Overcoming the Fear of the Unknown
We all have a fear of the unknown, particularly when it comes to making career choices. But success comes to those who acknowledge it and overcome it with information and preparation: this is what I took away from the recent biomedical non-academic career workshop. Traditionally, academic careers have been considered the norm and pursuing non-academic careers is the “alternative.” Whether it’s due to limited research funding or the desire to see tangible impacts of one’s research on the community, the number of graduate students opting for non-academic “alternatives” has seen a significant rise. In recognition of this increased interest, The Graduate School launched the Professional Development Grant to fund field-specific resources to prepare and inform graduate students about all their career options.
As student representative of the immunology department, I worked with our program coordinator for graduate studies, Jennifer Goins, and one of our faculty members, Dr. Marcella Sarzotti-Kelsoe, to apply for the grant. Our goal was to provide a dedicated platform for discussing the plethora of non-academic career options that would complement our department career lunches and the content presented at the annual NIEHS Biomedical Career Symposium. Applying for this grant also entailed writing our (or at least my) first non-scientific proposal, which was a unique experience in itself. Results from a pre-workshop survey conducted in the department supported our grant proposal strongly, in terms of the need for more such opportunities as well as the peaking interest of students in non-academic careers. In order to facilitate collaboration, the grant was jointly awarded to the departments of Immunology, and Pharmacology and Cancer Biology. With additional funding from both departments and the School of Medicine, we were able to expand the workshop to include all biomedical graduate students and postdocs.
Held in early June this year, the workshop included ten Duke alumni working in a spectrum of non-academic careers, including program management, regulatory affairs, quality assurance, clinical project management, medical consulting, research development, and science writing. It was very heartening to hear all workshop panelists share their personal experiences and choices that had led them to their current positions. Their stories made me realize that it was acceptable to not have a defined career path from the very beginning, and that it was a process of exploring one’s evolving interests and preferences. Many speakers emphasized the importance of having a Ph.D. even outside academia. They acknowledged that after a rigorous Ph.D. training program they had not only gained scientific expertise and understanding, but also key life skills like critical thinking, communicating ideas, management, and the ability to rise above failure.
The panel discussions were engaging, and several common, burning questions were answered, including “how to network.” All panelists agreed that networking is absolutely critical for job search, but also that it should not be as terrifying or embarrassing as it is often thought to be. They suggested building quality contacts with people in your closer networks, and asking them to keep their ears open for opportunities that may interest you. They also reminded the audience that people love to talk about themselves, making it surprisingly easy to learn about different jobs by just meeting with various people. One of our panelists, Misha Johnson, had great three-point advice for the audience: “Learn, participate (network), and tap your resources.” During this workshop, many other tangible resources were highlighted, such as The Graduate School’s professional development events, Duke regulatory affairs training programs, Graduate School certificate programs, and even a job opening at the Duke Human Vaccine Institute!
To conclude, the workshop provided a platform for students to network with alumni, and to learn about the various aspects of different non-academic careers. As Cynthia Kuhn, a professor in pharmacology and a member of the organizing committee, said in her closing remarks, the workshop provided an opportunity to “focus on building a career, not a job.”
Sumedha Roy is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of Immunology at Duke. She studies the role of transcription factors (E and Id proteins) in the development of Natural Killer T cells.