I asked Tiffany Lucas to write this post after hearing her insights during the “Science Careers Outside of Academia” career panel hosted at the Danforth Center during ICAR2017. While all the panelists were helpful, Tiffany stood out to me because of her clear, direct message: You have value; therefore, you have options. Don’t let fear limit those options. Reset your brain. Figure out what is right for you and go after it. Of course, this is my paraphrase, and I wanted you to hear Tiffany’s words directly from her. These are not just words spoken casually by someone who has had their career figured out for decades. Tiffany started on the usual track – a BS in biology from Truman State University, an MS in entomology from the University of Arizona, a PhD in molecular microbiology and immunology; virology from the University of Missouri-Columbia followed by a postdoctoral position at the Washington University School of Medicine. As she describes in this article, she then took a step “off the beaten track” as a Technology Transfer Trainee in 2016, which led to her pursuing a career as a biotechnology consultant. In 2017, Tiffany joined BioGenerator as an Investment Analyst. Here, she encourages you to put the time and effort in investing in yourself. Read, listen, and apply! ~ Bethany
Your path isn’t going to be a straight one and you’re not going to be handed a map. I had a highly varied path in my research exposing me to many areas of biology, and I’m comfortable taking a deep dive into the primary literature. I enjoy identifying patterns and connections in science and between people, I am a strong scientific writer, and like presenting ideas to both experts and non-experts. It’s engaging for me to talk with talented scientists, business people, lawyers and patent agents, large industry, academia, and small biotech. Into my postdoc, I worked on developing my grant writing, presenting, and interdisciplinary science skills. I made connections in the biotech community and helped others who needed my expertise in grant writing and due diligence projects. I was very fortunate to be selected for a 6-month full-time position as a Technology Transfer Trainee at Washington University Office of Technology. This was an amazing program developed by Nichole Mercier, PhD, as she recognized the need to transition PhDs out of the lab and into exciting careers. That was a huge turning point for me; I discovered the early-stage biotech community and the passion that the scientists had here. My position as an Investment Analyst with a not-for-profit company, which is focused on supporting and developing early-stage biotech, is perfect for my interests and I’ll continue to grow in skills and abilities.
After leaving my 3.5-year postdoc lab for the technology transfer training program, my former PhD adviser asked skeptically, “Are you ok?” My response was, “Yeah, I took a few steps off the path… and nothing bad happened.” It wasn’t an easy choice with a tidy, clear path, but if you’re willing to pack a machete, you can carve out your own trail and meet the most amazing people along the way. You’re going to need to give yourself permission to explore things during your transition that interest you and note the things that you absolutely do not like doing.
The skills that you need are highly dependent on the type of position that you imagine yourself in. It won’t be any one skill, but a blend of skills that makes you special. It’s your job to identify your personal spice blend. Remember, you’re coming in with your PhD research experience, which is like the salt – it compliments all those other skills. It’s your responsibility to identify and develop these skills throughout your life starting now (or ideally before now). No one is likely going to encourage you or tell you to take time out of the lab to do this. Do it anyway!
- If you don’t like a skill-path that you’re going down, stop and pick another path.
- Keep a mini-notebook of interesting PhDs you meet.
- Make notes of activities that you found rewarding, interesting, or tedious.
- Ask people if they will introduce you to a scientist in an area of your interests.
Potential employers expect good written and verbal communication, and they expect you to be professional in your behavior. Proof-read, send Thank You notes on paper, and do not whine. Behaviors that are often tolerated in academia are not likely to be tolerated elsewhere. If hired, you will be representing their brand and image. As for other skills, you’ll need to narrow down the types of jobs you might be interested in. Search the Internet, read AAAS career stories, review your myIDP every few months, attend workshops for grads/postdocs, talk with your career center or campus counselors if you’re dealing with anxiety or discouragement, ask your department to connect you with alums, go to community events, volunteer to help an organization, join a national group, get on email lists outside of your university, join Young Members groups. You may be tempted to tell yourself you don’t have time for these “extra” activities. Do it anyway!
Most of all, put yourself into positions where you can meet interesting PhD scientists in and outside of academia. Many of them will share, at a minimum, 15 minutes of their time. Use this time wisely by researching them in advance and then ask specific questions, such as:
- What makes them feel fulfilled?
- What skills helped them to land their current position?
Do these things make your heart beat a little faster because they sound interesting or do you dread the idea of doing them in a career?
You also need to consider how you’d continue to grow in the type of position you’d like to move into. There were a few jobs I considered, but realized I wouldn’t have room for growth after 5 years and that wouldn’t develop my skills for career advancement or transitioning into another position. I ruled those out. During this time, you should also be asking what the added value is of staying in a postdoc, if that’s where you’re at in your career path. A postdoc of 5 years doesn’t look better than a postdoc of 3 years, and a postdoc of 7 years can raise eyebrows. It’s good if you can get out one first authored publication or a few middle authored papers to honor the commitments that you made to your PI and to show some mastery of the subject. If that paper isn’t likely to happen in a reasonable time-frame, professionally wrap up your projects and move on. Yes, it is difficult and sometimes uncomfortable to do this. Do it anyway!
Lastly, once you leave academia you are likely to have different positions throughout your life, and you’re going to continue to develop skills and interests throughout your career. Remember, no single career choice is likely to harm your career, nor is any one career choice permanent. It’s great for you because you’re always going to be evolving, and it’s great for future potential employers because you will bring your unique set of skills and ideas to their organization.
For scientists who don’t want the linear path, get out that machete, pack snacks and a flashlight, and start carving your own trail. And remember, once you find your path, stop and help the next batch of scientists find their future careers off the beaten path. When they say it’s scary or they don’t have time, it will be your turn to say: Do it anyway!
Tiffany Lucas, PhD