Grad school can seem like walking down a well-lit path in an otherwise dark forest. It’s easy to see the academic path, but who knows what might happen if you step off of it? (Illustration: Ted Stanek)

Grad school can seem like walking down a well-lit path in an otherwise dark forest. It’s easy to see the academic path, but who knows what might happen if you step off of it? (Illustration: Ted Stanek)

Guest post from Ted Stanek, PhD candidate in neurobiology

The Duke Institute for Brain Sciences’ Beyond Academia panel on Oct. 30 tried to illuminate the many career paths available to PhDs and spread hope rather than dread in the minds of Triangle area graduate students.

There has been a flood of articles recently about the increase in competition in the academic world for tenure-track faculty positions and federal funding. They all harped on the perils of staying in academia and the tragedy of being a PhD student or postdoc in such a climate.

Many of these stories focus on the terrifying choice that all PhDs and postdocs face at various points in their career: whether or not they want to stay on the academic track. The alternative feels like jumping off of a cliff, and many people complain that programs which accept more PhD students than there are academic jobs available are effectively pushing students towards that cliff.

Ted Stanek

Ted Stanek is a PhD student in neurobiology.

In the face of this negative outlook for PhDs, the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences recently provided welcome insight into the variety of non-academic careers that may lie in a PhD’s future. Beyond Academia was a day-long workshop consisting of five groups of 3-4 panelists discussing their own career trajectories, what their careers are like, and how they prepared to achieve such positions. Each panelist had a neuroscience or biomedical science PhD, and each had found a successful and fulfilling career outside of the academic niche.

“There are no ‘alternative careers’,” Katja Brose, Senior Editor of Neuron, emphasized in her keynote address.  “There are just careers.”

Workshop panelists revealed just how many careers were available to PhDs. A major point reinforced during the event was that you are never “stuck” on the academic track. You have the option of changing careers every step of the way – even after you’ve reached the level of tenured faculty.

Switching career paths, however, is a daunting task – a common reason why many PhD students go straight into a postdoc. It’s easy to see how the skills that you learn as a graduate student will transfer to skills you can use as a postdoc, and then as a young faculty.

Elizabeth Brannon, a professor of psychology & neuroscience who organized the seminar, pointed out in her welcoming speech that PhD students have limited access to professionals outside of academia, making it difficult to even identify non-academic careers that may interest them, let alone prepare for them.

While many of these careers beyond academia do require some type of preparation, this preparation may simply consist of pursuing your interests while completing your PhD. Writing or editing for your lab, starting up a journal club, and participating in university or professional organizations are all great ways to boost your resume and develop your interests.

Perhaps the hardest part of preparing for any career, academic or otherwise, is undergoing that initial period of self-reflection necessary to identify what skills you possess in your current position, what interests you about your job, and how your life values might impact your career.

“The point at which your skills, interests, and values overlap determines your career sweet spot,” Brose said.

Do you especially enjoy the administrative aspects of academia? Maybe grant management is the way to go. How about actually conducting experiments to discover new biological mechanisms? Perhaps working in a pre-clinical lab for a pharmaceutical company is the place for you. What if you love writing – either the spinning of a story (science writer/freelancer), or writing down the scientific facts with precise and accurate language (medical writer)? Are you interested in new biological technology (intellectual property and patent law)? Or helping to change laws about science (science policy)? Maybe you just love reading papers and debating where they should be published (journal editor).

All of these positions highly value PhDs in particular, no matter what the specifics of your thesis are. Every PhD in the brain and behavioral sciences, whether molecular, systems, or behavioral, develops what career advisors call transferable skills. These highly valued “super powers” as one panelist put it, include being able to communicate technical topics to a diverse audience, working with team members, learning a large amount of information quickly and effectively, being resilient in the face of unexpected adversity, and thinking critically to solve complex problems. The overwhelming message from Beyond Academia was that no matter where you end up, after you get your PhD you can find a career that will make you happy and fulfilled.

To me, it seems like pursuing a PhD is a lot like walking down a well-lit path in an otherwise dark forest. It’s easy to see the next step along the path to academia, but who knows what might happen if you step off of it?

Thanks to Beyond Academia, that forest is now a little brighter.

Beyond Academia was  presented by the Duke Institute of Brain Sciences, the Graduate Admitting Program in Cognitive Neuroscience, the Neurobiology Graduate Program, and the Duke Psychology & Neuroscience Graduate Program.  This event was organized by  Elizabeth Brannon and Richard Mooney, with help from Tanya Schrieber, and moderated by Duke graduate students Caroline Drucker, Rosa Li, Marissa Gamble, and Vanessa Puñal.