So how DO we mentor people for "alternative" careers?

Feb 23 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

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.

14 responses so far

  • joshphd says:

    I don't think that a TT faculty would be qualified to advise his students in an alternate career path (unless they were in said position before becoming TT). I agree that networking is very important! Making your own connections are great, and it would also be great of your PI to introduce you to people he/she knows in various career paths.

  • Dr. O says:

    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.Agreed completely with this point PLS. My former mentor was actually great at this. Throughout her career she made numerous connections in government, industry, and other "alternative" careers, and would put students and postdocs interested in these careers in contact with these individuals.I also really like your idea of inviting speakers from outside of academia...sounds like a great way to get some "outside" perspective!

  • biochem belle says:

    I would argue, first and foremost (but unfortunately lacking among many TT faculty, esp. at R1s), is the attitude about trainees pursuing different paths. Recognize that not everyone wants to head down the TT path, even from the start of a postdoc. And don't act like they're selling their soul to the devil b/c they don't want that. I've encountered more than a few trainees who are afraid to tell their advisers what they really want to do. Finally, it's ok to admit that you don't know expectations down a given career path. Just be willing to let people explore.

  • Cloud says:

    As someone who made the switch to industry after defending her PhD, I agree with biochem belle- start by challenging the attitude that anything other than a tenure track job is failure on some level. It isn't. There are plenty of people in "alternative" careers that actually could have made it in academia, but decided that it wasn't the path they wanted to take. And it is not because we're some sort of wimps. Some of those "alternative" jobs are every bit as challenging as tenure track professor. (I'm not saying that you personally have this attitude- just that it is an attitude that I remember well from academia.)Networking really is the best way to find mentors (and jobs!) outside of academia. As you start graduating students and have postdocs leave your lab, you'll start to have a ready made network of people doing other things- use that network to help your current students make connections. Don't wait for your students to ask about a career path. Just invite your former students and postdocs back to give a talk or come to lab meeting. Most of us will try to make time for these sorts of events, because we remember how hard it was to make the transition.

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    Yes, the attitude that some PIs encourage of "TT or nothing" is ridiculous and many excellent people find non-academic jobs that suit them better. As a mentor, however, the difficulty comes in recognizing when and how to direct trainees to other people who can help them get to where they want to be. This can be less straightforward than it appears.

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    I should add that there is the flip side - where it is clear to the mentor that a trainees skills would be excellent and better utilized in a non-academic field, but the trainee is intent on a TT position. This is a far more difficult situation and, of course, the mentor is not always right here, either.

  • Cloud says:

    Are you on LinkedIn? If you aren't, you probably should be if you really want to use your network to help your trainees. It is exceedingly common in industry to get a LinkedIn email from one of your "first order" connections, introducing someone they know who might be interested in doing whatever it is you do. The standard protocol is to have an "informational interview" in which the trainee asks the potential role model questions about his/her career path. I don't know anyone who is unwilling to answer these questions. Most people like to talk about themselves. It is my standard practice to meet the interviewer for lunch if he/she is local. If he/she is a student or a postdoc, I pay for lunch. I think this is a fairly common practice.My impression is that grad students and postdocs are reticent to network in this way, but it really is standard practice in industry.

  • Pika says:

    Not sure if this is viable in your field, but how about starting a collaboration with industry in which your PhD student (who's interested in the alternative career) gets involved? This way, the student gets connections in industry and can get relevant information from collaborators who are in the kind of career that he/she would like to eventually choose for him/herself after graduation.

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    Pika, the idea is to facilitate the outside training and networking for a student or postdoc, not do everything for them. I would not be opposed to things like setting up an industry collaboration if the research program warranted it, but things get dicey when one does this primarily for training or networking purposes. Some fields lend themselves to this better than others.

  • tideliar says:

    This. Do this. It is YOUR career, you must steer it. 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.

  • biochem belle says:

    Tideliar, your advice is right on for anyone. As trainees, we look for guidance and help from our advisers, but in the end, we have to take responsibility for our own careers.

  • Anon says... says:

    I would imagine that through the PI's own career, the PI would know many people (friends from grad school & postdoc) who have gone on to other careers. Putting the trainee in contact with those people will give the trainee access to people who would have good advice for "alternative" careers.

  • Dr. C says:

    I wish I could anonymously forward this to my grad advisor. when it came time for the talk about what to do post-PhD, I was terrified, I knew I didn't want to post-doc or go TT but wanted to teach science. Advisor was angry, hurt, disappointed, and then refused to read anything I wrote (ie dissertation) or write letters of rec. for 4 months. This was part of the reason I had to take an extra semester. I ended up with an NTT teaching job (that I love), and though all those in my former dept fully expect me to leave after 3 yrs and go for a TT job somewhere else, I have no plans for that. funny enough, advisor & I had had many conversations about alternative careers- we both discussed how great it would be to have post-docs that were 1/2 research and 1/2 through the school of education. but I guess as good as those ideas were, they weren't what advisor had envisioned for me.

  • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    how on earth did I miss this post the first time?!I wrote a post on the Alternative Scientist blog a while ago on a related issue, but from the trainee's perspective. I suggested that trainees identify the parts of academia they enjoy the most and that might therefore make a suitable career for them, and then try to find a way to do more of that activity while still in the lab, to get a taste for it and build up experience for their CV. The PI could definitely help with that; if you have a trainee who wants to get into scientific editing, for example, get them to edit other trainees' manuscripts. If they want to get into the patent / IP side of things, see if the tech transfer office need help proofreading their documents, and so on. And I second the earlier comments about introducing your trainees to your non-academic network!Thank you for doing your part to make things easier for those of us who realise early on that we don't want to be a PI!

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