Leaving academic research is a gut wrenching decision, even if you never wanted an academic position in the first place. I’ve always been more interested in the applications of science rather than the theories. I like being able to have a tangible outcome from my hard work, like a sensor, a diagnostic assay or a drug. Knowledge for knowledge’s sake just doesn’t get me excited. I need to at the very least see a path for utility in the very near future.
So, I actually never really wanted an academic career, but I didn’t realize until I got to grad school that you weren’t supposed to tell anyone that. In fact, it’s a wonder I was even accepted to graduate school, as I wrote in my application essays that I wanted to go into industry and then ‘retire’ to a teaching position at a small college! Such ideas of blasphemous alternative careers in science as a goal rather than an unfortunate consequence were just starting to be acknowledged when I was attending graduate school (in the late 90’s). However, there was still a prevalent fear that admitting that you wanted to go into industry, or do something besides become a tenure-track faculty member, would be detrimental to your graduate career.
I tried to be excited about basic research, I really did. Apparently, I wasn’t a very good actor, because my advisor pulled me aside one day and commented that there was something missing in my research… ”Enthusiasm,” I think she said. At the time, I didn’t quite understand what she meant. Was I supposed to turn cartwheels over bands on a pretty gel?
There wasn’t really anyone to talk to about alternative careers at my University. Ideas were quietly discussed amongst grad students late at night, being careful that no one overheard our conversations. Never being one to just sit idly, I quietly explored other careers. I moonlighted as a chemistry instructor at a private high school and volunteered at the local forensic lab—all without telling my advisor.
My epiphany, however, came during one late night in lab. I was struggling with getting a pre-steady state kinetic assay to work using our new stopped flow fluorimeter. This was basically the last experiment I needed to complete my thesis. One thing led to another, and before I knew it the instrument was in pieces before me. No, I didn’t bash it to pieces out of frustration. I methodically took it apart to figure out how it worked because only then could I troubleshoot the assay. My advisor found me early the next morning surrounded by the pieces of our new $40,000 instrument and just shook her head and continued on to her office. I think I called out, “don’t worry, I’m pretty sure I can put it back together!” I did get it back together and it worked, even though there was that one screw left over. But the experience really emphasized for me that my love lay in science at the macro-scale.
During a short postdoc in a well-regarded lab, specializing in biosensors for molecular interaction analysis and their application, I wrote a review article on emerging biosensor technologies. This was a great opportunity that led to my first ‘real’ job at a small biosensor startup company. Years later, I asked the CEO that hired me, “why me?” He said, ‘you had this spark in your eye when you talked about your research.’ Apparently, I oozed enthusiasm and didn’t even realize it. I guess I finally found an area of science that came naturally to me!
Time passed, the company matured, launched its first product and my position morphed into more of a customer support role. I’ll never forget the day I walked into a customer site and the scientist announced, “the ‘rep’ from SRU is here.” That was the day I decided I wanted to get back to “real” science.
So here I am, a scientist at a National Laboratory, sort of a cross between academia and industry. I have my own research group, and I’m measured by the amount of grant money I bring in and the papers I publish in peer-reviewed journals. Actually, it sounds a lot like the academic job I was trying to avoid. But there are differences. Collaboration is highly valued here. I’m surrounded by engineers, chemists, physicists, computer scientists, and statisticians—and we’re encouraged to work together on complex applied projects. Plus, we’ve got a lot of really expensive toys to play with. And, of course, no government job would be complete without a security clearance that lets me work on problems I can’t even tell you about!
My advice is to examine your life and figure out what comes easily for you. What gets you excited and puts a twinkle in your eye? Then, look for positions that let you use those skills. Sometimes a small biotech is a great first job because with few people everyone has to wear multiple hats and you can get experience in new areas like business development and marketing.
And talk to as many people as you can. Most people love to tell you about what they do and how they got to where they are.