“So, what are your plans for after you finish?”
It’s no secret that being a PhD student is stressful. Thankfully the process of earning a PhD doesn’t last forever, but because of its finite nature, any conversations with friends or colleagues will lead to the inevitable question of “So, what’s next?.” My group of colleagues includes some final year PhD students, all of whom are facing a not-too-distant future of writing and defending their dissertations. On top of this pressure, they are also worried about their job prospects and transition from student to employee.
When I finished my PhD, I was fortunate enough to have a prospective post-doc offer not long after finishing my dissertation. I managed to pass the time between submitting my dissertation and graduation without any additional job search stress. But I didn’t escape the job search stress for very long—last spring, and after many months of uncertainty about extending my post-doc contract, I found myself scrambling for what to do next. I applied for 9 jobs, and even landed an interview for one of them, but nothing fruitful came out of my search. I took a deep breath of relief when my contract was officially extended, but the experience left me with two realizations: 1) I was very lucky to still have a job, and 2) I would be in the exact same position again in 10 months’ time if I didn’t do something differently.
The importance of a professional network
Part of the reason for my struggle during my initial job search was that I only sort of knew what I wanted to do, which at the time included anything related to science communication, publications, public engagement, and so on. I knew that I didn’t want a career as a researcher, but I didn’t know what my exact options were or how to get there. What would an application reviewer be looking for on my resume? What sorts of skills did I need to highlight that were not on my academic CV? What types of positions could I realistically aim for with my skills and experience?
I had a lack of understanding since I had only recently decided what I wanted to do after my research post, and because I was new to the area I also lacked an existing network of colleagues and potential mentors working in the field that I wanted to enter. From my time as a researcher, I had a vast network of academics as well as industry and government researchers, but I didn’t know anyone doing science communication or writing. I had a broad understanding of where I wanted to go, but I was walking there blindfolded.
We discussed in a previous post about the nebulous nature of networking and some approaches you can use to make connections. Before we go further in this post, it would be good to revisit the definition of a network once more. Simply put, your network is the set of connections you have to colleagues, friends, and family members. These are connections you’ve made on a personal level: it’s not just shaking someone’s hand at a conference but means having a working relationship with them. They know who you are, what you can do, and your passions and area of expertise.
Networking may not seem that important if you are in the midst of lab work or writing your dissertation. But a solid network with more than one branch can take you places that wouldn’t be possible by simply sending in job applications and hoping for the best. Networking can show you hidden opportunities that won’t always be advertised and your mentors and connections can help you figure out how to enter into a new area by helping you to highlight your relevant skills or lay out a job-specific resume.
But there’s a trick to networking: because your network represents your relationships with other people, it’s not something you can put together on a short notice. You need to establish your network early on in your career so you have time to work with and establish trust between you and your connections. The key is to build trust with others before you need something from the other person—like a job, for example.
Where should I start?
1) Identify your skills, professional interests, and your long-term career goals
After going through contract extension panic, I realized that I wanted to pursue a career in science communication. But my short stint of job applications made me realize that this was a very broad ambition, and I felt like I was spreading myself very thin trying to cover every aspect of what this type of career could entail.
One of the ways I narrowed my career target was by reading Born for This and going through the book’s exercises. Perhaps the most powerful exercise in the book was when the author told us to think about what other people ask us to help with the most. This is a way of showing us what we’re good at because it’s something that others ask us to do for them. I realized that over the course of my time as both a PhD student and post-doc, I helped others the most with writing. Sometimes it was reviewing articles or manuscripts, other times it was in taking the lead on a paper that had been sitting unwritten for too many months. This exercise helped me realize something that was both a passion and a skill, which then helped me focus on careers related to writing.
2) Rework your brand
Knowing that I wanted to look for writing jobs, I sought out more opportunities to write. I participated in writing contests and guest posts for blogs and University websites. I then restructured my CV to highlight my written work more strongly. I also took part in writing classes (Coursera has some fantastic online courses if you’re looking for something free) and made sure that my social media profiles were up-to-date and reflected my career goals.
It sounds like a lot of work, and I did spend a good deal of time working on this outside of my normal post-doc hours. But it was also very enjoyable—I enjoyed learning about new topics and I got to meet other like-minded people in the process. This should also be a part of your re-branding process; if you’re not having a good time being the person you’re working hard to become, you should reconsider the path you’re walking on.
3) Look for opportunities that fit your style and your needs
Once you have your career goal and your brand figured out, start looking for what options you have based on your current/future limitations. For me, I knew that my husband had a job offer in Manchester for two years, so I wanted to look for science writing/communication jobs in that area. While looking at jobs on LinkedIn I found several posts for medical writers, and there were a lot of entry-level positions in the Manchester area.
