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“I’m a Scientist”: Advice on Changing Careers

I’m a scientist.”

It’s a title that packs a punch.

In summer blockbusters, there’s guaranteed to be a mad scientist behind the mayhem, or a researcher desperately searching for a high-tech solution every time monsters or supervillains appear on the big screen.

In the real world, though, the details of life in the lab are obscure.

I spent over a decade working as a neuroscientist and only recently embarked on a career change.


What I Would Do Differently

If I could go back, I’d make sure my answer to “So, what do you do?” made sense to people outside the laboratory.

I went to grad school and stuck it out for eight long years to finish my PhD in Neuroscience. I’m beyond proud to be Dr. Mariani, but in addition to making me very narrowly specialized, my pursuit of an advanced degree worked against me in a few other ways.

When I finished school, my professional network was made up almost entirely of fellow scientists. My education prepared me for an academic career path, but as I began my seventh year in graduate school (ugh), I knew I wasn’t interested in following it any further.

I was too burned out to spend five more years in an apprentice-like postdoctoral position before I had a shot at a “real” job. The most common alternative to an academic career is to do research at a pharmaceutical or biotech company instead of a university, but that didn’t interest me either.

There was no clear roadmap for leaving the lab, so I started applying for jobs in consulting, administration, finance, communications.

Everyone was impressed by my credentials: “I’m a scientist” makes an impression.

But no one wanted to hire me.


Learn Strategically

If I had time to do it all over again, I’d take better advantage of my strengths.

I’m great at learning new things.  For one experiment in grad school, I literally learned how to do brain surgery (on mice).

Unfortunately, most employers are not impressed by fast learners; it’s much more efficient to hire proven candidates who already possess in-demand skills.

I wish I’d thought strategically about how to be competitive for a wide range of jobs and taken more time to study statistics, data analytics, and programming during grad school. STEM PhDs with those skills are immediately eligible for great jobs as data scientists.

This scientist? Not so much.

I also wish I’d known the importance of work experience outside of academia. Most academic labs are run like small businesses: we have to win over clients (funding agencies) to pay for our expenses, and we’re expected to deliver results (research findings) on a regular basis.

Despite this, most people consider work done during graduate school in a university lab “education,” not “work experience,” and I know I’d have more credibility with real employers on my resume.

Industry internships for graduate students aren’t common, but they are possible, and I should have done one.

Get Out of Your Comfort Zone

Most importantly, I’d tell my younger self to broaden her social horizons. It’s easy to spend all your time hanging out with classmates and coworkers – people who have the same skillsets, training, and contacts as you do. But most job opportunities arise through networking, so it’s important to have a network big enough to give you options.

When everyone you know is on one narrow track, it’s hard to find someone who can help you go your own way.

If I’d known these things sooner, I could have done more to make myself attractive to potential employers. Thankfully, though, I managed to do enough.

I put together a resume that emphasized my background in project management, communication, relationship management, and independent research. I also seized upon even the most tenuous of networking opportunities to set up informational interviews.

Based on the advice I received, I applied for a job at an executive search firm specializing in universities and nonprofits. I convinced them that my insider’s perspective would help them find the best candidates to lead universities and other organizations with a major focus on scientific research.

Reader, they hired me.


Starting On A New Career

It’s scary to set off on a new career path when “I’m a scientist” has been my identity for so long.

So much is changing – I’ve gone from being an expert in one field to a novice in another, and I can’t wear my typical lab outfits to my new business casual office.

Even so, I’m proud of myself for going in a new direction, and I’m optimistic about the future.

I still wish I’d been better prepared for a career change, and I will probably always wonder what my life would have been like if I’d stayed on the science track.

But as I move forward, I’ll know that I was brave enough to try something new and capable enough to do something difficult.

Those attributes are more important than any job title.

And besides, I’ll always be “Dr. Mariani.”

By Laura Mariani, Ph.D.

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