Opportunities: The Golden Chapter

This week, I participated in a roundtable discussion on graduate education and career development with representatives from academia, industry, and federal agencies that sponsor scientific research and development. Among the many problems we discussed was the difficulty new Ph.D.s often face in leaving academia for the wider worlds of industry, government, and nontraditional career paths such as business or law. Although Ph.D. programs do a marvelous job of preparing scientists for careers in academic research, they don’t provide much preparation for, or exposure to, the other career paths available to young scientists–even though most Ph.D.s end up outside the ivory tower. Worse, professors often project indifference or contempt for any career other than academic research.

Roundtable participants suggested many possible fixes for this problem. Perhaps we should have more industrial internships for science Ph.D.s. Maybe we should change the structure of funding so that graduate students are supported by fellowships rather than by research grants so that they are less tied to particular projects. But all these measures require changes in the system–something no one should ever count on. So, what can graduate students and postdocs do to lower barriers to their own career transitions?

The answer, I believe, is quite a lot! To illustrate, I will tell you two (mostly) real-life stories of Ph.D. scientists who made smooth transitions from graduate school to their next professional step.

Cultivating opportunities through collaborations

The first story is my own. When I was in grad school, I faced a dilemma. Nearly all of my adviser’s graduate students used the same analytical technique, which oriented all of us toward a similar set of problems. I was doing reasonably well with my research, but I didn’t want to continue to do the same sort of work beyond my Ph.D. I felt stuck.

One day, at a technical session of a major scientific meeting, I heard a speaker discuss a very interesting problem he was studying using techniques very different from those used by our group. As I listened to his talk, I realized that combining our approach with his would provide new insight into the problem he was trying to solve.

So I cornered him and told him my idea. Without checking with my adviser, I volunteered to do some work to determine if we could see something new and interesting. He was delighted. A few weeks later, he mailed me samples. I chose a long weekend when my adviser was sure to be away. The results were great, and when my adviser came back the following week, I showed him what I had done. (It is always easier to ask forgiveness than permission!) He was impressed and encouraged me to continue.

That collaboration resulted in a very nice publication and an invitation to join my collaborator’s research group as a postdoc. The job ad was written with me in mind, and I was, from the outset, the only candidate seriously considered. The transition was painless and allowed me to learn a new set of techniques while broadening the range of problems I was able to address.

I sought out an opportunity to do some additional work in an area that interested me, and I ended up constructing my next job opportunity.

The Golden Chapter–Incorporating the outside world into your thesis

J. (not her real initial) was a friend in graduate school. J. was in a different department, but our research groups collaborated because we worked on similar problems.

J. and I became friends because we discovered we shared a common interest: science policy. J. often lamented that she wanted to move into a policy career but felt that she would have to first finish her science Ph.D. before applying for a policy fellowship. It seemed like a long road.

J. was reading a local newspaper when she came across a story that sparked an idea. One of the largest Superfund sites in the country was about 100 miles (160 km) south of our location. A naturally occurring deposit of mercury had been disturbed by mining, causing periodic releases of mercury into the watershed.

The next day, J. contacted the director of the science and public policy program at our university. J. showed the program director a copy of the article and made a proposal. “My Ph.D. research involves understanding the geochemistry of mercury contamination and transport,” she explained. “I would like to do an additional chapter of my thesis on the legal and public policy of this Superfund site and weave that story into my research.”

The program director was delighted and offered to act as J.’s adviser for this chapter of her thesis and to assemble a separate Ph.D. committee made up of professors from the law school and the policy program.

During her next meeting with her scientific adviser, J. presented a detailed account of the experimental progress she had been making. As she was getting ready to leave his office, she mentioned her idea for a “small addition” to her thesis.

“That’s fine, that’s fine,” her adviser said as he turned back toward his computer. “Just be ready for the next set of experiments we have in 2 weeks.” J. assured him that she would be and left his office.

Eighteen months passed. The day came for J. to defend her dissertation. J.’s scientific adviser had hardly noticed her policy activities, but her “other adviser” had worked extensively with J., and he was thrilled by what they had come up with. He suggested she submit it as a chapter in an upcoming book he was co-editing.

When we entered the room to witness J.’s defense, we saw an unusual sight. Instead of the usual five chairs for the thesis committee, there were two tables and 10 chairs.

What made J.’s presentation so memorable was that she had not one but two stories to tell. The technical story she told was quite interesting–but the intrigue, deception, and legal skullduggery surrounding the litigation of the Superfund site was amazing. J. elegantly tied together these two stories and suggested that the legal premise for the lawsuit was problematic. It was a sensational presentation.

Within about 4 months, J. received three offers for faculty positions. She eventually ended up with dual appointments in chemistry and political science.

Here’s the key lesson from these stories: You can create your own career options by thinking about the direction in which you want to go and seeking collaborations and relationships that will get you there. That’s what entrepreneurship is all about.

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