Last week I was chatting with some junior graduate students in my lab and the topic of careers outside academia came up. They had heard a vague rumor that a world outside the lab exists, but, being a little science-obsessed, they hadn’t really thought of their lives beyond their theses! Considering the shortage of academic positions, as well as a decline in R&D jobs in the pharma industry, I think students should give this some thought as early as possible in order to have time to try new things and develop additional skills that will be needed to secure a job after their PhD.
The truth is, employers out there, all employers, want to see achievements over and above undergraduate and graduate degrees. Knowledge is a given, so it’s hard to stand out with top grades alone anymore. Employers hunt through resumes for evidence that you have the concrete capability of doing the job; some related experience that serves as ‘proof’ that you can deliver. Any kind of professional experience also indicates that you take initiatives, you’re passionate about your goals, and you go out there and find opportunities.
So speaking of opportunities, what experiences can we scientists actually get beyond slaving away at the hood in a lab with no windows? Well, quite a few years ago, I was fortunate enough to clinch a competitive (and paid!) 12-month internship at GlaxoSmithKline during my undergraduate degree. In addition to receiving technical training in fully-equipped, high-caliber labs, I learnt first-hand about the drug development process. It exposed me to real work in a big pharma company, and it is probably the main thing that got me to the next step in my career. Even at the time, it amazed me that more of my fellow students did not jump on the chance to do a similar internship. If work experience is offered as part of your degree, you’re incredibly lucky and you should definitely do it.
If you have no professional experience, don’t worry, all is not lost! You just have to put a bit more effort into it. There are tons of valuable projects that you can volunteer for to expand your repertoire according to your interests. For example, last year I joined the Penn Biotech Group. This association, run by students from Wharton and the Medical School, organizes 8-week consulting projects with life sciences companies each semester for Penn students and postdocs. I worked with a multi-disciplinary team looking at the potential market for a new antibody production platform being developed by a local biotech company. If you like business, reach out to your nearest consulting group.
Similarly, if you have a passion for writing, contact your local paper. One of my lab mates, a final year grad student, is a regular contributor for the Daily Pennsylvanian, Penn’s student-run newspaper. She pitches a number of stories each week to her editor, writes about various (non-scientific) topics, and meets with the DP team each week. She also writes summaries of papers and research highlights for our boss, who is the editor of a scientific journal.
A number of jobs also require candidates to demonstrate leadership skills and team spirit. One way to develop these ‘soft skills’ is to be become a member of a council, society or club which all need a President, Treasurer, and a slew of other officers. At Penn, the Biomedical Graduate Association and the Biomedical Postdoctoral Council are both always looking for new people to become involved. If the group revolves around your hobby or a cause you’re passionate about, you’ll be killing two birds with one stone!
I know it might sound like a lot of ‘non-lab’-related time to dedicate doing this, but your scientific knowledge and expertise is just a base from which you can evolve. Your professors and PIs probably won’t encourage you to do a ton of ‘extracurricular’ activities, but you’ll be thankful you did when it comes to applying for jobs and answering questions during the interviews. It’s the experiences beyond your degree that make you unique.