This morning I attended a webinar put on by AAAS entitled Nontraditional Careers: Opportunities Away From the Bench. The entire session will be available on their web site in a few days, but in the meantime here are some of the important nuggets I wrote down as I was listening.
The most important questions to ask yourself are:
What do I want to do next? How do I acquire the skills to get there?
Options available for scientists can be found by looking at those around you. Where did the people you graduated with end up? what about others in your lab? Does what they are doing seem intriguing to you?
Take advantage of your time in college to explore options – talk to faculty, go to local science talks, take tours of companies, etc. Find role models who are further ahead in their career than you are, and look to them for examples and advice. Take the initiative to start a lecture series and bring in people who can talk about different things in which you may be interested.
These careers are not going to come to you. You need to do some work – exploring, reading, researching, narrowing, and so on. This process should continue throughout your career, as your skills and needs change. The more active you are in researching new options, the more likely you will be able to find your perfect fit.
Nontraditional jobs are not advertised where traditional science jobs are advertised. Professional societies can be good places to look for job ads, especially the societies for the field into which you are trying to move. Of course there are many more jobs that are not advertised, so use your network and let people know what you are looking for. Contact companies that might need that expertise – most profitably by using your network to link yourself to someone at that company and get an inside track. Use the connections you made during informational interviewing to help you take the next step.
You need to build your network and form relationships in such a way that people want to help you. Don’t always be the one asking for things and taking, but give back as much, or more, whenever you can.
Informational Interviewing –
Most people will talk to you, because they have been there and want to help others. Ask them:
1. What is your job?
2. How did you get there?
3. What should I do to follow in that path?
4. Who else should I talk to?
In this job market, you want to be careful how you approach people. People are bombarded by requests for “informational interviews”, many of which are thinly disguised requests for jobs. Try to find something in common with the person – have you read their papers, worked in the same field, etc? Make it clear that you are asking for information, not for a job.
Once you’ve decided where you want to go, do a critical self-analysis and figure out which necessary skills you have, which one you have but need to brush up on, and which ones you don’t have all all and need to acquire. You may need to do an internship, or volunteer your services, in order to get the required skills to move into our chosen field. Think long-term, not just what you need to pay the bills today. You need to invest the time, and maybe take less money now, to position yourself for the long-term.
Do something to differentiate yourself from everyone else – for example, do a postdoc abroad. Travel to a foreign country and spend 3 weeks working and prove you can survive without speaking the native language. Run a small business on the side.
Getting an MBA does not guarantee a job, and might not even be necessary. You need to determine if getting an MBA will give you the skills you need to make you more competitive for the job for which you are aiming. It has been shown that only an MBA earned early in your career, from a top school, will pay for itself in increased earnings over your career lifetime.
Peter Fiske recommends you spend 80% of your time doing the very best work you can for your boss, and 20% of your time doing things that develop you.
Ask these questions early – if I take this job, or this postdoc, will the supervisor/boss support my personal career development? Will they support me if I want to go into a nontraditional career? At each step of your career, ask yourself what your options are, and which ones will get you closer to where you want to be long-term. And ask yourself if your long-term goals have changed, or should change.
There are tons of resources for salary survey data for nontraditional careers, but some are better than others. Again, professional societies in your chosen field are one of the best resources. Read them with a critical eye, and see how they control for region, age, gender, etc.
These transitions are not as irreversible as they used to be. Academia is starting to value people coming in from industry, for example. Just don’t burn any bridges as you make your transitions, and you will be able to use those connections to move back into the other world.
Almost any job can be made family-friendly, but some companies are more flexible than others. You need to get to specifics – how much travel is required, are the hours flexible, do they provide elder care….? Figure out what is important to you, and ask the questions about not only what is officially allowed, but what do most people in that situation really do?
In all these cases, ask the questions of multiple people and compare their answers. The truth lies somewhere in-between.
The best way to build your network is to get involved. Go to national and local meetings, volunteer, and always be thinking about what kinds of people you want to meet, and where they are likely to hang out.
You need to know what you can do, but you need to be able to explain it to others in their language. This requires learning the terminology of other fields.