As a well trained scientist, would leaving academia and working for a not-for-profit agency be a “cop-out”? I think not, but these two environments present very different ways of life. During the first year after making the switch from academia, I came to understand the philosophical differences in working for a private agency and working in academia.
Basically, in academia, whether you are a faculty member or a graduate student, you are really working for yourself. You obtain your own funds to do your own research and, as long as you teach a little, bring in money, and publish, you can do pretty much anything you wish (as long as it is prudent, ethical and legal), including respectfully disagreeing with the President.
In a private organization, this is not quite the case. You are not working for yourself –you are working for someone else. That employer demands/requests your loyalty under their set of rules. Under those rules, even if you are doing everything you were hired to do well, if the establishment no longer has use for your services or products — you’re out of there! Escorted by security out the front door! That was, and still is, a little disconcerting. But, if you are flexible and stay within the groove of the organization’s goals and mission, you can overcome this discomfort.
Just knowing that you have to keep up with someone else’s wants and having to devise activities that reach their goals, not YOUR personal goals, requires a mental re-direct. I’ve come to learn how to incorporate my personal career goals within the organization’s goals and how after time, to make their mission, my career mission. It is, therefore, important that you work for a private agency that basically does good things and has a mission you admire.
My work pace is different than it was when I was at the bench. At the bench, I was on my own schedule. Now, I serve at the pleasure of the agency leadership and volunteers who want to know more about the research we fund. As a product of my success, I have more responsibility and now spend more hours responding to information requests. That sometimes requires that I devote as many hours working for the agency as I did working for myself in academia.
My days and weeks are filled with lots of meetings, making plans and assignments, with less time for getting things done (getting the work done often occurs after hours once the meetings are over). There is more pressure to get jobs accomplished in the timeframe given because someone is waiting for everything you do. Similar to being at the bench, you are the only one working on your part of the whole picture. In graduate school, you are driven by the courses you take and the exams for which you must prepare. When there are no classes or exams, you can relax a little. Once you progress to being in the lab most of your time, you are basically working for yourself and the next lab group meeting where you will be required to report your project progress in the lab. When you work for someone else, you must be ready to move when the need arises or if an unplanned question is asked.
I always felt it was my duty and privilege to speak to lay audiences who did not know the science terminology, helping them to understand what research means and how the results of research makes a difference in their lives. Working for a private agency allows me more time to do this types of community work as well as positions me to speak on the organization’s behalf about research. That’s actually part of my job!
I travel nationwide giving talks to various groups (staff, volunteers, donors, high schools, universities) about research accomplishment, the latest advances in cancer research, and how to write research grant proposals. This is quite enjoyable since I’ve always had a talent for sharing scientific information with audiences ranging from 5 years olds to adults. People love it when someone can help them understand the science behind current events, like “cloning,” new cancer drugs, telomerase and aging – something they’ve always wanted to understand, but thought was beyond their reach. The public is hungry for knowledge on what’s going on in the world of science. It’s a joy for me to see their eyes light up saying “I’ve got it! That’s exciting news!” Of course, in a sense, that is actually what we do in research – starting with what we know to get to a fact we don’t know.
Like being at the bench, the ability to be creative in your work, implement novel ideas and successfully complete projects will determine a part of your success. Another part of your success will depend on how you interact with your colleagues and with the agency’s constituents. This career is best seen as a career of daily service.
In graduate school, the persons in charge of pronouncing your success (your professors) expect only that you do well in their courses. Whatever you develop belongs to you. In working for an agency the expectation is that you will perform your best for the mission of the agency. Whatever you produce belongs to the agency. When you speak, you speak for the agency and must speak according to the party line as opposed to what you have personally surmised. Thankfully, this does not cause mental schisms very often, but rather provides a script for creative speaking. Most of the people I speak to are extremely grateful for the information I provide to them. When you speak in academia or in graduate school, you can expect to be responded to skeptically with penetrating questions, rather than with gratitude for sharing knowledge. It’s a wonderful feeling to be appreciated for what you know.
I was very accustomed to being outspoken in graduate school. As a newcomer to the agency, it paid to be observant for a while and learn how the system runs. For me, that required that I sharpen a slightly different skill set than I used in academia. However, the doubled salary helped to squelch the pain of change. The agency was not hurting anyone, just my will to do it my way, rather than participating in a TEAM effort to accomplish an ultimate goal. In fact, the agency was hoping to make a difference in the lives of more than half a million people in this country. My role is to participate in this contribution. And I DO.
Lisa Sproul Hoverman, PhD has a BS from Carlow University and a graduate degree from the University of Pittsburgh on the kinetics of Kinesin motor proteins. In her Postdoc at Penn State University, she examined the kinetics of DNA polymerases. She has since formed her own company in scientific and medical writing services. Dr. Hoverman’s largest long-term Client is the Microsoft Health Solutions Group where she serves as one of three Senior Grant and Proposal Specialists as part of the Business Desk in Sales.
Copyright Lisa Sproul Hoverman, PhD
Published with permission