‘So what do you want to be when you grow up?’
We were standing inside the elevator, on our way up to the lecture hall where the weekly seminar would begin in a matter of minutes. The director was a friendly man and it was not the first time that I, a PhD student at the Center for Molecular Medicine in Vienna, had spoken to him. But this time his question caught me completely unaware, and as it dawned on me that I had no good answer to it, I began to panic.
I stared at him blankly for a moment, then my gaze flickered nervously down to my feet and up to the bright red digits scrolling on the elevator display. I shifted my notebook uneasily from one hand to the other and made a desperate attempt to give him an answer, any answer.
Can’t this elevator move faster?!
‘I’m not so sure what I’d like to do…’
Are we climbing a 70-story skyscraper??
‘I haven’t quite made up my mind yet…’
Yes! Here we are!
As the doors to freedom slid open, I darted through with a sigh of relief, mumbled a goodbye under my breath, and made a mental note not to get trapped in an impromptu career discussion ever again.
Had it been dreamy 6-year old me in the elevator that day, she would have unflinchingly replied that all she ever wanted to become was an astronaut, an archeologist, or a combination of both – think Apollo 13 meets Indiana Jones. But as a soon-to-be biology PhD graduate in my late 20s, I didn’t have a clue anymore.
I had set aside my childhood dreams of digging out relics in the Egyptian desert or travelling to far-away planets, and decided to become a biomedical scientist instead. For years, I had worked and studied hard, and I was finally about to earn the coveted PhD title. Yet the more that milestone came into focus, the blurrier the path beyond it became.
I envied my colleagues who were set on having an academic career, not because I longed for one too – I had long since realized that it was not the right fit for me – but because unlike me, they knew what they wanted. In comparison, I felt like a traveller with no map, lost in an unfamiliar city.
What was I going to do?
Only one fifth of biomedical PhD students end up securing a faculty position. The rest – due to lack of funding, insufficient qualifications or simply little interest in becoming a professor – steer off the beaten path into the mysterious realm of non-academic jobs. How ironic that although non-academic careers are the norm rather than the alternative, we scientists know so little about them – and from that ignorance stems our confusion.
We are skillful, creative and resourceful individuals, yet a simple question about our future career plans can catapult us into a state of sheer anxiety, just like me on that elevator ride a few years ago. Simply put, we don’t know what our options are.
For years, we have been so busy shuffling along the main road – from university to PhD, from PhD to postdoc – that we barely lifted our eyes up to take in the countless side paths we could walk down instead. Once we do, we can begin to appreciate the colorful kaleidoscope of roles that scientists take in society. But even then, the choice is far from easy.
Let’s assume for a moment that you enjoy talking about science and interacting with people. Then you might fare well as a science teacher, or as a medical science liaison. If you’re attracted to policy and administration, you might want to pursue a career as grant administrator, or maybe as research officer. Perhaps you have an eye for business and are enticed by the idea of becoming an entrepreneur? If you have a passion for writing though, you might consider becoming a science journalist, or why not a medical writer?
With so many possibilities, how do we know which one fits us best?
Well, no need to panic anymore. The PhD Careers Beyond Academia Club, a new career storytelling initiative at Karolinska Institutet, is here to help you figure it out.
In a series of informal seminars with PhD holders who have successfully made the leap, we will explore the non-academic career landscape for scientists. Speakers will share their personal experience in leaving academia, tell you what their current job looks like and give you advice on how to get started on a similar career path.
To keep the events informal and interactive, only around thirty participants will be admitted each time – but do not fret! If you don’t make the cut, you can still find out more about that dream job of yours by following this new blog series. After the seminars, I will interview the speakers and publish their best advice here, along with links to additional resources to help you explore a specific career path further.
So… what will you be? A patent attorney, a consultant, an editor?
Whatever that is, that dream job is out there. Now let’s go get it.
The PhD Careers Beyond Academia Club at KI was founded by Anna Mourskaia and David Grommisch. Join the club on Facebook and LinkedIn to stay up to date with events, job openings and training opportunities.
Title illustration by scientist-cartoonist Pedro Velica. Find more of his artwork at Pedromics.