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Tooling Up Book Club: Alternative Careers in Science: Leaving the Ivory Tower

"How do I learn about nontraditional careers?"

One of the biggest obstacles facing scientists contemplating nontraditional career paths is a simple lack of information. Nothing frustrates a scientist more! We are all too familiar with the well-trod paths of research science careers but paths to those "other" careers seem uncharted. While the career path of research science is full of mud and ruts, moving in another direction seems to require hacking a trail through the jungle on your own. And you'll never be sure if you can find that "ideal job" or just end up hip-deep in quicksand.

As you know, loyal reader, there are thousands of Ph.D.s and M.S. folks out there in a huge variety of careers, both in and out of science. But how did they get there? What steps did they take? What are those "nontraditional" career fields really like? And most importantly: Would one of those careers be better for me than research?

Getting answers to these questions can take a frustratingly long time! At Tooling Up we've already discussed some methods for exploring different career fields, including University Career Days and Informational Interviewing. But University Career Days usually happen once a year -- a long time to wait for enlightenment! Informational Interviews are very focused but require considerable prep time and at least half a day to do right. Others, such as Internships and Fellowships, are very powerful but involve a huge time investment.

Well, dear reader, I am happy to report that there's a new book on the market that may answer a lot of your questions. It's called Alternative Careers in Science: Leaving the Ivory Tower. Edited by biotech consultant and entrepreneur Dr. Cynthia Robbins-Roth, this book features the stories of 23 people who have moved from the traditional career path of research science to a host of different careers. Some are just starting out, others have had successful careers for years. Their advice is candid, often witty, and absolutely dead on. And to top it off, the book has a great index at the back.

The 14 women and 8 men who tell about their careers are mostly from the life sciences. There is a strong business focus in this group of people, but this is not too surprising considering the burgeoning opportunities in the world of biotech in the past 15 years. Some describe their own transition from research to something new, but all give a thorough explanation of their career field and how new people, such as you, might go about getting a job. Here is a list of the careers these folks are now in:


Patent Agent

Technical Writing

Clinical Trial Affairs

Science Journalism

Technology Transfer

Science Publishing

Corporate Communications

Broadcast Journalism

Sales and Marketing

Venture Capital

Head Hunter

Biotech Investment Analysis

Science Education Policy

Business Development

Science Policy


Research Funding Administrator

Business Consulting

Government Research Program Manager

Regulatory Affairs

Information Services Entrepreneur

You might be tempted to scan this list and check out the specific chapters on fields that interest you. Don't. Read the whole book. Each chapter has a wealth of advice about job hunting, self-assessment, networking, and just keeping your wits about you. As you read these stories you will begin to pick up some commonalties that are the realities of the modern job search.

Myths Shattered

If these stories do nothing else they will challenge some of the widely held beliefs that many have about "alternative careers" and the people who seek them out. For starters, for many of the people who tell their stories in this book, their present career isn't an "alternative" at all; they purposefully sought out careers that were better suited to them than a traditional research career. Also dashed is the stereotype that the people who seek out alternative careers are those who are "less suited" for a career in research. In fact, some of the contributors to this book came from high-powered research institutions and many had good experiences in grad school as well as good mentoring; one was a Churchill Scholar. And if you were concerned that an "alternative career" would lead you away from exciting science -- fear not! Many of these folks have jobs in which they are interacting with research scientists at a variety of levels. Some feel they are able to make a bigger contribution to science in their present career than in a life at the bench.

Common Themes

For someone like me who talks about successful methods of career planning and job hunting, this book is gratifying. Why? Because many of the people in this book found their careers through the same techniques Dave Jensen and I have been discussing on Tooling Up. A number were motivated to look beyond the lab because of earnest self-assessment; they realized their skills, interests, and values were better suited to something other than lab work. And the power of personal networks really comes across clearly in many stories. As one writer explains, "[these jobs] are not listed in the newspaper."

The Role of Serendipity

Many scientists considering nontraditional career paths become very nervous when I discuss the critical role of serendipity and chance opportunities. We nerds do NOT like our careers to be a matter of fate! But, as you read these stories you will see that, for many of the people in this book, their opportunities came at times, and from directions, they did not anticipate. Some weren't even looking for a change when fate came knocking.

Serendipity cannot be anticipated, but it can be prepared for. Many of the people featured in Alternative Careers in Science were open-minded enough to recognize the opportunities that came their way. And a number had built strong networks, thus creating the potential for a larger number of serendipitous encounters. As Finley Austin, Ph.D. in Human Genetics and now administrative director for the Merck Genome Research Institute, admits: "I find it a bit difficult as to how to advise someone to follow my path, since it was not what I originally set out to do." Just because you don't have a map to your ideal job does not mean that you won't find it.

Getting to Know You: The Powerful Role of Networking

Examples of successful networking permeate this book. Clay Randall, Ph.D. turned technical writer, found his job through a posting in one of his writing classes. The editor, Cynthia Robbins-Roth, developed the mother-of-all-networks by starting BioVenture View -- a newsletter about the biotech industry! And others describe the role their networks of friends, colleagues, and acquaintances played in leading them to new opportunities.

"Soft Skills"

Many of the contributors to this book identify key skills and traits that are valuable in their profession. As we have said in previous Tooling Up articles, these skills are critical in most every field but are rarely explicitly discussed in grad school. Good writing skills, tact, courage, persistence, and sense of humor seem to come up again and again on people's lists. You may think that some of these skills are "unlearnable," but you're wrong. Many folks have developed strength in these areas in the same way they developed strength in science: by practice.

Willingness to Risk

A number of the people in the book took calculated but substantial risks to get where they are now. Eliene Augenbraun, Ph.D., made a leap of faith that her passion for science broadcasting, and her drive to succeed, would enable her to start a new science news production company: It could, and she did. She is now CEO of ScienCentral. Ron Cohen, M.D., had a keen interest in tissue regeneration and spinal cord injuries. He started the company Acorda "from scratch, and on my own dime." Academia, in comparison, is a very risk-averse environment, and many graduate students learn risk aversion and nothing else. We're also smart enough to imagine all the ways that such a risky venture could fail! Sometimes it's a curse to be smart! As Ron Cohen says at the end of his chapter, "the advantage is to be naive -- we were too ignorant to know that we couldn't do this."

The Love of Science Remains

One theme rings true throughout this book. These people LOVE what they are doing. And their experience in graduate school taught them a host of important skills, values, and lessons that they have been able to apply in the "outside world." As Cynthia Robbins-Roth sums it up very nicely at the beginning of the book: "Even though I don't run gels and columns anymore (and I'm not sure I can still do a cardiac puncture on a rat), I very strongly believe that the key to my contribution to our clients lies in my hard-core, hands-on science training. While I spent the last 15 years learning many other disciplines, it is that core experience that informs how I think and analyze, how I bring together apparently disparate pieces of information. The driving force behind my enthusiasm for my work is the love of science that lies behind it all."

Andrea Weisman Tobias, another contributor, sums it up a different way with advice I wish every graduate student of science could hear: "NEVER listen to anyone who tells you what you cannot do -- everything is possible with solid credentials and the right attitude."

This book will excite you, provoke you, and make you think about your options. And, to top it off, it has a really nice index! Check it out.

Peter Fiske

Peter Fiske is a Ph.D. scientist and co-founder of RAPT Industries, a technology company in Fremont, California. He is the author of Put Your Science to Work and co-author, with Dr. Geoff Davis, of a blog (at on science policy, economics, and educational initiatives that affect science employment. Fiske lives with his wife and two daughters in Oakland, California, and is a frequent lecturer on the subject of career development for scientists.