For a Ph.D. holder, the idea that any career can be classified as “alternative” is obsolete. With a smaller percentage of postdocs going on to tenure-track positions every year, universities and research institutions are stepping up efforts to help recent graduates figure out how to put to good use all the specialized training that they have received. The National Institutes of Health (NIH), for example, has for the past decade hosted a free career symposium open to young scientists from any institution. This annual one-day event, organized by the Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE) of the NIH and held at its Bethesda, Maryland campus, aims to expose early-career scientists to the various paths available to them professionally, and to help trainees identify the steps that they can take in their current positions to set themselves up for future success.
This year’s symposium, held on May 18th 2018, saw a record attendance of over 1000 participants, mostly Ph.D. students and postdoctoral fellows split evenly from within the NIH and from outside institutions. After a warm welcome address by Dr. Lori Conlan, Director of the OITE Career Services Center and of the Office of Postdoctoral Services, participants attended one of four concurrent panels for three different sessions. Each panel consisted of about four professionals, several of whom were NIH alumni, who had each made the transition from graduate student or postdoc to their current roles and were therefore credible experts. There was a deliberate effort to include panels from a wide range of career options, and in addition to several industry and academic panels, there were panels on careers in the federal government, science administration, science writing, outreach and policy, among others. The day ended with “Skill Blitz” sessions, which gave practical advice on specific skills critical to the job hunting process, such as writing a great CV, interviewing, and negotiating tactics after getting a job offer (The very helpful resources used for these sessions are available online on the OITE website).
The most important lessons from this event transcended any specific panel or career path and were reiterated continuously throughout the day. These general sentiments were:
1) NETWORK! – Networking was mentioned by almost every panelist as key to a successful job search. Having inside information on a job description or hearing about an impending job post before it goes public could be just what you need to stand out in a pool of applicants. Networking does not have to be intimidating. You could start small by making personal connections with colleagues in your department or purposefully arriving at seminar venues early to interact with participants before the talk begins.
2) Get Experience– With so many applicants from a Ph.D. background, having some experience in the field to which you plan to transition is critical. For tenure track jobs, experience with grant writing (especially grants that get funded) is an important way to distinguish one’s self, and for a teaching-intensive faculty position, teaching experience is essential. Volunteering is a great way to get experience in almost any field. For instance, for a career in technology transfer and patents, volunteering at a university tech transfer office would be a valuable addition to your CV. Likewise, working with a start-up company would be useful for a future career in investment. Volunteering to judge school science fairs shows an interest in outreach, as does writing for your department newsletter for a career in science writing. Volunteering can also help you test-run several career options to confirm the right path for you. Step out of your comfort zone, use your weekends (instead of spending them all in the lab) and diversify your experience. Even little things you do could have big payback.
3) Conduct Informational Interviews– Speaking with professionals in the field to which you plan to transition can help you get a clearer idea of what exactly the job entails and what essential skills are involved, as some of this may not be obvious when you’re looking at a job from the outside. Informational interviews can strengthen networking efforts, giving you valuable job leads and inside contacts. These interviews are also great for research into the prospects for growth and advancement in a specific field, and to find out if there are any nuances in applying for jobs, such as in academia where jobs are announced seasonally. By speaking with enough people, you get a well-rounded image of what your future holds with any chosen path, giving you valuable information on how truly suited you are for that career.
4) Publish– Especially for an academic career, publications show productivity. Both first author and middle author papers are important, as first author papers showcase the ability to lead a project and to see it through, and middle author publications show the ability to collaborate with others and work with a team.
5) Be kind– Perhaps the most unexpected but insightful piece of advice came at the start of the day when Dr. Sharon Milgram, Director of OITE, encouraged participants to be kind, both to themselves and to others. The requirements for careers in science can be tough on a person mentally and physically. Don’t be too hard on yourself for apparent shortcomings, and don’t take out your frustrations on others, turning mentoring into “tormentoring”, as she put it. Taking care of yourself boosts resilience, and looking out for the people you work with, especially those you mentor, helps change the culture that extreme stress and anxiety are inseparable from research.
The take home message from this symposium was simple: Opportunities abound. With the right fit, any career can lead to a full, fulfilling professional life. To distinguish yourself in your job applications down the line, though, be aggressive in finding opportunities to network and to gain experience in your chosen field. In all, this was a very productive way to spend the day.