A Science Career Outside of Academia

By Maria

In the past year, I’ve attended at least three different fairly large meetings where the topic of post-PhD job prospects was a central topic. I’ve spoken to multiple highly accomplished post-docs frustrated with how many jobs they have applied for, and I’ve seen some very nervous grad students when mention of the future comes up. It’s a serious issue! Only 7-14% of PhD-holders in STEM will go on to a tenure-track professor position within three years of graduation, and only 9% of PhDs in the life sciences will end up in a professor position at all. In a worrisome way, this makes sense given that the number of PhD-holders aged 35 and under has increased roughly 60% since 1993, yet tenure-track positions have remained nearly stagnant in that same time frame.

With all of this being said, first of all, if you’re job searching and feeling frustrated, please do not doubt yourself. You have worked hard. You have accomplished some really darn awesome things. This would not be happening to you thirty or forty years ago. Admittedly, you may very well have a tough road ahead still, but you will rock it. Don’t doubt it.

Second, maybe you are considering leaving academia—since other fields can use your talent and skills as well, it’s a perfectly worthy transition. You’ve been trained for academia, though, so what does a job outside of it look like? Here is where I can help! I’m a PhD who left academia for an educational non-profit. Admittedly, I never had aspirations of being a professor, but I still didn’t know exactly what to expect from the transition in terms of day-to-day work life. I can’t speak for all fields, organizations, or industry; but I can give you a snapshot of my own weekly world. You will also be able to see how the doctorate really does help me every day.

So, if you want to know what a science career outside of academia looks like, here is a peek at my general activities from one week in November:

Wrote and submitted a grant report
Ahh, grants. You certainly cannot escape those in the non-profit world, but graduate school probably gave you quite a bit of practice! This particular grant I was working on had funded supplies for a project my organization is conducting with local schools, but the writing skills for the grant and its report were exactly the same as when I was writing scientific grants. (In an odd way—searching for grants from this perspective is actually amazingly encouraging. The number of families, trusts, and foundations who want to support children and education will truly lift your spirits on a gloomy day.)

Coordinated with two local researchers for “Meet a Scientist”
This monthly event is a fun two-hour session of local scientists tabling within our institution to meet our guests, and it’s an awesome way to help make sure the local community gets to know Pittsburgh’s scientific community. Prepping for the event includes helping the researchers with any set-up or materials they may need, sharing a blog post to promote them, and coordinating the event with the appropriate staff within my organization. Because of the impact of this event, I think this is my favorite part of my job.

Developed social media content for my department’s Facebook page
I get to decide what nerdy little science tidbits to share with our followers? Uh, yes please.

Wrote my weekly blog post on a seasonal nature topic
This is one of the fun things that I do—I essentially get to research something that I have always wanted to know more about anyway, and then tell folks what I found out! I use this blog very carefully, though. The resources that I cite are scholarly or highly reputable, to set the standard for the kind of sources that we should all be seeking even in our hobbyist explorations. Plus, at the end of post, I have the opportunity to invite families to either explore the outdoors themselves or to use the scientific method to conduct mini research projects at home.

Taught one of our homeschool classes
I am not our primary education facilitator, but I love getting a chance to hang out with our young learners whenever I can! Kids are inspiring—in part because they have no filter. Whatever they are thinking—whether it is excitement, fear, or (eep) boredom—will most definitely be shared. And personally, there is nothing more rewarding than seeing the joy of learning spread across a child’s face. Except perhaps hear those same kids reason through class data on their own 😊 In the end, though it’s not in my job description, I usually write and teach our monthly homeschool STEM ed classes purely because I enjoy it.

Hosted our environmental film series
Another monthly event that I coordinate, my degree very distinctly helps me here. I am responsible for selecting a documentary that addresses either an environmental concern or different ways to connect to nature, and I take this charge very seriously. Too many documentaries rely on scare-tactics (which don’t work, filmmakers, stop using them) and flimsy hypotheses to create an emotional charge; but I am very careful to select films that will inspire and empower, not to mention share accurate information. I also find a guest speaker who is a local authority on the subject of the film to lead a discussion with our guests (I love this part—we have so many members and guests who genuinely care about ways to help the planet).

Scoped out potential candidates for a monthly speaker series
The final of my three monthly events, this is another one I take very seriously. I want to invite dynamic speakers who have a solidly supported message to share, which means…I do a lot of internet digging before I invite someone. I greatly value that we have dedicated guests who attend these talks, and I want to make sure they have a positive and meaningful experience when they come to us. I also want to make sure that the speakers enjoy their time and know how much they are valued as a part of the event! Here again, those days helping out with departmental seminars in grad school came in handy!

Worked on details for an event we will hold next summer
One of the two large annual events that I coordinate, our bioblitz will bring together scientists, naturalists, and community members in a fun day of nature exploration—really doesn’t get any better!

Emails. I answered lots of emails 😊

Other projects that I work on, just not this week, include organizing science communication workshops, helping with our teacher advisory committee, brainstorm for new fieldtrip ideas and summer camps, and supporting the local education community in various ways. Plus there’s always the occasional school to visit, event to participate in, and conference or training to attend.

Again, this is all just a single snapshot of a week. Each week, or really each day, looks a bit different. Some days I’m digging deep into scientific literature, speaking with professors, and very heavily relying on my background. Some days…not so much. Overall, though, my job is incredibly rewarding because I’m bringing science to the public and I get to keep learning everyday as well. It’s a great combination. It’s also worth noting: I never find myself grading lab papers at 5 in the morning, and I’m never in the lab at midnight anymore. In fact…I really only work roughly two evenings and one weekend day per month. Even though I’m salaried, my work likes to cap us at forty hours a week, for our own well-being. It’s awesome!

If you ever have any questions about what jobs like this look like, feel free to ask! I’d also be happy to share ways that I tweaked my CV and what I highlighted in my cover letters. I’m not a career expert, but I at least know what worked for me.

Until next time, folks!

edit maria with gourds

I was so excited about these gourd bird houses when they came in. I created fact sheets for the species they were meant to attract (a fun intro to cavity nesting and other nest types), and kids could decorate them while learning about bird conservation – win-win!

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