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Alternative Career Routes in the Ivory Tower

Academic institutions can be great places to work. You're likely to be surrounded by interesting, intellectually stimulating, and like-minded people from a wide variety of countries and cultures. Flexible working is generally a given. And, slow-moving as it may seem at times, being in touch with the latest research is exciting.

But what if you've realised that doing research is not for you any more? Or maybe you don't see a future for yourself as a group leader. For all its advantages, the life of the academic scientist can be demanding and stressful; so maybe it's just not worth it. Is it time to walk away from the ivory tower?

Maybe. But maybe not. You see, we at Next Wave are often surprised by how many PhDs we meet who are happily employed in universities and research institutes, and yet who aren't doing the kinds of things we usually think of a PhD as leading to. Instead they're helping to run the place (although in a different capacity to those deans and vice chancellors of research who've worked their way into administrative positions by the old-fashioned route). They're supporting research and teaching without getting their hands dirty. And they're spreading the word about what higher education institutions have to offer by liaising with local communities and businesses.

We've seen so much of this that we've concluded that a fairly large and increasing number of the less visible roles--less visible, that is, to the average student or postdoc--are filled by former researchers. Which is why, this month, we've invited some of these behind-the-scenes employees of universities and research institutes, all of them with advanced degrees in science--to tell you what they do, why they chose to leave hands-on research to others, and how they took the step onto an alternative academic path.

Reaching Out

Lisa Kozlowski, a Next Wave alumna, tells how she arrived at her current position as an Assistant Dean for Postdoctoral Affairs and Recruitment, in the hopes that her story will help you define your career path.

Having volunteered for the Weill Graduate School of Medical Sciences outreach program during his PhD and postdoc, Brian Turner was in the right place at the right time to take over as director of the outreach office. Now he's responsible for the office's teacher development workshops and school visits.

As a none-too-happy postdoc in London, Simon Bartlett considered making a career in medical communications. But then his wife got a prestigious fellowship in her native Spain. Some freelance editing work led to the opportunity to work for a brand-new international research institute in Madrid.

Jabbar Bennett wanted to be a scientist from early childhood. But by the time he found himself doing a postdoc at Harvard Medical School (HMS) another issue had become more pressing--why did he see so few people like himself in the labs and lecture theatres? Now he's a research and science specialist in HMS's Office for Diversity and Community Partnership.

If our April 2004 feature has inspired you, our resources page has pointers to networking and training opportunities that will help you land a job.

Support Posts

Heather Sevener tried flowers, music, a window...only to find that she wasn't just bored, she was also distracted. Now, as a career counselor, she helps others avoid making the same mistakes she did.

Following his U.S. postdoc, John Moniakis had intended to try for a faculty position back in Canada. But a growing interest in bioinformatics, and a curiosity about the growing number of research officer posts at Canadian universities, led to a role as curator and the journal relations coordinator for the Blueprint Initiative, a public good database of biomolecular interactions.

Between leaving physics research and becoming Next Wave's North American Editor, our own Jim Austin went back to academia, in a rather different capacity. As a part-time writing tutor, he helped undergraduates develop their writing skills in a rather special way, and found the company of his fellow tutors a stimulating and unexpected pleasure.

Liz Elvidge realised she didn't care whether the Red Sea opened up 5 million years ago, or 6 million years ago--which was a pity, because finding out was the aim of her research. But she did enjoy working with postgraduate students, and teaching them how to teach. Now she works in staff development, coordinating the provision of courses for postgrads and research staff at the University of Cambridge.

Having studied and worked at universities in the UK and Switzerland for 12 years, Thomas Koch didn't expect to find a job at a university when he returned home to Germany. But his international experience is now being put to good use as scientific coordinator of an international postgraduate programme in chemistry at Ruhr-Universität Bochum.

Research Management

As liaison officer, Pieter Jasperse forms the bridge in-between different research groups, and between research groups and the direction of the Gorlaeus Laboratories in Leiden. He keeps an overview of all activities in the laboratory and makes sure everybody is informed.

Growing dissatisfaction with postdoctoral research led to a career rethink for Carol Clugston. She believes it was the higher education sector that gave her the chance to change direction, into university administration, because there her PhD is recognised as more than simply a specialist academic publication.

While a postdoc at INSERM in Paris, Jonathan Dando applied for 134 jobs outside of academic research before landing a job on his doorstep, as a European project manager for INSERM Transfert, INSERM's technology-transfer company. Since European complexity means that there is no ?one-size-fits-all? business model, it's a challenging role.

Kerstin Nyberg, too, is a European project manager, although in a rather different role and having taken a rather different route. She works at the European Bioinformatics Institute, where she project manages the European Network for Integrated Genome Annotation, involving 24 partner organisations in 14 countries.

Meanwhile in Canada, David Phipps's post-postdoc experience in technology transfer and charitable and government funding bodies all comes together in his role as director of the Office of Research Services at York University. These days it is not uncommon to find many academic research managers with a PhD, he notes.

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