Working Life

The day I left the lab

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Science  10 Jul 2020:
Vol. 369, Issue 6500, pp. 218
DOI: 10.1126/science.369.6500.218

I finished my experiment and hurried to store my samples. I had a train to catch, and I was cutting it close. “Ugh, I should just stay in the lab to get a few more experiments done. I'm not even sure what I'll get out of the career development symposium,” I thought to myself. I had started a postdoc position 8 months earlier and needed to gather preliminary data to bulk up a fellowship application and extend my postdoc appointment. But I also knew that I needed to cultivate contacts in industry, in case I wanted to pursue a career outside academia. A friend working in biotechnology had told me, “Sometimes you need to get out of the lab to make meaningful connections.” He was right, I decided. I washed my hands and headed to the train.


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ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT NEUBECKER

“Cultivating connections and exploring career options outside the lab proved difficult.”

When I started my postdoc, I aimed to become a professor at a liberal arts college. But as time wore on, I had doubts. I didn't want to do a second postdoc, which I feared would be necessary to land a faculty position. My partner and I were also settled in Chicago after 5 years of juggling a long-distance relationship, so the prospect of moving to a new city didn't appeal to me.

Yet cultivating connections and exploring career options outside the lab proved difficult. My weekly calendar was always filled with seminars, student presentations, and lab meetings. I felt guilty taking time away from my work—but just as guilty about neglecting my future. So when an email circulated about the career development symposium, I signed up.

As I stood awkwardly in the lunch line that day, I chatted with a technology transfer specialist. We found a table together and met a medical science liaison, who told me about how much he enjoys communicating medical research with health care providers. That piqued my interest because I'd always enjoyed communicating science, but I hadn't seriously considered it as a career option. He told me to check out a science writing panel that afternoon, where he'd be a panelist.

A few hours later, I spotted him up on the stage. He and the other panelists—all of whom had Ph.D.s—clearly loved their jobs. They made frequent use of skills they had honed through their graduate training: critical thinking, project management, and the ability to learn quickly. I sat in the audience feeling I, too, could be a medical writer—and that it would suit me.

I knew that I needed a varied, intellectually stimulating career that would keep me on my toes. I wanted to spend time thinking about how to present data, because that's something I enjoyed doing in academia. The more I thought about it, the more I felt science communication might be the perfect fit for me.

It took me 2 months, but eventually I reached out to a medical writer who had served on the panel, and she agreed to meet for tea. As she spoke about her job at a medical communications agency, time flew by and I wanted to know more. I asked her for advice about how I could launch my own medical writing career, and she responded by asking for my resume. One week later, I had a phone interview with her agency. Two months later, I started a new job as a medical writer working alongside her.

I've been at the company for 1.5 years now, and I'm thankful I found a career that's such a good fit. I work collaboratively with my colleagues on projects that communicate medical research for our clients, mainly pharmaceutical companies. And I use many core skills from my scientific training, such as rapidly sifting through the literature to find relevant information and communicating data visually.

During my postdoc, it was challenging to figure out where my career path would take me next. For me, the catalyst was talking to people. I realize it can be hard to get out and network in person these days. But virtual networking is always an option—and you won't even have to worry about missing a train.

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