5 Major Misconceptions I Had About Non-Ac Jobs During Grad School

a flock of sheep in a corral

When I was in the thick of grad school, I was overwhelmed thinking about deadlines, experiments failing, keeping my advisor happy, and the scary thought of not knowing what to do with my life.

I could barely list 3 jobs types off the top of my head that I could be qualified for. I also had some misconceptions about non-ac jobs – that I want to discuss in this blog post.

Don’t be as naive as I was!

I always emphasize this on my blog and in my Tweets: You should talk to MULTIPLE people who are in the types of jobs that you’re interested in to get the best advice that’s most relevant to you and your career goals (who are geographically relevant to you, as well).
Just because someone with a lot of followers (like me!) says something about jobs and careers, it doesn’t mean those points will directly apply to you.

The list below is for fun, and is of course reflects my own experiences, but should not be taken as gospel by all individuals.

If anything, I hope the points below help you think outside the box!

1. Misconception #1: My dissertation topic will significantly influence the jobs I can get.

When I first started grad school, I had absolutely no idea to what extent the lab I picked and the research project I did would influence the kinds of jobs I could get after grad school.

If I worked in mice and used GC-MS, would I just get jobs that required lab experience in mice and GC-MS? Could I do anything else?

This largely depends on the job(s) that you’re interested in, of course.

If you’re looking to get a job related to your research topic, by all means, go for it. You researched vision, you get a job at an eye drop research company/startup, medical device company, etc. You’ll be conveniently specialized and will contribute well.

But for me, the fact I did research in my specific model organism, specialized in a specific disease, or spent 6 years researching one cell type had little to no influence on the job I got.

The hiring manager and individuals that interviewed me were of course, like, “Oh, neuroscience, great!” but I was specifically told that they liked the fact that I tutored over the specifics of my Ph.D. research (which I barely even talked about during the interview process).

You’re almost always going to be hired for your ability to: manage complicated projects, communicate findings, analyze data and make conclusions, etc.

Take a look at my infographic on transferable skills for more info on this.

I’m still not even sure if doing a Ph.D. was the right move for me! I discuss that in my blog post, Did I Need to Get a Ph.D.? It’s true that my job didn’t even require a Ph.D. (and I’ve been super open about this!) and although most of the writers at my company have Ph.D.s, not all of them do.

2. Misconception #2: I need to keep my PI happy to get a good reference.

I get into much more detail in my Everything That Happened With My Toxic Former PI post, but my grad school advisor left a lot to be desired. He was definitely on the same page as me about how I was interested in getting a non-ac job, but I don’t think he ever fully respected me.

That made me wary of using him as a reference for job applications: Non-ac job applications (I was NEVER interested in faculty positions, not even in the slightest).

Turns out that I didn’t even get asked for references for the job I got. I did 2 interviews, an assignment, and then just signed the job contract.

I also surveyed Twitter folks about references and most that responded didn’t need a reference from their PI specifically to get the job they got. That Tweet’s shown below:

The gist of the survey results was that many companies did request references, and sometimes those companies that requested references wanted insight from previous managers, but they didn’t specifically NEED to hear from the grad school PI.

If I had moved forward with other positions I was interviewing for, which may have required references, I was ready to provide a list of people I knew that weren’t my PI. I had in my arsenal:

  • 3 coworkers with Ph.D.s: Postdocs/scientists/lab techs I knew from the lab who I’d worked with for 2-5 years
  • 1 subordinate: My undergrad (I’ve had a few companies ask me for a subordinate recommendation!)
  • 1 client: My tutoring client, whose son I tutored Algebra to in-home and really raised his grades. It was cool too because she’s an ER doctor at a local hospital so bonus points for that maybe.
  • 2 former supervisors/managers: My old tutoring company’s manager and CEO, who I’ve been keeping in touch with and genuinely really like as people.

The above is from my blog post, I Voluntarily Gave Up Authorship on My Ph.D. Paper and I Never Felt More Free, specifically the section, “Keeping My Toxic Former PI Happy for a Job Reference?

You can also read more on this great blog post on From Ph.D. to Life: How PhDs can pick references for jobs outside academia.

So no, I’m not like a genie that can foretell that everyone reading this blog post will be fine and absolutely not need a reference from their PI, but what I can say is that Ph.D.s have a LOT more power and agency in their job search than they might be conditioned to believe by academia’s standards.

