There are several uncomfortable realities one must face as a grad student or postdoc in academia, and one of the biggest are that there are not enough TT jobs for everyone that wants one. In fact, there are far less. This reality means that many people who start off in the direction of a TT faculty position will end up in another career to use their skills. These are often referred to as "alternative" careers, based on the bias that every trainee wants to end up just like their mentors. In reality, much like the number of "pre-med" students at a university, a lot of people either decide they want to do something else or have that decision made for them along the way.
As is often pointed out, however, the mentors in academic science are almost exclusively people have taken the TT direction. If you want advice on navigating the road to this type of job, most of us will have no shortage of pointers. On the other hand, if you asked me the best way to go into science editing for a major journal after a PhD, I'm afraid I don't know the answer. So, as mentors, how do we adequately prepare our students and postdocs for appealing careers outside of the ones we inhabit?
I'll confess now that I don't have all the answers here. In fact, if you read often you'll know that I almost never have all the answers, merely opinions based on my observations. But I did pose this question to some early-career colleagues, who re-affirmed what I was thinking and added a number of good points. I would be interested to hear what readers in both the mentoring and trainee positions have found helpful.
The first point that was brought up is the overlap between what people need to accomplish to be considered excellent candidates for either a TT job or many other science careers. The ability to communicate orally and in writing, a record of good science (publications and/or grants) and critical thinking.
Another point that was made was the importance of communication with the public. While we probably don't stress this enough in science, generally speaking, the ability to explain science to the general public in writing or in a succinct oral synopsis is exceedingly important in jobs like industry, journalism, public policy, etc.
Networking. As a trainee who is considering or committed to a career outside the tenure track, it is essential to make the contacts that will help you get there. If your PI can help make those connections, great. If not, it's important to find a way to develop them yourself.
As a PI, I think it is important for us to not only be open to trainees pursuing non-TT options, but also to be able to steer them in the right direction to get the advice they will need to succeed. As long as (and here can be the sticking point) their career trajectory does not directly conflict with the production of good science in the lab and the completion of their degree.
As for how that works, I can only tell you what I have tried and happily hear what others have found works.
- Having trainees thinking of non-TT careers invite a person of interest for a departmental seminar.
- Putting funds towards conference or workshop attendance of interest to the trainee that will help with both their current project and future goals.
- Opening a dialog between a trainee and someone already established in their field of interest.