Off the Bench: Skills that Pay the Bills

I am so happy to share the latest installment of my column for scientists who are noodling the idea of working in a field off the bench.  It’s been about two and a half years since I started my current job, which does not have me doing research full-time, but has me running an initiative at the Midwest’s only four year Hispanic Serving Institution aimed at helping students, particularly underrepresented and low-income students, get the support and resources they need to succeed in STEM fields and move into lifetime careers in math and science (and those are broad careers!).  If you are considering leaving the bench, it is a rewarding path, but I’m here to tell you, you’re going to have a major learning curve to climb when you transition from bench research to an administrative position. Allow me to illustrate:

The following is a short selection of my skills as a bench scientist:

Fluorescence microscopy
Molecular cloning
Chemical Precipitation transformation
Cell Culture
Thin-section transmission electron microscopy
Electron Tomography
High-pressure freeze substitution of cells
Immunoelectron microscopy
Western/southern blotting
Running gels like my life depended on it
Live cell imaging
Analysis of literature
Crazy-good notetaking/record keeping/Data maintenance
Grant writing/proposal composition

Now, here’s what I need in my current position:

Budget maintenance
Managerial Skills
Event planning
Massive networking skills
Advising/counseling students
Grant writing/proposal composition
Reporting of activities/priorities to governing board

Seemingly, only one skill translates-the grant writing.  Bummer.

Well, I sort of predicted this.  I wanted to make sure I wasn’t about to hit the end of my graduate program short on the tools I would need to go outside of a research career.  So, here is a short selection of what I did:

Mentored students of various ages-high school, undergraduate, returning, non-traditional students.  Invested in them in the same way I would have invested in myself.  They all have multiple first author publications now.

Wrote.  A lot.  About things other than science.  And sometimes about science.  Built a portfolio of writing material.  I’m not claiming to be Steinbeck here, but I got a few articles under my belt, did a little editing, edited people’s papers in the lab, did some for a publishing company in Asia, you know got some experience.

Did A LOT of outreach.  Volunteered for various programs to bring science to kids, science weeks, science years, got involved through professional societies, this is going to have to be another article.

I also discussed science with my fabulous grandmother.  Every time she told me she didn’t care about what I was saying, I retooled my message.  This was helpful.

Served on the young professionals’ board for Human Rights Watch in Chicago.  Took me away from the bench a couple of Thursday evenings a month, but you know what I have to do in my job?  Work with a board.  You know what I don’t do?  Work in a lab.  Do you think this may have been a good investment of my time, even though it may not have seemed to get me to the end of my thesis right away?  I do.

By the end of all this, in addition to the short list of previously mentioned science skills, I could:

Manage a budget (you think my outreach efforts were free?)

Network like crazy (Seriously.)

Mentor students to the Ph.D., or the direction of their choice.  (Ahem.  Click this and search for Levi.)

Create programs for students that would actually make a difference in their ability to pursue their dreams.

Better understand how a board works.

Wrote fabulous press pieces for events and their outcomes.

Knew how to conduct program assessment.

Learned how to translate my bench experience into something that would actually help others, whether in science or the public.

My hope is that you will reach for experiences and tools that will enable you to generate a portfolio of skills that will enable you to be really ready for the job you want after this.  If you want a post-doc and to become a faculty member, the skills you gain on a traditional academic path are primarily the ones you need, although the exercises of getting experience beyond the bench will be a useful one for your own career, and will hopefully help you better understand students you are mentoring who may want to take a non-traditional path.  If you’re thinking of a job away from the bench, my suggestion is to find out what that is, what the day to day will be like, and then make sure you’re getting the experiences you need in order to be able to cover the bases of the job.  The degree is your ticket in, but these experiences distinguish you from every other Ph.D. out there, giving you a wide array of tools to work with and make you the candidate for your dream job.

The cool part is that these skills are so transferable, you can’t lose.  You can do such a wide array of things with your degree and background, and it’s just a matter of strengthening different professional muscle groups depending on your goals, and how they change.

So do some exploring, find some role models or carve your own path out, and make it happen.  You’re a science rockstar.

1 Comment

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One response to “Off the Bench: Skills that Pay the Bills

  1. Tom

    Great post. There are many positions out there just waiting for scientists to fill them. Scientists everyday skills of asking questions, gathering & analyzing data, and communicating it to people are very transferable to a job outside the lab.
    The world will benefit from more scientists in the position of making decisions.

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