For most PhDs, there will never be an opportunity to become a professor. Numbers vary, but it is clear that there is a pile-up of PhDs who will need to find employment outside of academia…but what else is there to do?
By: Jeanette McConnell, PhD – freelance science journalist
About a year and a half into my Ph.D. program, I remember that one of my colleagues asked me what I wanted to do when I finished. I’m pretty sure she asked to ease the pain of our long and arduous days in the lab. We were both daydreaming about an amazing post-graduate school life.
When I thought about her question, I had a sudden realization.
I honestly had no idea what I wanted to do.
How could that be? This was my 7th year studying at a university and I was only now realizing that I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up.
But I played it cool. I answered, “You know, it would be great to be a professor.” My colleague nodded in agreement, and we moved on from the subject.
From that moment on, in the back of my mind, I kept asking myself that question. “What do I want to do when I finish my Ph.D.?” And I kept going over the same dialogue:
“Could I be a professor?”
“Do I even want to be a professor?”
“What else is there for a Ph.D. to do?”
At my university there is a competition held every year where graduate students are given one minute and one slide to engagingly describe their research to an audience of non-scientists.
I loved this competition. My colleagues all seemed to hate it.
I drew cartoons and made T-Rex, Ninja, and Breaking Bad references. I had fun. Probably the most fun I had while in graduate school was during this competition. I didn’t ever win the competition, but people enjoyed my presentations and I looked forward to them each year.
A few weeks after one of the competitions, I was getting a cup of a coffee when a stranger came up to me. He told me how much he loved my one-minute competition presentation, about the ninja chemotherapy drug.
That was a turning point for me.
Could I give fun presentations about science to non-scientists for a living? I would have the best job ever.
But I couldn’t escape the career guilt.
I felt that if I left the lab, I would no longer be a ‘real’ scientist.
Considering a career as something besides a professor or a postdoc filled me with an overwhelming sense of failure and regret.
So I went back to my lab bench and continued working, nose to the grindstone, to push out those publications.
In my final year, the prospect of finding a job became a reality. The thought of continuing on into a postdoc and working in the lab was depressing. I didn’t want that. . . I also did not want to fail.
Then I had an aha moment.
I stumbled upon The Cheeky Scientist Association and found other scientists, like myself, who had grown tired of academia. Unlike myself, they were equipt with a plan for finding their way out.
Upon joining the association, I heard stories from so many people: smart and successful scientists who wanted something besides working at the lab bench. I learned that this didn’t make them a failure; this made them interesting and employable in industry.
Discovering that it’s ok to leave academia has opened up a world of possibilities that I didn’t even know existed. By accepting, no, by celebrating my exit from academia I found new energy to move forward.
I now have the tools I need to forge my own path, a new road and a new destination.
Instead of focusing on succeeding or failing, I am now focusing on finding my passion, doing things I enjoy, and meeting other people who can support me on my journey.
I love to talk and write about science; and I thrive in a social environment.
When I allowed myself to see my strengths as something that could be translated outside of graduate school and outside of the lab, I figured out what I wanted to do next: science communications.
This is possible in so many different forms and I am still searching for the what feels right for me.
I know that I made the right choice to leave academia…and I don’t feel like a failure.
If you have questions about how to make a career transition from academia to industry, contact JLJ consultancy and join the Cheeky Scientist Association.
You have so many gifts Jackie! Thank you for sharing your creativity and gift for explaining with us! #noguilt