Hands up, all you postdocs out there who feel time slipping away. You know you can't postdoc forever, and the longer you put off the decision about where your future lies the harder it might be to make the leap. So gird up your loins, because, as I discovered, moving from the research lab you know into the uncharted waters of your new career can involve taking a few risks and a willingness to put in some extra graft on top of your lab work.
Before I could take the plunge, however, I was faced with the problem of deciding what exactly I wanted to do! Easier said than done. Getting advice proved difficult. Most careers advice seems to be aimed at the recently qualified end of the market. One careers advisor refused to 'tell me what job to do'. All I was asking for was advice about what I was qualified for! No one seemed to be able to tell me this, so I just started reading job ads in the scientific press to see if anything appealed.
Adverts came and went, and I began to read them like a careers wish list. I used them to build up a photo-fit job description that was tailored to me. I ruled options in and out until I arrived at a simple definition: I wanted a job that had something to do with biological science and with communication.
Having refined the search to a narrower choice, I had to prove my commitment to prospective employers. Accept that your three papers in Science and fantastic lab skills just won't cut the mustard away from the bench. Unless you can demonstrate real interest in a new career outside of research, your CV won't stand a chance of getting you an interview. This might mean getting unpaid work experience--volunteering or doing freelance work outside of your lab-based day job. I put the word out with friends and other contacts that I would do any freelance writing that came my way. The work came in, and my CV began to gain weight.
I kept my eyes open for any opportunities that came along, until I got the chance for work experience at BBC Science Online. I was to produce a Web site during the 6-week placement: I decided a new set of skills wouldn't go amiss on the CV, and it was a foot in the door of a major employer. Most large organisations advertise posts internally. I took to scanning the jobs page of Ariel, the BBC's in-house magazine, and applying for anything that looked promising. But not all chances just come along; sometimes you have to make them happen. I'd realised that my producer would need someone to finish the project after my work placement ended, so I made it clear that I was available if she wanted me. She came back with an offer: an 8-week contract, at a price: I'd have to take a 33% pay cut.
This wasn't exactly what I'd hoped for. How much was I prepared to invest in this career change? I weighed up the pros and cons. The decision boiled down to one of perspective. The contract was offering me on-the-job BBC training, and the cost was 'just' a salary cut and a short contract. The alternative was 12 months of self-funding through a master's degree in science communications.
Putting my short-term financial security at risk to start over at the bottom of a new career ladder was a compromise that I hadn't foreseen, but as my career transition had progressed, I'd accepted that I would have to make some sacrifices. So, I took the plunge, resigned from my job in research, and joined the BBC.
One advantage of my new situation was that my hands hadn't been tied by a long contract; I could keep applying for anything that came along. Three months later the gamble paid off, when I was appointed as a science writer at a journal. My CV had floated to the top of the application pile just as my first contract was coming to a close. And this time I walked into the interview with credibility as a scientist and a science writer. I had gained confidence from making the break out of the research lab and into the media, and I'd certainly learned how to write like a journalist. I was able to offer my new employer a tailor-made set of skills that I could not have gained if I'd played it safe as a postdoc. So, weigh up your options, and take the chance! The wildest decision can pay the best returns if it was made for the right reasons.