Alternatively academic

Danielle is another excellent scientist that I’m happy to count as a friend. She’s smart, funny, interesting, and gives excellent advice on a wide variety of topics for which she is considered an expert. These topics include (but are not limited to): roller derby officiating, traditional cocktails, bird pheromones, and being a science boss lady. While her role is still very much an academic position, it is not a traditional position. As a result, she was happy to share her thoughts on “alternate academia”. 

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I get a lot of questions about my job, because although I am an established academic at a university, I am not a professor. My official title is Managing Director of the BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action, headquartered at Michigan State University. My position is a blend of administration and research.

I am responsible for the operations of a multi-institution, multi-disciplinary NSF Science and Technology Center. We have over 600 members at 5 universities, and it is my job to ensure that all members have access to the resources they need, like cross-disciplinary training, seminars, funding opportunities, collaborators, and our annual conference. I am our primary liaison with our funder, the National Science Foundation. One of my primary responsibilities in that capacity is compiling and submitting our Annual Report, which typically runs well over 200 pages long and documents dozens of research and educational efforts, as well as our collaborations with industrial affiliates and efforts to increase diversity in STEM. I coordinate and run our annual NSF Site Visit, in which we spend a (very) full day presenting our research, education, diversity, and knowledge transfer efforts to a panel of external reviewers, who determine whether we are meeting our goals and decide whether to recommend that our funding be continued for the following year. I organize our annual BEACON Congress, a 3-day conference for our members and other interested visitors. This conference features concurrent tracks with contributed talks, member-organized symposia, workshops, and brainstorming “sandbox” sessions where people can discuss new ideas and collaborations.

These administrative activities account for about 70% of my work efforts. Most of my remaining time is spent on research. I maintain an active research program in evolutionary biology and animal behavior. I study chemical communication in songbirds, which involves both field and lab work and collaborations with chemists, microbiologists, and other evolutionary biologists. I supervise a postdoctoral researcher, and I have also served as the external member of two doctoral dissertation committees. Finally, I also do a fairly significant amount of service to the field, reviewing journal manuscripts and grant proposals and serving on NSF review panels.

How did I get here? Well, to be honest, I was initially interested in a more typical tenure-track career. I applied to well over 100 tenure-track positions over a couple of years, was invited to a handful of campus interviews, and received one job offer that did not suit my needs. After the last round of interviews, I had begun to sense that the realities of a tenure-track position did not match the career I had envisioned, and started to consider alternative paths. I was a postdoc at Indiana University at the time, and started looking around at the other researchers I admired there. I realized there were quite a few people involved in running research centers who appeared to have the perfect job, in my opinion anyway. I started thinking about looking for these kinds of opportunities, but I didn’t really know where to start.

Lucky for me, just a few weeks later, a job ad was posted on the Evol Dir listserve that seemed to be exactly what I was looking for – a brand new NSF-funded center was hiring a Managing Director. They wanted a person who was an active researcher in evolutionary biology, not a pure administrator, so that the person in this position could understand and communicate the science done at this center. I had no idea whether they would consider me even remotely qualified, but I worked harder on that job application than I ever had on any tenure-track application. I was invited to interview, and shortly afterwards they offered me the job.

It’s difficult to give advice to someone who is interested in a similar career, because there is no defined path, and there is no central resource to find jobs like mine. Often, these “alt-ac” jobs are what you make of them. I tell people to keep your eyes open and network as much as you can. If you are looking to make a career change, make sure people know about it. Graduate students are often afraid to admit that they don’t want a tenure-track job, for fear of “disappointing” their advisor. In my experience, most advisors just want their students to be successful, on whatever path they follow! Jobs like this are often not advertised as openly as mine was. If people know that you are looking for an opportunity, they will mention your name when they hear about such things. Things don’t always work out the way you think they will, and that can be for the best.

The down side of my position is that it has an end date. NSF STC funding lasts for a maximum of 10 years. We are currently in the second half of year 8. Where do I go from here? It’s too soon to know for sure, but there are a number of possibilities that interest me. At the top of my list is working for the National Science Foundation. I’ve learned a lot about how NSF works in my time here, and also through experience serving on proposal review panels. I am particularly interested in the STC program itself, as their model of facilitating collaborative “team science” is inspiring – and it’s working!

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Being the non-academic boss lady

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.

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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?”