Webinar report: Career options for researchers

March’s #ECRWednesday webinar explored how to transition into non-academic careers.
Inside eLife
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Moderator: Indrani Mukherjee, Science Editor at the Journal of Visualized Experiments (JoVE).

Speakers: Ribhu Nayar, Senior Scientist, Immuno-oncology at KSQ Therapeutics, Inc; Emma Pewsey, Associate features editor, eLife Sciences Publications, Ltd; and Ben Tolley, European Patent Attorney, FRKelly.

Jumping from academia to another career may be daunting, and it can be hard to know where to start. Here is some advice from those who took the plunge.

I want to leave academia: where do I start?

As Ben Tolley explains, it is important to take the time to think about you want, and which jobs exist that fit those criteria: “I actually decided to take six months off and disappeared to South America, and I used that time to write down exactly what I wanted from a job. When I came back I really knew what I was looking for and I was able to focus my attention to exactly where I wanted to apply.” A good starting point is to examine which areas of your current position you enjoy the most. Do you prefer pipetting or reading papers? Leading outreach activities at the local school or peer-reviewing articles?

How can I take the first steps?

It can be difficult to know how to transform a vague project into a concrete job offer. The first move should be to gather information about what the career entails and what skills are required. Career panel discussions, company visits or job adverts are good places to check. Networking is also key to understanding a new industry. “I reached out to a lot of people: fellow graduate students who had made the transition, people I had met at networking events, sometimes even just cold emails,” remembers Ribhu Nayar.

Take the opportunity to develop skills on your own. If you want to get into publishing, “do peer-review articles. That counts. Just reach out to journals and offer yourself as a peer reviewer,” says Indrani Mukherjee. Interested in science writing? Start penning articles for blogs, student magazines or institutional newsletters. “You will be asked to provide a writing sample to show that you can write for a broad audience” when applying for editing or writing jobs, explains Emma Pewsey.

Ultimately though, Pewsey urges that you should “apply for jobs; never hold yourself back. The only way you can guarantee you won’t get a job is by not applying!”

Postdoc, short postdoc, no postdoc?

Timing a career change can be a balancing act, especially at the postdoc stage. Yet it is often better to make the move as soon as you know that academia is not for you. For potential employers, it would count positively that you realised you wanted to move into a different career direction, and then acted on it.

Do my publications (or lack thereof…) matter?

This very much depends on the type of career. Mukherjee, a science editor working in publishing, felt that “they liked the fact that I had been on both sides of the table.” For Pewsey and Tolley however, their publications were less important than knowing how academic research is carried out. “Research papers are a measure of productivity, and they show you can lead a project from start to end,” tempers Nayar. “However, if you think that you are not going to get a paper out of your postdoc or grad school, it’s very important to start thinking early on about how you’re going to find your next position, and to keep that at the back of your mind. Do not stay in your current position for many years in the hope you may get a paper.”

Can I go back?

“When I took the job at eLife my PhD supervisor sat down with me and said: ‘Think hard, there are some careers that if you leave you cannot go back into,’” recalls Pewsey. “I disagree. In fact at eLife we had someone just go back to academia after nearly a year doing community management work with us.” Especially for careers enmeshed with academia, it is possible to go back – often with skillsets that are useful for research. Ultimately, “don’t be afraid to make a career change. Unless you try you won’t know whether you enjoy it” encourages Nayar.

What to expect when you are starting

Organising your time, prioritising tasks and juggling deadlines: while in academia, time is your own, workplaces may have tight schedules, multi-team projects and conflicting priorities. This will require learning strong time management skills. Setting off on a new career path can also be, as Tolley puts it, “a humbling experience […] there is no place for ego, you’re essentially starting again.” Yet career changes are often very rewarding – if not just for the possibility to enjoy weekends and to finally “leave work at work”!