Credit: Atlantic Photo Boston

Who you calling 'alternative' ?

SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA—Don’t call them “alternative” careers, pleaded Michael Simon at a session called “What else can you do with a Ph.D.?” today at the 2015 meeting of AAAS, which publishes Science Careers. To his chagrin, the session also had a subtitle: “Finding alternative careers in the sciences.” Framing nonresearch careers in these terms creates “the natural assumption that there are ‘normal’ careers”—i.e. research careers—“and then there are the ‘alternative’ careers,' ” said Simon, a health care consultant at Arcadia Health Solutions in Burlington, Massachusetts. “For many of us [working in ‘alternative’ careers] doesn’t feel like plan B at all. This is what we wanted to do.”

The common theme from the panel, composed of former researchers now involved in science education, outreach, policy, and business was, don’t follow the “traditional” track just because it seems like what you’re supposed to do. Take the time to figure out what you really love and want from a career. As Simon said, “decide for yourself what you want to be spending your intellectual life doing.”

As graduate students you’re having to deal very often with people implying that you’re a failure.

—Olivia Ambrogio

For Olivia Ambrogio, who now works in communications and outreach for the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in Washington, D.C., it took quite a while to figure that out; she compares her career path to Ulysses’ odyssey and Dorothy’s journey through Oz. After finishing her Ph.D., she spent time editing scientific manuscripts, working as an adjunct lecturer, and developing science-education resources as a contractor before settling at AGU. “I’ve had the same passions and interests throughout my career; I’ve just focused on different ones at different times,” she explained. “I kept narrowing in more and more on what I was interested in.”

One challenge of leaving the well-trod path is that most graduate students are advised by professors who only have experience with academia and so are not well equipped to advise those who are interested in exploring careers beyond the academy. The onus, then, or some of it, is on trainees to find ways to spend time outside the lab: volunteering in classrooms, participating in political campaigns, or writing for campus publications, for example. “Take those opportunities during your graduate career to try out those different things,” said Minda Berbeco of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California.

Pallavi Phartiyal, who works at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Massachusetts, agreed that students who want to leave the bench need to take their careers into their own hands. “There’s no specific path for a career in science policy,” she said. “You have to be creative and persistent.”

Some advisers see pursuits other than research as failure. How is a science trainee to deal with that? “Let’s face it. As graduate students, you’re having to deal very often with people implying that you’re a failure,” Ambrogio said. “You’re constantly having to fight back against these crushing feelings of doubt.” Perseverance is required—just one of many such instances in the pursuit a science.

None of the panelists work in research anymore, but none regret their decision to earn a Ph.D. “It’s amazing: Someone will pay for you to do wholly novel research,” Simon said. “They will pay for you to learn all these skills. … The danger is painting it into a continuum that has a single potential endpoint”—a faculty position.

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