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It Isn't Just the Ambiance


The tale of my job hunt is an argument for why my current job exists.

I was never cut out to be a research biologist, but out of college I saw only one option for my future; because I was an excellent biology undergraduate student, I had to go to graduate school. I loved the graduate-level evolution of development class I took my senior year, so why wouldn?t I also love the rest of the Ph.D. process? My career path was set, and I didn?t even have to submit resumes!

This is a common problem that I and my colleagues in career counseling see: Students who have always excelled in school but haven?t chosen a career path often think that grad school is the answer. It makes sense, because most of them have always been in school, and the end result is the mythical Ph.D., and that means a job, right?

Later they come to the realization that they have only postponed their job search. They cannot be in school forever. What is worse, they now have to come to grips with a limited academic job market. They will soon have to start job-hunting, which is not an easy thing to do while you?re trying to conduct your research and finish a dissertation. A small number--I am one of this number--may come to the conclusion that the Ph.D. is not exactly what they imagined it would be, and end up leaving their program, disillusioned and out of work.

?I couldn?t stand to be at the bench?

I began reevaluating my decision to get a Ph.D. about a year after I passed my qualifying exam. I enjoyed learning about the evolution of plant development, and I was happy in an academic environment, interacting with other scientists, attending seminars, and reading papers. I was also ready to rip my hair out if I spent one more hour at my bench preparing PCR reactions. Well, that is a problem, isn't it? I was preparing to embark on the 3- to 4-year process of completing my research, followed, perhaps, by a career of hands-on science, and I couldn?t stand to be at the bench. I tried moving to a room with a window, I bought an orchid, I brought in a radio--?this,? I thought, ?is what I was missing: ambiance.? Great, so now I was bored and distracted.

I felt like a lunatic. I was getting paid to go to school, working with some of the best people I?ve ever known, completely in control of my schedule, doing what I thought I was supposed to do ... and I was miserable. How could I just decide to leave such a cushy situation? On top of all of this was the knowledge that there was no going back. It is hard to escape the assumption--wrong as it is--that there is no better life or more important work than academic science.

I was in a state of confusion and self-loathing for a long time. There was no real ?ah-hah!? moment when I suddenly knew exactly what I should do. After several months and advice from some good friends, I made the decision to leave my program.

Once I decided to leave grad school I was faced with the big question most people face eventually, ? Now what do I do with my life?? By this time the question was standing on my chest, impairing my breathing. I?ve learned in my short time as a career counselor that an awful lot of us wait for that impairment to spur us into action.

When I started thinking about what I should do next, I thought about what made me happy, what made me feel energized. I realized that the time I spent working with other students solving nonbiological problems, such as how much teaching experience was enough and how to increase diversity in our program, was much more rewarding and exciting to me than finding out where a gene was expressed. I decided that I had some career alternatives to research, and I dove right in.

But, because almost all of my experience was in a lab or a classroom, what was I qualified to do? What could I earn a living at? I knew I could communicate effectively, and I wanted to help people. It seemed like a good idea to apply for jobs in universities, because I had experience there and a desire to interact with students. This, anyway, was a start.

If only I had had the sense to seek help making these decisions years earlier. Aren?t there people out there who specialize in this sort of thing?

Take my job, please

On the advice of a lab mate, I saw the graduate career advisor. I told her what I wanted to do, and that I really wanted to be back in Chicago. On her recommendation I called a grad counselor at a university in Chicago to see what might be available. We spoke for a while about my interests, and I mentioned that I wanted to use my science background, but not actually do any science. After helping me think more about the process, improve my resume, and brainstorm more options, she said that if I was interested in working with students, I could apply for her job in about a month, since she would be moving on in the university.

At first I thought she must be crazy. I wasn?t able to get myself a job, how could I get someone else one? But she said that all it took was a true interest in the students, an understanding of what they?re going through, and a sympathetic ear (all of which I had and wanted to use). She assured me that I could learn the rest.

I graduated with an M.A. in December and interviewed for a position as a career counselor for graduate students in the biological and physical sciences in January. The people who interviewed me said that I had empathy and asked the right questions. I got the job. So here I am counseling people who are in the same boat I was in just a few months ago.

In our office we like to say that we are not here to get you a job, and we cannot possibly know of all the jobs that are out there, but we?re experts in the career exploration process. My colleagues and I use our graduate school experiences (both of my colleagues have Ph.D.s in their respective areas) as a way to understand and communicate with our students. The communication skills we gained from presenting our research is applied to presenting programs on the job-search process, and we use our analytical skills to process information so that we can act as a resource for students. In all, this job is a great way to take advantage of the graduate school experience without being an academic, and I get to help people make the same kinds of decisions I made for myself.