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Advice from researchers-turned-career-counselors for their younger selves—and today’s trainees

Be open-minded. That’s one of the messages that career consultant Michelle Frank has for scientific job seekers. When contemplating nonacademic careers, “many young academic scientists have a tendency to think, ‘I was a research scientist in academia, so I’ll look for a research scientist position [in industry],’” she says. But if you limit yourself that way, “you might miss a career opportunity that, despite not being exactly what you envisioned, could be a perfect fit.”

It may sound easier said than done. But Frank isn’t just offering empty words. She’s been through it herself, completing a Ph.D. in physiology followed by a postdoc and working as an industry recruiter before establishing her own consulting company focused on grantsmanship and career coaching.

Frank is one of a handful of scientists-turned-career-counselors whose experiences put them in a unique position to offer particularly useful insight. Science Careers asked Frank and two other counselors what career advice they would give to their younger selves.

Note checkpoints

Above all, junior researchers need to track how their careers are developing and how external factors may influence their progress, Frank advises. “I learned to keep my eyes open for changes that could have far-reaching effects and possibly threaten my current position or future prospects,” she says.

“My career path has been circuitous, punctuated by checkpoints,” Frank reflects. The key to satisfaction and success has been recognizing these checkpoints as triggers to evaluate her professional goals and to consider whether it is time to change direction, she explains.

One of these checkpoints occurred in 2013. After 3 years as a postdoc in cellular biology, she was preparing to apply for a National Institutes of Health K99/R00 Pathway to Independence Award when federal funding was cut. Realizing that her chances of getting the grant were suddenly even less than she had anticipated, Frank decided “to take a step back and perform an honest, uncomfortable self-assessment,” she says. At that point, “I decided that my publication record was not what it needed to be in order to secure the kind of funding … that I’d need to sustain myself in academia.” Seeing better career prospects in industry, she started looking for jobs at biotech companies.

She quickly found herself at another crossroads when she discovered that some aspects of the job she had secured—as a recruiter in a staffing agency servicing the biotech industry—had little to do with what had been discussed during her interviews. It turned out that part of Frank’s role required her to frequently cold call local biotech companies whose managers and executives she had previously networked with—a tactic she feared could harm her reputation within the industry. “It could easily have been damaging to my career,” she says.

Despite her dissatisfaction, she chose to stay in the job for a little while and use it as a growth opportunity. She learned about the array of characteristics that hiring managers want in their job candidates, and how those candidates should present themselves and communicate to win the position. This experience, along with her blogging about the career challenges that postdoctoral researchers face, inspired her to launch her consulting firm.

If Frank could start her career over again, she would try to anticipate and prepare for changes before running into checkpoints. Doing so would have helped broaden her options and made the transition smoother, she says. Through networking and requesting informational interviews, “I would begin looking for opportunities outside of academia … much sooner.”

Hone your people skills

When Mike Moss started an R&D position at a consumer goods multinational more than 25 years ago, he was “a very introverted scientist with few social skills,” he says. Yet, just 1 month after joining, Moss had a technician to supervise. Two years later, he had a whole research team to manage.

Initially, Moss—who was coming straight from a Ph.D. and postdoc in chemistry—felt unprepared for the management aspect of his role. He also sometimes locked heads with colleagues who he felt were keener on maintaining the status quo than helping his team push ahead with innovations, he says.

If he could do it over, he would handle the disagreements with more flexibility, says Moss, who today is a career adviser and manager of the alumni careers program  at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. “In the early days, I had too many arguments and made too many enemies. I should have taken people down to the pub more,” he says. While working on projects across multiple departments, he learned that “having a friendly relationship is critical in any difficult endeavour,” Moss says. And when leading an existing team, building long-lasting trust is crucial. “You need interdependence, deep collaboration, and loyalty if a team is going to face tough times and get through them,” he says.

Moss ultimately honed his people management and negotiating skills with the help of Daniel Goleman's books about emotional intelligence—as well as a healthy dose of trial and error. Over time, Moss also learned the value of developing a broad, strong network before you run into trouble. With each of his colleagues—even the ones he didn’t interact with daily—he made the effort to discover which football club they support, a key hobby, or some other personal detail that would help them connect. “Taking the time to get to know people as individuals provides a foundation [so] that if at some point you formally join the same team, or you know they can help you with a problem, you can pull them in and get advice,” he says. “Or one can go further and give gifts of time or effort, creating a network of reciprocal assistance, helping others in time of need so they can help you in a time of need.”

Don’t make assumptions

Sharon Maguire was 3 years into her second postdoc in reproductive biology when she suddenly realized that she needed to rethink her plans. She had always thought that she would pursue an academic career, but she had come to see that becoming a principal investigator (PI) would take her away from the bench work that she loved. “The idea of competing for funding, trying to get published, leading my own research group, and constantly marketing myself doesn’t motivate me,” she says. But “I hadn't thought about any of that before.”

That was more than 20 years ago. Yet it’s still a common experience among trainees today, notes Maguire, who is now a career consultant at the University of Edinburgh. To avoid finding yourself in a similar situation, take ownership of your career early on, she advises. One key, Maguire highlights, is not making assumptions.

If you think you may be interested in pursuing an academic career, get a feel for what lies ahead by talking to more senior scientists about their work and responsibilities and how these evolved over time. Only with this information will you be able to decide whether this is the career you really want, Maguire emphasizes.

For those who decide that they want to pursue nonacademic careers, don’t assume that leaving academia means throwing away years of training. “I can clearly see how I am using the skills and experience I developed as a researcher—for example, being analytical, managing projects, and communicating to large audiences—while working as a careers consultant,” Maguire says.

Finally, don’t make assumptions about how others will take your decision. When Maguire decided to leave academic research, one of her greatest concerns was how other people would react. To her surprise, she found that most people were supportive, including her PI. She empathizes with current early-career researchers who are worried that they might not receive as positive a response from their PIs or colleagues, but she encourages them to not let that concern—which could end up being unfounded—sway their decision. “There may be some people who might be disappointed,” she acknowledges. “But you can't make your careers decisions based on what somebody else expects of you.”