Career Paths

Finding Your Career Path Away from the Bench

Deanna Montgomery

After completing their academic training, graduate students and postdocs hold titles as diverse as assistant professor, research scientist, medical writer, patent attorney, chief scientific officer, policy fellow, program manager, and many more. Even with the wide array of options open to tertiary degree holders, some may find that the bulk of resources and support available to them is focused on the most beaten paths. This guide is intended for those looking for advice to navigate exploring and pursuing careers outside their local norm.

Immediately after completing my bachelor’s degree in chemistry, I decided to go to graduate school with the ultimate goal of pursuing a research career in the pharmaceutical industry. At the time I enrolled in my medicinal chemistry PhD program—approximately 70% of PhD students and postdocs in the department shared this goal. Ultimately, my path changed. As I finished my PhD, I didn’t apply for jobs at pharmaceutical companies.

During my time in grad school, I was intentional about pursuing activities beyond my research—in part to explore other interests, in part to make new friends, and in part to manage my own stress. Ultimately, my participation in some of these other activities gradually changed my career goals. By the time I defended my thesis, I had fallen in love with science communication and accepted a job using the skills I had developed in parallel with conducting graduate research. I now work in higher education, at the intersection of science communication and academic administration. In my current role, I support scientists and engineers in developing their communication skills.

In some ways, my career path has been an intentional choice; in others, it’s been a happy accident. Along the way, I’ve had to search for support and resources to help me navigate my own path. My intention here is to offer you some concrete ideas for pursuing a fulfilling career that may be different than what you see most commonly around you.

Run Toward Something, Not Away From Benchwork

I’ve talked to many PhD students and postdocs who want to move away from benchwork or research altogether. Frequently, I find myself having a conversation that goes something like this:

“If you don’t want to stay at the bench, what might you want to do?”

“I don’t know. I don’t really know what’s out there.”

If this is you, that’s fine! But don’t stay there. If research no longer excites you or if you want to try something else, explore your options and find something you are excited about or interested in. A healthy career is built on pursuing something actively, not running away from being in a lab.

If you don’t know where to begin, consider what work or nonwork activities you most enjoy as a source of inspiration for other things you might want to try. Ask friends, colleagues, or mentors what valuable experiences they had during grad school or a postdoc. Meet new people and ask them about their career paths. Try something new that sounds interesting, even if you are not sure where it might lead. I participated in my first science communication activities long before I knew it was an entire field in which I could pursue a career.

Finding something that excites you may require trial and error. With that in mind, don’t be afraid of new experiences; rather, view this as an experiment. Even experiences and activities that you don’t enjoy will often yield useful information. In the middle of my graduate career, I took a science and technology policy class, thinking that I might want to explore science policy as a career option. After only a few weeks, I realized that this wasn’t something I wanted to explore much beyond this introductory course. Still, from this experience, I learned new things, met interesting people, and left with a greater appreciation of the field of science policy and the people who do related work.

One of the most meaningful conversations I had during my own career exploration was during an informational interview with someone I had just met. She gently challenged me by asking, “Do you really want to stop doing research,  or are you just feeling burned out at the end of your PhD?” This question gave me pause to reflect. In time, I felt confident that my desire to move away from the bench was more than burnout. I didn’t feel as if I was running away from lab work, but rather I felt like I was running toward science communication. At the time I wasn’t quite sure what a career in science communication would look like for me, but this simple conversation gave me the confidence to continue exploring.

Get Active with New Experiences

As a grad student or postdoc, it can be challenging to find time for professional and career development. Research can be all-consuming, and balancing family, social, and other commitments is difficult. However, the best way to prepare for a career outside the lab is to spend time outside the lab learning and building professional experiences.

Of course, you still need to fulfill your research commitments to yourself, your adviser, your lab mates, and your collaborators. However, don’t get so caught up in your research project(s) that you neglect to take time to prepare for your future career. Consider carving out time—even 1 or 2 hours per week— to spend on activities that help you explore career options and build skills that will help you appeal to employers and prepare you for your chosen career path. For example, you could:

  • Attend lectures, seminars, and workshops through professional organizations like ACS and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)
  • Take a class outside your field—perhaps in business, policy, or communication
  • Get involved with organizations or extracurricular activities on and off campus 
  • Pursue a side gig
  • Join or volunteer with scientific or professional societies

Don’t Be Afraid to Tell People What You Want to Do

Whether you’re still exploring options or know that you want to pursue a career outside your local norm, it can be difficult to talk with people in your professional circle about your decision, especially if you feel like you’re not giving the “right” answer. However, the best way to find support is often to talk with many different people about your professional intentions. If you’re still exploring different career ideas, it can be especially helpful to talk with professionals from a variety of jobs and industries (e.g., nonprofit organizations, government, business, media).

When I was in grad school, a small group of PhD students from my department would gather with each departmental seminar speaker for lunch. During these lunches, we were regularly asked what we planned to do after graduate school. I would squirm when this question came up. Almost every student in the room would offer “industry,” a one-word answer understood in our circle to refer to pursuing a job in Big Pharma.

Occasionally, a student would mention applying for faculty jobs. Both of these answers were typically met with nods all around. Initially, I would mutter something about not being sure and pray that there were no follow-up questions. As I further explored career options, gained experience, and became more confident, my answer became, “I’m exploring careers in science communication.”

I learned to explain the connections between research-related activities—writing papers, giving talks, presenting posters—and science communication. I still didn’t know exactly what my future career held, but I spoke with more confidence as I met more PhDs working in a variety of satisfying careers outside the “usual” answers.

Although I still had some awkward interactions with people who weren’t sure what science communication was or how it related to my PhD, I also had some great interactions with people who offered verbal support and sometimes even connected me with people or resources I wouldn’t have known about otherwise. I wonder how many connections and interesting conversations I missed out on by hiding behind my uncertainty.

Find Your People

In an ideal case, you’ll receive support for any career you want to pursue from your adviser and your department. In reality, that may not be the case. The good news is that if you’ve found a career that you want to pursue, there are people who can offer support for that career because there are people in that career.

Regardless of how much support you have from your immediate peers or the professional circle you are a part of, it’s helpful both logistically and emotionally to connect with people who share your professional interests. Participating in activities and organizations outside your research or department not only allows you to gain valuable professional experience but also serves as a way to meet new peers and mentors who share those interests. I made friends with other grad students and postdocs in fields as diverse as astronomy, neuroscience, and mechanical engineering who shared my interest in science communication.

Many of the on- and off-campus activities that I participated in to explore and gain experience were shepherded by people I had never previously met, some of whom became long-term mentors for me. My PhD adviser was supportive, but he wasn’t very knowledgeable about science communication. As a result, the majority of the job search advice and support that I received came from outside my department.

You may have to look beyond your lab or home department—maybe even outside your institution—but you should be able to find people who share your interest in any career.