Five tips for jumping fields seamlessly

Former academic scientists can be found enjoying success in a range of careers, including journalism, patent law and even art. Switching careers isn’t easy, especially if you’ve spent considerable time in academia. But if you’re determined to find your true calling, here are some suggestions to help you make your move.

Get mental clarity

Even if your passions lie outside of the lab, the idea of leaving structured academic life may give you the heebie-jeebies. A logical first step is to understand your reasons behind the decision. If you feel confused, says New York City-based executive resume writer and career coach Debra Wheatman, speak to a trusted colleague or a career counsellor. ‘Have an objective third party discuss it with you and review the reasons to get to the root of the issue and find out – is it the job itself? Or really, is it that you’re just ready for something new?’

Do the research

One crucial element of researching a new career is speaking to people who’ve already achieved success in that area. You can find them within your network or through social media. ‘If you find somebody in a similar role or field that you would like to pursue, you should be asking them questions that are both at a big scale and the small scale,’ says Ryan Gott, an entomologist who works as an integrated pest management and quality control specialist at Maitri Genetics, a medical cannabis company in the US. Small-scale-type questions probe the day-to-day work of a professional, such as: ‘What are the aspects of your work that you enjoy?’ Larger-scale questions focus on the field in general: ‘Where do they see it headed in the next few years?’

Evaluate your skills

Even if you’re moving to a non-research field, your bench science experience will not go to waste. ‘Just because you’ve left academia does not mean that you are no longer a scientist,’ says Gott. ‘The way that you apply the scientific method to solve problems in a data-driven logical way will really inform your thinking in any role that you go into.’

Take stock of the non-research skills you’ve gained in academic settings too. ‘You weren’t just doing research, you were probably managing a budget for your project, or you were leading a team,’ Gott says. ‘The most difficult part of a transition is changing your mindset to realise how many other kinds of skills you develop.’

Some positions may require a qualification upgrade. Organic chemist Kerisha Bowen went back to school to pursue a graduate degree in patent law after spending years in the lab as well as teaching. A master’s isn’t mandatory for patent law, but it gave Bowen a leg-up. ‘It really taught me what was expected of me on the job so that when I started, I didn’t need as much training, I was ready to start working right away,’ says Bowen, who is now an associate at the law firm Dentons.

Determine your right fit

One way to identify your ideal job is to look at what you do enjoy about academia. For example, Gott loved teaching when he was a researcher. ‘The ability to continue to teach, whether that is formal classes or training sessions for employees, is an important part of any job that I may transition into,’ Gott says. He also volunteers as a teacher at a public garden.

You can also test a new field with an internship or a volunteer opportunity. During her PhD, Rachel Lane volunteered to write for the magazine of the Association for Women in Science, a non-profit advocacy organisation for women in Stem. ‘As scientists, it’s so important for us to be mentally stimulated,’ says Lane. ‘And I was able to get that out of the writing process.’ Eventually, Lane set up her science communications consultancy, The Written Science, and now also works as chief executive of BIO Alabama, the trade association for the life sciences industry in Alabama in the US.

Get that first gig

Adopt a proactive approach in letting people in your network know that you’re seeking a change. ‘When an opportunity does arise, either with them or with someone in their network, they can come to you and tell you about that,’ says Lane. You can even publicise your intention to switch careers on LinkedIn, although Wheatman cautions against doing that if you’re still employed somewhere.

Don’t fret if the first job in your second career isn’t a perfect fit. ‘Even if you’re not satisfied with the first thing you come across, which honestly is probably pretty likely, it is still a chance to learn about where you can next move,’ says Gott. He suggests noting aspects you want to avoid in future positions and paying attention to specific skills, such as people management, that you may want to cultivate.