Non-standard Careers Advice for Post-grads

I think I promised to write these notes up yonks ago. I attended an event called Pathways run by my university that is aimed at giving careers advice to post-grads looking to move outside of academia. I have to say, it was pretty damn good. The format of the event was a series of parallel panel Q&A sessions with former University post-grads at various stages in their careers from all sorts of different fields.

I attended “It’s okay to change your mind”, “Industry versus Academia”, “Using a Medical/Life Sciences PhD”, ” What do employers look for in PhDs?” and finally, “Marketing Your Skills!”. After being made to feel utterly incompetent and rubbish at just about every soft skill PhDs are supposed to develop during the introductory lecture, with absolutely no clue what I want to do with my life, I wasn’t expecting to get much out of the event. Fortunately, my expectations were far exceeded.

There are almost as many careers options as there are implements!


The general gist of “It’s okay to change your mind” was “it’s okay to change your mind”! Funny that. We heard from people who had done Business/Finance as post-grads and found, after several years working as Analytical Quants for Big BankingTM, that actually they disagreed with the morals of the whole system. We heard from someone who had started out as a forensic scientist, working as one for several years before the UK government decided it was a fantastic idea to outsource and downsize UK Police forensic departments. He now works as a course manager for the NHS Clinical Biochemists Training Programme, after going through the course himself and doing time as a Clinical Biochemist.

We got quite a bit of info about the NHS Scientists Programme and it turns out there are more background science roles than I knew. Embryology/IVF specialists, haematologists, pathologists, clinical microbiologists and genetic counsellors are just some of the options. It’s a mix of on the job training, lectures and formal assessment, and although it’s super competitive if you’re entering fresh out of Undergrad, with a life science PhD behind you, you’re several steps ahead. The course intake is quite small and isn’t anywhere near just undergrads. Now, I know I’ve got practically zero interest in doing any more bench science, or anything that involves sitting any more exams, but it’s a good range of options for those who want to make a real and direct difference to people’s lives.

Other things were discussed during the session, although I’ve forgotten them now, but the best bit about this Q&A was the title of it. I’ve known in a vague sort of way that the idea of a set career within one company is long dead and that the pattern now of many job changes that eventually turn into a cohesive story if you squint sideways at it is likely here to stay, but it was encouraging to hear real stories from real people. Apparently these types of career are called ‘portfolio careers‘. Also reassuring was that fact that all of them had been unemployed for stretches of time while they were trying to figure out what to do next.

Industry versus Academia” was by far the best session I attended all day. A few boring questions were asked to start with but then some brave soul asked the killer question: “I’ve always assumed that working in Industry requires having no morals and being all about the money – is this true?” I thank her from the bottom of my heart because it’s an assumption I’d held since before I started undergrad. In my mind “Industry” = big pharma, you know, the companies that charge a fortune for life-saving drugs, that cling on to patents for dear life and that haven’t spent any significant money on new antibiotics since the 70’s. Turns out this isn’t always true and those companies have legit financial reasons for what they do. Their failures are just as much failures of the capitalist system as of the companies themselves.

The advantages of Industry according to the speakers were:

  1. No worry about continuity of funding for R&D
  2. Far less of a “publish or perish” atmosphere
  3. Clear career progression routes – no tenure track malarkey
  4. Well defined, short-term projects with clear pass/fail end goals
  5. Pressured deadlines at the expense of ‘flexibility’

Another benefit specifically of big industry is that their graduate schemes (also open to PhDs) let you experience just about every area of their business you could wish. It’s relatively easy to move into management or marketing or procurement or what have you, once you’ve done a bit of time at the R&D bench.

It’s also worth noting that big industry isn’t your only option. There are SMEs to consider, the Small and Medium-sized Enterprises that focus on different areas to classical big industry. Examples include university start-ups, antibody-making specialists, sustainable biofuels companies, and specialist drug-development companies focusing on neglected diseases. One advantage of them is that it is easy to get to grips with different areas of the business very quickly and there may be more opportunity for stepping sideways and up . After all, if there are only ten of you in the company, and someone’s off sick or no holiday someone has to pick up the slack. One of the speakers had gone into a small physics/tech based company and worked his way up the structure over about five years or so, putting him in the ideal position to move to another new start up once he fancied a new challenge.

