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Leaving the Lab Behind


Dear CareerDoctorWhat are the real alternatives to bench science after several years of postdoctoral experience? Specifically ones that will enable you to use your experience and knowledge in research.Edward

Dear Edward

To find alternative careers related to research, consider the wider research process.

Research starts with an idea or a question. If you have a particular gift for asking questions or innovative thinking, then you might want to look at consultancies--and particularly those that are contracted to support the research process in other organisations by generating ideas or solving problems. They are looking for people with these skills.

In these days of outsourcing, there are also contract research organizations that carry out research on short-term projects and then sell these to larger companies if they look promising. You'll need to look around on the Web, ask your careers services for help, and talk to any contacts you may have in the commercial sector to identify this kind of consultancy, whether it's focused on technology, research, or development. And once you have found them, you'll need to work hard to convince them that your academic experience is transferable to a commercial environment.

Working toward similar goals but at a step further away from the bench are technology translators. Their primary role is to facilitate collaborative research between industry and academia, with a focus on solving industry's research problems. To do this, they will literally translate industrial problems and requirements into basic scientific concepts, submit them to academic experts, and finally convert the scientific results into commercially exploitable information.

After generating the idea, companies have to pay for the work. There are many jobs relating to the funding of research. The Research Councils value understanding of the academic research environment and recruit regularly. But you might not need to look that far afield. It is likely that your university has a research support unit. Their role is to help academics and other members of staff identify sources of funding for research, teaching development, and other activities. They also help staff put together effective applications and liaise with funding bodies to understand their requirements and funding trends. If this notion interests you, then find out more about what goes on in these offices.

Researchers also need to be sold shiny new equipment and trained how to use it, so you may find opportunities with the companies who have provided your own lab equipment. I was once made an unsolicited job offer to do just this as there were so few people working in my research area that the equipment manufacturers found it nearly impossible to recruit. These jobs may involve a lot of travel to other research groups, which keeps you in the professional community and gives plenty of networking opportunities should you plan future career moves. This career might be an interesting alternative to teaching or training if you enjoy explaining things, but keeps you in a working culture that is closer to research. Give a call to manufacturers and suppliers of equipment and ask them about career opportunities--you may get a few knockbacks, but hopefully one or more will be willing to talk to you.

Once they've got the idea, the funding, and the equipment, researchers need to be supported in many other ways to carry out their work, and most prefer to talk to someone who understands their situation (I've certainly found this in careers work). Information management services are essential, particularly in growing research areas such as bioinformatics.

After they've done the research, scientists generally want to publish it, which requires that it be commissioned or edited by a former researcher at an academic journal. Being a science editor allows you to keep abreast of the latest advances in research without having to spend time at the bench--an ideal combination if it is bench work itself that is driving you away from research.

A research background may also be valuable to other employers. The Civil Service, for example, employs scientists not only to conduct research, but also to advise politicians on policy. Your expertise will also be valued by regulatory bodies and by professional organizations that support scientists by arranging conferences and meetings, publishing relevant material, and offering advice and training. In the latter instance, your research background offers precious insight into the needs of the organizations' members. Take a look at the services offered by your own professional body or any of the larger ones--they cover all aspects relating to the life of practicing scientists, so if you have an interest in developing your subject away from the bench, they may offer some interesting career opportunities.

If you have any conferences coming up, use these as chances to investigate other careers--there are usually plenty of "trade" stands from research-related companies. These include equipment suppliers, but also publishing houses, training companies, and scientific companies working in the same research area.

As well as the trade stands, look at the attendee list and make a point of talking to people from industry so you can suss out what nonbench roles are available within the commercial sector and whether it is possible to talk to or visit these people at work. A named contact on a speculative application can greatly increase its chances of being read, so keep a record of who you have spoken to and follow up with e-mails if you think those contacts may be useful. Most people are very happy to talk about their work and, although it might sound cynical, they could even be looking to earn some "brownie points": Some companies offer incentives to staff that encourage potential employees to apply to work for them. Also, if you are not quite sure whether it is bench science or academia that you want to leave, it may be a good idea to quiz industry researchers about the similarities in skills and experience with academia so that you can learn what gaps or misconceptions you need to address.

In the brief space available I've only been able to touch on a very few of the career areas most closely related to academic research. More broadly, think about those aspects of research that you most enjoy and see if these spark any other ideas. Scientists have found that they can apply their skills in a whole range of jobs, and you can find out more about what those are, and how people have moved into them, by browsing Next Wave's Career Transitions section.

All the best in your career ...

The CareerDoctor

In my next column, I will discuss how you can best keep your options open after your PhD ...