Working Life

Alternatives within academia

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Science  22 Jul 2016:
Vol. 353, Issue 6297, pp. 418
DOI: 10.1126/science.353.6297.418

When I started graduate school, I wanted to become a professor at a small teaching college. I envisioned myself helping students develop a passion for science and guiding them in the pursuit of their chosen careers. But as I progressed through my own academic training, I felt tremendous pressure from faculty members to pursue the more “traditional” research-focused faculty path. That path and its requirements—constant pressure to publish, obtain grant funding, and jump through other hoops to obtain tenure—were not at all what I wanted. By the end of graduate school, I was also burned out on my own research in pancreatic β cell biology. I figured that my best option was to pursue “alternative” career paths. And after a few hurdles and unexpected opportunities, I did find an alternative niche—which has brought me full circle back to academia.

ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT NEUBECKER

“I did find an alternative niche—which has brought me full circle.”

As I reached the end of my time in grad school, I applied to dozens of nonresearch positions where I felt that I could apply my scientific background to the greater biomedical enterprise, including in policy, writing, and project management. But I didn't even get a phone interview. I think one reason for my lack of success was that my applications didn't highlight the transferable skills I had gained during my training. I didn't think I could claim to have experience in project management, for example, because I had never had that job title. I didn't realize that, in many ways, earning a Ph.D. is one long project management task.

But even without that knowledge, my first break finally came: I was hired for a science writing and editing position in the cancer center at the University of Kentucky, my alma mater for both my bachelor's degree and my Ph.D. The résumé and cover letter I submitted still did not emphasize my nonresearch skills, but I later found out that professors from my grad school days convinced the hiring manager that I was a good communicator and a hard worker. I then leveraged those two traits, along with my other transferable skills, to move up the administrative ladder. I helped create and manage a larger communications office aimed at enhancing faculty productivity, and then moved into a research administration and operations management position in the cancer center. I found that I loved fostering research by helping manage it.

My passion for conducting research also returned once I had some distance from the lab, and I have enjoyed the freedom to pursue scholarly work in my administrative positions. The difference is that now I get to work on research areas that I have very personal connections to, including improving Ph.D. training and studying the molecular biology and epidemiology of lung cancer, which caused my father's death. I have also put together a professional development course in which I leverage my own experience to better prepare trainees for the workforce.

Now, ironically, my skills as an administrator who can also conduct research and teach have earned me a nontraditional faculty position. It started as non-tenure-track, but beginning this month I'll be working toward tenure. The bulk of my effort is dedicated to research administration, with a much smaller portion focused on teaching and scholarly activity. As a result, I don't face the pressures associated with typical faculty positions, which played a big part in driving me away from this path earlier in my career.

While slogging away as a frustrated trainee dead set on running as fast as I could from becoming a faculty member in a research-intensive university, I would have never imagined that is exactly where I would happily end up. It thrills me to be involved in managing the research enterprise—and to be teaching, my original career goal. Helping trainees discover and plan for the vast career options available to them—including those within academia—gives me a great sense of satisfaction.

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