This guest post was written by Liza Shoenfeld, a blogger who studied neuroscience at Bowdoin College before working as a research technician, and is now a second year grad student funded by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. By day I research how Lou Gehrig’s disease slowly obliterates muscle control, but by night she explores the many career options open to graduate students in the sciences.
When I decided not to pursue academic science, I suddenly confronted, as I’m sure many of you have, the enormous task of trying to choose between all of the other careers that there are. Worse, I had no clear idea of what these possibilities even were – only that there lay a vast, hazy world of jobs out there that did not involve test tubes or spectrometers or grant applications.
I came to this decision during my first year of grad school, already embedded in an institution so divorced from the reality of its trainees’ futures that it seems to hold a restraining order against the grim statistical evidence that fewer than 15% of PhDs in the biological sciences go on to attain a tenure-track position within 6 years of graduating. Yet this was precisely the career for which we were trained. There was little room for – or even interest in – a discussion of more realistic career options.
So I embarked on a project to meet with people who had left grad school to pursue careers in a variety of different fields. I wanted to learn from these people: How did you get where you are today? Which skills have you carried with you from grad school, and what have you learned since then? What do you find most meaningful in your work now? What is your advice for someone in my position?
I met with people in consulting, insurance, policy-making, competitive intelligence, teaching, grantmaking, project management, freelance writing, technology transfer, human resources, communications, university administration, and more. Some had quit grad school and found fulfillment elsewhere. Some had come from academia, some from other graduate
backgrounds, and I also spoke with some who had found success without ever stepping foot in the fluorescently lit halls of graduate school.
I learned that this type of conversation is generally called an “informational interview,” and aside from its obvious networking benefits, I found the process enormously inspiring for two reasons: One, it opened my eyes to a world of fulfilling and successful careers outside of academia. And two, each conversation taught me something new about how I might find my place in that world.
My interviewing project, now in its second year, was born out of my frustration that my graduate program is training me for a career that I’ve come to view as both unrealistic and undesirable. By talking with so many people outside of my graduate school bubble, I’ve learned how to branch out from the narrow path of the academic pipeline.
For those who have not yet benefitted from informational interviewing, I highly recommend it. I knew little about the process when I started, but in the last year have conducted over 2 dozen of these conversations. I have since created a website called, called “branching points”, designed to give graduate students ideas and resources for careers outside of academia. While much of the site is
targeted to students in the sciences, there are a number of resources that I hope are helpful to people of any background. You can find my beginner’s guide to informational interviews, which includes how to find people to interview, how to ask for an interview, 10 tips for informational interview success, and 10 questions you should ask. Also included are profiles of nearly a dozen “alternative” careers. Q&A’s with recent grad-school-grads, resource guides, and my thoughts on branching out from academia.