I always considered a career as the center and ultimate goal of my educational choices. I constantly ask myself where my passion lies. Over the past few years, I have explored various career options – traditional and non-traditional. I have encountered many obstacles on my way to figuring out a career path, mainly because there are very few career counseling resources available at my institution.
I love science and the challenges that come with it. Science means curiosity and problem solving. I enjoy identifying problems and seeking solutions. However, my dissatisfaction with bench work has gotten progressively stronger within the last couple of years mainly because I am not a very detail oriented person (not to the extent that is required to solve technical problems). Additonally, I do not enjoy the idea of making a career out of a single research topic. I would like to work in a more practical field and make a tangible impact.
There are many reasons why I decided to pursue a PhD degree, but becoming a professor was the least important of them. I entered the PhD program because I considered graduate education as a training process; to equip students with the analytical skills required to succeed in academia or industry, public or private sector, or business. Most importantly, I think graduate training should involve educating students of opportunities outside of academia and outside of science.
I have recently become interested in entrepreneurship and have taken the necessary measures to strengthen my prospects for acquiring a non-science job. I have taken several classes in business and healthcare, participated in several industrial conferences, and worked as part of a team to develop product commercialization plans. These experiences have given me insight into real-world business problems and have strengthened my resolve to pursue a multidisciplinary career. I look forward to the challenge of working cross-functionally to translate scientific ideas into commercially available products.
Pursuing this option became easier once I found the appropriate resources to help me identify non-academic career options. In my graduate program, it is still not acceptable for students to discuss non-academic careers. I have learned the following lessons and wish to share the following tips with anyone else wishing to pursue non-traditional career options while still utilizing the skills acquired/developed in graduate school:
1. Choose an enlightened advisor who truly cares about you and regards your success as part of his or her mission.
2. Choose a research area with the broadest applications in the future. Look beyond the scope of the project or the techniques and look into the translational potential of the research which can lead you from bench to making a real-world impact.
3. Develop all types of transferable skills, analytical, communication, management and leadership. Make use of daily science training to practice these soft skills.
4. Expand your horizons and step out of your comfort zone. Participate in professional and extracurricular activities, volunteer, and take courses to explore and discover your interests. Opportunities may hide in a place where you have never heard of before.
5. Talk to peers about your dissatisfactions, uncertainties, passions and hopes. You will be surprised to see there are many struggling like you. Knowing someone on the same boat will give you comfort and strength. Initiate a career club with those people, exchange information and help each other.
6. Network at seminars, workshops and conferences, get as many contacts as possible, and find a mentor who would like to guide you on your career path.
The future lies in our hands. Whether we will succeed in landing an ideal job depends on how active we are in identifying and pursuing those jobs. There are plenty of resources around us if we are determined to find them.
Chao is currently a fifth year PhD student in the medical neuroscience program at Indiana University School of Medicine. His thesis project is focused on elucidating the molecular mechanisms underlying chronic pain and on discovering novel drug targets for future therapeutics.