So You Want to Leave Academia

Welcome back to our interview with Cory Ellison, Patent Agent at Morrison & Foerster. In part 2, he provides us with his answers to commonly-asked questions from PhD students and postdocs.

BA: What things can you do while in grad school or as a postdoc in preparation for a non-academic career?

Cory: I think participating in student government and/or having an active role in graduate groups are great options. This will give you exposure to interacting with non-scientists, using networking skills, and will increase your visibility to your graduate peers. Also, I would recommend getting as much practice giving presentations in front of audiences as possible.

BA: What resources did you take advantage of while still in grad school?

Cory: I would attend career fairs and science career-focused seminars; I found these to be quite informative. Your local career services office for graduate students and postdocs likely has a wealth of other resources (e.g. mock interview services, resume and cover letter reviewers, alumni network lists, etc.).

BA: How do you translate the skills you learned in your PhD into marketable skills?

Cory: Scientists are critical thinkers and have exceptional problem-solving skills. Frame your background to leverage your highly desirable critical thinking skills with your immense knowledge of a highly technical area and ability to understand other technical areas outside your personal expertise. Also, during the course of your training you have become an expert in a certain technical field and have an understanding of this field that surpasses that of the vast majority of people. Your immense scientific knowledge is an asset and marketable on its own.

BA: What if I don’t have contacts outside academia?

Cory: Don’t be afraid to reach out and make some contacts outside academia on your own. Talk to your colleagues who are interested in working outside academia and see what they have done or are doing. Look for and join groups on your campus that focus on career paths outside academia.

BA: What if I don’t know which employers want to hire PhDs?

Cory: Similar to above, don’t be afraid to contact an employer, explain who you are and what your background is, and ask them what opportunities they might have for individuals with this background. Also, talk to your lab mates and colleagues. What are their plans after their current position? Where are their scientist friends working? Networking with others can be extremely informative and open up all sorts of opportunities.

BA: Should you do a postdoc?

Cory: I think this depends on what particular goals you have for doing the postdoc. I don’t see how this could be harmful, but it may not be particularly necessary depending on what line of work you would like to pursue after the postdoc. Perhaps if you feel there was some aspect of your graduate training that you would like to explore further in a postdoc, I can see how this would make sense.

BA: I don’t know how to network effectively or present myself to a non-academic audience – how do I learn these skills?

Cory MOFOCory: I think a good place to start is to practice actually communicating science to non-scientists. For example, explain your thesis project to your non-scientist friends and family members. Are they following you? Are they asking you follow-up questions? If the answer is no, you should re-think how you are delivering the information and/or the complexity of the information you are presenting. I’ve found that analogies are very helpful and I almost always try to analogize what I’m communicating to something more general/widely understandable. Also, know your audience. Having a sense of what your audience knows and does not know can help you fine-tune your delivery.

BA: Is there a culture change outside of academia I should be prepared for?

Cory: I think the answer to this is “yes” insofar as there is also a culture change at your local grocery store (for example) relative to your academic environment. The degree of the culture change is probably highly variable depending on the career path, but you are very likely to interact with non-scientists and should be prepared to communicate with them as a person (not just as a scientist).

BA: Do you have any comments on the narrative of “traditional” academic career path vs. “exceptional” non-academic career path?

Cory: I have never really understood the need for career choice qualifiers, similar to the narrative of “leaving academia.” Since most PhD scientists won’t become PIs, you could also argue that a career in academia is a “non-traditional academic career path” for scientists. At the end of the day, it shouldn’t matter how others label your choices. You should pursue whatever career interests you personally, not one that you think you are supposed to do.

BA: Thank you for taking the time to answer so many questions!