I soon discovered a field, of which I had never heard, that was looking for PhD-trained researchers right in my back yard! I followed up by looking in more detail at the job advertisements, finding some resources about the field online, and sent off my resume for a couple of posts even though I didn’t need a job at the time. I felt that I had struck gold, but knew that it would take more than a good looking CV to get me my first job in a new area.
4) Look for connections that can help you reach those opportunities
Last autumn I was busy trying to get lab work finished so I could make more progress on the final manuscript for my project. One afternoon I found myself chatting with a PI in the physiology department whose lab space I used for some of my experiments. He knew that I was getting towards the end of my post-doc contract and asked if I had plans to stay in research and I told him I was looking to make a transition into the medical communications industry. As it turned out, the PI had a friend who was working at a medical writing firm near Manchester. He offered to pass me along his contact details and even to put in a good word with me at the pub when he met his friend for a drink later that week.
This conversation was a lucky exchange but one that highlights the importance of having trusted connections in all parts of your work. I was only working in this lab part-time and had no interest in continuing that facet of my work, but the PI knew I was hard-working, organized, and creative. He soon passed along his friend’s contact details and I made the all-important initial contact: a request for an informational interview.
I didn’t ask this new contact for a job or to look at my CV, since at the time he was only a colleague of a colleague. In my initial exchange I asked if we could meet informally to discuss more about medical communications in general. My goal was to meet someone in the field and hear from them what the work was like, then later on to expand this relationship and work towards getting help structuring my CV or even hints on potential job posts. This was all starting to happen close to six months before my contract would finished, so I also didn’t need anything explicit during our initial contact.
PS: If you’re looking for tips on what to ask during an information interview, be sure to check out Alaina Levine’s “Networking for Nerds book-it’s a great read!
5) Pursue opportunities as they come
The informational interview that I proposed never actually happened. As it turned out, the company was recruiting for an associate medical writer, and my new contact asked for my CV right away. I was nervous to send off my CV, but the work I had done restructuring my resume and highlighting my writing-oriented skills paid off. I was then given a writing test and made sure to not take the effort lightly even though I didn’t need a job at that time. I learned more about what was expected and dedicated a set amount of time to working on the test. One successful writing test and one in-person interview later (with my new contact at the other side of the table), I found myself celebrating the new year with a job offer to my name—months ahead of schedule!
Writing your own career story
My own career story was the result of yet another stroke of luck. But sometimes luck isn’t just a random coincidence: luck is something you can make for yourself. Sometimes luck is a product of the time and place you’re in. Sometimes luck is an opportunity you didn’t plan for that ends up directing your life’s story. Luck, timing, and the ability to find and seize opportunities leads us to many paths in our careers, and it’s often on these unplanned roads that we find the way through our own career journey.
But in order to take advantage of the hidden opportunities that can lead to game-changing moments, we need to network. This involves having strong personal connections with a wide range of colleagues as well as a solid and trusted reputation that connects to your name. Networking might seem like something nebulous or far-off while you’re knee deep in your own research, but thinking about your own career path as well as what connections you need to get there can take away part of the stress and uncertainty of your job search. You might not instantly have an answer for the question “So, what are you doing after you graduate?” but at least you’ll be able to say with confidence: “I’m exploring my options.”
This week on the Tox City Tribune, we’re offering an open letter that you can amend and send to your state’s congressional representatives. This week we are tackling a bill proposed in the House of Representatives: H.R.861-To terminate the Environmental Protection Agency. We wrote this letter as a way to talk directly to members of the current US Congress about the dangers of blindly rolling back legislation that could seriously harm environmental health and could also lead to severe impacts on our own health.
At the end of the letter we’ve provided links and resources where you can find relevant local information about the EPA’s work in the state where you live. This letter can be amended and sent to any of your local representatives, not just the ones who have sponsored or co-sponsored this bill (which currently includes Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, Rep. Steven Palazzo of Mississippi, and Rep. Barry Loudermilk of Georgia).
We hope that this open letter can help voice the concerns for Americans who do not take attacks on the USEPA lightly. We also hope that this type of engagement can provide a new perspective about the importance of environmental protection to the conservative representatives who seem to doubt its usefulness. If you have questions, please get in touch!
Dear Rep. Matt Gaetz,
My name is Erica Brockmeier and I am a Florida voter who is passionate about our beautiful state. I earned my PhD in Toxicology from the University of Florida in December 2013. My project was supported by a graduate research fellowship from the US EPA and focused on the impacts of paper mill effluents on local fish populations in the Florida panhandle. Part of my dissertation focused on Florida’s ecosystems was published and is available to read through open access.
It’s my love of Florida and my concern for its unique and fragile ecosystems that motivates my letter to you. I am concerned with H.R.861 because of what this bill will mean for environmental and human health and for the landscapes and resources that make our country and our state wonderful places to live.
