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Nothing “alternative” about careers beyond academia

     An increasing number of PhDs now question the wisdom of jumping headlong into a postdoc (the autopilot postdoc). For most, this dilemma is a result of fewer tenured positions, remunerations (or the lack of thereof), and the fear of irrelevancy to society at large due to a constricted research focus. While a mere 2% of the postdocs were unemployed in 2010, this number has now risen to over 10% in the subsequent years. The need of the hour asks for fresh perspectives on potential career paths that prepare new PhDs for careers outside academia; careers that are similarly challenging, creative, and yet, nothing short of a serious career path.

     In her talk at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) Dr. Meenakshi Prabhune, a scientist-turned-writer, stressed the need to start an early exploration of one’s way around science, preferably towards the end of a PhD. The talk covered several topics, ranging from transitioning from academia to industry, jobs in sales/ marketing, field applications, the direction of science policies, careers in education and science journalism, as well as the possibility of combining two or more of these. To this end, she brought to light the Individual Development Plan, a tool developed by the Science Careers magazine that helps understand one’s interests, given that the general understanding is that most doctoral theses are completed with blinkers on.

     The pursuit of a non-traditional career takes work and immense career planning. So what does one do with a list of suitable career options? Dr. Prabhune suggested talking to the experts in that field. Conferences are great opportunities to build such networks. A ready “elevator pitch” and crisp business cards (who ever said scientist don’t need business cards!) are all you need to get a foot in the door. Another great networking platform is LinkedIn, where you could cold call with a professional note even without prior introduction. Here, she explained, a big turn-off is making vague statements such as, “tell me all about your job.” Instead, she suggests, be prepared with specific questions. Other means of networking and earning experience include volunteering for events, paid internships and online courses (Coursera, and ibiology).

      As she moved on to science outreach, her talk reminded us of the enormous amount of time spent in the creation and iteration of experiments in the laboratory as compared to the fraction of time spent promoting that study. And promotion is important because science must create awareness among people, help educate others on the dangers of ignorance or superstition, support the fight for science, and to introduce the people behind the research. Communication helps dispel stereotypical ideas and preconceptions about not only science, but also of scientists. No more clichés of the wild-haired hermit intensely working over a burning candle. Rather, it is time for accurate representations of scientists, as everyday people doing perhaps, not so everyday things. A great example is the social media hashtag #actuallivingscientist that helps “normalise” scientists in the eyes of others. Dr. Prabhune also shared ideas on communal places to extend one’s science reach, such as the Taste of Science events, Skype a scientist, engaging Youtube science raps, the Dance Your PhD sensation, and even a section for children at the Frontiers Journal.

     The talk concluded with a workshop that was divided into three groups. While one group wrote non-technical summaries of their own research in 100 words, another group conducted the same exercise by interviewing with partners. A third group were the “innovators” with impromptu plays, speeches and art embodying their passion for science.

      Why invite speakers like Dr. Prabhune to talk about things we, perhaps, intuitively already know? Because navigating new careers can be overwhelming and a single strategy need not work for everyone. Additionally, public outreach has assumed great importance with a continuous fusillade of potential misinformation.

      According to the Wellcome Trust Monitor, only about one in five adults has visited a science centre in the last 12 months, while in contrast, one-third have visited a history museum and three in ten have visited an art gallery. 9% of the respondents of a survey conducted by the Wellcome Trust Monitor were aware that antibiotic resistance means that virulent microbes are resistant to antibiotics but alarmingly, more than three times as many (31%) think that it is their own bodies that have become resistant to antibiotics.

If this does not speak of our science communication, I don’t know what does.