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Deciding What to Be with a PhD

Deciding What to Be with a PhD

Leaving the bench can seem like a risky endeavor.

Given the large number of science PhDs who end up working outside academia, the decision to leave the bench must be easy, right? Well, not exactly. Despite the fact that nonacademic positions are no longer the "alternative," opting for one can appear to be a risky endeavor.

Why? It requires deviating from the straightforward grad school-to-postdoc-to-professor course. Researching non-faculty positions—identifying what they are, what they entail, and how to get them—can be overwhelming, especially without any guidance or support. Although information and resources for scientific job-seekers are increasingly available, students and postdocs often don't know they exist or where to begin. And faculty mentors tend to be ill-equipped to advise on the topic. As a result, the path away from academia tends to remain quite murky.

It can also be fraught with emotional conflict. After dedicating so many years to working in the lab, it can seem strange or counterintuitive to do anything else. There are misconceptions that skills learned during graduate and postdoctoral training are not transferable to other fields or that there are not rewarding ways to advance science outside research. Some young postdocs fear "wasting" their degree or being perceived as a failure if they aren't running experiments and writing papers. Regrettably, these fears can be reinforced by naysayers who believe that research is the only valid career path for a science PhD.

All things considered, deciding what to be with a PhD can be a source of great stress and even panic. Some respond by following the default path without considering the alternatives. Others put off making a decision until the dissertation is turned in or funding runs out. Both lead to missed opportunities for engaging in activities that could reduce the apparent risk involved in making a career change.

What's a PhD (or PhD candidate) to do? To reduce the uncertainty, it's important to dedicate time to self-assessment, career exploration and, frankly, getting outside the lab.

Taking the time to identify your skills, interests, and values is important. Once you have a firm grasp on the kind of position that will bring the greatest satisfaction, pursuing that path will seem worthwhile despite risks involved. Talking to individuals who have made the leap, watching the interviews on the Science Alliance Director's Journal, and attending career panels can provide additional insight to demystify the options. Finally, participating in non-lab activities will help you to develop skills that can be useful for making a career transition. Attending courses and workshops offered by your institution and Science Alliance will provide beneficial education and training, as well.

Institutions can also do their part to ease the transitions of their graduate students and postdocs by making career options transparent and helping them to develop basic job skills. Career and professional development programs need to be implemented and trainees need to be encouraged to avail themselves of these resources, which I have observed go underutilized if awareness and support are lacking. This may require informing faculty about available resources so that they can better advise their trainees, or even integrating programs within the curriculum to make them more visible. What's more, we need to combat the "hidden curriculum" persisting in many institutions that a PhD in science is only valuable when applied to research. Until other options are acknowledged and embraced as legitimate trajectories for our graduates, leaving the bench will remain a risky proposition for many.

Making any major life decision is hard and deciding what to be with a PhD is no exception. It is a risk to leave academia, but it can be an informed and calculated risk with exceptional payoff. In fact, for some, the greater risk might be in staying.

If you need help getting started with career exploration, please visit Science Alliance online at

Monica KerrMonica Kerr, PhD, is director of the Academy's Science Alliance program. After completing a PhD in cell biology and training as a Curriculum Fellow at Harvard Medical School, she left the bench to run the Academy's Science Alliance program, which is dedicated to advancing the careers of students and postdocs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics through career education, development and training programs for science PhDs provided through seminars, courses, webinars, and a dedicated website.