Given my non-traditional, alt-ac position, I am often asked to give career advice, which still surprises me because I am in no way an expert. I sort of feel like I’ve just fallen into the jobs I’ve had. But there are a few things that I did differently from your average grad student or postdoc that probably helped me get where I am.
I frequently hear graduate students and postdocs repeat the oft-given advice that you should only focus on your research, to the exclusion of all other activities. That anything else will hold you back and delay reaching the ultimate goal of becoming a tenure-track professor. But focusing on your research and publishing like a machine is no guarantee of a tenure-track job. And following this advice can actually harm you if you are interested in any other kind of job – and trust me, even if you think that the only job for you is “professor,” there’s a good chance you’ll change your mind later.
Many Ph.D.’s think that they are not suited for anything other than being a professor. But the truth is that most academic activities involve skills that are applicable to many, many professions. “Critical thinking” and writing skills are often cited, but possibly more important is people management skills.
When I think about what skills and experience got me my current job, there are three main things that stand out – and they are all things that people advised me not to do.
1) Taking a pseudo-postdoc as a lab manager. My postdoc was not a prestigious one. I did not have a fellowship and I did not have any awards. I was a lab manager, but the PI was very supportive of making this position function as a research postdoc in addition to the administrative side of things. The fact that I was able to balance these two sides of the job was important to my current employers, as was my ability to keep a large research lab functioning (including maintaining research permits and safety standards) and to mediate the needs and conflicts of a lab full of people. Much like running a research center!
2) Co-editing an edited volume. Yep, doing an edited volume is definitely one of those things that people warn you away from. But my co-editor and I really wanted to do it, and we worked well together. It took several years longer than we had anticipated, but the end product was worth it. As was the experience of coordinating the work of over 30 researchers from all over the world – again, my current job involves the same frustrations and skills.
3) Collaborating with famously difficult people – and doing so successfully. This works really well if that famously difficult person also writes you glowing letters of recommendation. In my application for an administrative position, I wrote very carefully about the diplomacy required to work successfully with senior researchers. As it turns out, that’s a skill I use almost every day now!
You never know where you are going to end up, or what skills will be useful to you and your future employers. Just because that guy in your lab with a paper in Nature says you shouldn’t do something doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. Follow your interests and opportunities and see where they lead you – and pay attention to the less obvious skills you develop as a result.