For myself, the description of industrial working practises, such as tight deadlines and customer-focused projects, and the better career stability (nothing like the drop-off rates of the academic sciences leaky pipeline) sounded much more like me. One of the things I loathe about PhD study is that it is entirely self-directed with way too much flexibility for my tastes. There’s so much to do and so many new avenues to explore that I am like to become completely overwhelmed and stressed out as a result. The one thing I miss from school is the deadlines with consequences. Unless you’re an expert at setting your own deadlines and feeling obliged to stick to them, PhD study under a hands-off supervisor is a recipe for procrastination and disaster.

The single key bit of advice the speakers had in this session was about communication skills. I’ll discuss these in my next post because it was a recurring theme, and if you’ve had any exposure to a careers service, you already know this is a biggie.

What about you? Best bit of careers advice you’ve ever been given or careers counsellor who actually knew what they were talking about?


3 thoughts on “Non-standard Careers Advice for Post-grads

  1. I saw this yesterday but I was on the bus and couldn’t respond. I love this post! Although I was initially like “noooooo Nessie I need at least ONE FEMALE FRIEND who is happy with her molecular/cellular biology PhD!” I am glad that you are looking into supportive options and choices for yourself as well. Dr Glass has been on the same Leaving Academia programs but he wandered back out and promptly forgot about half of the stuff I was interested in hearing about, so I am extra glad to get these notes from you.

    The part about portfolio careers is particularly interesting to me, as that’s what I have and it’s how I’m consciously building my career.

    Did you approach the seminars with a distinct career option in mind to steer towards?

    And finally, in personal-relation news, I have accepted a job offer in scientific publishing. As I am not eligible for PhD funding in the UK until I have residency, and as my current PI is moving, I had to find a job that would take me from Now until Then. I sniffed around for another lab job at the university but it wasn’t cheering me up at all. It became increasingly obvious that what they really wanted was someone with a PhD to play at being a pet lab rat and general bitch, not a professional research assistant with her own motivations, portfolio and h-index. I began to feel increasingly that these PIs were just looking for someone to suck dry and toss away, and with starving PhDs to be had at a dime a dozen they made it clear that I wasn’t the juiciest orange on the market.

    From the interview alone, the scientific publishing job made me feel cheered up, revitalized and motivated. They actually asked me for my ideas, feelings and input at the interview, and were interested in the responses I gave them. They gave me a cup of tea and were interested in what I had to offer. They were all women, nicely groomed and diverse, with lovely social skills. These are all little things, but the result was a work culture that felt professional, organized and motivated. I was like “WHAT IS THIS WONDERLAND.”

    What I’m saying is that academia is lovely but it is definitely not the edge of the world.

    • Awww, I’m glad you like it and find it useful. There is part 2, and possibly part 3, on the way with the rest of my notes so hopefully more juicy stuff.
      I can name two women in the three research groups I’m associated with who actually like their PhDs and are doing well in them. I can name several who are doing fairly well and will manage to pull it out of the bag by the end. Does that reassure you somewhat?

      By the sounds of it, portfolio careers, especially if deliberately framed as such, can be a real advantage. The having of a coherent story for your job history seemed to be the main thing; being able to draw out the points that link them and made them interesting or useful to you is one thing interviewers look for.

      I certainly didn’t have a distinct career option in mind, I still don’t. I went to the industry seminar out of curiosity and a feeling that at this stage I shouldn’t be dismissing anything out of hand when I’ve got no idea and very limited knowledge of other areas. On that basis I’ve been to talks on Science Publishing by a Nature Journal Editor and IP by a former Unilever In-house Consultant. I should totally write those up too!

      Major congrats on the new job. I’m *very* happy for you! What is the science publishing role going to involve? Exciting things, I hope. 🙂

      Lab tech jobs are an interesting collection from what I’ve seen. We’ve got a lab tech in our group who’s been working with us for a year, and she’s in more of a dogsbody role but she is the nicest, most helpful, lairy, petite Mancunian you’ll ever meet. She really didn’t like her last job and was thinking of a career change but in this position she’s been doing all sorts and has been learning lots of new stuff. Another lab tech I knew had a supervisor who gave her rather a lot of flexibility in designing experiments and choosing what to do next, within a set area, who was planning more clinical related things next or a PhD. Then there are people like our old lab manager/senior technician who knew absolutely everything and had all sorts of good ideas, and a wide range of experience. In other words, there is a variety, or has been in the past, but it’s hard to find the good stuff.

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