Our country is a vastly different place than it was in 1970 when the EPA was first enacted by President Nixon. Toxic pesticides like DDT were sprayed without thought of consequence, our gasoline was filled with lead, and the Cuyahoga River in Ohio was so polluted that it actually caught on fire (you can read more stories and see pictures here. Thanks to a government administration that recognized the importance of protecting environmental (and subsequently human) health, the US EPA was established to consolidate efforts to research, monitor, and establish rules for the safe use and disposal of chemicals.
The US EPA is also in charge of developing long-term clean-up plans for polluted sites as part of the 1980 Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). In Florida there are 52 Superfund sites, 4 of them located in Escambia county*. The US EPA is responsible for managing the cleanup of these sites and works to make them usable and safe for residents, visitors, and local wildlife.
There has been a lot of political discussion about the pitfalls of over-regulation while forgetting the economic benefits of many of these laws. Government regulations managed by the US EPA such as the Clean Air Act directly enhance our country’s economic well-being through an increased numbers of jobs in the engineering, construction, and manufacturing sectors. All of these benefits come at very low cost to the industries they are regulating. For example, data from 2005 showed that less than 1% of the revenue generated by US manufacturers was required for pollution control.
Environmental regulations also protect Americans and the places that make our country truly great. The US EPA estimated that amendments made to the clean air act in 1990 saved over 160,000 lives and prevented 86,000 emergency room visits in 2010 alone. The US EPA was also present during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill and helped gulf coast areas by collecting emergency data and ensuring sure that beaches and waters were safe for wildlife. The EPA’s efforts were also crucial for ensuring that clean-up efforts after the spill made Florida beaches ready to be enjoyed by the 20 million Florida residents and the 90 million tourists who visit our state every year.*
While it is important for our government to work towards decreasing unnecessary legislations and government bureaucracy, casting aside the efforts of an entire federal agency will put the lives and health of American people at risk by opening up our environment to inexcusable damage. Nearly 50 years ago our government, led by a Republican president, had the foresight to recognize the importance of a clean environment for the American people. Our founding fathers also established our country on the foundations of basic human rights including “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” The first of these rights is life. The right to live as an American citizen also includes the right to live life to the fullest: breathing clean air, drinking safe water, and protecting our country’s natural resources for future generations of Americans.
Part of living the American Dream also involves the opportunity to enjoy the incredible natural places that make our nation truly great, especially our incredible national parks and the landscapes and ecosystems that existed since before we were a unified nation. These great American places need as much protection as the American people. And protecting them, as well as ourselves, is a rewarding legacy we can leave for future generations, and justifies the EPA’s existence. Our founding fathers and the founders of the EPA shared a common vision that provides the opportunity for a life well-lived for every American. Clean air, drinkable water, and protection from harmful chemicals enable us all to achieve this American dream.
The problems that we’ll face as a nation in the next 50 years will be more challenging than when the EPA was first brought to life. The issues will not be as obvious as rivers on fire or skies full of smog but can come from chemicals that haven’t been produced yet, or by future contaminations and spills incidents that go undetected, such as the contamination of drinking water in Flint, Michigan last year.
Because our country still has a long ways to go for ensuring that our land is safe and clean for everyone, I would encourage you to remove your support from H.R.861 and re-focus your efforts on something that would provide more benefit to the American people. The US EPA is fundamental for ensuring that Americans have the right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, and throwing away this agency would do a significant disservice to the rights and well-being of all American citizens.
I would also encourage you and your fellow representatives to support an EPA budget that works for supporting the health of the American people. Recent news articles state that proposed budget cuts from the current administration to the EPA are up to 40% of the current budget. Because of this Agency’s crucial importance in protecting environmental quality, any broad budget cuts that are not thoroughly evaluated have the potential to damage our country and the health of the American people significantly. As one of the cuts is potentially for the program which supported my graduate education, I would also like to vouch personally for the benefits of these types of EPA programs. I would not be in the position I am today without the financial support from the EPA STAR program.
I am thankful to be part of such a beautiful state in the USA, and I hope that my fellow citizens can continue to enjoy the beautiful landscapes, pristine ecosystems, and enriching environments that attract so many visitors to our state every year.
Erica K. Brockmeier, Ph.D.
Italicized opening paragraph: Please replace with your own personal background, including why you feel that protecting environmental health is important.
Insert 1: For information on superfund sites in your state/local area, please visit this website.
Insert 2: If you know of a recent or historical environmental disaster in your area, include a brief description of the incident here. If you aren’t sure where to start, you can click here.
Italicized pentultimate paragraph: Please replace with a personal connection you might have to an EPA program, office, activity, etc, or simply a reason why you feel that environmental health should be a priority for our government representatives.
