Everything You Never Learned About Having a Science Career

Are you a scientist working in a non-academic job? How many times have you encountered a new situation at work and thought, “my training so did not prepare me for this!”

The majority of science graduates do not stay in academia. There just plain isn’t – and never was – room for all of us. 

But there is a lot of angst about making the transition out of the academic world.  That’s understandable considering the significant differences between academic research training and most jobs.  

PhD work is highly specialized, largely solo, and focuses on a well-defined problem.  In contrast, most real-world work:

  • is done in groups or teams 
  • involves different types of experts
  • addresses complex problems where the solution is not just technical but business or financial or even environmental.

What’s a scientist who wants a thriving career supposed to do?

I remember the first time I realized that my academic training fell short. I was in my first biotech job.  I was leading a team of researchers, but at every stage, there were more and more people involved.  

There were the people at my company: my manager, my manager’s manager, the Chief Scientific Officer, and others with roles or titles I didn’t understand yet.  There were the people at the pharmaceutical company we collaborated with.  All of them cared about my team’s progress.  I couldn’t keep track of what everyone wanted and needed!  

Bottom line is that I’d gone from a place where I didn’t have to let anyone know about my work (well, occasionally, I’d tell my professor) to one where all sorts of people wanted to know.  All the time.

The word “update” became a regular part of my vocabulary.  

And the projects would quickly reach a point where we needed help from other technical groups.  

It was expected that I would find that help, but I didn’t know how to do that.  Negotiate?  I didn’t know how yet. 

This wasn’t just a research project with the intent to discover and publish.  

Instead, there were 

  • project goals
  • corporate goals
  • partnership goals  

And – you guessed it – the word “goal” became a regular part of my vocabulary too.

Altogether, it was frustrating.  I felt like I wasn’t learning fast enough to meet these new expectations.  

Maybe you are facing a similar situation at work?  You know what’s expected of you technically, but you have an awareness, even discomfort, that you are missing something else.    

You are expected to collaborate with people … but you’re not sure why or what’s expected.  Maybe some decisions are hard to understand.  And maybe you would rather everyone just leave you alone to do your work.  

I am here with good news:  you already have what it takes to be successful in most jobs.  And it’s not what you think.

You can take classes in resume building or communication, and an entire cottage industry has sprung up to help Ph.D.’s find jobs. But I want to offer what’s missing, what nobody else is talking about: what you, as a scientist, need to grow and thrive in their non-academic careers. 

Let’s go back to me in that first job. I was struggling to understand the job’s expectations and to fill in what I was missing.  Then one day, in a meeting, something clicked.  

I was presenting my team’s work to the other company.  I knew the data back and forth, so I looked around the room.  Everyone had a different expression on their face.  I focused on the most senior person in the room, who was listening intently, eyes furrowed.  

When I got to the summary, she lifted her head up and I thought, “Ah! that’s what she wanted to hear.”  Indeed, in the Q&A it was the final point that got the most attention.  I felt fully prepared for the questions that followed.  

What was different now?  

Previously, my flashlight of focus – neuroscientist Amishi Jha’s term for where we put our attention – was always pointed towards the data.  Now it was beaming around the room. I was collecting new information and, using my scientific training, generating hypotheses, in this case about other people’s reaction to the data.

By changing what I paid attention to, I changed the outcome.  

You’ve been trained to pay attention in a very specific, detailed way.  But when you always focus on the data and the details, you miss other sources of information that are equally important in a real-world job, like how a listener is responding to what you are saying. 

Try this: take that powerful flashlight of your mind and see what happens when you point it in other directions.  

  • See what you observe. 
  • Make a hypothesis about it.

You don’t even have to do anything about it, at first.

You will understand more about what’s going on around you – the context – and you will be more able to respond to new situations and put your awesome brain to better use. 

That’s the first step in scientific leadership – paying attention to what you pay attention to.  Over time, these practices will lead to less frustration and greater impact as you navigate the world of work. 

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