Off the Bench Begins

Darlings:

This year has been a wild ride. I made the transition from bench scientist to program administrator/outreach maven/boss-type-person. I know some of you want to make a similar move, and I want to help you. So, I am starting a column called Off the Bench that will detail for you what this transition has been like, what has worked, and what hasn’t. I tell you, there is a lot you need to know that you ain’t learning in grad school. It’s a shame it’s so hard to learn the soft skills that really make a difference when you are in a new position (these help you whether you’re taking the tenure track or going outside the hallowed halls of the academy), but you need them regardless, so you better find a way to pick them up.

So, here’s the background:

I earned my Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 2009 in Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology. It became increasingly apparent throughout grad school that science outreach was my thing. Not that research isn’t-it totally is. I have done research in a lab since I was 19 years old, and worked on projects in labs since without pause. I love to do science. I love to ask questions, design experiments, test hypotheses and formulate models based on data. I love to sit for several hours a day taking in the literature on a research area I enjoy (Fig 1.).

Fig. 1: Thesis writing carnage.

Fig. 1: Thesis writing carnage.

I love writing about science, condensing the work of several years into six concise figures. But I also love people, helping others, seeing tangible results every day, and was moved by my own experience to help others who might have professional aspirations in science themselves, as well as my uncontrollable craziness for bringing science to the public. It’s out of control, I tell you. I also have a gregarious and social nature that sometimes competes with the side of my personality that loves to slap my iPod on and crank through a solid session on the electron microscope until 2:30 AM without a soul around in the basement of a science building (Fig. 2).

Fig 2: Extreme isolation, rocking data collection-2:00 AM, sometime in 2009

Fig 2: Extreme isolation, rocking data collection-2:00 AM, sometime in 2009


Make no mistake: those two sides of my personality co-exist, but I left graduate school knowing that I wanted to take a different, but related, path. It’s heresy, but I-wait for it-decided to go for a job that I knew would light me up everyday and skip the post-doc.

You read that right.

I’m one of those.

But read the other part: I got my Ph.D. and took a job that lights me up every day.

So, I want to help you do the same, if that is what you want. If you’re exploring that idea and are not sure how to make it happen, or feeling a little nervous about it, have an advisor who thinks your education is a waste if you don’t take the tenure-track route-which is awesome, but not for everyone, I hope this will help you.

I’ll give you the punchline of the whole thing right now-follow your heart first, and then get the skills you need to make sure you have what it takes to get where you want to go. I warn you, this requires vigilance, self-awareness, planning, and often a feeling of otherness when you are in an intense academic environment. However, you’ll be in another intense environment doing what you love and really happy at the end of all your preparation, so you may as well just go for it, it is worth it. Here’s the other thing: you can learn the other skills, although you don’t want to be missing many of them, but no one can teach you what it is to be a scientist on the job. That, you need to pick up elsewhere. So, pick it up.

In upcoming posts, I will detail what I have learned as I went through this transition, the skills I didn’t pick up in grad school that have become essential to my work in the day-to-day, why I love what I do and what it’s about, and how you can make a plan to get where you want to go.

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