Last week I attended a seminar about new advances in clinical trials for cancer treatments. The seminar started off with one of the research leads from the University of Liverpool clinical trials research center introducing the topic and the upcoming speakers. The introduction emphasized the importance of research with impact and that knowledge for the sake of knowledge alone isn’t useful. Based on the number of problems that scientific research is needed to solve, the organizer reasoned, we simply can’t do research that doesn’t have a direct application.
I didn’t fully disagree with the cancer research group lead, but his statement did catch me off-guard. There’s certainly a lot of research that seems to go nowhere or that leaves us asking “Why did tax money go to this study?” Having a vision of what the research can lead to is a way to ensure that the work we do as researchers has meaning. But at the same time, it’s unfair to say that knowledge for the sake of knowledge isn’t necessarily useful.
This also presents a challenge for science communication, since one of the ways that we engage with an audience is to try to connect them to a story by sharing its impact. The lack of an immediate impact is not necessarily a failure of science, but it is a potential barrier for effective science communication. Not everything that scientists do will be relevant, interesting, or meaningful for the everyday person—but does that mean we can’t communicate this kind of science effectively?
The comments made at the seminar came at a time when I was halfway through reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I found myself deeply intrigued by Robert Pirsig’s discussion on the infinite nature of hypothesis testing. Will science inevitably continue to answer one hypothesis at a time only to have five more hypotheses appear once that one has been addressed? Will we ever have data that’s solid enough to support or refute a hypothesis, or will there always be an infinite number of counter-explanations for a given observation?
Pirsig’s book wasn’t what exactly light evening reading, and maybe not the way to get people interested in science, but I did enjoy his discussions and spend some time pondering both his book and one of my previous posts on the philosophical foundation of scientific research. PhD students and early career researchers know all too well how new results often lead us to more burning questions as opposed to solid answers. As scientists, we slowly work towards conclusions about how the world works and gain, piece-by-piece, a better understanding of our world.
But the progress of science isn’t always as tedious as it may feel when we’re in the middle of it. My own enthusiasm for science was ignited last week with the news from NASA about the TRAPPIST-1 system. And with global threats like climate change, freak asteroids, and American politics, it seems like a good time to get excited about potentially habitable planets that are 40 light years away!
NASA news is broadly exciting for many of us, but it’s also the type of news that reflects this idea that not all science will impact our day-to-day lives. This work is science for the sake of science, for a better understanding of our universe, and quite unlikely to directly affect anyone in this lifetime. It’s the kind of story that makes for great science news, but doesn’t necessarily answer the question of “Why should I care about science?” for people who are living their own lives and who aren’t necessarily interested in the mysteries of the universe.
Two weeks ago I talked about the upcoming March for Science and the goal of getting people on the side of science. While engagement is essential for the future of science, we should also recognize that not everyone will be as enthusiastic about science as we are. A recent survey from voters in the 2016 election asked people what they consider “very important” for their voting decisions. While the economy and terrorism are broadly important to most voters, only 52% of voters surveyed considered the environment influential in their voting decision.
It sounds like an uphill battle at first, but with these things in mind we can come up with a strategy for the future of science communication:
- Part of our message needs to reflect science as a methodology, not just a field of study. To improve science literacy, we can’t simply report more scientific discoveries but should instead emphasize the scientific discovery and hypothesis validation process.
- We should write science communication stories as if we were journalists and not public relations officers. Journalists write stories that discuss a topic from as many sides as possible. If you’re promoting science as a means of reaching a universal truth, you should present the story in a way that allows people to draw their own conclusions or alternative hypothesis about a topic’s worth.
- We should not be shy about the fact that not all research will be directly relevant for people’s lives. We can emphasize that scientists may need to ask “How does this work?” while holding back on the inevitable question of “Why should I care?” right away.
- Scientists and science communicators can also think about how they can meet people where they are. As an example, an EPA scientist from Louisiana recently attended a town hall meeting, where her statements were met with enthusiastic support. People who are already interested in science might meet us on twitter, come to our seminars, or meet us at a museum, but what about people who might not have a weekend trip to the Natural history museum on the top of their to do list? You can also think about what science stories you connect with: Do you like all fields of science? What drives your interest in a topic? Why do you click on a news headline?
There are numerous topics in science and research that are relevant for people who aren’t scientists, ranging from cancer drug trials to global warming. The stories we tell about these topics will make their strongest impacts when they are focused on the impacts to people over the science itself. But as scientists, we shouldn’t neglect the utility of knowledge for the sake of knowledge or consider people as scientifically illiterate/unengaged just because they don’t share the same curiosities as we do.
Part of the goal of science communication can be in sharing science for what it is: as a way of reaching the truth that can be slow, monotonous, and mysterious—but it’s a way that we can reach incredible findings that have impact beyond our own lives. As the saying goes: sometimes the journey is more important than the destination.