expect your Professor or anyone else to do this for you.

3)      Execute your plan and jump on created opportunities

So you’ve done your informational interviews and networked to learn about the types of positions outside of academia that interest you. You’ve told your Professor and others of your intentions of wanting to pursue a career outside of academia (either before or after an opportunity presents itself).  Now what? You need an action plan.

Chances are if you started networking and adding value to yourself and others, an opportunity will present itself EVENTUALLY (either during or hopefully right after your PhD). If you have read my 3 part series networking guide, you will see that at the end of an informational interview, I suggest that you ask for your resume or CV to be reviewed for feedback purposes (constructive criticism).

This will help to identify “gaps” and steps/actions needed to fill those gaps, get your name out there, and demonstrate a potential unique skill set that may add value back to the person who is reading/correcting it (One example-they might think: “Oh I had no idea this person ran their own business on the side. Or did this in lab. Or has this unique “niche” skill set. Maybe we should meet to discuss further ideas or collaborations”). I will be expanding on how to add value to others in a future post.

If you truly wish to pursue a certain career outside of academia, you will do whatever it takes to obtain the necessary steps and jump through whatever hoops you have to. The problem is that many don’t know the steps that they need to take to make this happen. And without a doubt, networking is the first and most crucial step that many PhD’s are missing or try to skip altogether.

Let’s say you wish to be in Business Development in Biotech Industry. You aren’t going to be able to crossover straight from academia unless you are really lucky. There are two jumps that you have to make. Academia to Industry. Then, Science to Business. If you can do it all in one jump that’s great, but that is not being realistic. And this is exactly why you need an action plan to execute once your professor is aware of your intentions.

In order to be able to crossover, you still may need a set of unique skills or related work experience. This is the number one problem and complaint that I hear from a lot of PhD’s. They don’t have the marketable skills to be able to crossover. You need to obtain the experience in any way that you can. This means you should be open to doing internships. If you can leverage a summer internship during your PhD or your post-doc, you need to jump on this opportunity. If you doubt that this opportunity can be created, you haven’t networked nearly enough.

When I say “Action Plan,” I mean plan ahead before you finish your PhD. The problem that I see OVER and OVER is that many PhD students are too overly focused on finishing the degree. While it is important to be a successful PhD student, learn about things you wish you knew before staring a PhD, stay motivated, write your thesis, and defend in a timely manner… This is only part of the equation. Getting the PhD is only the beginning and is not the end-game. Why do you think there is a book called A PhD Is Not Enough? It is MORE important to have a career plan laid out in front of you. If you think that getting the PhD is all that matters, you need to read what matters beyond grad school.

Here is what your Action Plan should look like (from start to finish):

  1. Identify your unique interests, matches, and career possibilities by using Science Careers MyIDP
  2. Start creating opportunities by building your network, adding value to others, doing informational interviews, and learning about alternative careers (pick your top 5 from MyIDP).
  3. Put yourself out there in any way that you can. Find out ways to stand out from the crowd that is UNIQUE to you. Think about starting a Professional Science Blog. Establish your online reputation.
  4. Overcome your fear and do not hide your intentions.
  5. Approach your Professor (as outlined above). It is up to you whether or not you wish to approach your Advisor before or after an opportunity presents itself. If an opportunity doesn’t arise, you need to keep networking and be patient. Think about how you can add value to others (this will be another one of my future posts).
  6. Look for continued support. Assuming by now you have a network that you have created outside of academia (in addition to your own Professor that is aware of your situation). PhD’s should be aided in their job search.
  7. Jump on an opportunity that presents itself whether before or after your PhD and make the cross-over.
  8. Be proud of your decision. Move forward and never look back.

Further Reading

A comprehensive overview of the many careers in the life sciences industry: