In 6 months, I went from defending my Ph.D., starting a postdoc in my Ph.D. lab, being extremely depressed because I was not enjoying the work at all, cutting off my toxic PI, voluntarily giving up authorship of my Ph.D. paper, and landing a pretty sweet industry job that’s fully remote.
Aside from those few months being a literal emotional rollercoaster, life’s been good!
Since I started my job 2 weeks ago, I’ve been reflecting on how I got to this place. The past couple months have felt like a blur of stress, anxiety and major change. I really haven’t been able to enjoy 2022 yet, let alone this new lifestyle with my remote job. It’s still something I’m getting used to.
What I’ve realized in my reflection so far is that the job I got makes so much sense given the things I knew I enjoyed and things I knew I didn’t enjoy. I used to hate it when people said “oh it all fell into place” or “I was lucky it just turned out that way”. Like, that’s not helpful at all. I get that. I’m not trying to do that to you.
But the job I got makes so much sense for me, it’s kind of scary how everything worked out. I’ll explain below so my experience, even if it’s just 1 person’s, can be useful to you when considering your own interests in the context of your job search.
What I Knew I Liked
One thing I’ve always known about myself was that I really liked being involved in education-related endeavors, but not in a classroom in front of people. I didn’t TA during my Ph.D. but I did teach one “for-fun” elective class during undergrad. I didn’t like the bureaucracy and extra steps that came with teaching in an academic environment.
Instead, I tutored during grad school (I have a whole blog post about how I made $500 a month tutoring if you’re curious about how I did that), I was a campus tour guide at my undergrad university, and even in high school, I was a student rep that helped new students and families get oriented and understand the ins and outs of the school.
Maybe I should call it “service-meets-education”. I’ve always thought mixing that type of work with science would be perfect for me.
I realized now, after getting my Medical Writing job which educates people on their diseases or drugs they’re taking, that I kinda achieved that.
A good takeaway for you is that teaching can go way beyond the classroom. You might be really passionate about educating others, too. Have you ever considered it doesn’t have to be literally in front of students? That you can educate patients, your community, and even doctors and nurses?
People in all positions need to learn and be re-trained in order to keep doing their jobs well, and that means there are plenty of opportunities exist to create scientific educational materials for them. Try to think of some instances where this is so!
For example, the work I do now teaches and ultimately helps way more people than I could achieve in a classroom setting. The materials I prepare directly influence patients, hospital and research staff, and higher-ups in various studies. And I get to learn about new diseases and drugs on a regular basis, unlike in research where I’m stuck on one topic for years because of funding and other reasons outside my control.
Another thing I knew I really enjoyed is writing. I’ve written blog posts (on personal blogs like this one!) since college and I also enjoyed writing classes as well. In fact, in college, I did much better in my required, general education writing/English courses than I did in courses for my major.
It’s funny too because the job I got involves writing about topics that I don’t have any experience in – drugs, diseases, and conditions that my Ph.D. research wasn’t about. I didn’t even use mammalian or human models in my dissertation research! Never touched a mouse or rat in my life. But that ability I have to think strategically when given a writing project, write lots of words very quickly, and edit it into shape is something that really helps me do my job.
Basically, I think what my Ph.D. proved to the hiring team was that my background in neuroscience helps me understand other diseases (even if they aren’t CNS-related) by being really good at quickly grasping concepts and consolidating information from literature.
Then, I can use my knack for writing to get it out as a product and go from there. In fact, that was something I put on every resume I sent out, and is definitely a key skill to sell when you’re applying to jobs.
That’s why when I was looking through industry job options, roles that involved helping and educating others and were customer-facing like Support Scientist and Scientific Sales piqued my interest. Being able to help people while being in a scientific field sounded right up my alley. I also heavily considered Medical Writing/Scientific Writing, because of my passion for writing and the fact I could still prepare materials that educated or trained scientists and patients on topics that fascinated me. Those things sounded way more my speed than lab research in an R&D lab or something.
I guess it’s starting to make sense why I love blogging and sharing my life & tips so much too, because it’s a combination of those two passions of mine.
What I Knew I Didn’t Like
I also knew there were things I didn’t want to do.
A major one is labwork. Keeping things sterile, pipetting right every single time, looking up details about little genes and primers, having environmental factors ruin well-planned experiments, work being controlled by the lifetimes of model organisms, it just didn’t excite me.
Now, I didn’t start my Ph.D. feeling that way.
In undergrad, I worked in 3 labs, mostly in entomology and environmental science with a large fieldwork component, and I really liked what I did. I loved going into my old research buildings with the magnificent academic exteriors and chipped interiors, putting my backpack down at my makeshift desk, and getting to work in a lab that looked like a cross between a Hogwarts classroom and a 90’s crime show forensics room. I liked working hands-on with my larvae, cell culture hood, chemicals, field samples, and lab equipment. I loved chirping to my friends, “I have to go to lab!”, going out into the field to catch our model organism, and spending late nights analyzing my data, perfecting my Excel graphs and putting them on my posters.
Maybe I enjoyed it because it was less in-depth than at the doctoral level. But my research achievements were enough to get me into a Ph.D. program straight from undergrad without much forethought aside from “I’m decent at research, I genuinely like science and want to do more of it”.
I don’t know if it was my grad school lab environment, the topic I picked, the advisor I had, the program I was in, the university setting, me, or a combination of those and other factors, but I quickly fell out of love with laboratory research. I just couldn’t care enough about anything to press on for weeks and months on one assay or protocol. I quickly realized I didn’t want to keep doing that after grad school.
