The Lanfear Lab @ANU Molecular Evolution and Phylogenetics

Running a non-academic careers workshop for biologists

Academic departments are typically not very good at helping students consider a broad range of possible careers. It’s more common, in my experience, for academic departments to give the false impression that an academic career is the one true career. It’s easy to see why this happens: academia is the only career most academics have had, and most academics’ professional networks are dominated by other academics. It’s natural for us to encourage students and postdocs to follow careers in academia. We (mostly) love our jobs and we’re enthusiastic about them. But this isn’t a good situation for most students and postdocs.

The trouble with the current situation is that most biology PhDs will not stay in academia, even if they want to. There’s no reason that academia shouldn’t be on anyone’s list of possible careers, it might be top of the list for some. The point is that if you don’t already have a tenure-track position then your list of possible careers should probably have more than one entry. And by definition most of the entries on the list will not be academia. If academia is the only item on your list of potential careers right now just google postdocalypse to see why it’s in your interest to extend your list.

Career planning can be daunting. How do you start to figure out which careers you actually want? How do you even figure out which careers are out there? And even if you know that, how do you maximise your chances of getting into any particular career? To try and address these questions for the students and postdocs in our department, I organised a workshop on “Non-academic careers following a PhD”. It was well attended, and we’ll be running it again next year. Various people have asked what we did, so the point of the rest of this post is to describe that. If you have suggestions for improvements, please leave them in the comments! Before getting into the details, I’d summarise by giving some general pieces of advice that came from the workshop:

  1. Set aside time. This requires research, planning, networking, and maybe training.
  2. Collect and analyse data. First get data on yourself, your priorities, what makes you happy. Then use this data to narrow down your list of potential careers and/or employers. There are a lot of online resources to help you with both of these steps.
  3. Go meet people. Go to careers fairs. Get on LinkedIn. Find people that do what you want to do. Buy them lunch. Buy them coffee. Go to the same events they do. Follow them on twitter.
  4. Address deficiencies in your CV. For example, if you are lacking some key skill, see if you can go and get it. Maybe you can do this in your spare time. Maybe you can do it as part of your current role. Case in point: most academic biologists can benefit hugely from learning to program, and programming happens to be useful for a huge range of other careers both in biology and elsewhere.
  5. Speak to careers advisors. There might be advisors at your university. You might have relatives or friends who can help. Most importantly for non-academic careers, get advice from people with experience outside the ivory towers.
  6. Get help preparing your application and CV. And get help preparing for and practicing interviews.

What we did

We thought long and hard about how to put together a careers workshop. Our guiding principle was that academics should not be the ones providing the advice (see above). The schedule only really came together when we started talking a lot with Sally Purcell and Serene Lin-Stephens from the Macquarie University careers service. They were enormously helpful, and our interactions have been really enlightening for me.

Here’s the schedule we roughly ended up with on the day:

0930-0940 Short intro from me
0940-1030 Career planning and job searching (Sally Purcell and Michael Strack)
1030-1100 Effective CV writing and interview skills (Serene Lin-Stephens)
1100-1120 The view from recruiters’ perspectives (Senior folks from two big science recruitment agencies)
1120-1150 Coffee
1150-1300 Questions to the panel (me, 4 folks from recruitment agencies, 2 careers advisors, one grad student)
1300-1400 Lunch, networking

What worked

The first section seemed to work well, and was full of useful practical advice on ways to plan your career and get jobs (e.g. get on Linked In, right now, did you do it yet?). The question and answer session after coffee was fantastic, and included discussions of how negotiate for salaries (and benefits) in various fields, how to write your CV if you have ongoing health problems, and how to network effectively with (and for) different types of people.

What I’d change

I’d give the recruiters clearer instructions on exactly what to cover. Their talks were too long, and often irrelevant to the audience. It was generous of them to give us their time for this (they came for free), but we didn’t use it as well as we could have.

I’d also include another session after lunch, to bring in biology PhDs who no longer work in academia to tell their stories. One thing that a number of the participants raised is that it can feel like a big deal to walk away from the cosy bubble of academia. Hearing personal stories from those who did just that would probably be particularly helpful here. I’d aim for a session with 4 people from a variety of areas (industry, NGO, government, consulting, media, education, startups, finance...). I’d give them each 10-15 minutes to tell their story, and then have a Q&A session with them as the panel. That would add ~2hrs to an afternoon session, and we could finish up with drinks.

Would I do it again?

Yes. For sure. We’re planning it again for next year. So, if you have a biology PhD, work outside academia, and might be willing to come and spend an afternoon talking with us in Sydney next year, please get in touch. We’d love to have you.