Dawn is one of the smartest, most dynamic, most interesting scientists I have ever had the pleasure of interacting with. Her decision to move into a non-academic setting started me thinking about making the shift myself. In summary: she’s been a role model and a good friend for a long time. When I approached her about writing a post for this series, she was happy to provide some thoughts on her experience.
I have become the person my academic friends send their students to when they make noises about leaving the academia. I even have a piece out for Versatile PhD that delves into why I left; how I modified my resume and cover letters; and advice I’d give to those heading into non-academic positions. While my experience is captivating and illuminating, it is a singular event and no one should (have to) approach leaving academia by the seat of their pants the way I did. In fact, one of my biggest professional pet peeves now that I am entrenched outside of academia, is how non-academic job prospects are considered an afterthought. Or worse, when people think, “If my academic thing doesn’t work out, I’ll just get a job in industry,” but don’t consider what other skills they might want or need to develop to thrive in a career outside of academia. It is the anthesis of science, leaving something so important to chance rather than trying to control or at least be aware of all the variables!
I for one would have taken communicating my research more seriously and committed to doing it with intention and impact by enrolling in a marketing course and attending workshops on social media engagement, writing blog posts, and understanding google analytics. My first job out of academia was the Director of Conservation Education and Research at the Huyck Preserve and Biological Research station a 2,000 acre preserve in upstate New York. During my tenure I was not only responsible for connecting research activities to conservation and education programs, but I was also tasked with expanding the school field trip program to more school districts and growing the recreation program. I certainly figured out how to create and implement a marketing and communication plan for both programs, ultimately reaching five school districts and over 600 students with a research-based invasive species monitoring program and doubling guided hike attendance, but those skills were acquired while I was also figuring out how to write a curriculum suitable for K-12 students and pursing collaborations with local university students and professors to provide expert led guided hikes.
Did I mention at the same time I was also developing a high school research course from scratch and managing a research grant program? Because that’s where I could have used a finance or accounting course, helpful for when you are managing your own grants, an entire granting program, and for when you’re trying to determine the appropriate tuition to cover program expenses. Also handy for when you go head to head with the Board of Directors over the annual budget after getting promoted to Executive Director 2.5 years later. Speaking of boards, I would highly recommend a course on meeting facilitation. Robert’s Rule’s only scratches the surface and really doesn’t apply to entering a strategic planning process with a regional network of colleges/universities, non-profit preserves, and government agencies intent on informing regional sustainable management practices. I can also say that someone with facilitation skills makes working groups infinitely more productive placing you at the top of the list for research collaborations.
Oh, and before I forget, start talking to someone now about achieving work-life balance. I would like to directly challenge the wholesale statement that leaving academia leads to a life of leisure. It depends on the job, culture of the organization, and your personality. For example, non-profits, because they operate on charitable gifts, may not be staffed at capacity leading to a few people wearing many, many hats (case in point: Director of Conservation Education and Research, that kids, is three jobs in one!). I erroneously thought when I left academia that a majority of non-academic positions were 9-5 and then proceeded to work 50-60 hour weeks (80-90 Memorial through Labor Day) for five years because I loved what I was doing and there was no one else to do it. I wouldn’t have changed it for the world (well maybe a little) but it also wasn’t sustainable. I would have seriously benefited from a training on managing work-life balance so that I could have set boundaries for myself and my employers.
I know I am one data point and it’s easy for me to offer a list of courses and trainings now that I am done with school (although I frequently contemplate going back to school for my MBA) but my opinions are also colored by my newest position as the director of a postdoctoral fellowship program, NatureNet Science Fellows, and internal science professional development for scientists at The Nature Conservancy. I talk to a lot of people about what science professional development should look like within and outside of the Conservancy. If you must prioritize, science communication, specifically the ability to speak or write about your own research and identify appropriate outlets for outreach, ranks high on the list along with skills in project management, including budgeting and managing a team. After that, it really would behoove you to consider, “If I left academia, what job would I take and what skills would I need to succeed?”