If you have spent any time in the twittersphere lately you may have come across the NatureJobs social media campaign #ScientistOnTheMove. The aim of this campaign is to demonstrate and promote the mobility of science i.e. the different jobs out there for those with traditional science training. Talking about the different careers outside of academia that value the skills acquired through science PhD training is something I am very passionate about. It was actually one of the main inspirations for Franklin Women. Hence, when I came across the shout out from Nature on twitter for scientists who have made a move from academia, I put my hand up! In their latest blog post NatureJobs showcased 4 researchers who have transitioned into non-academic roles (but still in science), and I am one of them (hoorah!). You can read the post here. They also put together a storify where you can see all the tweets using the ScientistOnTheMove hashtag to follow the conversation.
The NatureJobs blog gives you a snap shot of each of these researchers and their career moves but I thought some might be interested in the nitty gritties. So below I have copied my full responses to NatureJobs that go into where I started, where I am now, and all the factors that contributed to what happened in between. Although it was extremely hard at the time, I am now proud of my achievements since leaving academia and hope others might relate to my personal journey (though acknowledge many are on a completely different journey, and won't).
With health and medical research funding as competitive as ever yet the focus on STEM innovation growing, it is a good time to talk about the different roles where those with technical scientific acumen are needed. These conversations need to be encouraged not only among scientists but also the universities who train science graduates, senior academics who are mentor junior researchers and those in different sectors who are our potential employers. Its great to see Nature leading this important chat...
1) What was your previous role? I followed a very traditional science-training pathway in Australia. I completed a Bachelor of Science degree, followed by a honors degree then a Phd. Both of my post-graduate degrees were completed at a leading Australian medical research facility – The Queensland Institute of Medical Research. At the time I left academia, I was a Research Officer completing my first post-doctoral position researching novel vaccines against the bacterium group A streptococcus (which causes everything from a sore throat to flesh eating disease and serious follow on condition rheumatic fever).
2) Why did you decide to leave? I was at the stage of my career where the next step was to apply for my own research funding. I felt this was when I really needed to think about if this was the path I wanted to follow. The thought of jumping on the grant funding merry-go round was not appetising – I saw more senior colleagues spend most of the year at their desks writing proposals and waiting for that dreaded funding announcement that would determine their future (both professionally and personally). I didn’t want that, especially when funding outcomes seemed less based on merit or potential but more on luck. I didn’t want my future based on a toss of a coin. If I was going move to the next stage of my career, I wanted it to be on my terms, not because I was dropped by the ‘system’ with no where to go.
I also realised that I had other skills outside of the technical science that I could take to other roles. During my PhD I did a lot of advocacy work spending time visiting schools and corporate and community groups sharing my and my colleagues research. I enjoyed communicating science, building networks and coming up with initiatives to further promote health and medical research among the community. I felt that there had to be a role where I could use both my communication and technical science skills to contribute to the health science field, but I wasn’t sure what it was!
3) What was the most challenging part of making the decision to leave? The academic culture was the biggest challenge for me. There was a sentiment in the lab that if you left you were a failure and couldn’t hack it in competitive grant environment (presumably because you weren’t a good scientist). Those who did transition to other health science roles (usually industry) were considered ‘traitors’, which is ridiculous! This meant that it wasn’t easy to talk to your peers about wanting to leave academia or seek advice on where you could go/how to go about it. There was also a fear that if you did share that you were completing a PhD but thought of using it in a different career path you wouldn’t be given the same opportunities by your research group as someone who wanted to pursue an academic career.
For me this meant I grappled with this big decision on my own. But I was confident that I was making the right decision for myself, even though that wasn’t necessarily the right decision for others at the same stage of career as me, and that was ok. I recently read Amy Poehler’s biography where she cited this quote ‘good for you and not for me’. This statement perfectly sums up my feelings at the time I decided to leave. When I had the courage to make the move was when I had accepted that it was ok for me to not want an academic career and that I could still have a successful career and contribute to health science field outside of academia.
4) What was the most challenging part of making the transition to your new role? Finding other health science roles that would value my scientific training but which would also allow me to diversify my skills, was a challenge. In the current science training model there is very little conversation about career paths other than academia hence when you decide you want to leave you feel you have to leave the science field all together and reinvent yourself. This frustrates me as we are potentially losing all of these highly trained, skilled individuals from the sector all together (especially women!) rather than them being utilised in all the roles out there needed for the full potential of health and medical research to be achieved.
Once I had found potential roles the next challenge was how to ‘pitch’ my skill sets appropriately for that role. I had lots of experience writing academic curriculum vitae’s and interviews which included long lists of laboratory techniques, conference abstracts and publications but had no idea on how to translate this to transferrable skills that would be of interests to health science organisations outside of academia. But I soon learnt!
4) What is your new role and are you enjoying it? I am now a Research Fellow in the Policy Support team at the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance. Here I work with colleagues from diverse backgrounds to review and appraise evidence on vaccine preventable diseases and vaccines to inform recommendations for national immunisation policy. It is such an interesting role that relies on my ability to understand immunisation science, as well as the scientific method but also my communication skills - all this technical scientific information needs to be digested and translated into policy. I also get to liaise with various scientific groups from vaccine companies, regulatory bodies, government departments, National peak bodies and researchers from various fields. I enjoy seeing how the hard work of my academic research colleagues directly feeds into informing public health policy.
I am very glad I made the move (though I do miss running around the lab some times). It has made me realise that while grant funded health and medical research is the foundations of the health science field and our researchers are leaders in the field, there are many other players who have just a vital role in health discovery and innovation and talented scientifically trained people are needed in all of these roles. I am excited about the opportunities ahead for those in science. So much so that I have started a social enterprise, Franklin Women, which aims to support Australian women staying in the health sciences careers, whether it be in or transiting outside of academia to roles like these. The last thing we want is to loose amazing scientists from the field a because we are not talking about the different opportunities that exist.At FranklinWomen we are also trying to showcase the different careers women in health and medical research are pursuing with a new blogger sharing their journey each month. So far we have had myself talking about policy, Sarah on medical writing, Clare on being a Clinical Trials Coordinator and recently Juliette on her healthcare consultancy role. Want to share your story? Please drop us a line!