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Building a Good Life Outside of Academia

Building a Good Life Outside of Academia

If you have a PhD in life science, are working toward one, or just considering it with an eye toward getting an academic job, the math is not in your favor. There are way more PhDs than the number of academic slots available. How that gets resolved with respect to your career was the core of my discussion with Ali Divan, Founder of Trulitica, where he is helping life science PhDs get into biotech.

Don’t miss the SPECIAL OFFER at the bottom of this post.

For many, there is a mismatch between expectations of what a career in life science might look like and where you end up working. But it’s not all bad. There are good jobs to be had. Just maybe not the ones you expected.

Ali’s job is helping folks reframe their skills (and conversations) to open up new opportunities.

A math problem

Our discussion covered the challenge from several angles. PIs need to generate publications. Historically, that has been done in the process of training scientists who then go on to train more scientists in their own quest for publications.

This has led to an oversupply of scientists looking for academic jobs. Entering graduate school now betting on an uncertain outcome eight years down the road (generously) is risky. But should you give up your dreams of doing science? No. The system is definitely ripe for change. At the same time, it’s important to be open to new possibilities. That’s good advice for anyone looking eight years ahead.

We don't really walk in and go, “Yeah, I'm, I'm going to do some career planning. I'm going to figure out what I'm going to do.” Most of us, we go, “Hey, I'm pretty good at school. I should keep doing it.”

Universities need to change

Check out Ali’s article at the end of this post for details. Ali says some of them are aware:

What I've seen when I started speaking to the deans of graduate schools at universities, they're very well aware of this. And a lot of them, what they say is, “You know, I think we just need to be a little bit more responsible at the time that graduate students are applying and beginning.

We need to tell them what they're signing up for and what the landscape is” so that they don't show up thinking, as I thought, that if you just show up and be excellent and try hard enough, that's enough because (for) everything up to that point in your life, that was enough.

The other challenge for PhD graduates is that university career centers are set up for undergrads. For a new PhD, your PI and whatever network you have created through conferences, your committee etc. is your career center. The problem is that the only job they can likely help you get is one that looks exactly like theirs. Because of the bottleneck or for other reasons, some people will decide to leave academia. But their training (they’re 30+ years old now) has not prepared them.

The rest is up to you

How do you build a good life as a scientist? Isn’t that the real goal? Do good science, make discoveries, solve problems and enjoy all the other things life has to offer?

What should you do if you had planned on a career as academic scientist and now need to look elsewhere? And how do you make that transition? How do you frame the skills you have in a way that’s relevant for employers?

Here’s the good news: Ali says most of what you need is around strategy and communication, not hard skills. You’re only a few months away from being ready.

The way that I help them is we first start out by sort of dismantling some of the practices that are that are so common and valued in academia. And so, as an example, in academia, it's highly valued to debate.

It's highly valued to ask anytime you feel like you have a question or an argument. You just, you put it out. What I generally say is, well, in the industrial setting, when you don't have time, you have to have a very good reason for meetings. It's much more valuable to listen…

That’s just one example of the difference you might find in industry.

Focus on skills as opposed to topics

You must realize that the people who will be hiring you probably don’t have a problem that your dissertation will solve. They have problems that require similar skills. Talk about those.

The first step is networking. Ali also gives some great recommendations here. I could go on forever about this because there is good networking and bad networking. I’m sure I have been an instigator and a recipient of both types. No one enjoys it until they really understand it. But it doesn’t have to be uncomfortable. Be human. Build a relationship and don’t be in a rush to hand someone your resume.

This is a valuable skill worth developing for the long haul. You had a long view when you started grad school didn’t you? I’d add that getting good at making conversation with anyone, is not only a good skill to have, it actually will bring you joy.

I like what Ali said here:

…so if somebody says something nice to you, and they're sincere, and they say, “Oh, hey, it looks like we also both study at this university, or I see you're a fellow immunologist… You know, my default answer, when I don't know anything, is cytokines. That'd make them laugh and they'll go, okay, who is this, who is this guy?

My own perspective

I find this whole topic fascinating. I went to graduate school because I didn’t look around enough to see the opportunities a bachelor’s degree would give me. I thought, “Who’s going to hire me?” My undergrad advisor founded a biotech with some of my other professors. I didn’t even ask them for fear of being laughed at. They wouldn’t have.

It took me too long to realize that I wasn’t cut out for the bench. I feel fortunate to have eventually found positions using what I had learned that were scientifically stimulating, fun and rewarding. Personally, I enjoy a broader view of cutting-edge science as opposed to chasing a single thread to the end in the hope of a significant discovery.

I also hope that the life science ecosystem (universities, funding agencies etc.) can evolve to help people find their path more quickly while maintaining the pipeline of PhD scientists we need to do basic research. Because beyond the bench, we need more science and appreciation of science in our communities.

There are so many ways to use your scientific knowledge and skills. I promise that there is a job out there that you will enjoy. I only wish I had met Ali thirty-five years ago.

SAVE 10% on the Trulitica Biotech Careers Course (Affiliate link valid until 5pm PST, April 30, 2024.) Use Code: LIFESCIENCE

And if you’re in a hurry, you can hire Ali to work with you at Trulitica.

How universities can prepare Ph.D.s for a changing job market.

Your deepest insights are your best branding. I’d love to help you share them. Chat with me about custom content for your life science brand. Or visit my website.

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