How to Reinvent a Scientist – Alternative Careers for the Jaded Researcher #PhDTips
Careers workshops are forever telling us about those “transferable skills” that a research PhD fosters alongside practical lab-based knowledge. And it’s just as well, given how few PhD students will ultimately land a permanent job in academia: most of us will at least have to consider an exit strategy into industry or beyond. But besides the familiar faces – teamwork, self-motivation, organisation, attention to detail, etc. – you have likely been developing a suite of more creative (and less-considered) skills that could open up an entirely new career path. . .
If there’s one thing researchers can do well, it is following a protocol. We know the importance of checking the ingredient stocks before starting, following the steps in order and planning ahead to finish in good time. It takes real attention to detail to adhere to specific measurements and cooking times to get a standard product. But as scientists, we also know how to tinker with the method and make those subtle adjustments that optimise the final outcome. All of which transfer beautifully to the art of tweaking a recipe to create a gastronomic masterpiece. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising: after all, chef’s whites don’t look that dissimilar to lab coats and they do say gastronomy is a science…
One of the best ways to break through a research bottleneck is to join forces with a collaborator whose skills and interests complement your own. Together you become an unstoppable team that pushes the frontiers between the scientific disciplines. Perhaps you are the sort that makes full use of the networking opportunities at conferences to exchange business cards and arrange lab visits. Or perhaps you keep tabs on emerging research fields to find a way to connect new methods with your own work. A keen intuition for effective partnerships could also be put to use in the realm of love. Maybe you can tell when two people, even if they come from different backgrounds, will inspire one another? If so, perhaps a career in the dating industry awaits…
What do scientists and detectives have in common? They both deal with mysteries and collect evidence to build a picture of the truth. As responsible scientists, we are used to suspending our own opinions and taking a cold, hard view of what the data actually tells us, without leaping to assumptions. We design experiments that prove or disprove beyond doubt our hypothesis, and we are always careful to make sure we cover any alternative explanations. Each experimental result is a clue to which we apply our knowledge to determine the next step to investigate. Pretty similar then, to how a detective interprets a crime scene…. so instead of ‘Principal Investigator’, why not go for ‘Private Investigator’?
With competition for funding so fierce, scientists have to work harder than ever to demonstrate the significance of their work and why it deserves good money. Whether it is filling out grant applications, giving demonstrations to school children or hosting a public lecture – these days we all have to be well-versed in the art of science communication. We constantly have to describe our work in terms of the impact it could have on society. Distilling a complex research project into a single, clear message is quite a skill and one that could set you apart in the advertising industry. If you can hard-sell your science to cash-strapped funding bodies, who knows what you could convince people to buy?
Caroline Wood is midway through a PhD studying parasitic weeds at the University of Sheffield. When she’s not agonising over her experiments, she loves to write and will cover most scientific topics if they stay still long enough.
In her spare time, she enjoys helping at public outreach events, hill walking and escapism at the cinema. She blogs at: