From PhD to Science Education

We’re here today with Desirée Stanley, a Science Curriculum Designer at IXL Learning. Desirée recently graduated from the University of California, San Francisco with a Master of Science.

BA: How and why did you decide to leave academia?

Desirée: I was in the Tetrad PhD program at UCSF. I was happy in the program and in the lab I worked in, but after I passed my qualifying exams I started thinking about what I would do after I graduated. UCSF has been making a real effort to provide resources to students considering ‘alternative’ career paths, including providing the myIDP career exploration tool and many online resources. I was well aware of the challenges of a career in academic science and had gotten excited about science communication and education. I starting looking more into those career options.

I thought this would help me figure out how to prepare for the next step while I finished grad school. But when I looked into it, I found that a PhD just isn’t necessary for most of the jobs I was interested in. There are many people working in professions like curriculum design and science writing who do have science PhDs, but I found that for many positions, a master’s degree was sufficient. Once I knew that, it was hard for me justify staying in grad school for 3-4 more years, when I could leave with an M.S. degree and start the next part of my career immediately.

BA: Was the transition difficult?

DesireeStanley_photoDesirée: I spent a couple of months thinking about my options – I talked about it with some of my friends in my program, but not any of my labmates or my PI. When I got the job offer at IXL and told everyone, they were shocked. I felt pretty awkward about everything at that point, but my PI was very helpful. He put me in touch with several Tetrad alums who work in science education so I could get more perspectives about what to do. But after talking to them, I decided to take the job.

It was just a few weeks later that I started as a Science Curriculum Designer at IXL Learning. It felt strange and sad to pack up and know that my time at the bench was done. But I’d known for a while that I wouldn’t stay in lab science after the end of grad school – that just came a few years earlier than I’d been expecting.

BA: What were your concerns and hopes? Were these verified when you began working?

Desirée: It’s hard to suddenly just not be a scientist anymore. That was how I had seen myself for a long time! Being a curriculum designer just does not provide that same sense of identity.

But – even aside from enjoying what I do more, and having a real salary, and more free time – I feel more comfortable with what I’m doing now. I’m not sure whether I want to spend my career specifically in K-12 education or move into more general science communication, but I’m much happier knowing that the job I have now will directly help me get the next job I’ll want.

BA: What did you find most useful about your PhD training that you applied to your later work?

Desirée: One of the most important things I learned in grad school, and from the lab I worked in in particular, was how to think and write clearly about complex ideas. I learned to think about precisely what a data point or sentence means. That skill is the crux of the job I do now. In my job, I spend my time thinking about what the real core of a scientific idea is and how to ask students questions that address that key point.

BA: How did you go about the job search? What was the process?

Desirée: I literally typed the word “science” into the search bar in Craigslist and found the ad for the job I have now.

I spent a lot of time reading the many resources from UCSF’s Office of Career Development and various websites. Those resources had a lot of information, but nothing I read helped me directly. At some point, for me, it was just about sending my resume out and seeing what happened.

BA: What was the application process? How did you assess company culture?

Desirée: After I submitted my resume online, I had a phone interview with someone who held the same job I was applying for. He had been a post-doc in astronomy before taking the job. I directly asked him what the company was like and how he saw the then-brand new science team developing.

After the phone interview, I was asked to complete an assignment that was basically a sample of what I actually do at work now. The person I interviewed with described the assignment as a good way for me to decide whether I’d like the job or not. I wrote explanations for a few sample problems and made suggestions for other related problems. After I sent in that assignment, I was invited to come for an on-site interview. The day after that interview I got a phone call with the job offer.

BA: What does your job entail?

Desirée: I work for a company that makes online K-12 educational products. My team is working on the soon-to-be-released science content. Essentially, I write biology questions for students to answer. I work to create engaging and rigorous online problems with interactive features and thorough explanation text. I work with illustrators, user interface designers, and engineers to create the problems.

BA: What does a typical day look like for you? Is there a typical day?

Desirée: The office is in San Mateo and I live in San Francisco, and I’m fortunate to be able to work from home 1-2 days a week. Whether I’m at home or in the office, I spend most of the day writing and editing my work and that of other people on the science team. We have brainstorming meetings about new problem types a couple times per week. I also frequently talk to people in the art or engineering department about how to create the problem types I’m envisioning.

BA: What abilities are necessary in your job?

Desirée: Aside from a background in science, the most important skill is the ability to write clearly. It’s risky to hire candidates who are promising in other ways if they can’t write well, because that’s a skill that’s difficult to teach on the job. We also look for people who have a good eye for detail.

BA: What things can students do while in grad school as preparation for this type of career?

Desirée: I think the science outreach I did in grad school helped make me competitive for this position. I did a fair amount of volunteer teaching through UCSF’s Science and Health Partnership program. I also wrote for Science’s Science in the Classroom project. Having those experiences on my resume showed the company that I could communicate science to non-scientists. Also, I think having these other experience over several years showed that I had been thinking about applying my skills outside the lab – that my interest in science education wasn’t a sudden whim.

BA: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us!