3. Misconception #3: 40 hours a week sounds like so much work, I’m going to be so busy!

This one is obviously extremely job-dependent.

But for me, I really thought that working 40 hours a week would be a lot of work. I was honestly more worried about having the stamina to do that than the work itself. Working 40 hours in a corporate setting, and remote at that…I just didn’t know what to expect! I honestly don’t think I worked 40 hours a week in grad school.

At my medical writing agency, there are definitely some busy days but there are also slower days. Towards the end of the fall and right before the holiday break, I had really, really, EXTREMELY busy weeks.

But I never worked more than 40 hours a week. And although I was busy, constantly working on one project, editing another, revising the previous one, chatting with a designer about a specific figure, etc., I never felt overworked and exhausted (or underpaid). I felt focused, engaged, and productive during the day.

And I still had time to eat lunch!

It turns out that if I actually like/don’t mind the work that I do, working 40 hours is really not that bad. I know, it might seem super obvious to some, but as someone who spent essentially their entire life in school until age 28 (when I finished my Ph.D.), this was a nice little discovery for me.

Do I want all those new-age “work less” 4-day work weeks and 30 hours as week and all that stuff to happen? Of course, if I’m going to be paid decently. Less work is always great in my book.

But until then, I’m happy to report that my workload is very manageable and liking the work I do (and the fact that the project manager at my company is very skilled) really helps.

4. Misconception #4: They’re going to want someone who did a postdoc over a fresh Ph.D. grad like me.

When I was in grad school, I kept on reading and hearing about this concept of how doing a postdoc would benefit your non-ac job search because it means you’ve specialized in something slightly different from your Ph.D. and you’ll be more hirable.

Sure, I’ve definitely seen SOME job ads say that they want someone who did a postdoc on top of a Ph.D.

But for the types of jobs I was going for (medical writing in an agency setting in the U.S.), it was absolutely NOT something that was ever asked of applicants.

My recent Tweet summarizes my thoughts on this well:

Industry experience for industry >>>>>>>> postdoc experience for industry, in my opinion.

5. Misconception #5: There are only like 3 “respectable” non-ac jobs and the rest of them aren’t that prestigious.

Another thing I felt during grad school was that the academic, basic lab research environment was so insulated in terms of attitude and expectations when it comes to what you did with your Ph.D.

I personally never wanted a faculty job, but I felt like impressionable grad students may see many non-ac jobs as “lesser” than faculty jobs.

Jobs like the sales scientists you see on campus (who oftentimes have Ph.D.s!), the people you email when you buy new lab equipment or need maintenance on them (Support and Field Application Scientists who oftentimes have Ph.D.s), and even the Scientific Recruiters you might be interviewing with (who also oftentimes have Ph.D.s), are all doing jobs that are legitimate, useful, and interesting in their own ways.

What matters most is that you’re feeling fulfilled in what you’re doing.
Confidently being aware of that will help you push aside any weird feelings like how you might be going for a “lame” job or feeling like “this isn’t what I should be doing with my Ph.D.”

There’s no universal “best” outcome of getting a Ph.D.

You don’t even need to get a job that requires a Ph.D., as long as you’re happy.

My specific role at my company doesn’t require a Ph.D. – when I joined, there were a handful of other medical writers, and only 1 of them had a Ph.D. The others had Bachelor’s degrees. During the past year that I’ve worked at my company, we hired 2 new writers, 1 with a Ph.D., 1 without.

Seriously, whatever makes you happy (mentally, financially, etc.) is all that matters.

Conclusion

I really wish I had someone in my life who could tell me these things during grad school.

Unfortunately, I barely did informational interviews and didn’t have a Twitter to use as a means of collecting insights until last year when I started my current account. At that point, I was already done with grad school!

When you’re in that super busy, stressful, high-stakes environment where you’re exchanging research labor for a degree and your advisors are the gatekeepers (let’s be real, that’s what grad school is), it’s hard to break free from some misconceptions that can get programmed into you.

I hope my post gave you some fresh perspective.

And once again, remember to seek insights from MULTIPLE individuals in roles that you’re personally interested in, keeping in mind their geographic context as well.

Hope you have a happy and relaxing holiday season and a great start to the new year!

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