Kate the new PhD
What are your future plans and goals after you receive your PhD, and why?
I recently defended my PhD thesis and am now a freelance Scientific Visual Communicator. In short, I chose this career path because I am good at it. Although I think I am a decent bench scientist, my most remarkable talent is visually communicating scientific thoughts to others. This can be a diagram of a complicated cell-signaling cascade or a customized graph to convey unique data types. I think there is a need for communicators with a scientific understanding like me. I can help researchers build their ideas into a visual representation. I believe that understanding the ideas being communicated helps me create superior images.
Why did you choose to pursue a PhD?
I love science. Genetics and molecular biology are particularly elegant to me because the tools allow one to design beautiful experiments with strong controls. I entered graduate school for sake of the experience, not just for the degree.
Was there a supportive network during your time as a PhD candidate?
My professor highly values the well-being of his students, and although I think he still thinks of professorship as the ‘default’ for us, he has been supportive of our “alternative” ideas. It’s hard for professors to offer specific advice on careers outside of academia. However, in the last few years I have noticed more guest seminars and panels on non-academic careers around campus. Perhaps the rarity and non-universality of professorial positions is slowing seeping into the academic zeitgeist.
What resources or opportunities did you utilize to explore your ‘post-PhD’ options?
Years ago, I met with Adam Steinberg, who has been interviewed on The Postdoc Way podcast. Adam is an artist with a strong scientific understanding, and a deep curiosity about science. He has made fantastic scientific figures, and is a real inspiration for me. His success shows that there is a need for this type of work.
What is your ‘next position’ and how did you choose it?
I am now doing freelance illustrations and photo retouching. All of my jobs have been coming though networking and friends of friends. I am trying to build a reputation, so I have been accepting every job I can. Some of my jobs have been science related, but I have also been doing non-science jobs like photo-retouching and coloring book illustrations in order to build my professional portfolio. Attempting a freelance job is risk, but I think it’s an experiment worth trying.
How did your friends, peers, colleagues, advisors react to your ‘next step’ decision?
So far, my freelance jobs have all been obtained though colleagues, friends, and family. They have been so kind to tell their friends about me and to contact me when they need help with images and visual ideas. Many of my colleagues have known that I enjoy making images and take great pride in posters and figures, so I don’t think they were surprised at my Scientific Visual Communicator idea, even if it is uncommon. As for my parents, they seemed more at ease once I explained that I had carefully planned out finances, health insurance, etc. so that even if my business is a failure, I will still be okay and I can redirect towards a plan B.
In what ways are you underprepared for this new career?
I don’t have any experience running a business. I have been feeling my way through health insurance and income taxes. I question how to best advertise myself, and I don’t know which markets will be best for me to target (biotech companies, academics, patent firms, hospitals, or others). I also don’t have a lot of formal art experience. I hope this won’t be an issue, because I don’t really consider my figures to be ‘art’. I think it’s just clean, efficient communication. I hope that my portfolio of work will speak for itself in terms of my technical skill. However, I can imagine my lack of art training being an issue if I try to apply for traditional graphic design jobs.
What is the value in a PhD?
I have learned a tremendous amount in graduate school, including critical evaluation, scientific techniques, and working with others. My ability to draw scientific ideas has also expanded vastly. One of my graduate school admissions essays was about scientific illustrations, but when I look back at those diagrams I can see how much I have improved. My PhD process made me a better scientist and a better communicator, and I hope that the “Dr.” in front of my name signifies that value.
Kate is a freelance Scientific Visual Communicator in Madison, Wisconsin. In this capacity, she has made illustrations for review articles, physics posters, new types of graphs, logos/websites for biotech start-ups, photomicrograph adjustments, and more. She recently defended her doctoral thesis on a reverse genetics project in the model plant, Arabidopsis. Kate has previously worked in labs studying aged rats and venomous spiders. On a personal level, she has two rabbits living in her condo, one of which is a wonderful pet. Kate enjoys horseback riding at the University affiliated ‘Hoofers’ stable.