Ask Professor Sarah Bellum

Professor Sarah Bellum answers your questions on navigating the often-uncharted waters of early career development. Professor Bellum is communicated by Patricia L. Clark, founder of the Early Careers Committee and a member of Council. Do you have a question for Professor Bellum? Send it to sarahbellum@biophysics.org. Your privacy is assured!

Catalyze the Change You Want to See

Q: My department is so lame! The faculty have no idea how to help us find job opportunities in this challenging economy. They recently hosted a “career panel,” with panelists with “diverse experiences”—except that three of the four speakers were academic faculty members, and the fourth, from industry, looked like he was angling for a job in our department! I attended because I wanted to learn something about how to join a small startup company, how to become an entrepreneur, or how to get a job in tech transfer, but none of the panelists knew anything about this. How am I supposed to develop as a scientist when the only career “advice” I hear is how to get a tenuretrack job in academia?

A: This is a fact of life, not lameness: PhD graduates will always be the products of PhD graduates who have chosen—you guessed it: academia. And no matter how disinterested academics might be in creating clones of themselves, academia will nevertheless always be the career track that they are most familiar with, and hence in the best position to provide advice and help navigate. So “career panels” organized by academics will tend to be populated with tenured and tenure-track academics, and the discussion will always be dominated by advice about how to succeed in academics, rather than how to succeed in industry, startups, intellectual property, agriculture, journalism, teaching, or anything else. Yet clearly not all graduate students and postdocs can or want to pursue a career in academics. But the further afield your chosen path is from a “traditional” academic track, the more responsibility you will need to take to help shape that path, and its navigation.

Let’s look first at why a panel advertised as representing “diverse experiences” wound up dominated with academic perspectives. The problem is that most faculty have spent their entire career in academia, and spend the vast majority of their time interacting with other academics. Think about it: How many of your department faculty have an active, substantial collaboration with someone in industry? Or have gone through the process of patenting a research discovery? Or have started a small business (successful or otherwise) based on this discovery? Or devote significant efforts to advancing teaching pedagogy? The numbers are probably quite small, despite increasing pressure for faculty to pursue translational research, develop patentable ideas, and make meaningful contributions to educational outreach. And, the more time that a faculty member has spent in academia, the more likely it is that their circle of professional colleagues will consist only of other academics. This means that when faculty are casting about for well-spoken people to serve on career panels, their vision might not extend far (if at all) beyond other academics.

Fortunately, you do not have to look very far to find excellent examples of people who have used their graduate degree to pursue non-academic career trajectories. The graduates of your own graduate program, for example, probably contain a rich pool of career choices, and these may include your personal friends and friends of friends. Of course, one would hope that the faculty in your department would call upon this expertise when assembling career panels. However, some of the most interesting of these trajectories will take several years to develop, and the longer these graduates are off the academic-track radar of your department, the less likely it will be for them to stay in touch with their old advisors, and therefore the less likely that they will be invited back. Postdocs and recent faculty hires in your department are another rich source of contacts: their youth makes it more likely that they will still be in contact with their former graduate school and postdoc buddies who are blazing trails towards career goals other than an academic job.

Now let’s examine how these panels are organized, assembled, and moderated. Simply put, you and your grad school classmates are in the best position to do this, and you are the ones who stand to gain the most from improving this situation. Rather than complaining to your classmates about the failings of past panels, request a meeting with the faculty member in charge of graduate studies in your department, or your department chair. Explain what you are looking for, point out some specific examples of job descriptions that you would like to see represented on career panels, and be ready to supply names of potential panelists. Most important: offer to help organize and moderate the panel. Offer to round up other students and postdocs to help, too; this can be done through your department’s graduate student or postdoc organization, if one exists.

If your department is not receptive to your suggestions and your offer to help, then yes, I agree: your department is, in fact, lame. And I suggest you band together with dissatisfied graduate students from other departments at your university to make a similar appeal to a hopefully more sympathetic, university-wide organization, such as your Graduate School’s Career Placement Office. Also keep your eyes open for useful career panels offered through professional organizations. The Biophysical Society puts on several stellar panels, roundtable discussions, and lunches devoted to career development at each Annual Meeting.

However, it is much more likely that your department will welcome your suggestions and offer to help with open arms. Indeed, you will likely to find yourself placed in charge of organizing a future panel, and if this goes well, this might lead to organizing more panels, or requests to join a departmental or university committee as a graduate student representative, with opportunities to help organize larger career development efforts. This positive feedback can be very flattering, and the relatively rapid and tangible progress you can make towards improving the vibrancy of your scientific community is very attractive. Just make sure that the time you spend strengthening career development offerings does not negatively impact your own career development, specifically your research productivity—remember, no one ever received a PhD for organizing panels!

Most importantly, remember that while it is easy to whine, it is ultimately much more productive to do something about improving your situation.

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March 2012 Table of Contents