Advice for Aspiring Alt-Acs

August 8, 2013, 1:02 pm

In a few days, I am meeting with a small group of graduate students and postdocs who are interested in alternative academic careers. I’ll be honest – I have no idea what to tell them. I will tell them about all of the different kinds of jobs that I am aware of, like mine, and science writing, and administration, and biological research stations, and doing research for other kinds of organizations. But there’s no good way to go about searching for jobs like these, unfortunately. It’s hard to give people a path to follow when, by your own admission, you stumbled upon your current career. Serendipity seems to be a theme in many alt-ac narratives, and that is just not inspiring to students who are worried about their futures.

I will also give them my usual spiel about getting well-rounded experience and cultivating skills that most graduate advisers do not value and in fact may advise against in favor of spending more time in the lab or writing. For example:

  • Lab management: Instead of a more “traditional” postdoctoral fellowship, I took a job as a lab manager, which allowed me to gain excellent management experience while still having time to do research. I’m convinced it was my experience in that position that made me an attractive candidate for my current job, yet at the time, several people advised me against taking it, because it wasn’t prestigious enough and it wasn’t focused enough on independent research.
  • Teaching and educational outreach activities: Many graduate advisers frown on their students spending too much time teaching while in graduate school. While teaching can eat up lots of time and energy, it is also great experience and great preparation not only for those on the professorial track, but for anyone who wants a job working with people. Science outreach is something that many organizations are interested in now, including research centers like mine, and it is an important skill.
  • Science writing, including blogging: Writing is one of our most important skills as academics, and being able to write for a broader audience is more important than many academics will admit. Good, accessible writing can improve your chances of getting into many careers.

Anyone else have any advice to share?

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