by Shengpei Wang

Determining which career you want to pursue can be a daunting task. In addition to loving research, part of my motivation for getting a PhD was to kick that decision down the road a bit. However, I need to find the path that’s right for me eventually, and it’s better to start early. Whether you have interests in staying in or leaving academia, I want to urge you to start to consider your future and take action, now.

There are many career options after getting a PhD. The most traditional route is to pursue a tenure track position at a R1 University. However, the supply of qualified PhDs greatly outnumbers available tenure track positions, especially in Biology. Just think about how many students your lab will train throughout your advisors’ career, that number minus one is the oversupply your lab produces (see this blog https://lucklab.ucdavis.edu/blog/2018/7/4/job-market for more involved calculations). Most of us will develop careers other than becoming a tenure track faculty. Within academia, there are roles such as non-tenured teaching positions, university administrators, student services, lab managers, staff scientists, etc. There are even more opportunities outside of academia, including non-academic research scientists, medical science liaison, science writers, management consultants, etc. I am not trying to persuade you to stay or to leave academia but to point out that only a very small number of us will reach the goal that most of us set out to achieve. Making a career choice may not be easy, but you will be better off if you start early.

I want to first share with you some resources I found especially helpful to start the journey. They are useful for developing careers both inside and outside of academia. If you have any interests in careers outside of academia, you will need advice from sources other than your academic mentors. Most of our mentors have only been through the tenure track faculty career path and have limited experience with other options. Additionally, the job market is constantly shifting, and we need to be up to date if we want to enter the competition.

  1. Talk to people. Talk to your advisors and mentors, family and friends, your career services, or others with careers you find interesting. They are there for you, so put them to work.  This was hard for me personally, but I received many insights that uniquely fit my needs. The scariest part was emailing people I didn’t know, but the advice I received was invaluable. If you are intimidated and want to do your homework, the following resources may help.
  2. Blogs from Nature Careers (https://www.nature.com/careers) and Science Careers (http://www.sciencemag.org/careers). We are their target audience, and they are there to help us develop a fulfilling career. The diverse perspectives they offer are useful regardless of whether you want to stay in academia.
  3. My IDP (http://myidp.sciencecareers.org/). This tool was developed to help PhDs and postdocs for career exploration and development, so again we are the target audience. It can help you set and track goals, in addition to all the tools we discussed in last month’s post. My IDP can also offer you career suggestions based on your interests and preferences.
  4. Medium (https://medium.com/). I am not sure how this blogging site appeared on my radar, but it has been useful. A lot of people in “the industry” write about career advice and trends there. It’s also great for stalking people with interesting careers.
  5. Job boards. This might be the most important place to look if you are finishing and need a job. Developing a career is bigger than getting a job, but it doesn’t hurt to know what’s currently on the market. Here are a few online job boards I have ventured: Ecolog, EvoDir, Nature Careers, Science Careers, USAjobs.gov, LinkedIn, Indeed.com, and Glassdoor.com.

How I started my journey:

My attitude towards my career has changed profoundly through the four and half years of my PhD training. When I started, I was not concerned about careers and thought that I would “figure it out”. I believed that “There would be more time”.  As it went on, the ideas I had about my future did not become clearer as I became more experienced with research. It was only after I started exploring career options more explicitly, I started to realize the vast world of opportunities both inside and outside of academia. This was my first lesson; you have to take action to figure it out.

My experience was not unique; many people I know didn’t start their MS or PhD training with a set idea of what’s next. Most of us were willing to pursue the career path of a tenure track faculty, but a good chunk of us decided not to towards the end of our trainings. These decisions take time to develop and everyone has a different reason. For me, I like research and analyses, but I don’t want to spend over half of my time writing and teaching forever. It took me three years to admit that, and only after I started exploring different career options. Regardless of what you are passionate about, it doesn’t hurt to start thinking about your careers now.

What really attracted me to careers outside of academia was the diversity of things people do. There are also abundant opportunities to learn new things, to move, and have new experiences. One thing I didn’t quite expect from my exploration was that no one mentioned any regrets leaving academia. Many people told me that it’s much less stressful and more fulfilling because you can help people more directly. There are different challenges, but you are less bound to any one situation. I believe that getting a PhD should open up a world of opportunities. This might mean embracing a world outside the ivory tower.

We’d love to hear from you about your career journeys! Please post in the comments below.

Some other resources that inspired this post:

Academia Is the Alternative Career Path (https://medium.com/@drmdhumphries/academia-is-the-alternative-career-path-106c89fc3412)

Rise of the Science Ph.D. Dropout (https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/12/11/new-study-says-scientists-are-leaving-academic-work-unprecedented-rates)

 

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