The New Scientific Career: Beyond Academia and Tenure Track

The New Scientific Career: Beyond Academia and Tenure Track

Whenever I get asked how I got to where I am, people are surprised that it wasn’t a straight and narrow path. I bounced all over the place, picking up skills, learning more about myself, and growing confidence about how I could and would make an impact. In this brave new world of technology, innovation, and invention, we are experiencing a huge shift in the central dogma of work. Because of this, I’ve started thinking more about what I want to do (verbs) and not what I want to be (a noun). Nouns close doors, verbs prepare you for not only jobs/careers/callings that exist now, but also give you flexibility to be prepared for the opportunities of the future. 

When it really came down to it, I look back and realize the verbs were always there for me. I love working with people. I love sharing stories. I love reading. I love discovery, in self, research, and in the people I mentor and with whom I work. I love numbers, weird I know. But I love the way you can use numbers to support a big plan, and get the rourses to see it through. And I love being of service.

And with this in mind, there was no straight and narrow path. Science was always the foundation for me, starting early I always wanted to be a scientist. From archeologist, to geologist, to finally settling on geneticist as a sophomore in high school. I was drawn to the sense of discovery, the realization that there were so many more questions out there to answer and that adults didn’t know everything. This led to me getting an undergraduate degree in genetics, but that wasn’t the end of the story.

After graduating from Rutgers in 2003, with my new degree in Genetics, and minor in comparative literature, I was burned out and had no desire to go to graduate school right away. And here’s where my first lesson in writing my own book came into play. People LOVE giving advice (solicited and unsolicited). In either case the best thing to do is listen and say thank you. It didn’t matter that I didn’t agree with everyone else’s assessment of my decision (e.g. if you don’t go to graduate school now, you’ll never go back). What mattered was I listened and said thank you.

Against everyone’s advice, except that of my own heart, I did not go to graduate school right away. I did a mish mash of part time jobs, and gained skills that I would need in future positions in every single one of them. Seriously, a mish mash, and seriously, I learned so much that has helped in my career success.

In no particular order:

Dry bean farm in Freedom, Maine, where I learned the value of a long day of work, and pride in my contribution to a larger project.

Motorcycle shop in Barrington, New Hampshire, where I learned to assess systems, build efficiency, customer service, managing up, inventory, invoicing,  and budgets budgets budgets.

Product Ambassador for Dove, Axe, Gilette and more, that lead me all over the country. Wow, I got so much flack for this over the years, that it made me look less serious in my graduate school applications, but this experience was life changing. First, it paid great. Second, I got to travel all over the country. Third, and most important, it put me in front of people every day to talk, present, and sell.

Numerous waitressing jobs over the years, too many to count, that shows an appreciation for the service industry, how to read people, and how to problem solve on your feet. Evolve or die, on a nightly basis, led to survival.

It wasn’t until a full year after I graduated that I realized I was missing discovery in my life, and made the moves to apply for graduate school. 4 ½ years later, I was a newly minted PhD, and had no desire to pursue a post-doc. And history repeated itself.  I got the same disappointing shake of the head from my academic community, as I had seen after my undergraduate degree. They all told me that I would never get a job without a post doc and if I didn’t follow the tried and true route, I would not be a successful scientist. And again I listed, said thank you, and pursued my own path, which at that time was backpacking and exploring the rocky mountains and not thinking much about anything except seeing and experiencing people and nature in my new sense of freedom.

Which brings me to the 10 years I spent as health sciences curator and department chair at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. After returning to the real world after a few months of camping and living out of our truck, I found an email in my inbox from a friend from graduate school. She had seen a posting that made her think of me. The requirements: a PhD in genetics or neuroscience and proven ability in public speaking and science communication. Nailed it.

My role as a scientific curator continues to be the position that most people are most intrigued. Unlike paleontologists, curator positions are neither common in museums, nor a common path for a PhD that grew up under the banner of the National Institutes of Health.  None-the-less, it exists. And as a nod to my intro paragraph, it was a job that did not exist when I was in graduate school. Going back to declaring to the universe verbs you want to do, and not a noun, my doors were wide open to this novel opportunity.

For people interested in this route, here’s a quick description. As a curator and department chair, I wore many hats from development (fundraising, working with donors), running a public facing research lab (Genetics of Taste Lab), writing grants, directing huge projects and teams, lots of outreach for kids and adults, and reviewing human biology content for our educators. There is no direct career path for museum scientists in health, because there are so few of us currently across the world. I too knew I wanted to pursue a career in science outside of academia, so here’s what I did. I sought out complimentary mentors to support the verbs that I was not fostering with my PhD research. For me that was in media, writing, business management, and leadership. I also volunteered with multiple organizations., and I highly recommend this. A local museum to get the lay of the land. A non-for-profit that supports human health initiative can give you experience communicating complicated science to the general public. And volunteering to coach a sport helps you to learn to communicate and lead teams. 

Ultimately, everything I’ve done so far, and everything you have done so far, contributed to helping us know more about ourselves. The more we know and appreciate how we operate., what brings us joy, what feels rewarding, the more we can hone in our verbs, and use those verbs as a litmus test for which opportunities we pursue, and the skills we invest in to make our lives, and our communities better.