That led me to realize that benchwork-based industry jobs probably weren’t going to be at the top of my list. That eliminated a lot of benchwork jobs in R&D labs, clinical labs, startups, government labs, etc. It was kind of bittersweet because they tend to pay really well, but I just couldn’t bear the thought of going into labs every day for the rest of my life.
That was a pretty useful filter for narrowing down the kind of jobs I wanted to get.
It’s all good though, because I’m still extremely exposed to scientific topics related to drugs and diseases that I would have never learned about if I had stayed in an insular lab setting. I think that’s more my speed!
The Publication System
Another thing I disliked from grad school was the whole “publication” situation.
I just didn’t GET it. I didn’t buy into it much. In fact, I don’t have a 1st author research publication from my Ph.D. research. It was about 90% complete but I left it behind when I cut off my toxic former PI. I don’t miss it and I don’t care about it.
I understood that others from my lab may want to see it published, so I provided all my data and figures before I left and handed it off as any other paper should be handed off. But once I was out of that environment, and wasn’t getting paid (meagerly), it wasn’t my concern anymore. My mental health and freedom were way more important to me than authorship on 1 paper!
The type of writing that I did for scientific journal publications was not the type of writing I enjoyed, and it was slowly confusing me. I was beginning to become unsure if writing as a whole was for me. My toxic former PI even said to me many times, “your writing isn’t great”, “I don’t know if medical writing is going to work out”, “You’re going to have a hard time as a medical writer”, etc. This was the same guy who literally told me to “pontificate” on my dissertation.
It’s funny because little did my former PI know that my current manager at my medical writing job told me that the written assignment I did during the hiring process was one of the best she’s ever seen!
It was clear to me I wanted to (and still could) write about science in a way that was more practical, succinct, and less hand-wavy. I wanted to write in a way that was clear to the audience what the point was from the get-go, and isn’t stuffed with a ton of methods and analysis. I didn’t want to ramble or use passive tone.
I wanted to write useful work that anyone from patients to directors of research institutions could read and use. I wanted to contribute to making products that helped patients understand their medications or studies they were enrolled in. That sort of thing. And it’s what I do now!
How to Identify What You Like & Don’t Like
One thing I always reiterate in my blog posts is the fact that introspection is so important when trying to decide what kind of job you want to get in industry. I go into full detail in my 5 ways to identify STEM industry jobs that are a good fit for you post, but the main introspection questions from that post are listed below.
I’m not kidding about introspection. I know it sounds fluffy and you want cold, hard FACTS and TIPS so you can succeed and get that job NOW. But if you don’t think ahead of time, you’re just going to end up wasting your time applying to jobs that don’t respond because you don’t market your genuine interests well enough.
Here are some introspection questions to get you started on this:
Job responsibility/role-related considerations:
- What’s your favorite part of grad school or your postdoc? I really enjoyed conferences. I also enjoyed learning about new things at a fast pace, particularly stuff about new drugs and diseases. These things made me realize I am curious, I am happy working with others, and I like communicating science.
- What would you absolutely dislike, or not want to do anymore? I hated that experimental results could be due to things totally outside my control and how slow the laboratory research process was – it felt really unfulfilling to me. I hated academic writing, with all the verbosity and antiquated words like “seminal” and “elucidated”. My former PI literally told me to pontificate when I was writing my dissertation! These things made me realize I should probably stay out of the wet lab and work in a more fast-paced environment that uses more practical writing skills than academic writing skills.
- What are some things you don’t mind doing? I didn’t mind giving presentations and reading papers. I was fine if those aspects were part of the jobs I was looking for.
- What do you enjoy outside of your main job of research? I tutored on the side for a few years in grad school. I actually wrote all about it in a blog post about my $500/month side hustle. I really enjoyed conveying scientific information in a simple manner for a practical purpose.
- Geographical considerations: Are you willing to relocate? Do you have a partner or children to consider when making this decision?
- Remote vs. in-person vs. hybrid: What work location/setup will help you feel the most comfortable and also thrive? Or perhaps you don’t have a strong preference; that’s okay too!
- Commute: Pretty self-explanatory as well. If you land a job in your current city, what will be the commute you can tolerate?
It’ll make the job application process so much easier when you know the 1-2 roles you would be happy to get, which you can narrow down using the questions above, rather than applying to a bunch of “might be ok” jobs willy-nilly. Knowing personal and logistical boundaries are useful too!
You’re putting in so much time and energy into preparing these job applications and interviewing – you might as well be doing so for roles that you know you’ll be satisfied with.
Hopefully this post gave you a bit more of a personal insight into what kind of person and worker I am, and the things I like and don’t like. Maybe it helped you understand why I went for a Medical Writing role (and Support Scientist roles), why I’m enjoying my current role so much, and why I feel it’s a great fit for me.
I am 100% sure it can be the same for you, too. It’s just about doing some legwork up front to figure out what those best-fitting roles are.
Do I think that my job is going to be my life and what I identify myself as? No, I never did that during grad school and I don’t plan on making my job my life and identity anytime in the future.
But if I want to stick with a job for at least a while, I’m going to try to have a healthy relationship with it, and at least for me, that involves having some sort of meaningful connection to it.
What did you figure out using the above questions? What sorts of roles are you considering? Have you narrowed down your potential roles to 1-2 most desired ones?
This was more of a reflection post rather than a “stuffed with tips and advice” post. Remember, I go in to WAY more detail in my related posts, so feel free to check them out for more concrete advice!