When Ruth Atherton decided that she wanted to pursue a career in patent law after she finished her Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology, she knew she’d need to get a law degree to advance in her new career. But she had some hesitations about diving into law school full time. She wanted to get work experience right away to help confirm her career choice, and she was worried that being immersed in law school would disconnect her too much from the scientific world. She was also concerned about shouldering the hefty bill.
So, she simultaneously applied to law school and to clerk positions at law firms. She hoped that showing her commitment to getting the law degree would help her land a job by demonstrating to potential employers that she was serious about her career change. The positions she was applying for also generally paid for some or all of law school—a significant benefit.
The strategy worked. The summer after she obtained her Ph.D., she became a scientific adviser and clerk at a law firm, working during the day and going to law school at night. Managing work and school was intense, and going to school part time meant that she finished her degree in 4 years instead of the usual three. But the firm covered her tuition in full, as part of her total compensation. “That was critical,” says Atherton, who now has nearly 20 years of legal work under her belt and is currently a deputy general counsel at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington. “I was supporting myself and no one was helping me pay for school, so I had to be careful financially.”
As Atherton’s story illustrates, Ph.D. holders who are planning transitions to new careers have a lot to consider when it comes to pursuing additional degrees. The training, credentials, and connections made through a professional program can open the door to that first job and bring more opportunities down the road. But the costs—financial and otherwise—can be prohibitive, and many hesitate to spend even more time in school. Researching potential degrees and thinking about creative solutions for funding them—or finding alternatives, such as internships and volunteering—are key for Ph.D. holders looking to break into new fields without breaking the bank.
Considering an extra credential
For Chris Palmer, investing a year to do a full-time certificate program after his postdoc was crucial for unlocking the door to the science writing jobs he was pursuing. When Palmer—now a science writer at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland—was applying for positions before doing the University of California (UC), Santa Cruz, 1-year science writing program, “the primary message I got when I was told I did not get the job was that they hired someone with a certificate in science writing,” he says. He’d written for his university magazine while he was a neuroscience postdoc at UC San Diego, but that experience wasn’t enough to land him the jobs he was looking for.
So, he decided to enroll in the program in 2012, which led to a series of internships and a full-time writing job at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. “I think potential employers really value the training offered in these types of programs,” he says. Moreover, the program provided a lot of structured feedback on his writing that helped him learn and improve quickly—something that his editors at the university magazine couldn’t offer, he says. The professional preparation and “huge amount of networking opportunities” made the program more than worth it.
If you’ve already gotten a foot in the door, earning an additional degree or certificate can still aid your career development, as tech transfer specialist Jeremiah Mitzelfelt attests. Mitzelfelt enrolled in a master’s degree program in regulatory science in 2015—when he was about a year into his job as a tech transfer specialist at the University of Maryland in College Park—because he thought the additional training would allow him to better help faculty members navigate the Food and Drug Administration’s approval process for new drugs. It was also appealing that the degree was offered through his institution, which meant that his tuition was paid for as part of his benefits. Moreover, the program was designed for working professionals, so he knew it would be feasible to complete it while also carrying out his day-to-day work.
He was enjoying the 2-year program and gaining valuable new skills, but halfway through, he had to revisit his decision to pursue the degree when he ended up leaving his university post for his current job as a licensing and patenting manager at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Maryland. The move meant that he would have to find a way to pay for the remainder of the program himself. But his new supervisor encouraged him to finish the program, and his new, higher salary more than covered the cost, so he decided to stick with it. He’s glad he did, and the skills and training he gained help him with the work he does now, he says.
Entirely foregoing additional formal training can also work out just fine. Audrey Chang considered doing an MBA soon after she started working in the business development team at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where she was marketing traveling exhibits to potential host museums across the country and working with intellectual property. She thought learning more about nonprofit marketing through a business program might help her advance in her career. But, says Chang, who is now chief of business planning and partnerships at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., “ultimately, I decided not to pursue a degree because I had spent all of my 20s in school, and it was a really hard financial and professional case to make. I wasn’t financially in a position to do it, and I’m motivated enough to do on-the-job learning. … I was just much more interested in applying my skills and earning money, to be honest.” So far, approximately 5 years into her post-research career, it’s been the right call for her, and she has progressed rapidly without the degree.
Making the transition
Both Chang and Mitzelfelt managed to break into new careers before considering additional training. In Chang’s case, it started with volunteering at the museum a few hours per week while she was a genomics postdoc—not strictly as a career development move, but because she was interested in engaging with public audiences. Her involvement with the museum took a turn 2 years after she started volunteering when she responded to a request from the business development office, which was looking for someone who could translate documents from Mandarin to English. She found that she enjoyed working with the team, and a month and a half after she first connected with them, they hired her for a full-time role. “I'm a huge fan of going through the networking and volunteering route, especially in some industries, such as nonprofit and cultural institutions, where jobs are scarce and require esoteric knowledge about the mission or product,” Chang says. “There's nothing quite like ‘doing’ to show commitment, and you can learn ahead of everyone else to position yourself for opportunities.”
Mitzelfelt’s transition story is a bit more direct: While he was a neuroscience postdoc, he interned in his university’s tech transfer office, which gave him the skills and credibility he needed to land his first full-time job in the field. In tech transfer, he says, “for a new person trying to break into the field, it would be much more valuable to gain experience than to have the regulatory science degree.” More broadly, he adds, “a lot of times it is better if you can get into the new career first and get a feel for it, and then figure out whether or not there is a benefit to getting an additional degree in allowing you to be promoted to higher positions or take on more work.”
For those who decide that they need additional training to open up new career options, Atherton emphasizes the importance of considering the financial implications. “I always encourage folks to think about how they are going to continue their education so they will not end up with a tremendous amount of debt, which ultimately locks you into certain career paths,” she says.
Regardless of the ultimate decision, career changers must make sure they are well informed about the benefits an additional degree can offer, Mitzelfelt says. “If you're not already in the field, I would spend a lot of time talking to people who are in the field about the degree you’re considering, and make sure that spending the time and money to get the degree is going to increase your ability to get a job in that field. … Is it going to help you get hired? Because if not, you're just delaying your entrance into a new career.”